Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A slim volume between two vast bookends of nothingness.

At dinner I was reading the Economist. I found a small, rather interesting article entitled “But not yet, Lord.” The article looked at religious beliefs and a person’s attitude toward dying. They noted that conventional wisdom would say that the religious would not take more steps to try avoid death, even steps they know are useless, while atheists, who presumably have nothing to die for “might be expected to cling to life.”

A recent study followed 345 cancer patients and compared their religiosity to the requests they made for attempting to extend their lives. What they found was that the religious do far more to try to avoid death while non-believers are less likely to go to extreme measures. The article reports:
The correlation was strong. More than 11% of those with the highest scores underwent mechanical ventilation; less than 4% of those with the lowest did so. For resuscitation the figures were 7% and 2%.

Explaining the unpleasantness and futility of the procedures does not seem to make much difference, either. Holly Prigerson, one of Dr Phelps’s co-authors, was involved in another study at Dana-Farber which was published earlier this month in the Archives of Internal Medicine. This showed that when doctors had frank conversations about the end of life with terminally ill cancer patients, the patients typically chose not to request very intensive medical interventions.

According to Dr Prigerson, though, such end-of-life chats had little impact on “religious copers”, most of whom still wanted doctors to make every effort to keep them alive. Saint Augustine of Hippo, one of Christianity’s most revered figures, famously asked God to help him achieve “chastity and continence, but not yet”. When it comes to meeting their maker, many religious people seem to have a similar attitude.
Certainly, as an atheist, I have considered such matters seriously. And with each birthday the thoughts become a bit more timely. I know for a fact that, contrary to the claims of religionists, there most certainly are atheists in foxholes.

There were two occasions when I was rather sure that my own death was imminent. Once I was in the Indian Ocean taking a swim. I had gone too far out and turned toward shore. But I was exhausted before I reached a point where my feet could touch ground. I was literally about to go under when I saw a man a few feet away. I just looked at him and said, “Help me.” As I started to sink he reached for me and literally pushed me several more feet toward shore. At that point my feet touched the bottom without water covering my head. As I was trying to make it to shore I was not panicky. But I realized that the odds were very high that I would be shortly dead.

The second occasion was far worse. It was a violent attack. At several points I had a gun pressed up to my skull as the savage wielding it promised to kill me. It was an armed robbery, a home invasion, which was brutal and vicious. At one point I lied to the gunman intentionally to force him to take me to another room, and away from someone I loved, who was tied up and terrified. While the distraction worked I was beaten for my lies.

Throughout that ordeal I was convinced that the two of us would be killed. I never once feared that possibility. My entire concern was the pain being inflicted on my friend.

I have many friends who are non-believers, dozens of them. Not a one of them has shown me that they worry about death. While they would like to live a long time each realizes life ends. They don’t want life support; they don’t want machines standing between them and death.

So the study doesn’t surprise me at all. If it had turned out the opposite I would have been surprised. Along the way I have thought about the matter, both when I was religious, and when I wasn’t. And the conclusion I came up with is that, for many people, God is a concept they invent because they fear death. Certainly that is true of all, I’m just saying I believe it is a force that inspires some toward religion. An atheist does not believe there is anything to fear. When life ends, life ends. There is no more pain, no eternal retribution, and no sinner in the hands of an angry God. There is nothing to fear.

I do not wish to imply that non-believers embrace death with enthusiasm, just that without a belief in an afterlife they have no reason to fear death. I suspect that many believers always face residual doubts about their own salvation. They may believe but they wonder if they please the god they worship and what he will do to them when they face him. Without such a fear the atheist can lay his head down and go to eternal sleep without trembling.

Allow me to quote from the manuscript of a novel I recently read (unpublished at this time).
Stella seemed to realize that the question about her death was instead a question about Tony’s own. It was his own end that her illness kept bringing to his mind. At the time, Stella had reached over, patted his hand and smiled. How odd, he’d thought, that she was comforting him when it was she who was dying.

“How did 1950 feel to you?” she asked him. Tony was confused. That was long before he was born. Stella knew this. Why ask such a question? But before he could respond, Stella answered the question herself.

“You didn’t exist in 1950 and at some point in the future you will once again cease to exist. That’s really it, you know. One day you came into being, and you sucked at life itself, grabbing everything you could. You learned, you lived, if lucky, you loved. And one day it simply ceases to be. What is there to fear? Did the time before your birth traumatize you or cause you pain? No. You weren’t there to be traumatized or to feel pain. And someday you, and I as well, will simply stop being. It will be as it was for that eternity before our births. The world, for us, came into existence the day we were born and it will cease the day we die. There is an eternity after our death, and an eternity before our birth. Our life is like a slim, but wonderful book sitting between two vast bookends of nothingness. Why worry about the nothingness when we have such a wonderful volume in our hands right now?”
Why indeed!

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