Uncommon Sense

January 22, 2021

On Death and Dying . . . and Religion

Filed under: Reason,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 10:42 am
Tags: , ,

Create Your Own Religion: A How-To Book Without Instructions by [Daniele Bolelli]I have been reading Create Your Own Religion: A How-To Book Without Instructions by Daniele Bolelli which is very thought provoking; I am sure to be commenting upon it quite a bit. Currently I am reading a segment on god and the afterlife and what role they will play in the religion I create.

The author ends up in a fairly good position, namely: The long loop of my personal experiences brings us back to our starting point: we have no certain answers about the afterlife one way or the other. Anyone claiming to know otherwise is trying to sell us something. And yet, death is too big of a topic to ignore. While the nature of death is a mystery, the fear of death is as real and concrete as it gets, so it needs to be addressed.

I can accept that death is possibly too big of a topic to ignore, but in getting to that point he also wrote this: “There is no greater source of anxiety for human beings than the inevitability of death.

and this:

We hardly know the first thing about death, so how is logic going to explain it all?”

Hello?

We don’t know the first thing about death? I think he just tripped over his intellectual feet. We are experts on death. We have explored myriad ways to kill people. We can do large numbers or small, overtly or subtly. We know how to create near-death experiences, so suitable when torturing someone. We pay large sums of money to merchants of death.

We have studied it scientifically. We know what happens to our heart and brains when we die. We know the decomposition processes by which the atoms of dead animals are recycled/reused. There is no other topic I can think of that we know more about than death.

I suspect he was thinking about the so-called “after life.” That we know nothing about.

The human capability that most makes us human is our imagination. We notice that some people are better than others. In our imaginations, we think that there are some people, who are not right here to be examined, who are probably even better, and we like to carry things to extremes, so we ask ourselves “Is there somebody who is best?” And the answer, of course, is “gods.”

We think about being born, growing up, growing older, growing old, and then dying and the refrain of the song “Is that all there is . . .” is playing in the background. Well, either it is the end for you and your “legacy/memories” are carried by subsequent generations or in physical works (art, books, etc.) . . . or our imagination tells us “No, that’s not the end, there is life after death.”

Whenever we get carried away and take things to extremes we end up at an absolute and nature tells us, loud and clear, “There Are No Absolutes.”

As to “There is no greater source of anxiety for human beings than the inevitability of death.” If you were to add up all of the times I have spent considering the inevitability of my own death, you would only need a stop watch. Now that I am old enough to die, were I rich, I would just hire someone to mop up after me when I go. But, I am not rich, so I have to do all of the planning myself. And that  planning is what has taken up the bulk of the time I have spent considering my own death.

Now, granted, I have lived in an age when life has not been precarious, for some of us anyway. Compared to many, my life has been easy. I even have the cultural advantages of being tall, white, and male that, I am sure, have greased my skids from time to time. If my neighborhood had a large population of prowling predators with a taste for man-flesh, it would probably be different. But it hasn’t and I don’t see that a person’s death should require more religious services than a person’s birthday party. Hello? We all die. All of us. Death is the Great Leveler. Rich people die and poor people die. Brilliant people die and stupid people die. We all die. It is as normal as a birthday party. There is just a larger volume of trash to take out on that day.

This sounds a touch like the apologist’s strategy of accepting everything their religion does as being right and proper and then finding reason after reason why it must be that way. But in the case of death, when other animals die, their bodies lay where they have fallen and nature takes back what was hers. At one time I wondered why the woods weren’t full of deer antlers. So many die naturally. Studies then show that those antlers are good sources of minerals for quiet a few species and they get eaten. All of those atoms are not going to waste, they are being reused. The process is not scared, it requires no rituals so that supernatural custodians clean up the mess made by those deaths. It has all been taken care of. But somehow, someone has convinced most people in our society that you have to spend many thousands of dollars on burials, coffins, services, parties, etc. Unlike weddings, a ceremony at which a party is an appropriate way to send a couple off to a new phase of their lives, dead people don’t care. But there was money to be made, so priests/shamans are hired to scare away demons and make sure the newly dead person’s “immortal soul” makes its way to its proper place and to make sure they don’t hang around as disturbing ghosts.

Can you spell scam, boys and girls?

I will make arrangements to have my body collected and cremated, so that the atoms will be unimpeded as they are recycled . . . and I would like to have a party, a wake, to which my remaining friends are invited to eat my food and drink my booze and tell lies about me. That would only be to comfort those not yet dead.

August 28, 2016

The Case: Theists v. Atheists, Part 2

As if to prove my point in Part 1 (yesterday), the N.Y. Times ran an opinion piece on how religion is portrayed on TV and other “smaller media” (“Where Is God on the Small Screen?” by Margaret Lyons and James Poniewozikaug, 8-24-2016). The article didn’t prove my point, but the comments sure did! Atheists and theists lobbing bombs back and forth, bright flashes of light, tremendous bursts of bombast … any real communication? Naw.

The crux so far of the dialogue between atheists and theists (pun intended, sorry) is the sense that “both sides cannot be right.” This, however, is not a path forward as it leads to a discussion of who is right and who is wrong and, well, history has shown that does not get us anywhere. Instead, let us consider the possibility that both sides are right, not in the details but with regard to things that are really important. This is not a caving in on my part, it is just a rhetorical device to get past a rather large road block.

Sharing Facts Does Not Work
Let us get this out of the way from the get-go: sharing facts does not, will not, and can not work. Each group has its own facts and is relatively ignorant of the other group’s facts. There is a sizable majority of folks who possess very few of any pertinent facts, but they still have opinions. What those opinions are based upon is important as I hope to show.

So, my favorite topic: pointing out the flaws in others’ thinking (I enjoy it so much that I enjoy it when others point out my flaws in thinking) is counterproductive. The situation is both sides have an array of weapons at their disposal. When one is fired, but has no effect, we reach down and select another weapon and try that one. We don’t stop to reflect on why a direct hit by the opposition has no effect on us. We shrug and assume it is probably the case that their weapons are ineffective. Well, they are ineffective, in both directions, because we slough off any effect they might have if we were to consider what was actually said. Like two children arguing over a point of honor, we stand toe to toe and shout “Is!” followed by “Isn’t!” followed by many repetitions of the same.

I might add to this that euphemisms and clarifications will also not help. Various theists describe god as “Nature” or “the All” or “the Ground of All Being,” whatever. Some sociologists describe god as a metaphor for society as a whole, in that it is all powerful and can crush us like a bug, but if we follow its rules, we have hope.

Naw, doesn’t help.

“Let us consider the possibility that both sides are right,
not in the details but with regard to things that are really important.”

Let’s Peel the Onion One Layer at a Time
Let’s take one claim for the benefit of religion espoused by theists and examine it: the solace a religion provides when a loved one dies. Most of us atheists want to jump to point that fantasies may be reassuring but they aren’t real, but try for a moment to see what is actually going on.

A neighbor of ours has lost her mother and her brother in just the last month. Along with all of the sorrow and loss being felt there are funeral arrangements, settling the affairs of the deceased, informing friends and family, and myriad of other tasks to attend to. Anybody having lived any length of time can relate to this situation.

If one is the member of a healthy church community, a whole cadre of folks are activated when a member dies. Even before your loved one dies, prayers are offered for their recovery and visits to the sick bed are common. Now, you and I know that praying doesn’t work, but it addresses a number of the fears that people have about dying. Few of us want to die alone. We aren’t children; we don’t need somebody to hold our hand as when we learn to cross a street, but physical human contact helps. It is reassuring. Also, we don’t want to be forgotten. We live on in the memories of people who knew us when we were alive. But human memories are plastic and fail when the person owning them dies, so people often try to leave a more permanent legacy, in the form of a building, a book, or something that will point to our existence after we are gone. This is a need we all have. Praying and prayer circles don’t work in an actual physical sense but are examples of an often large number of people holding you in their thoughts, which means you will be remembered, at least for a time.

A solid church community has processes in place to assist members suffering from a bereavement. Church ladies show up at your door with a casserole so your kids can eat, knowing that you won’t feel up to cooking. If your minister is any good, they will call (physically, not via email or phone) and outline all of the support systems being offered. They will check in with you. Some churches have grief counselors available.

The church proper is available for a funeral service or memorial service with folks available who can help with the arrangements. If you want to have a reception after the service in the church’s meeting hall, often all of the arrangements are made by other members.

Who would not want this for a loved one who has to cope with your death? This is solace with a capital S.

And, as atheists, what do we offer as a substitute? Some kind of intellectual purity and a feeling of being all grown up because we no longer believe in fairly tales?

The Big Bugaboo: Death
Many of the benefits of religion seem to surround the Big Unknown: Death. But in my experience, the vast majority of people I have known have spent almost no time thinking about death. We entertain ourselves, ad nauseum, with the potential of dying in myriad movies and books, but actual death … not so much.

Woody Allen said “It’s not death I am afraid of, it’s dying.” and I think he hit the nail on its head. We have all experienced pain, discomfort, fear and other negative emotions and our imaginations allow us to extrapolate those feelings to the transition from being alive to being dead. Being dead has no negatives about it because there are no more emotions, no feeling, no nothing, but we think about leaving loved ones in the lurch, with unresolved financial issues and more. Clearly, dying seems to be rated as “most unpleasant” by most if not all people for good reasons. In addition, evolution has provided us with survival reflexes. If we step off of a street curb and a bus is coming right at us, we step back. We don’t even need to think about it. Any species that did not routinely avoid death would not be around very long. So, we are primed to avoid dying in many, many ways, often subconsciously.

It is “normal” that religions would sprout up to apply salves to the emotional wounds of those left behind which also acts as training for those who will be dying themselves in short order.

And what do we atheists offer instead?

Okay, take a deep breath, I know you want to say that deluding ourselves with fairy tales is not a good way to support healthy lives. You know I agree, but that attitude does not solve the problem. It itself does not solve the problem.

We need to change the way we see things. I remember being appalled when the presiding minister at my uncle’s memorial service stated that he “knew” that my uncle, an avid golfer, was up in Heaven playing golf! (The clergy, like other traditional professions has suffered a brain drain.) When I took the time to think about it, I don’t believe any present actually thought there were 18-hole championship golf courses in Heaven. I suspect that a number of them might have pictured my uncle in the “other place” playing golf with Beelzebub. What most thought was probably something along the lines of “… that’s what I would expect from good old Bob!” It would have been perceived as a joke by those who knew my uncle and not as being blasphemous.

The main message was “your loved one is in Heaven” which, of course, no one could know even within the parameters of religious doctrine. (Imagine the length of the waiting line and the amount you could charge if you could prove whether or not a deceased person was actually in Heaven. For everyone not wanting to know there would be two people who would gleefully want to know whether someone was in the “other place.”) Though Christian scripture indicates in many, many ways that while many are called, few are chosen for admittance through the Pearly Gates, yet according to every Christian Church memorial service, every member who dies is going to Heaven. This is another form of solace for those remaining behind.

We need to learn to translate “what we hear” into “what they hear” if we expect to be able to communicate with them.

I know this is a bit rambling, and I expect to ramble some more but I am heading to a place where we can actually address the real issue: how to meet the social and psychological needs of people who are now using religion to meet them. Because if we do not, then it is no contest, because they are right, their religion does offer solace when a loved one dies and they are right about a great deal more.

June 11, 2013

Why Do I Care What You Believe?

If you haven’t noticed, I am one of those militant atheists. In the terminology sprouting up around the “New Atheism,” I am a positive atheist in that I deny that even a single god exists. And I not only argue that I do not believe in your god, but that you shouldn’t either.

Pretty cheeky, no? Why should I bother with what you believe? What’s the harm? Aren’t you allowed to believe what you wish? Religion has many benefits that you say make it attractive. The example most often given is that religion consoles those left behind when a loved or respected one dies. Atheism can’t do that, you say.

I urge everyone to seriously consider these claims. Too often atheists just concede this point rather than think it through. I do not.

I have attended my share of religious funerals—of aunts and uncles, grandmothers, cousins, nieces, my father’s (but not my mother’s) and numerous others being relatives of friends or spouses with which I was not particularly well acquainted. I gave eulogies at a number of these as well. In every one of them I was assured that my loved one/whatever was in Heaven with God and was bathed in love or some other such nonsense (one uncle, I was told, was “surely playing golf in Heaven”).

Let’s consider this objectively. How well does one person know another, even a spouse of many years? Even a person very close to you could have committed a mortal sin before you met them or worse, at some point in time, lost their faith. On this last point the Christian and Muslim sacred texts are explicit—if you lose your faith, you cannot be forgiven. So, really, these folks are off to Hell for an eternity of everlasting torment. And we can’t know whether our recently deceased friend was one of these. The priests/ministers certainly can’t know and do not know your loved one as well as you do to boot. So, there is this uncertainty about going to Hell that cannot be resolved. No one can assure you that your loved one is in Heaven and they aren’t about to say tings like “In all probability, Bob is I now in Heaven…,” nope, no way. So, they are blowing smoke, bullshitting you, and you have to know this. This is not very consoling.

Someone very close to me suffered great fear as a child when she realized that her grandparents, whom she loved, were going to Hell. That’s not only not consoling, that’s child abuse. People of different denominations bandy about what they think will happen to those “other” Christians and usually it is not pretty.

It is also no skin off of my butt, so why do I care about what you believe?

As a scientist, I have seen incontrovertible proof that if you choose to believe something false, that prevents you from seeing the truth. The current “low fat” craze is a prime example where my people, scientists, did not oppose very bad thinking on the part of medical “researchers” resulting in three decades of misery, disease, death, and weight gains. We still haven’t shaken off this wrong and wishful thinking.

Religiously, with so many dogs barking up the wrong trees, how will we ever find the tree with the truth in it?

By the way, when I die, I want all of my friends and acquaintances come to my house, eat my food, and drink my liquor and tell stories about all of the dumb, nice, petty, stupid, and fine things I had done, like as in a good old-fashioned Irish wake. This, I think would be more consoling to the loved ones and family I leave behind than some priestly-type who barely knew me pontificating from the pulpit on me “being in Heaven.” (I won’t be, nor Hell, either.) The social benefit of a gathering in which people acknowledge one’s existance and by telling stories giving evidence that they knew you and will remember you is the primary benefit of a wake or a funeral, not the false assurance of where your loved one ended up in a mythical afterlife.

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