What is the nonbeliever to make of death?

Apr 20 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

...the times have been,

That, when the brains were out, the man would die,

And there an end; but now they rise again,

--William Shakespeare


Act 3, Scene 4

PZ just drew my attention - again - to Dinesh D'Souza. Both PZ and I were a bit annoyed by his diatribe against atheists a couple of days ago. Unfortunately, D'Souza is not a man content to drink only once from that bottomless well of stupidity - he just keeps going back for more. Paul already took a few good shots at some of the more ethically impaired aspects of Dinesh's diatribe (for someone who is savaging atheism on behalf of religion, D'Souza displays a remarkable lack of intellectual honesty). I'm not going to duplicate Paul's efforts there. Instead, I'm just going to try to answer - again - the question that D'Souza keeps asking:

My point was that atheism has nothing to offer in the face of tragedy except C'est la vie. Deal with it. Get over it. This is why the ceremonies were suffused with religious rhetoric. Only the language of religion seems appropriate to the magnitude of tragedy. Only God seems to have the power to heal hearts in such circumstances. If someone started to read from Dawkins on why there is no good and no evil in the universe, people would start vomiting or leaving.

One clever writer informs me that atheists don't deny meaning, they simply insist that meaning is not inherent in the universe, it is created by us. Okay, pal, here's the Virginia Tech situation. Go create some meaning and share it with the rest of us Give us that atheist sermon with you in the pulpit of the campus chapel. I'm not being facetious here. I really want to hear what the atheist would tell the grieving mothers.

Unlike either PZ Myers or Richard Dawkins, I am not an atheist. I'm an agnostic. I bring this up not because it's a distinction that matters for addressing D'Souza's allegedly non-facetious question, but simply by way of introducing someone who was forced to address just that question a long time ago. The word "agnostic" was first coined by my favorite Victorian scientist, Thomas Henry Huxley, and Huxley, unfortunately, did find himself in a position where he found himself, as a non-believer, confronted with tragedy.

In late September of 1860, Huxley's oldest son died. Huxley's agnosticism had already been firmly established by then, so he was not able to - and did not try to - use religion for comfort. Instead, he sought - and found - comfort from other sources. Some of the things that Huxley wrote about his loss, both in his diary and in letters to friends, are truly touching, and go a long way toward answering D'Souza's question.

From his diary, in an entry that was dated 20 September 1860, but which was written in space that had been left blank below the entry for the night of 31 Decemer 1856, as he anxiously awaited the birth of his first child:

And the same child, our Noel, our first-born, after being for nearly four years our delight and our joy, was carried off by scarlet fever in forty-eight hours. This day week he and I had a great romp together. On Friday his restless head, with its bright blue eyes and tangled golden hair, tossed all day upon his pillow. On Saturday night the fifteenth, I carried him here into my study, and laid his cold still body here where I write. Here too on Sunday night came his mother and I to that holy leave-taking.

My boy is gone, but in a higher and better sense than was in my mind when I wrote four years ago what stands above -I feel that my fancy has been fulfilled. I say heartily and without bitterness-Amen, so let it be.

The same sense of acceptance can be found in a letter that he had written to Herbert Spencer the day before:

You will forgive the delay which has occurred in forwarding your proofs when I tell you that we have lost our poor little son, our pet and hope. You who knew him well, and know how his mother's heart and mine were wrapped up in him, will understand how great is our affliction. He was attacked with a bad form of scarlet fever on Thursday night, and on Saturday night effusion on the brain set in suddenly and carried him off in a couple of hours. Jessie was taken ill on Friday, but has had the disease quite lightly, and is doing well. The baby has escaped. So end many hopes and plans-sadly enough, and yet not altogether bitterly. For as the little fellow was our greatest joy so is the recollection of him an enduring consolation. It is a heavy payment, but I would buy the four years of him again at the same price. My wife bears up bravely.

On the 23rd of September, Huxley would write a letter that is quite simply one of the most poignant, touching, and beautiful things I've read. He was writing in reply to the novelist, clergyman, and amateur scientist Charles Kingsley, who had sent a note of condolence to Huxley and his wife. Huxley's reply marked the start of a series of letters that the two exchanged on belief. The entire letter is well worth reading (scroll down to the right date to find it) but there's one passage that's particularly appropriate here - Huxley's reaction when confronted with what is essentially D'Souza's argument:

As I stood behind the coffin of my little son the other day, with my mind bent on anything but disputation, the officiating minister read, as a part of his duty, the words, "If the dead rise not again, let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die." I cannot tell you how inexpressibly they shocked me. Paul had neither wife nor child, or he must have known that his alternative involved a blasphemy against all that was best and noblest in human nature. I could have laughed with scorn. What! because I am face to face with irreparable loss, because I have given back to the source from whence it came, the cause of a great happiness, still retaining through all my life the blessings which have sprung and will spring from that cause, I am to renounce my manhood, and, howling, grovel in bestiality? Why, the very apes know better, and if you shoot their young, the poor brutes grieve their grief out and do not immediately seek distraction in a gorge.

C'est la vie. That is life, and it comes with things that are bad as well as things that are good. When we are faced with a great loss, we mourn. We mourn for the dead because we loved and treasured them in life, and the more that we treasured them, the more that they meant to us, the deeper we mourn for them. We mourn for the dead because they are no longer walking with us, but they will never be totally gone from us, either. Death can take someone from us, but death cannot take away who they were, or what they did, or what they shared with us.

That is life, and it is something that we all need to deal with. When someone we love dies, we need to face their death, and we need to face our loss, and we need to deal with both. We need to accept that someone that we love is dead - that they will never smile at us, or touch our cheek, or listen to our problems, or tell us theirs again. We need to remember and treasure everything that we shared, and we need to accept the fact that they are gone.

We do not need to get over it.

When the people we love die, we feel a sense of loss, and I don't think that is something that any of us ever entirely get over. The pain will fade, and memories will remain - even if they do feel a little bittersweet for a while. It will take time to deal with the pain and the anger that come with the loss, but as we accept the loss it will become easier to celebrate the life.

Death causes pain. That pain grows more and more strong the more closely attached we were to the person who died. Sometimes, so much so that we might feel tempted to say to hell with it all - that we won't get that close to someone again. But we will, even though we know that the pain that we feel when someone we love dies is the price of life and of love. No matter how strong or how deep the pain, deep inside we all know that the love is still a steal at twice the price.

7 responses so far

  • Roy says:

    I had high hopes for my lottery ticket, but in the drawing it went oh-for-six.
    What should I do, conduct a ceremony suffused with religious rhetoric appropriate to the magnitude of the tragedy? Should I create some meaning for my loss and share it with the rest of the world? Should I leave the ticket at my bedside so I can reflect on the dreams I had for it? Perhaps an enduring consolation would be appropriate. I might put it in a nice little box and bury it in the yard, speak some uplifting words over the grave, and grieve my grief.
    For breakfast, I intend to eat a whole live grapefruit, and I am fully aware I will be taking its life. I will not mourn its passing, I think. And I will 'bury' it some time tomorrow, with a whoosh.
    I'd so the same with D'Souza. (The whoosh part, only my toilet is just the standard size and I'm not sure he'd fit.)

  • Mark Plus says:

    The truly advanced thinkers of our time consider death an unsolved engineering problem.

  • DragonScholar says:

    The "What does atheism" comment by D'Souza is really a ruse - he assumes that atheism is a REPLACEMENT for religion directly, like putting in a replacement graphic card, and that it fails.
    Atheism is a far more general view of things, but atheists IN TURN may find comfort and offer comfort with things that are not tied to religion - nor to their atheism.
    We can take comfort in the nobility of those who defended others, including an aged professor who left this world in an attempt to save others, or those wounded who barricaded doors. We can take comfort in the fact we will learn and grow from this - if we are smart. We can take comfort in that we go on. We can read poetry and remember and move forward.
    I don't find my "religious" beliefs categorize easily, but in the end I would probably be considered an atheist as I don't really believe in a supreme being with an identifiable personalty - or at this point think its worth spending large parts of my time debating. But I have faced trageties and found ways to go on - and had things to offer those suffering from others that helped comfort them.
    The closest thing in fact I've used to comfort someone that touched on religion is giving some people books by a Buddist thinker, Pema Chorodon. But her Buddism is very "nontheistic" to say the least, and she also writes at times in a general philosophical way. Ironically, one of the friends whom I gave a book to is a blatant Dawkins-style atheist, and she never saw any problems with it.
    I have all of humanity's knowledge and wisdom to comfort me and mine. And we've got a lot of that, even if we forget.

  • Bishop says:

    The person from Virginia Tech was a christian. He said it himself that he will be like Jesus Christ and he is from South Korea which has a large christian population. When people die, it isn't religion that cures us, but your family , friends and others. Religion is another comfort you find to forget of your troubles. People want to believe in something because they want to believe that it isn't their fault and they want justification for what they do. Just like people justify murder with ideologies like communism or democracy, religion is just something people use to justify wrongdoings.

  • Christophe Thill says:

    And what, pray tell, would a religious person say to these grieving mothers?
    "God wanted your precious kids to die". Hmmm... not too nice.
    "God is really, really sorry for you. He would have loved to prevent these pointless deaths, but he just wasn't able to. At that time, He was in a meeting, or something." No. Let's try again.
    "God loves your kids. He didn't interfere with what happened to them, but now they're with Him and He's soothing their pains". That's better.
    "... oh, I forgot: but not this one, who was a Muslim. And that one, she was Jew. And those two, they were atheists. No, sorry, it's eternal punishment for them."
    Yes, I can really understand why religion is a good thing.