Death. It’s awfully final, isn’t it?
It’s something that those with belief grapple with, but take solace in their promise of an afterlife. However, it seems to be a problem for some unbelievers. For example, in a debate hosted by Cambridge Student Union, the motion “Religion has no place in the 21st Century” was defeated on the strength of the contribution of Douglas Murray, an atheist, with arguments he restated in The Spectator:
“We do not have many vessels for truth-carrying in our age. While of course not being an organised body of thought, atheism might one day speak to all those things religion once answered. But at present its voice is faint. It is faint on human suffering and tragedy. And although it does not have nothing to say, it barely speaks about death. It has little if not nothing to say about human forgiveness, remorse, regret or reconciliation.These are not small ellipses. Until atheism can speak into these voids, desiring to ban religion entirely seems a push not only to deprive individuals of a consolation at which Professor Dawkins scoffs — though he would do better to address it — but also to strip many discussions of profound dimensions.”
I was enraged by this because this is not the domain of atheism; atheism concerns belief in deities, and nothing else. It is not a religion, philosophy or belief system, only a conclusion, so to represent it as a direct replacement of religion is a gross mistake. Questions about death, loss and grief are more the domain of secular humanism, the most common philosophical position adopted by Western atheists, and indeed Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association would have had much to say on this, had he not spoken first. (Edit: Andrew pointed me towards a response he wrote afterwards.)
I looked up The BHA’s published material on this, and found “A humanist discussion of… DEATH AND OTHER BIG QUESTIONS”, a document intended for schools, from which the answer to “What happens to us when we die?” contains:
We will no longer exist as people, though the molecules that make up our body will still exist as part of the natural world. Humanists believe that the only ways we can live on are in other people’s memories of us, in the work we have done while alive, or in our children.
This perfectly echoes my own thoughts on death; we attain immortality through our achievements and our family. The conceit that we persist beyond death is one those who lose faith must learn to let go. I have said to friends that if I was nothing but a faint memory 25 years after my death, and not remembered at all after a century, I’d be okay with that. I would share the same fate of most who have ever lived.
What I object to is Murray’s assertion that, just because there is little to say of ‘life after death’ due to there not being one, there is no comfort for the unbeliever for the reasons given above, and that this gives religion a right to insert their own vapid ‘truths’ into this non-existent gap.
Alex Kane, the prolific Northern Irish journalist and atheist, had this to say:
@ronniejb : I’ve written before about atheism being a very lonely place in moments of great personal turmoil.
— Alex.Kane (@AlexKane221b) February 13, 2013
There are two possible meanings to this – is atheism lonely because there are few others to turn to in times of loss, that share the same (un)belief? This is to be expected; the demographic of Northern Ireland is similar to USA, with a large, but falling, Christian majority. Or has Alex, like Murray, not realised there is indeed a comforting alternative to, as would be the case in Northern Ireland, a Christian version of the afterlife?
I have consulted my brother, an aspiring psychologist and experienced counsellor, on the affect of a person’s belief in the process of facing death, and in grief. His response was that the firm believers, and the firm unbelievers, had the fewest issues. It was those that were unsure that were the most tormented. Perhaps these are the people Murray had in mind – the irreligious who simply had not thought about it until times of distress, and had not heard the alternatives to the religious version of events. Is it the fault of secular humanism not to have broadcast its message more widely? As a movement, it does not have the political clout or the streams of income that established religions have, so it is to be expected it is not as widely known. It may not ever reach the prominence of, say, Chrisitanity, either – the major driver of organised secular humanism is to provide a welcome place for those without faith, not to sustain itself for its own sake, as appears the case for most churches now.
To close, the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson had this to say of what he wished to happen in the event of his impending death. His depiction of death and decomposition, of his immortality as energy, was so profound and humble, he received a rousing round of applause: