Christopher Hitchens is dying. The funniest and wittiest of the so-called Four Horsemen of Atheism has been battling cancer for some time, and recently cancelled his appearance at the American Atheist Convention due to losing his ability to speak-something he wrote about in a recent Vanity Fair article. There are at least 2 other atheists who are well-known public figures who are similarly infirm due to disease: Stephen Hawking (who was in headlines recently due to his proclamation that heaven isn't real) and Roger Ebert (who has had plenty of conservatives and Christians tell him that losing his jaw should be a sign he needs to shut up). Also this week, YouTube atheist vlogger thehappycabbie declared that he had a terminal disease (please watch his videos, as views give him some financial aid).
This has, naturally, gotten me thinking about death, and how does an atheist confront it? My first encounter with death was when I was roughly 3 years old. My maternal grandmother developed stomach cancer (there's that disease rearing its ugly head again), and died sometime in 1985. In fact, my first ever memory was of the funeral. I didn't understand what was going on, and how could I? I was three! I hadn't even started kindergarten yet. When I saw the casket being lowered, I freaked out, screaming for someone to "open that box" because "my grandma's in there!" My mother claims that I spoke "like a chipmunk" for a few years afterwards, presumably due to grief. I don't really remember this, but something like that isn't vivid enough to make a real impression at that age. Aside from my grandmother, I've had few other examples of death taking anyone out of my life (listed here chronologically). There were two family friends who died in a car accident when I was little (to this day, semi trucks scare me as a result of this). A kid I played soccer with died in an accident when I was 16. A neighbour, a classmate I worked with for a short time and a friend who I had a bit of a crush on died in separate car accidents. After I lost my faith in any god, my paternal grandmother, who I met once, died of...something, I'm not sure what. A friend's mother who I worked with died of cancer, and my dad's adopted parents died of complications caused by old age. Oh, and we had a few dogs die too, 2 before I lost faith (my mother's old dog due to old age, and a puppy my folks bought for me), 2 after (one got hit by a car, one had to be put down due to a genetic disorder common amongst purebred border collies).
How did this affect me? Well, aside from the grandmother who died when I was 3, my dad's adopted mother, the friend I had a crush on (Kirsten) and 3 of the 4 dogs who died, I didn't feel especially close to any of them (and really, I was more torn up about my adopted aunt's actions around my adopted grandma's death than the death itself). Actually, I only felt bad about Jedi, the first dog I had who died, because I accidentally killed it. Note to parents: do not let your 5 year old feed the dog packing peanuts, because despite the name, they aren't yummy or nutritious, but dogs will eat them anyway. So while I was a bit sad about their deaths, but they all went to heaven, in my view.
However, Kirsten's death really got to me. Why? Aside from being her friend and having feelings for her, she was a non-believer. She was hell-bound. It was tremendously sad for me, because she was a good person and had a kid to raise. I weathered it well on the outside, but when I wasn't around people, I was in tears. I couldn't even bring myself to go to her funeral, I was so devastated. It took me months to rationalize that, since she was a good person, she was in heaven despite not worshiping any god. After all, any good, loving god would let in a good person like her, right?
The reason this idea of a heaven existing comforted me wasn't because of the eternal bliss these people would experience, though that helped. No, what really helped was the feeling that it wasn't the end. Their friends and family would see them again, I'd see them again and be able to form a closer bond with them in the afterlife than I did in life. In other words, heaven was my way of forgetting the permanency of death.
I should take some time here to talk about my sometimes suicidal depression. I may get into that more in depth later, but the death part does concern what I'm talking about. This actually started while I still believed in the Christian god. Oftentimes I would find myself with some plan to end my earthly existence, and sometimes I had the means to accomplish this end (get it? Means to an end, end of my life? Suicide jokes are fun!) There were a few times when all that stopped me was the thought of eternal damnation, as suicide was essentially an unforgivable sin. So in that respect, the belief in the Christian afterlife saved my life.
However, when I realized no just and loving god would torment someone forever, and thus hell must be just the end of the soul...suicide was no longer off the table. This mental condition made me want my life to end, and I never really treated it. So while this version of hell helped me reconcile my morality with my god, it removed my religious reason to not commit suicide...and so I made 2 attempts on my own life. I have not tried that since losing my faith, for a variety of reasons that I'll explain later in this post.
I've handled the deaths of friends and family much better as an atheist than as a theist, and I think the reason for that is that atheism allows us to see death for what it really is. With theism, death is a passage into another life, it isn't all that bad. Hell, in the Salvation Army Canada magazine, War Cry (later renamed Faith & Friends), announcements of church member deaths proclaimed they were "promoted to glory". Atheists have to see that death is the end. There's nothing else. It's disparaging, in a way. A funeral is "goodbye" not "see you later" to an atheist. We are forced to face this reality, and to deal with it.
It really isn't all that bad, though. When life is limited, it becomes special. As a Christian, I regularly found myself looking forward to heaven, and neglecting the gift of life that I'd been given. I am still in the habit of avoiding people and generally not seizing the day, something I hope to change. The fact remains, though, that a life that is finite is infinitely more valuable than one that is not. There is more need to accomplish what we can in the short time we have, more reason to advance our knowledge of science (especially medical science) in order to make what short lives we have longer and more bearable. And frankly, the fact that our lives are so short helps make them bearable, too. There is no conceivable way that an eternal existence could be viewed as anything other than torturous, even if we retained young bodies forever, a la Highlander. When there's nothing left to do, nothing left to accomplish, life becomes dull, boring. A period of boredom that lasts millions of years would certainly become torturous at some point.
The reality is, an eternity of heaven for the good, much like an eternity of hell for the wicked, is simply the overindulgent fantasy of someone from humanity's childhood. The reality is rough at first, like all growth processes. In the end, however, realizing death is the end allows us to come to terms with it-in fact, forces us to do so. And we are much stronger for it.
But what if you are the one who is dying? I'd suppose that a healthy attitude towards death would not include denying its permanency, but accepting it as the natural end to an existence that is, in fact, against the odds and (for lack of a better word) miraculous. A better source for this particular subject is www.penmachine.com which is a weblog of an atheist man who died of cancer. I have not read all the back posts, but what I have read is enlightening.
One more thing I must add before putting this overly long post to rest is that the insidious lie of deathbed conversions must be put to an end. Not to say that it doesn't happen, but this truly is insulting. It implies that we are liars who actually believe in your particular god, or that we're too mentally weak to not fall for a superficially comforting lie during our darkest moment. Much like the no atheists in foxholes myth, this has little to no basis in reality. So just stop it.