I am a great fan of Cuttlefish. Those who don’t know him, check out his brilliant blog, Digital Cuttlefish; the man has an amazing talent for poetry, and is a rationalist and a frequent and well-respected commenter at PZ Myers’ Pharyngula. Recently, when talking about Christopher Hitchens’ battle with esophageal cancer – an ongoing discussion at Pharyngula – he expressed some beautiful and heart-warming sentiments in a comment. I was immensely moved; they brought tears to my eyes and a glow to my heart. I wished to share that comment with y’all.
Thus spake Cuttlefish:
How do atheists face death?
All too recently, I was at the bedside of a dying atheist. He was not conscious, so I can’t speak to how he himself faced death, but I can tell you how his atheist daughters and atheist brothers did.
To the extent that anything offered comfort, it was the knowledge that the doctors were doing what could be done, and the knowledge that he was not suffering. The hospital chaplains were of no use at all, not even to those gathered who are believers. There is no way to put a positive spin on losing someone so early; no way to tell a 16-year old girl that this is part of God’s plan and have her just accept it.
Of course, the families of other patients offered to pray for us, and assured us that God is great, and that if it is his will, our brother, our father, will recover. I assure you, even when you take it as a sincere expression of their best wishes, assurances of God’s mercy start to ring hollow very quickly.
How does an atheist child face her father’s death? As bravely as I have seen anyone face anything. There was genuine beauty in the things his daughters said, and none of it relied on an afterlife, or a heaven, or a god. None of it denied the hurt, the heartbreak, the incredible pain of losing a father at such a young age. Death’s impact should not be denied; claiming he is in a better place is a slap in the face of the daughter who knows his best place is back home, helping with homework, mowing the lawn, reaching the things on the high shelf.
How does an atheist face death? By facing it, not by denying or diminishing it. Not by turning it into a transition to some other reality. Not by making up a story to make themselves feel better. It hurts because it’s real, it’s permanent, it’s the end. It should hurt.
And now he lives on only in our memory, and in our changed lives. That is his legacy; that is the good he continues to do. He’s not looking down and guiding; he doesn’t wait for us to join him. If we love him, we can do our best to fight for his causes, to continue his work.
In the real world. The only one we have.
“He lives on only in our memory, and in our changed lives.”
Douglas Hofstadter, in his last book, has a few chapters devoted to the ripple effect that a person has both during their lifetime, and after it, sometimes for hundreds of years, in the thoughts, perceptions and shared memories that are imprinted into other people’s minds.
I think he makes the argument that such a phenomenon, especially in the people closest to the deceased one, is a way of representing an afterlife, because their “self” is and always has been, partly distributed outside of their own biological system. What’s left after death is a low-resolution representation, that continues to lose resolution over time, but in the case of certain personalities, is not actually completely lost. So there is a little bit of “I” left, sometimes nearly permanently in the culture. Probably altered beyond all recognition possible by the initial inspiration, not as if that were possible.
Philosophically, it’s rather fascinating, and well worth a read.
Thanks to all who commented. I have no problem accepting this solemn version of the ‘afterlife’ (if it can be called that), one that lives on through legacies, thoughts, perceptions and shared memories. That is also why I find inherently insulting and disrespectful the religious constructs of heaven (which the believers scramble to get into) and hell (to which the believers happily consign other people holding different or no beliefs).