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Sunday, October 17, 2010

When Atheists Die

When people I’m talking with mention life in the “hereafter,” I usually nod my head and, as soon as is polite, switch the conversation to some safer topic.  But on the rare occasion (usually occurring after a drink or two back in the days when I was drinking), I’d quiz them about what they really expected in the afterlife.  This always ended badly.  What I’ve done for a living for over 40 years is to conduct Socratic dialogues with law students (see the post of January 31, 2010), where cross examination in detail revealed the level of clarity of thought.  I say “badly” because, of course, no one knows what to expect in life after death, so the result was always an embarrassing muddle of non-thought, and I ended up very sorry I subjected anyone to the stupidity of interrogation about their deepest desires.

To see what I mean, and assuming you yourself are a believer in God, pretend I’m quizzing you about life after death. Suppose I happen to know your favorite hobby (running marathons, playing the piano, watching ballet, or whatever your chief passion may be), and I ask if that will go on in heaven. No. How about sex? No. Your dog? Maybe. All of the dogs you’ve ever had? How about your parakeet, Floyd? Hmm. Your children? Yes. What ages will they be? Will they be your real children or idealized versions? Will you yourself have your usual flaws? What will you do in lieu of all these things?

Then ask yourself if heaven would be enjoyable without these things (the piano, sex, ideal family and friends, the dog, even some of those flaws), and ponder that if they were not present wouldn’t some important part of you be well and truly dead?

Mark Twain
Subjecting a fuzzy notion of heaven to rigorous thought is counterproductive, and—trust me on this—these dialogues have not made me any friends. Isaac Asimov once remarked that he’d never heard a description of a heaven any intelligent person would want to visit. Mark Twain was even crueler. In “Letters From the Earth” (a book so heretical it wasn’t published until 1960, 50 years after his death) he opined that:

"In man's heaven everybody sings! The man who did not sing on earth sings there; the man who could not sing on earth is able to do it there. The universal singing is not casual, not occasional, not relieved by intervals of quiet; it goes on, all day long, and every day, during a stretch of twelve hours. And everybody stays; whereas in the earth the place would be empty in two hours. . . . Meantime, every person is playing on a harp . . . ! Consider the deafening hurricane of sound -- millions and millions of voices screaming at once and millions and millions of harps gritting their teeth at the same time! I ask you: is it hideous, is it odious, is it horrible?

"Consider further: it is a praise service; a service of compliment, of flattery, of adulation! Do you ask who it is that is willing to endure this strange compliment, this insane compliment; and who not only endures it, but likes it, enjoys it, requires if, commands it? Hold your breath!

"It is God! This race's god, I mean. He sits on his throne, attended by his four and twenty elders and some other dignitaries pertaining to his court, and looks out over his miles and miles of tempestuous worshipers, and smiles, and purrs, and nods his satisfaction northward, eastward, southward . . . .

"All sane people hate noise; yet they have tranquilly accepted this kind of heaven -- without thinking, without reflection, without examination -- and they actually want to go to it! Profoundly devout old gray-headed men put in a large part of their time dreaming of the happy day when they will lay down the cares of this life and enter into the joys of that place. Yet you can see how unreal it is to them, and how little it takes a grip upon them as being fact, for they make no practical preparation for the great change: you never see one of them with a harp, you never hear one of them sing. . .

"It is because they do not think at all; they only think they think."

Do you know Shelley’s famous poem, “Ozymandias”? It’s haunted me from the minute I first read it until this moment as I reprint it for you:

                                                 OZYMANDIAS

                                               by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

This “nothing is permanent” message is hard to take. But how many kings and conquerors of ancient times, or poets and playwrights, inventors and politicians, rule makers and wise thinkers, believed they’d written their names so large as to be seen from space? For them too the lone and level sands stretch far away. Oh, you might protest, we at least remember the great inventors! Is that true? Well, okay, tell me who invented fire or, at least, first saw how very useful it could be if tamed? Who thought of farming? Know their names? Weaving? Gunpowder? Cryptography? The internet?

I’ve written much in this blog about my parents, both fascinating people. But, as with all of us (that’s you and me, blog readers) their memory dies as soon as those who once cared about them in turn die off themselves. 

Can you name these three famous actors?
What about famous celebrities? Their memory lasts, right? No. Name one from the time of Genghis Khan, or the court of Xerxes, or tell me who was the greatest actor in Paris in 1900. Even movie stars fade. How many people today could identify a picture of Carole Lombard, the highest paid star in Hollywood in the 1930s?  That's her in the unexplained photo above.  With hundreds (thousands?) of movies being made yearly, old films and their famous casts are at first slighted, and then, ever so slowly, even the best of them is forgotten. How many teenagers in the world have watched “Some Like It Hot,” or, even if they have, would think it the funniest movie of all time (as it has been voted by people who are not teenagers)? Last February, when I asked for a show of hands in my classroom, only about 20 of the 75 students had seen “Gone With the Wind.” Contemplate those students' great grandchildren and what they’ll know about the popular culture of 2010. With luck even Lady Gaga will be long gone by then.

So it all dies, and our memories die too. Some people say “we’ll meet in heaven.” A pretty fable, but, in the ears of an atheist, the fanciful wish of those who cannot face their own mortality.

I’ve encountered death many times in my life (see “The First Time I Nearly Died,” August 3, 2010), and I’ve made most of the important decisions of my life thinking about how things will look at the very end (see “The Deathbed Test,” July 27, 2010). I accept that nothing lasts, but it’s nonetheless important to me that I, Douglas Whaley, did my best during the time allotted to me. Even if I’m the only one who knows it, I want to have contributed to humanity’s journey from the caves to the stars, doing as well as I could with was mine to give. This blog is part of that effort.

So atheists die the same way they lived. We believe that life is the sum of all one does between the first breath and the last, and judge ourselves by how well we did between the two. Would any fair god ask more?

Charles Darwin


On his deathbed, Charles Darwin, who started life training for the clergy but whose work saw him upend the Biblical explanation of the world, was able to struggle back from a faint.  His last words were, "I am not in the least afraid to die."








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Related Posts:
“Catholicism and Me (Part One),” March 13, 2010
“Superstitions,”March 21, 2010
“Catholicism and Me (Part Two),” April 18, 2010
“How To Become an Atheist,” May 16, 2010
“Imaginary Friend,” June 22, 2010
“I Don’t Do Science,” July 2, 2010
“Explosion at Ohio Stadium,” October 9, 2010 (Chapter 1 of my novel)
"Escape From Ohio Stadium," November 2, 2010 (Chapter 2)
"Open Mouth, Insert Foot," November 21, 2010 (Chapter 3)
"Rock Around the Sun," December 31, 2010
"Muslim Atheist," March 16, 2011
"An Atheist Interviews God," May 20, 2011
"A Mormon Loses His Faith," June 13, 2011
"Is Evolution True?" July 13, 2011
"Atheists, Christmas, and Public Prayers," December 9, 2011
" Urban Meyer and the Christian Buckeye Football Team," February 19, 2012
"Intelligent Design, Unintelligent Designer?", May 12, 2012
"My Atheist Thriller: Another Book Reading," May 17, 2012
"'The God Particle' and the Vanishing Role of God," July 5, 2012
“Update: Urban Meyer and the NON-Christian Buckeye Football Team,” August 24, 2012
“Atheists Visit the Creation Museum,” October 4, 2012
“Mitt Romney: A Mormon President?” October 17, 2012
“The End of the World: Mayans, Jesus, and Others,” December 17, 2012
"The Great Lakes Atheist Conference, Tornado Survivor Rebecca Vitsmun, and the Wonderful Barbara Williams," August 27, 2013
"Why Even Believers Should Read My Atheist Thriller ‘Imaginary Friend,’" October 29, 2013
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

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