There's nothing like a big unhealty dose of acute bronchitis to get you contemplating lack of a future. Reality, so called, sharpens to an almost unbearable sequence of images, almost all of them surreal, such as leaving the doctor's office and stopping off at the health food grocer's, there only to be accosted by a scruffy looking customer who apologizes in order to catch your attention. What does he want, I ask. "Are you a Christian?" Hesitant, I ask myself, what is this, a come-on? A guy I know in my profession, a devout Catholic who once told me I could have as clients all the nuns in the archdiocese if only I'd convert, regularly enjoys making fools of street people, e.g. telling the pan-handlers seeking money for lunch, "I'll take you to a nearby restaurant," knowing they'll almost invariably beg off, some with honest admissions they're only seeking the cash for liquor or beer.
Feeling lousy, I couldn't think of anything to say except "No, I'm not," adding, in a cold voice, "and I am not religious, either." Had I felt better I would have said something blatantly atheist, but as it was, I only wanted to be left to my own devices. I just wanted to get rid of him, fast. Bob Dylan in a movie made the sound-over point that American capitalism uses fear to get us to buy things we don't really need, but I think he copped that notion from Burroughs, who said that our government and that nebulous thing we called, in the 60s, "the Establishment," put out conflicting messages ("believe this, don't believe this") in order to put us in a perpetual state of conflict, such that we buy things we don't need, thinking they'll distract us from our fears. Then, too, Eldridge Clever said that we would never have another revolution so long as the supermarkets stay open.
Dis-ease does something else to you, too: it heightens awareness of the truths of atheism, including the explanation that we are not conscious of life before birth, nor will we be conscious of it after death. Also, that the moment of birth is the time we begin to die. Dylan said that, too. One also finds less hostility to Christians who say that they're praying for you. Burroughs said "Pray in one hand, shit in the other; see which one fills up faster." Knowing from my awful cough, wheezing, and spitting gunk into tissue, at least three of my clients this week have said, "We're praying for you." I could set them straight, telling them, for example, that actual studies of prayer for seriously ill hospital patients showed not that prayer helped them but that it caused the prayed-for patients to die in greater numbers. But when you are seriously ill, you are not exactly in a mood to pick quarrels with people. And all of the drugs I've been taken have rendered me ineffective in debate.
Facing death is harrowing for some. I hope I can emulate the great Christopher Hitchens, dying of a brain tumor, incurable. I hope I can go out like he did, without retreat to belief, especially belief in that other country from which no one returns. But will I? Will I have that courage. To me, religion preys on people more than it prays for them. Like the Consul in John Huston's film of Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, I would like to believe but I can't. The scene of the Consul going into a cathedral and staring up at one of those waxy-faced Madonnas so prevalent in Mexican churches especially, is pure John Huston (the director of the film). In interviews, the atheist filmmaker said he wanted to believe but could not, that he actually envied those who could. He had emphysema and eventually died of it. I hope my acute bronchitis goes away soon without putting my lights out just yet. But I ain't gonna pray it away. If I die after their prayers, they can always say God works in mysterious ways. There's no mystery to me. You're born, you live, and you die. Life is what you make of it, and you don't need deity to get there.
I used to envy religious believers, but I don't envy them much now. While I wish I could add hundreds of more years to my lifespan (think of all that one could learn), I suspect that at some point life would offer too little that is novel and it would mostly become tiresome. Being aligned to a so-called higher purpose or meaning no longer has the charm for me that it once did. Terrestrial purposes and meanings seem pressing and important enough and, potentially, achievable. Eternal purposes would be discouraging precisely because they are endless. What I don't miss at all about religious faith is all that unquestioning obedience. But serfdom has never set well with me.
What I do still envy a bit about religious faith is the sense of community it gave me--diverse people joined together in real (in-person) contact around a common set of values and beliefs. I'd still like to experience that but with less ideational homogeneity. There is something to be said for involvement in communities of concern.
Atheists are young on this curve, Dana, yet we are developing such communities. Don't look now, but You're In One!!!
I had the opposite near the the end of my religion (credit to Dawkins for helping me).
I believed this thing that didn't make sense, but I couldn't choose not to.
Reason raged and belief smirked, but it did make my "de-conversion" all the sweeter.
Unrelated, but here is a link streaming Burroughs reading Junkie in its entirety: http://www.openculture.com/2011/09/william_s_burroughs_reads_his_no...
As the years move on and friends and relatives pass away or become seriously ill, it is harder and harder to ignore your own mortality.You realize that it is all pretty much outside your control. There are many things you can do to shift chances toward a longer and healthier life, but nothing much to do to prevent cancer or eliminate heart disease. It's largely a matter of luck and it's well to be prepared.
What you principally fear is an unpleasant death and these days there are more opportunities to avoid that if you choose. In the case of very serious illnesses, you might choose to avoid treatments that compromise quality of life.
One fear that has never bothered me in the slightest is a fear of suddenly turning religious after a lifetime of atheism, perhaps because my atheism got its start when a member of my parents' church died after the entire church prayed for his recovery. It seemed to me from then on that something was mistaken in religion.
I admire the dying words of Jeremy Bentham: "I now feel that I am dying : our care must be to minimise the pain. Do not let any of the servants come into my room, and keep away the youth: it will be distressing to them and they can be of no service. Yet I must not be alone; you will remain with me, and you only; and then we shall have reduced the pain to the least possible amount."
His concern was to minimize the pain to himself as well as to those around him—that is the best anyone can do.
The worst thing that can happen is that the religious invent stories of how you had a change of heart when the time came. It happened to Darwin and many others. I was certain it would happen to Christopher Hitchens. Apparently not. But you pinpoint the fear that you yourself will have a reconsideration. I certainly pray that you will not. Oops! Excuse that inept choice of words. (I was only joking.)
Hitch made sure to mention that he had no intention of having a deathbed conversion in his final moments during several interviews. He said that if anybody said that he had a change of heart, it was either a lie, or he was not in his right mind (he did expect delirium from the heavy hospice meds).
I do not imagine that I would have a deathbed conversion. I have faced the death and the close calls of loved ones, and I did not even consider seeking solace with a deity. I do not find the concept of a finite life horrible. I do think that immortality would be terrifying and boring at the same time.
In his send-up of occultism, Foucault's Pendulum, Umberto Eco introduces at one point the fabulous figure of the Comte de Saint-Germain, who claimed to have lived for centuries, sans reincarnation. When asked what it was like, Eco has him quip that it is boring in the extreme, as one meets the same people making the same mistakes generation after generation after generation. There are times when, exasperated, I myself exclaim, "Enough already. I'm ready to die. I've seen more than I wanted to and tire of the foolishness of my species." I am reading Hitch-22 at the moment, and I think he had come to pretty much the same conclusion. But then neither of us had to live many lifetimes to see the folly.
The Sybil of mythology was supposed to be immortal.The epigraph to Eliot's The Waste Land reads (in Latin and Greek)
"And I myself with my own eyes saw the Sybil of Cumae, hanging in a cage. When some boys asked her, "Sybil, what do you want?" she answered, "I want to die."
Smart (and world weary) woman.
Well articulated, James.
I've been getting this comment from family, "I know you don't believe in it, but please pray for..." This makes me think they really don't get how absurd it would be for me to pray. My response is always, "Prayer, the next best thing to doing something."
Cop out or don't cop out. No shame either way. I don't think there is a wrong way to make your final departure. Big picture? Humans are the reigning champs at self-delusion. Self-delusion should be listed as the primary identifying trait for our species. I think atheists who come to atheism through logic and critical thinking are only vaguely more aware (sometimes) of this perpetual process than other folks. In truth, all thoughts that create positive and negative emotional states, tend to be a bit delusional in nature. I guess I'm defining delusional as ideas that lack supporting evidence.