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