Saturday, September 01, 2018

Secular bromides on death

There's a sense in which Christians should take atheism seriously, not because it's true, but because it provides an instructive point of contrast to Christianity. Often we can't truly appreciate something unless and until we lose it or consider the dire alternatives. What would life be like without it? Too many Christians fail to think deeply about the alternatives, and so they fail to appreciate the surpassing value of the Gospel. 

In addition, many people think about atheism the wrong way. They act like there are two sides to every question, and this is just another two-sided issue. But the stakes are far higher on some issues.

Atheists have different perspectives on death. Off the top of my head, here are some:

1. Bravado

Some atheists (e.g. Antony Flew) labor to make a virtue of necessity. They act like mortality is a good thing. According to that posture, the fact that this life is all there is is what makes it precious. You don't get a second chance, so you better make the most of this one-time opportunity.

I don't know how many atheists really believe that, or if this is a just a way to parry Christianity. The best defense is a good offense. Instead of conceding that Christianity would be better if it were true, but alas it's not, you pretend that oblivion is better than heaven. 

2. Feigned indifference

Some atheists like Epicurus and Lucretius contend that oblivion is a matter of indifference. Once you die, you're not conscious of what it's like not to be alive anymore. 

In addition, prenatal and postmortem nonexistence are said to be symmetrical. This sentiment is captured by the witticism attributed to Mark Twain: 

I don't fear death. I was dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and hadn't suffered the slightest inconvenience.

In fairness, Epicurus and Lucretius were pre-Christian, so the hand they were dealt wasn't much to work with. 

3. Stiff upper lip

Some atheists (e.g. Carl Sagan) admit that mortality is bad. Immortality would be better than oblivion. However, they try to make a virtue of that concession by patting themselves on the back for their moral heroism in bravely facing up to the cold hard facts rather than retreating into the comforting illusions of organized religion. 

4. The lucky few

Here's a variation on (3):

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred? (Richard Dawkins).   

That's all very hortatory. A pep talk for the godless. 

5. Life's a bitch, then you die

There are nihilists (e.g. David Benatar) who think life sucks and death sucks. You'd be better of not existing in the first place, but if you have the misfortune of existing, you now have something to lose by dying. Life is rotten but death is even worse. Death is a rotten end to a rotten existence. 

6. Shaking your fist

This attitude is epitomized by Dylan Thomas's famous poem:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The sentiment is understandable, but at the same time there's an impotent vacuity to the faux defiance. 

7. Cheating death

Some transhumanists (e.g. Ray Kurzweil) hope to elude death by digitizing and uploading consciousness into a computer. 

8. Immortality would be an interminable bore

Classic example: Bernard Williams, "The Makropolus Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality".

9. Buddhism

According to Buddhism, life is ineluctably tragic. And when you die, that zeros out your former life. You must start from scratch. So you're cursed to keep saying good-bye to everything and everyone, over and over again. Kinda like Ellen Ripley (Alien franchise) who makes new friends, is put into stasis, comes out of stasis. All her friends are dead. Has to start all over again. 

My intention isn't to evaluate each of these. The fact that atheists are so conflicted about death, the fact that they offer so many contradictory bromides, is unwittingly revealing in itself. 


  1. That's a good listing of some of the ways atheists deal with death. Another one that I've occasionally heard is that death is good because you'd eventually get bored of, and with, immortality. Allegedly there's only so many experiences one can have as a human being till it becomes monotonously painful. Also, no relationships will ever last. After a while, you'll get annoyed by the people you formerly loved.

    Atheist Kyle Jones makes this argument in his debate with David Wood here (cued up):

    It's also the beginning premise of Robert Heinlein's book Time Enough For Love. The main character Lazarus Long has lived for over 2000 years and he wants to die because he has "done it all" multiple times. Though, his descendants try to convince him to live long enough to share his wisdom, and with the offer of doing research to find something new for him to do/experience.

    The problem with this type of objection is that it only works due to a lack of imagination. But the blessings of the Kingdom of God are not limited to human imagination, but Divine imagination. Also, human nature will likely be enhanced in various ways, including intellectually, emotionally, morally etc. Moreover, perfect sanctified love will prevent lasting tensions and hostilities between people. There will also likely be completely new experiences given a renovated creation. An analogy might be like someone who lived all their life blind or deaf or tongueless and then suddenly given the ability to see, or hear or taste. For all we know God has such experiences in store for the redeemed. As Paul said in 1 Cor. 2:9 "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.". Verse 10 says that the Spirit has revealed to us what those things are. But I suspect that it wasn't Paul's intention to imply that the Spirit has already revealed everything that God will grant the redeemed. As 1 John says, "...and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is."

    I suspect there's some truth to the following sermons by Edward D. Griffin. Though, I'm not sure his understanding of infinity and eternal progression for the redeemed is Biblical or philosophically possible.

    When I was a Child I Thought as a Child

    Heaven by Edward Griffin

    1. Classic example: Bernard Williams, The Makropolus Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality