Death of a heretic

One day, in the (hopefully) far distant future, my heart will issue its last, vital beat, my lungs will resign from their tediously repetitive job of inflating and deflating to provide me with oxygen, and, in quick succession, every organ, system, and function within my body will shut down, never to be restarted. The deafening noise of the trillions of explosions in my brain will go quiet, and the light that lives just behind my tired eyes will go out for the last time. There will be no one home. Every biological function that I had enjoyed without ever having paid them much thought will have come to their natural ends, and I will be dead.

No longer will I be able to bask in the privilege of another conscious thought as my mind, and the brain it calls home, succumb to the ravages of decay that eventually plague every organism the moment it stops fighting. The cosmologically insignificant period of time I had previously occupied will be over, and I will be unceremoniously returned to my pre-birth state of complete and total non-existence. I will have absolutely no awareness of anything; not the gradual dissolution of the star stuff of which I’m made, not the feelings of those I leave behind, not even the fact that I have ceased to exist.

It’s often said that the hardest thing for any human being to ever have to face is the crushing inevitability of their own mortality. No-one wants to imagine that all of this has to end at some point; no-one wants to contemplate a time when they won’t be here any more. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that the worst aspect of being an animal that was fortunate enough to have evolved such a consciousness is that, by definition, we are cursed to worry endlessly about what happens when it finally stops working. To counter this deeply-embedded fear of the greatest of unknowns, we developed both the biggest, and the most harmful, distraction technique a species could ever foist upon itself … we simply pretend that it isn’t going to happen.

The notion of an afterlife has, since time immemorial, been a source of comfort and hope for billions of people around the world; the idea that there is nothing to fear from death because, although it spells the end of the physical, there is a far greater, non-corporeal world beyond this to look forward to. A world where there is no pain, no anguish, and no end – we will be the infinitely-blessed recipients of an eternity of consciousness; an endless existence of love, of laughter, and of joy that will never be cut short by the cruel, cold, indiscriminate hand of death.

And it will be the most excruciating, abominable, interminable suffering a sentient being could ever be subjected to …

Like anyone else my thoughts will occasionally turn to the subject of death, particularly my own, and that’s entirely to be expected – it’s natural. I am, after all, a living being who would ideally like to stay that way for a good long while. It’s perfectly normal that I worry about how I’m going to die, and whether or not it’s going to hurt. Will I go quickly and quietly, or will it be protracted and painful? Will there be people around me when it happens, or will I be alone? These thoughts are not just mine; they are common to us all, regardless of whether or not you believe in an afterlife.

As an atheist, I don’t … for me death is the end and, as such, I often worry that there will come a time when I will no longer exist. This concern isn’t really present in a believer but then, by contrast, I don’t worry about whether my eternity is going to be spent in blissful paradise or screaming agony. You see it’s not enough for a believer to invest in the idea of a life after death, they have to separate them out into two; one for the good people, and one for the bad (naturally, the believer is convinced they’re going to the good one). They can’t stomach the idea that an eternity of unbridled joy might also be available to the annoying neighbour who shot their cat up the arse with an air rifle; they can’t handle the thought that life might not actually be completely fair so they invent two post-death theme parks you can visit: Cloud Land and Torture World.

If you’ve ever wanted an example of how faith is inherently divisive, this is a particularly good one. The “us and them” mentality is laid bare for all to see here, with every believer absolutely certain that they’re going to be riding the Bliss Flume in Cloud Land while everyone else gets sent hurtling down the Flaming Sulphur Rapids in Torture World. They, after all, have chosen to believe in the right version of the aprés-vie experience, unlike those idiots who believe the wrong one or, in my case, don’t believe in one at all. This complacency is an inevitable by-product of the process of layering delusion on top of delusion in a desperate attempt to shield themselves from the harsh reality that they’re little more than fashionably-dressed bags of meat with an unavoidable expiry date. It’s like forming a cocoon around yourself made from a thousand sheets of bubble-wrap to ward against sharp and pointy things that might pierce your fragile body; you’ll be convinced of your total safety right up until the moment you suffocate to death.

Having long ago given up on applying this tiny child’s Elastoplast to the gushing, fountain-like wound of my own finiteness, I’ve had to embrace, albeit with great difficulty, the thought that this really is it. This life is all that there is and, one day, I am going to die, whether I like it or not. To discard the comfortable delusion of an afterlife, and to acknowledge the eventual end of one’s own weird, complicated, and surprisingly short little life, I think, is possibly one of the most terrifyingly challenging things you can ever do. I’ll even go one further and suggest that it makes you an immeasurably better person as a result …

For a start a non-believer will value life, all life, more than his faith-head friends. It makes sense – if our true destiny is an eternal existence that begins once this one is over then this life is just a trivial blip, a hollow and meaningless exercise in passing the time that serves only to act as a preamble to existence proper. Our physical lives, and everything we do with them, are utterly cheapened to the point of worthlessness when stood next to the grand infinity of the perceived world beyond. To an atheist, life is more precious, more glorious, and more worthy of respect and protection entirely because it is limited in its span.

The idea of an afterlife diminishes everything we do here on earth; the achievements we rack up in our 70 or so years are meaningless when you consider we’ve got an eternity on the way. Many believers question atheists as to how they can possibly live their lives knowing that there’s nothing at the end of it; how can we get up in the morning? Isn’t our godless existence completely meaningless when there’s no heaven to work towards or hell to avoid? No, it is precisely the opposite. Every achievement is ours, and not something we have to share the credit for with the invisible sky wizard. Every day is a blessing because it is one of a precious few. Every deed has greater worth because we’re not doing it to curry favour with a deity who insists on keeping score. The love and compassion we share with others is infinitely more valuable because it’s something that comes directly from within us and requires no celestial third-party to inspire it.

When we die, all that remains of us are memories in those we leave behind. Our fond remembrances of those who are no longer with us are the most precious things we possess because they are but tiny fragments of evidence that those people were even here. On the cosmic time-scale our existence ultimately amounts to nothing, and the only way this can ever change is for us to leave our mark; do something that tells the universe, “I was here”. Immortality comes only through the persistence of memory throughout the ages – when we take false comfort from imagining that our departed loved ones are waiting for us in another life we’re so busy looking forward to seeing them again that we forget almost everything about their lives that meant anything enough worth preserving.

For better or worse, Adolf Hitler will likely be remembered for many centuries, maybe even millennia, after you and I are forgotten for the simple reason that we all continue to propagate the memories of his life’s deeds. You, me, and even Hitler are only able to determine how (or even whether) we achieve immortality through our ability to decide how we act in this life. Your every deed will influence how you are remembered when you are gone, and the impact you have on those around you will dictate whether your memory will endure, for better or worse. Religions argue that one should lead a good life in order to achieve blissful immortality, and on this we can agree. Where we depart in our opinions is that they see this eternity as literal, having clearly never considered how unrelentingly torturous a consciousness without the promise of death would truly be.

So, when I finally go the way of Python’s parrot, what then? Well, frankly, in terms of the physical, I don’t care – burn me, bury me, dump me in the canal, or keep my corpse around for scientific or sexual experimentation, I don’t care. I won’t be in a position to complain, so why on earth should I worry? What I do worry about is how I will be remembered; will I have had a sufficiently positive impact on those around me to be worth preserving as a memory? All I know is that this is the only chance I will ever have to make a mark … it is the only life I have in which I can do something, and be someone, worth remembering.

Call me a heretic if you like, but this life is the only one that matters because it’s the only one we have and we’re supposed to live it. We’re not here to spend it grovelling for admission to Cloud Land, or apologising to some supposed omnipotent tyrant for being broken because, if we do, we will have wasted every precious second … get off your knees and start living …

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On May 08, 2011 David Talbot says:

On the subject of coming to terms with a finite existence, I thought it worthwhile mentioning the idea of absurdity:

I still find it incredibly difficult to come to terms with the idea that life (at least subjectively) is both of utter importance whilst simultaneously being eventually meaningless.

I guess one response to this kind of thinking would be to expand outwards towards a greater cause, to take the edge off a self-centred focus. The roots of altruism?

Enjoying the blog so far, Kris.

On May 08, 2011 Kris King says:

I’ve always kind of liked that life is meaningless on a grand scale and important on an individual one because I think it does, as you say, contain within it the roots of altruism, or at least it contains the drive to create meaning by having an impact on more than just a personal level. Anyone can give meaning to their own existence, but to go beyond that requires exponentially more effort and a willingness to dispense with one’s own ego.

I was having a discussion last night (albeit under the influence) with my other half about the idea that our species next most important achievement would be to make contact with life beyond our planet, because this would blow our perception of the universe wide open. It would force us to grow up very quickly and start looking beyond our own, small-minded, anthropocentric view of everything. I think the analogy I used was to imagine a single resistor inside our PS3 coming to the realisation that it was part of a much larger machine and developing a desire to understand the machine (Raves, having Aspergers, works better with technology-based metaphors) 🙂

On May 21, 2011 Shannon says:

I don’t know what happens after we die. All I know is in my experience, regardless of religious belief, when a person is on the brink of death they invariably pray for a heaven. Hold the hand of a 95 year old woman in renal failure that’s asking you why it’s taking so long for her to die and then tell me that you wouldn’t say anything you could think of to give her a tiny bit of comfort…

On May 23, 2011 Kris King says:

While I wouldn’t dare to presume what a person might be thinking or feeling in that moment, I would say that there’s no “regardless of religious belief” about it at all. How a person behaves in their final hours, days, etc. is absolutely going to be dictated to a greater extent by their beliefs, and their philosophical or cultural upbringing, and attitudes towards death. When it comes to that moment, we all ultimately want the same thing; for the pain to end, for it to be over (one way or the other) and, while that’s a universally human thing, how we manifest that is going to be down to what we believe (or don’t believe, as the case may be).

It’s not unheard of for non-believers to start praying when they’re on the verge of death, but it’s not nearly as common as apologists would have people believe (stories of heathens repenting as they lay dying always help boost the faithful’s resolve and, ultimately, the collection plates don’t exactly suffer either). A favourite was the lie put about by Lady Hope that Darwin had recanted on his deathbed (Hope was a devout believer, so no agenda there then). Most non-believers remain defiant to the end, including Darwin, Thomas Paine, and, I’m told, my uncle Robert.

I don’t know what I’d do if I were trying to comfort someone who was dying; I like to think that I’d have the moral courage not to lie to them, but I can’t know for certain that’s how I’d react. I’d still rather be honest with someone, even if it meant upsetting them … the only thing we really have is our humanity, and to sacrifice that for a comfortable delusion is, and always will be, deeply abhorrent to me.

On September 06, 2011 The Doubter says:

Death the ultimate own goal!! I like the idea of creating a bit of fun after I die, therefore ‘thinking out of the box’…ha…ha……maybe create a treasure hunt………put an advert in a national paper stating that you have hidden a box with a substantial reward in it. Leave clues each week in the paper as to where it is………should the eventual finder find the box, this in turn leads to a solicitor who will award the monies…say half to the finder and half to the finders chosen charity (non-religious of course). Yes…no one really knows how they will feel at the end but I like the idea of going out with a bit of defiant style.:)

On September 07, 2011 Kris King says:

A treasure hunt would be good, but I want to be a right pain in the arse when I die. When I travelled up country for my grandad’s funeral, and stayed with my sister, we had a talk about wanting to really put people out when we peg it. I said that I’d want to keel over at the self-service checkout at a big-city Tesco Metro, slumped over the terminal, in the middle of the lunch-hour rush, with a queue of people behind me clutching their packs of sandwiches and getting more and more impatient, as the sound of “unexpected item in the bagging area” and frustated tutting from other customers echoes around my dying mind 🙂

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