“If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in a quite different world.”

Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great

“There is nothing that is too obvious of an absurdity to be firmly planted in the human head as long as you begin to instill before the age of five by constantly repeating it with an air of great seriousness.”

Arthur Schopenhauer

“Hardest of deaths to a mortal is the death he sees ahead.”

Bacchylides, 5th c. BCE

“The principal work of your life is but to lay the foundation of death.”

Montaigne, Essays

“I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

Woody Allen

The death of people younger than I has troubled me for some time, especially people like Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Sagan, and Michael Crichton.  They all died in their 60s, with the best medical care in the world available to them.  Jazz musicians I grew up listening to are gone.  Then the Reaper comes for people REALLY younger, like Steve Jobs.

And now Hitchens.  It had to happen sooner or later, the way he smoked and drank.  I watched another man die of throat cancer at 58.  The main problem was that he couldn’t take nourishment.  It was awful, and this guy was skinny to begin with.

I don’t know how one actually dies of cancer.  There are probably a dozen ways, involving tumors taking over whole organs (my wife’s Mom went blind at the end) or the conquest of the body, in its weakened state, by some opportunistic disease, or many others I would prefer not to know about.  My doctor brother observes that surviving cancer is often a matter of surviving the treatments.

An atheist’s death

But I do know this about the death of Hitchens: it was an atheist’s death.  He may have faded out from a morphine haze.  But whatever the medical circumstances, I promise you that in his last weeks, days, and hours, that his courage held, that there was no deathbed conversion, no summoning of Anglican priests to deliver last rites.  And of course there were no priests or prayers afterward.

He lived an atheist and died an atheist.  Of this I am certain (unless informed otherwise), knowing the man from afar for so long.

Flagship branding opportunity

Death is the linchpin, the flagship marketing/branding opportunity for religion.  Where do we go when we die?  First it was ancestors who live eternally, then gods you can spend eternity with. 

If you can harness people’s fear of death, you can get them to believe any sort of BS.  My last father-in-law, with only a high school education, said as much: death was the main reason for support of religion.  He was a Jewish Humanist, a very early follower of Rabbi Sherwin Wine, who repeated, at every Yom Kippur Memorial Service – in fact, intoned with the appropriate gravity — that “Death is real.”

When death comes near, you need MORE mystery, MORE quality time with the deity.  The general thrust of the prayers is that God somehow accept the deceased (a gauzy metaphor that means nothing whatsoever), now in non-material form, as if he hasn’t made up his mind.  You do certain rituals, including babbling to the deity in foreign languages.  You ask God to do a lot of things for this now non-corporeal entity, but mostly it’s a game of “Pick me! Pick me!” as if God’s choosing a team for a game of hoops.

Debasing and infantilizing

Jews do it all in Hebrew.  The prayers are debasing and infantilizing.  The Kaddish, long revered as the prayer for the dead, actually praises God with dozens of different verbs.  The rabbis have long since explained the contradiction, but whatever it is, it’s after-the-fact rabbinical spin, of no consequence to any thoughtful person.  It says what it says.  If the writers meant otherwise, they would have said so.

Yes, death is when they get you.  Orthodox Jews stage a prayer-a-rama, showing up in armies of black-hatters (a metonym for their whole black-and-white getup, supposedly a sign of piety), thus reinforcing their belief system through intense devotional activity – pestering God, I suppose you could call it. 

And a strange arrangement it is, too, since, Judaism is a high-input, low-output religion  — hundreds of commandments, but a very poor accounting of the after-life reward, as compared to Catholicism, which requires relatively little engagement, confession and communion being among the most odious, and a promise of eternity with God or torture with Satan  (I prefer the South Park version: all the interesting people go to hell, and Satan is a sensitive 90s guy who holds luaus). 

As has been noted elsewhere, other religions have more-detailed depictions of paradise (Valhalla sounds like an eternal beer blast), but Christians specify little about what happens next.  Sitting at God’s right hand, a frequent trope, might mean you’re his go-fer.  That’s no way to spend eternity!

How humanists face death

But I jest. What has been lacking is enough public examples, in the age of mass media, about how high-profile atheists face the inevitable end.  Death is easy for the true believers; they’ve practiced and steeped themselves in their fantasies since they were little kids, and they have plenty of rituals to keep them busy and give them comfort.  It’s a bit harder for the wishy-washy, who have never really thought about this eventuality and are an easy catch for the intrusive rabbi and indeed prone to deathbed conversions, or at least desirous of copious rabbinical attention and prayer. 

But how does a Sherwin Wine die?  That thought was in the back of my mind for years, but I never got the answer, since he was killed in a car crash —  at 79!  Hitchens showed no fear, said he was going to do what he’d always done, but in slow-motion.   That is a death with dignity.  I hope to do as well.  But it takes practice.  Prominent atheists can provide powerful examples. 

(1) Authenticity; (2) Be there.

A good death requires the practice of a good life.  Maybe you’ve spent a lot of years living other people’s versions of your life – when are you going to start living yours?  Along with authenticity, BE THERE, every minute.  How many days have flown by, filled with work for somebody else, and you can’t remember what the hell you did with all those hours?

Why travel to China if the trip makes no impression, if you can’t immerse yourself a bit in the history and culture?  I know people whom travel changes not at all.  They just gather experiences.  Combine that with wishy-washy religion, and when time runs out, you’ve got rabbi-bait.

Impending schism?

My Mother’s demise (she’s 93 but not ill, so it could be years) could be a cause for a family schism.  The family doesn’t know how far I’ve drifted from religion. I can no longer stand religious services of any kind. I am psychologically allergic.  I look at Jews davening (rocking back and forth as they chant their prayers), and I see African natives dancing around a fire, Aztec priests tearing the hearts out of sacrificial victims, Greek oracles spouting arcane nonsense.  It’s all the same: magical words drive magical thinking. 

Even the most tepid semi-believers band together ESPECIALLY because there’s death, and magical words absolutely must be spoken in unison.

Will God be thanked for giving my mother a long life?   Is that the same God that decided that my father would die at only 69…or that Jimmy Heimlich, a childhood friend, would suffer a sledding accident and spend the most of his life in a wheelchair?

I cannot witness adults engaging in primitive superstitious behavior, any more than I can witness a dogfight or a baptism (or watch The Human Centipede).  To play along would mean yielding to the social pressure and risking the ostracism.  On the other hand, they don’t exactly pay much attention to me now. 

What’s the solution?

I may decide to stand outside the service and come in and say a few words about Mom after they’re done.  I welcome suggestions from readers.

They will attack me for embarrassing the family at a time of grief.  I will answer that she is my mother, and I will mourn her as I choose, not as some rabbi tells me to.  They will use the word “respect,” and I will ask them where the respect is for MY beliefs and feelings. 

If I really feel defiant, I will invite God to strike me down (getting sick a year from now doesn’t count). Nothing will happen, because God’s a non-existent Wuss.  He was BAD in most of the Torah, but hasn’t done much of late.

Respect for another’s religion?  NOT

Religious believers don’t get this one simple point: NOBODY (that “nobody” includes not only atheists but also every other religion) has to respect your religion but YOU.   That’s why it’s YOUR religion.

Mother always comes down on the side of appearances.  She went to a Catholic funeral and stood and kneeled when they did, even if she didn’t say their prayers.  That, to her, is an acceptable compromise.  Blend in.  Don’t make waves.

But that’s exactly how religions get you!  My Mother hasn’t a fraction of the courage it would take to buck tradition.  She made a point of telling me that my piece on Jimmy Heimlich included one inaccuracy: Jimmy was buried in the ballroom of the synagogue where she insists her death ritual must take place, point being that there were places in that synagogue where there were no religious symbols (so you can attend, Alan).

There will be prayers.

But ah, Mother, there will be prayers.  A rabbi will talk in a foreign language to an Imaginary Friend.  And others will mimic him.  And here’s where the problem comes in: even though you’ll be dead and won’t know the difference, you believe that your safe passage across the Styx and through the Pearly Gates will be guaranteed if both sons attend the religious service.

It’s just not going to happen.  Death is EXACTLY where clerics command the most obedience and conformity.  To deny their role in the “correct” death process can mean a dangerous rocking of the boat.  Maybe I can get my atheist cousins to join me.

I have known for many years that I do possess the courage to stand up to religious believers, look them right in the eye, and tell them that there’s no God, nothing in the Torah happened, and the best death comes from having a life full of meaningful experiences (includes daily living), a life that one is proud to look back on. 

I do not welcome such a confrontation.  But now, it appears that life may make it inevitable.

Can’t fake it.

I know this much: if I fake it again, with FULL knowledge of the falsity of religion, then I have truly knuckled under.  That’s how they get the sheep to perform.  In this case, they will not.  

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Comment by Alan Perlman on June 8, 2012 at 1:49pm


Thanks for the kind words.  Of course, they shouldn't care what anyone else believes, but their own belief is so fragile, and their doctrine lays exclusive claim to the truth...so, no, unbelievers cannot be tolerated.  Look on the bright side: at least we're no longer broken on the rack or burned at the stake. That's progress!

Comment by Tammy S on June 7, 2012 at 8:53pm

Alan thank you for saying that, I often feel very much like a wilting flower, I would love to be out and wear my resistance on my sleeve, but we are financially in no position for me to do so. We need employment with benefits and this is one of those 'one horse towns' where the good ol' boy club runs the joint. We have to be careful how we comport ourselves 'round' these here parts! We're trying to find employment in another state, or simply in a more metropolitan area of the state, but our state unfortunately is 4th highest in unemployment right now and passing stupid religious amendments that do nothing but set us further back in the minds of prospective businesses that might want to set up shop in the state.

There are times I have regretted being out with the family, but my ex-husband put me in that position, trying to get them to have me committed, sicking his preacher friends on me, they met with someone that knows their wee little book better than they and had a few other religions under her belt also, that was not well received and that too caused it's own blow back... they absolutely abhor being outed to their parishioners as the pretenders that they are, I was angry and that was an immature call on my part. Had I to do it over again, I'd have kept the conversations private, I would have still had them with full hate in my heart, but we'd have kept it in the living room... Lessons learned in small town America...

So with your Mom, don't fight them too much, it's not worth the hurt it does to you because they'll never admit to wrongdoing until they find their own truth and I've found that they're not often willing to do that while they can co-opt the truth of others, so it's always us, the filthy heathen outsiders, the troublemakers that will get blamed if their rituals don't go the way they planned. Just do what you have to to get through it, get out of there and go home, if you never have to see them again for any reason, then I'd say stick to your guns and don't go in the synagogue. Frankly I won't likely do the holiday thing anymore once Mom and Dad pass myself... so I can honestly see where you're coming from.

Comment by Alan Perlman on June 7, 2012 at 8:14pm

PS. to Tammy: kudos on your courage.  You have taken a lot of undeserved crap from holier-than-thou believers.

Comment by Alan Perlman on June 7, 2012 at 8:12pm


You have gone much further than I.  I've lived far away from most of my family and don't attend their bar/bat mitzvahs (closest relatives only), so there's less occasion for conflict.  But the potential is there, I assure you.  I dread Mom's funeral for this (among other) reasons.  One dear uncle, attending a Fri. service (optional) before one of his granddaughters' bat mitzvahs, told me he'd pray for me.  I gave him the classic atheist's reponse: And I'll think for you, Uncle.  

Comment by Tammy S on June 7, 2012 at 11:48am

I must admit that I've had family members angry with me because I refused to attend funerals unless it was immediate family, christenings, or go to church to watch certain family members receive honors bestown on them by the church 'elders' etc... they fail to see the 'hook' in those 'awards' ceremonies but I digress... They should be happy I still come to their homes to celebrate the holidays, but I'm rockin' the proverbial boat dontcha know. I fail to see how it's me that's doin' the rockin' but I'm reasonably sure it must be since I'm accused of it all the time!

You're making me feel more comfortable with my own stance Alan and I appreciate the insight. I've been called a troublemaker, soothsayer, radical and those were the tamer adjectives used to describe me, but now after about 5 years of push-back, they don't say anything to me about it anymore. Sometimes I still get the stink-eye, but I just look at them and smile lovingly all the while thinking, "I'd really like to punch you in the neck right about now." but I continue to simply smile looking directly into their eyes, it's like teasing a cat, they don't hold your gaze for very long and they really not sure how to approach you after that... *wink*

I'm pretty much an outcast with most of the cousins, aunts and uncles, but there is an upside, my mom, sister and brother are very accepting of my views and my mom shocked me to my core a few  years ago when we had to have her in the hospital for surgery and she listed her religion as 'none'. She still believes there's a creator, but she's come to hate religion and I think it's because of the way our own family tried to paint me as a devil worshiper and tried to destroy my life, my reputation and poison my own child against me. They, are the reason that I'm not 'out' with my atheism in a small town... if my own family could do that to me knowing full well I'm a decent and loving person simply over a difference in religious opinion... what would the real zealots that run their churches and unfortunately this town, do to me? Do I respect their rights to believe as they do? No, I wish I could, but unfortunately I've been on the receiving end of their brand of tolerance... I've been a little angry and I work every day to get past that because that's exactly what they want and I won't give them any pleasure if it can be helped!

Comment by Loren Miller on June 7, 2012 at 10:56am

The wisest thing in your post was this one statement:

Nobody needs to respect your religion but you.

If it's your belief and you have confidence in it, why should anyone else's opinion matter?  Yet it DOES matter ... a LOT ... and because it does and (I suspect) because that level of confidence is never adamantine or utterly assured, we have the situation which currently obtains.

And I doubt that confidence can ever be absolute because death is the ultimate unknown to those who fear it.  And because they fear it, they create constructs to help themselves deal with their fear and they enjoin others to agree with their construct to bolster their confidence with numbers.  Still, beneath all the prayers and hand-waving and hallelujahs, there remains DOUBT, and along with that doubt, the insecurity of not knowing for certain.  So when others throw stones at beliefs made up of nothing, at some level the recognition remains that those beliefs ARE made up of nothing ... and the natural recourse is to attack those who have dared to rock a boat which was already on the way to capsizing anyway.

Respect for something comes at least in part from confidence in that something.  Where confidence wavers, so does respect.



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