Saturday, 4 January 2014

An Atheist Thinks About Death On His Birthday

I don't mean to get you down, but...

Today's my 39th birthday and I caught myself thinking about death. It's funny how with each passing year my mind wanders ever more to my inevitable demise into dark oblivion.

When I was a Catholic, I was a afraid of going to Hell. I need only die with a mortal sin on my soul and I would fall directly into the den of demons and Protestants -- "well, at least I would get to suffer alongside my best friend, a Baptist," I would reassure myself.

The best most Catholics could hope for was the pseudo-Hades of Purgatory. Of this I was most assured, because nobody deserved to go straight to Heaven (especially the Protestants who seemed so certain they would be let right through the gates.)

We would all strive to be just good enough to deserve some undetermined time of terrible pain and suffering in Hell Lite like some kind of sadistic hot sauna, melting the  sins away.

Now that I no longer believe in God or the Devil or Heaven or Hell or Purgatory, you might expect me to have no fears about death at all. Why fret if everything is just molecules in motion?

On the contrary, I dread those final months or years. Will my eyes fail giving me no pleasure to watch movies, observe the seasons, admire art, wonder at the human (cough cough) physique? Will I no longer be able to see my own wife and son and have to rely on foggy memories alone?

Will my ears fail me such that I cannot listen to music, the birds, the voice of my wife, the singing of my son?

Will eating be a pleasure or a nauseating chore?
Will I be able to walk or move?
Will I be able to think or will the pain and the drugs that numb it fog over my mind and rob me of all and leave me with only monotony and worry?
Will my only daily news be reports from dispassionate caretakers who's smiles have been bought by taxes? ... News about my own decay. About what might fail next?

But this would not truly be Hell on earth so long as I have a hand to grasp onto or lips pressing against my forehead.  The pain would still be finite with whispers of encouragement in my ear and glimpses of tearful eyes of wife and son. These could pull me back to life and give me courage to breathe on.

What makes me shudder is a life in some home, reeking of urine and feces, perforated by incomprehensible shouts produced by advanced dementia. Would my family be there or would they be busy with the demands of the living - nowhere to be found.

Would I be utterly alone inside a broken painful body?
The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, "eternal fire". The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs. (source)
The Church has it wrong. Their god may be love but he doesn't really exist. For me Hell would be a life separated from the sincere love of others.

Although worrisome, these questions are not as troubling to me as new considerations that have come out of being a husband and, more recently, a father. Don't misunderstand, they have followed me but more severe concerns have plastered over them in recent years.

You see, with no afterlife my Hell will manifest itself right here on Earth. When I finally die, there will be no further suffering for me to feel. I will feel nothing at all. I won't be. My own afterlife is the least of my concerns.
Nil igitur mors est ad nos neque pertinet hilum,quandoquidem natura animi mortalis habetur.
"Therefore death is nothing to us, it matters not one jot, since the nature of the mind is understood to be mortal." (Lucretius, De Rerum Natura)
But could my suffering live on inside others after my death?

I think about the pain and inconvenience that will come to my poor wife. She will be burdened with caring for our son and taking care of the house. I'm sure she will pull through fine, but I don't want her to suffer.

I worry about our son. Will he make it okay in a world of ever-dwindling resources and opportunity? Would my absence lessen his ability to flourish to his fullest potential? Will his Autism hinder him and would I not have been able to help him succeed more alive? 

Will the planet he inherits be too damaged to support life? Will his eyes be forced to witness environmental disaster, natural calamity, suffering, starvation, death? Will he need a father's arms to comfort him while he himself dies of some illness or famine far before his time?

Will his neck be crushed under the boot of some future oppressive totalitarian regime?

I want to be there for my wife and child. I want to be happy but I also want to be useful.

Christians, don't jump in with your good news. It does not console me one jot.

All things considered, even if an afterlife did exist, what good would it do for me or my loved ones? No good whatsoever. Would I get a bird's eye view of the pain and trauma (or lack of?) experienced by my closest loved ones? Would I need to sit idly by like some powerless Yahweh and watch every event, read every though, see every tear and hear every muttered curse of desperate despair all the time neutered from rendering any comfort from above (or below)?

Even if my son and wife were reunited with me in Heaven, they would not be the same people as they were at the moment of my departure. This would not erase the suffering. Presumably Heaven would also have made me a different person. These would be different people meeting each other and who knows what kind of scar tissue would exist?

The best I can do is hold on for those whom I love. I must try to fix the world the best I can for them and protect and encourage them.
One's life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others. 
(Simone de Beauvoir, The Coming of Age) 

Everything is fine. My life has value.

And yes, I'm having a nice Birthday!


  1. Happy birthday! I've had some thoughts along these lines lately too but nothing quite a well formulated as yours. I share your fear of the assisted living/nursing home scenario. Since I will be completely alone and without family at that point, I imagine suicide will be a viable option to escape that particular horror. Not what I'd call pleasant to think about, but I suppose it does provide some small consolation.

  2. Happy belated Birthday! As Petrarch said, "mediate on death" in order to appreciate life.

  3. The death part isn't so bad. I'm most afraid of the consequences to other loved ones.

  4. That's the fear. Here in Canada there have been several high profile cases of sick people who were unable to kill themselves and were asking assisted dying. They didn't get it.


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