Sunday, 16 August 2015

An atheist reflects on death

I’ve mostly tried to keep my personal life out of this blog, because that’s what I use Facebook for. But this post was prompted by the recent, unexpected death of my friend Brent. Brent had cerebral palsy, which in his case limited his movement to his head and one arm, slurred his speech, and also affected his cognition. (I never heard the official diagnosis until his funeral on Wednesday.) We met through a volunteer outfit called FriendLink about eight years ago; since then we’ve had a weekly appointment to visit museums and art galleries and libraries in town to look at art or books together. I think he preferred the art, which allowed us to move around and meet people rather than sit in one place as we would with books. Brent was a sunny, sociable person who would say “Hi” to just about everyone we passed.

But he was also sensitive. He could tell if someone had had a bad day, and it would distress him. He would worry, if I coughed or sneezed, that I was “sick”. He commented on death and dying from time to time. Once I remarked that my cat was at the vet, and this reminded Brent that his dog had not long since gone to the vet and then, as he put it, gone to Heaven. He cried. Sometimes, he had questions I couldn’t answer. This past April there were WWI-related exhibits everywhere, and Brent asked me two or three times “Why do they have wars?” I doubt I’m the only person who’s been stumped by that question. Museum displays are often about people who lived a long time ago, and sometimes it would bother Brent that they were dead. He would say things like “I’m sorry to hear that,” or “Oh no, that’s terrible,” or “How did they die?” – the way one speaks of people who have just recently died, who still have people mourning them.

He was right, of course. Most of us partition off the people of the distant past in our minds. They were people, obviously, but we don’t think of them as people people. Well, when I say “we”, it differs between cultures – the dead seem to be much more present to Māori than they are to Pākehā, if my limited cross-cultural observations can be trusted – but there comes a point when we shrug it off. That was the olden days, what do you expect? But the reality is that every name fading in a dusty genealogical manuscript, every fragmentary human skeleton dug up from under two metres of sand, had someone somewhere who grieved over either their stilled body or their absence. Everybody has somebody to say goodbye to them. (Fortunately the dead cannot suffer from our dehumanizing them, making this probably the most benign instance of that disastrous human habit.)

The last time I saw Brent he was in hospital, but that wasn’t all that unusual given the impact his disability had on his health, so I was not remotely expecting the phone call the following morning telling me he had succumbed to a suspected stroke or heart attack some time between eleven and midnight. This kind of bad news takes a long time to go into your head. For those first few minutes I couldn’t tell you what I was feeling, because Brent’s departure left a gap in my mind that no feeling filled – though it did gradually fill up with grief over the rest of the day. I guess when people say they’re “blindsided” or “dumbfounded” or “numb” in the wake of tragedy, that’s what they’re talking about. And there is some part of my mind that still doesn’t quite believe it, thinking of things to talk about when we meet up as usual on Thursday. After all, that’s what I promised him the last time I saw him.

So I have nothing to say against the people at his funeral who said they were expecting to see him again in Heaven, or for that matter the one who called out “Don’t go, Brent!” when they started to move the coffin. I understand where that comes from. I do disapprove of fraudulent professional “psychics” exploiting the bereaved for profit, but I don’t sneer at their victims. Death is the hardest reality to accept. We sceptics are regrettably known, from time to time, to talk as if afterlife beliefs are for cowards. That’s a courageous stance to take regarding one’s own impending death, as Stephen Hawking recently did, but it’s a mean-spirited and misguided accusation to level at others.

As it happens, nobody at the funeral asked me whether I believed in Heaven, and I’m not sure what I would have answered if they had. It isn’t the sort of thing you debate at funerals. I believe in telling the truth, but every speech act communicates more than just the content of the words, and sometimes the nonverbal message is more important than the verbal one. The words “I don’t believe in Heaven” are, considered in isolation, a true statement; but if I had uttered them at that time and place, I would also have been saying “I didn’t value Brent’s life,” and that would have been a far worse falsehood than pretending I did believe in Heaven.

Standing back a little, however, I still don’t believe in Heaven. Nor do I believe in reincarnation or ascension to a higher plane, nor that death is an illusion. In each case I have friends who disagree, and I’m not going to go track them down and argue with them, but I can’t come to terms with Brent’s death on the basis of a belief I don’t hold. There isn’t any evidence to warrant believing in Heaven, and even if there was, I don’t think I would derive much comfort from it. When you sit down and think about what the concept entails, it’s not quite as blissful as it’s cracked up to be.

There are two things about Heaven that people are sure of who believe in it: it will be pleasant, and it will last forever. And that’s the trouble. Heaven is always the end of the story, the happily-ever-after. It’s a bright fade-out instead of a dark one, a smiling reunion instead of a funeral. I don’t think a lot of people have sat down and thought about just how long “forever” is. Forever, infinity, is so long that absolutely anything that can possibly happen will definitely happen. If it doesn’t, it wasn’t possible in the first place. That’s what “possible” means.

So if we have “free will” in Heaven, and if “free will” means the possibility of sin, and if Heaven lasts forever, then someone will eventually sin in Heaven and become a second Satan. Not might, will. In fact, it gets worse: everyone with free will must become Satan in their turn, eternally swelling the population of Hell. Of course, a theologian would make short work of this. Maybe sin isn’t possible in Heaven, which raises the question of why God didn’t make Earth like that too, but as soon as you ask “why?” about God you open yourself to that theological TKO: “God works in mysterious ways”. End of inquiry.

That’s a relatively academic difficulty, anyway. More troubling is the question of where the happiness comes from. On Earth, mere pleasure only satisfies for so long. Lasting fulfillment comes from solving problems, whether for ourselves or for others. But in Heaven there will be no problems to solve. There will be nothing to achieve, no higher purpose to strive for. When we Christian children tried to live out the Great Commission in the school playground, our friends argued “If Heaven is perfect, it must be boring.” We of course replied, as we had been taught, “But then it wouldn’t be perfect.” We never noticed whose point that actually proved. (Consider: “If you had a perfect vacuum, its container would release gas molecules into it.” “But then it wouldn’t be a perfect vacuum.”)

But even that isn’t the real reason why Heaven cannot console me for the loss of Brent. That comes down to another mathematical fact about infinity: its inverse is zero. Suppose I die at the age of eighty, and suppose Heaven lasts eighty more years. Then my Earthly life is one-half of my total existence. If Heaven lasts 720 years, then my Earthly life is one-tenth of my total existence. And so on, you get the point. If Heaven lasts forever, then my Earthly life – including my friendship with Brent – is literally nothing. Which, sod that. My friendship with Brent was something. This must be why some Christians insist that only things of “eternal significance” have any true value, from which they proceed to argue that life is valueless unless there’s a Heaven. But no such conclusion follows unless you first assume that existence is eternal. Which I don’t.

If anything, I think the opposite is true. The good moments in life are to be savoured precisely because life is fleeting. “Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain, For we may or might never all meet here again.” Which is not to say that drunken merriment is the best way to spend our short years here; as I’ve said, solving problems is more satisfying. Brevity does for the value of life what rarity does for the value of diamonds. Eternity would cheapen life just as cities built of precious stones would cheapen jewellery. I don’t blame people for wistfully imagining both in Heaven, but it’s really just as well we don’t have either one.

When Brent worried about the people of long ago being dead, I could only ever think of one answer to give him. “Well, Brent, I’m afraid everybody dies eventually,” I would say, “and that’s why it’s so important to have a good life while you can.” Once or twice he replied “I do! I do have a good life.” I hope that was true, Brent. I hope I was part of making your life a good one. I don’t think I will have a second chance to be friends with you, and I hope I did the best I could have done with the one chance I did have.


  1. Thank you for sharing this, Daniel. I agree with your basic point, but there's lots here for me to think about when I am not so ill and fuzzy-headed.

  2. Well put - my thoughts exactly.

    I'm sorry for your loss - and I say that with the understanding of another who knows that that is that - there will be no reunion, no second chance, just an empty place in our hearts. There will be other people to love because there are no limits to how many people we can love, but there will always be that empty space that each special person carves out of our heart. The older I get, the more of those empty spaces I have, and yet I have also reached a point where, although I wish those people hadn't gone, the scars mean that I HAVE loved and been loved, and my life would be so much less without those people, and so I treasure the scars left behind. Eventually.