The Maverick Philosopher discusses the fact that Christopher Hitchens, who is not doing so well, also has not recanted his atheism. Valicella writes:
The contemplation of death must be horrifying for those who pin all on the frail reed of the ego. The dimming of the light, the loss of control, the feeling of helplessly and hopelessly slipping away into an abyss of nonbeing. And all of this without the trust of the child who ceases his struggling to be borne by Another. “Unless you become as little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” But this of course is what the Luciferian intellect cannot do. It cannot relax, it must hold on and stay in control. It must struggle helplessly as the ego implodes in upon itself. The ego, having gone supernova, collapses into a black hole. What we fear when we fear death is not so much the destruction of the body, but the dissolution of the ego. That is the true horror and evil of death. And without religion you are going to have to take it straight.
Uh… not really?At least, for an atheist who has lost others, yes, the sting is always hard when someone one loves passes into the silence, the dark. Indeed, when a loved one “passes away”: the language betrays the insight that we struggle with as a species: the fact that one has “passed” –as in, faded into nothingness–and how it clashes with the strange sensation that the person has just gone “away.” We all go through this, and I suspect that the atheist, when he or she does, has a harder time of it, especially the first few times.
But it’s even harder for the atheist to watch the person whose life was lived under a crushing illusion. The man whose church has taught him that he is of a lesser race, yet who turns up for worship weekly, eyes full of adoration for his abusers. The older woman one knows–and don’t we all know one?–who seems, from vagues hints she’s made–never to have enjoyed sex or even had an orgasm. The elderly man who rubs religion in the face of the young, as a weapon against anyone who disagrees with him as well as a whip with which to beat himself.
And I hate to break it to Mr. Vallicella, but most atheists I know have pretty much come to terms with their future deaths…
Valicella suggests that religion comes cost-free:
What would Hitch lose by believing?
… but this is a denial of reality, for all too many pay all too dear a price for the crutch Valicella holds out.
And worst of all, there is the nagging memory. That memory that, as a child, when one actually was innocent of these ideas, these vague promises and stories, that when one spoke of this or that god, this or that afterlife, one was making it all up, that one was being initiated into another fantasy.
Take a child who has never encountered religion in any form into a room, and I tell you this: he or she will be unable to distinguish between The Hobbit and the book of Genesis–both of them seem like fairy-stories of a kind. The process of inculcating religion and “belief” is, at least for some of us–like me, a process of learning to play along, to pretend. I made the motions like everyone in church; I said the words in the order I was taught. But there was a nagging awareness that I was lying, that I did not indeed believe in any of the articles of faith in either of the two creeds we recited once a week. Not in the resurrection, not in the Church, not in the secret of transubstantiation–which just made no sense, and still makes none–or in the presence of the Holy Spirit.
It all seemed too fantastical to be true. And being made to attend church weekly only reinforced the understanding that what was expected of me was not so much to actually believe, but to shut the f*ck up and pretend to believe. I grew slowly aware of the fact that many people around me were doing precisely that, the same way people shut up and pretend to believe all kinds of things: that politician X is going to keep those promises, that the cops really didn’t intend for this or that minority person to die in custody, that those protesters really are ignorant, dirty hippies who know nothing, that we’ve reached the pinnacle of political development, that there really is no racism in Canada, and so on.
What would Hitchens lose? I know, and you know too, now: it is the dignity of the individual who says, because it is what is in his heart, the following: “No, I will not play along. I do not believe. Now get that business out of my face so we can get down to talking about the real world, and how to make it better.”
Of course, he can’t bring himself to believe, it is not a Jamesian live option, but suppose he could. Would he lose ‘the truth’? But nobody knows what the truth is about death and the hereafter. People only think they do. Well, suppose ‘the truth’ is that we are nothing but complex physical systems slated for annihilation. Why would knowing this ‘truth’ be a value? Even if one is facing reality by believing that death is the utter end of the self, what is the good of facing reality in a situation in which one is but a material system?
The answer, of course, is that this is the belief which, at least for Hitchens, has allowed him to live his life as he had, free not only of the nagging humiliation and hypocrisy and all the rest that it would have cost him to get through life as a religious man. (I’m not saying all religious people are necessarily hypocrites or humiliated, mind you — I have no access to their minds, and some experience leads me to believe that for some who do get the ideas drilled in as children, young enough I mean, they truly do believe and don’t need to fake it.)
According to Valicella’s post, one would be led to suspect that the main reason for having any sort of religious view, or belief in an afterlife–
(and why is it that the two–the idea of a god or gods, and the idea of an afterlife–are always yoked to one another, anyway?)
–is to comfort those who end up facing death head on, or contemplating it. (Truly, a large minority at best, I suspect.) If that’s so, then reverse the cost-benefit analysis: what religious beliefs (and practices) are worth a little comfort before the end? Circumcision? Female circumcision? Being stuck in restrictive or ridiculous clothing all of one’s life? A constant sense of crushing guilt that infects everything one does or feels? Bizarre injunctions against many sexualities and sexual acts? Ten or five or one percent of one’s lifelong income? The hours of one’s life spent standing in the pews listening to clerics talk about stuff that most aren’t listening to (or taking to heart) and the rest already know about yes as well as the cleric? Living under a theocratically-enshrined sexism that is unacceptable in any other institution in modern societies? Living (as many women are expected to, and many long had no choice but to do) without any control of their reproductive capacities?
(And I’m not even bringing up the pedophile clerics, the corrupted monks, the system violence that every religion has been implicated in.)
Is that worth it, for a little comfort at the end? Valicella’s argument seems a rather poor remix of Pascal’s Wager: you’re not even gambling on the chance for eternal life, but rather against one’s own emotional and intellectual reserve in the face of reality.
Dignity, Mr. Valicella. That is what Mr. Hitchens would lose. We are, all of us, destined eventually to the silence, to dust, to being forgotten. Literary posterity may be a pose, but everyone knows in the long run, we all get forgotten. (Even Napoleon has been, a caricature of a short man in a funny hat with his hand in his shirt standing in for memory that many thought would ring out through the ages.)
The trick is to face all that with a smile, or at least stoically, and not to fall to one’s knees, weeping. We get a run at it, at least; a chance to enjoy, and to better the place for others, through words and acts, but never through beliefs alone. Facing the void, the hardest thing — and the most inspiring — is to grin and say, “Well, I had a good run, and I expect you lot to do your best at having the same.”
Or, to say, as Oscar Wilde did (not quite at the end, but close enough), “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has to go.” To laugh? Yes: to laugh in the face of what you cannot defeat. But it can only defeat you, if you have unreasonable expectations. Live pretending, and death will fill you with terror. Live honestly–believer or not–and you see it coming a mile away, and know what the deal is, and what can horrify you?
Honestly: the cancer seems more horrifying than the death it brings. Because the cancer makes a pain and sorrow out of life, where death just punctuates the end of a life that is, one hopes, savored as best as a human can.