Tuesday, September 27, 2022

What Should We Think About Death?

The British Humanist Association would like to tell us what we should think about death.

The plummy tones of comedian Stephen Fry introduce the concept, but you really can’t enjoy it in its full glory without the cartoon visuals. This link should maximize your viewing experience:

“One thing we can be sure of is that we will die. Everybody will.”

Tell us something we don’t know, Stephen.

Wishing and Hoping

Now, I actually like Mr. Fry. He’s an atheist of some note but, unlike many of his ilk, has a history of being genuinely humorous. Here he does not disappoint, though perhaps the humor is unintentional. In any case, it’s rather black:

“Some people do not like the thought of this and don’t accept it. They prefer to think that death is not the end of us but that we might live on, perhaps in another life on earth, or in another place where people are rewarded or punished.

But wanting something to be true is not the same as it being true.”

This is very much the case. Sometimes people believe what pleases their hearts rather than their heads. But this criticism applies equally to all beliefs, including humanism and atheism. For every Christian who believes in God and heaven because he refuses to accept the idea that death ends all, there is an atheist who believes in the non-existence of God and heaven because he rejects the notion of a Creator with an innate right to judge human affairs, or because he prefers the moral elasticity that he thinks independent agency would allow him.

As a reason to disbelieve in the God of the Bible, the wish-fulfillment theory of belief has zero credibility. It simply paraphrases Tom Petty: “You believe what you wanna believe …”

We all do. But that tells us nothing about the veracity of our beliefs. Sometimes people believe for reasons having to do with their assessment of the available evidence or of probable outcomes, or even because of the intellectual barrenness of the proposed alternatives. This includes a great many Christians.

The Absence of Evidence

Carry on, Stephen:

“And there is no evidence to support the idea that our minds could survive the end of our bodies.”

Nor is there any evidence to support the idea that they could not. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as the saying goes.

Further, the idea of spirit beings is as old as man, and it is not limited to those who believe in God or even gods. In fact, Stephen Fry’s atheist friends are not in agreement on this point at all. There’s a thriving subset of secular humanists who believe in a spirit world, ghosts, afterlife or reincarnation. They just don’t believe in God.

That’s about as convenient a set of beliefs as one can possibly imagine, if we are still talking about wish fulfillment!

I See Dead People

“What sense could we make of the things that we value — love, experiences, communication, achievements, the warmth of the sun on our face — if we were disembodied?”

A straw man, to be sure. The Bible never suggests that the dead are eternally disembodied. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Shape, Structure, Meaning and Purpose

“And if life were eternal, wouldn’t it lose much of what gives it shape, structure, meaning and purpose?”

Shape and structure are merely a function of habit and practice. An eternal routine would by definition possess shape and structure, if such are thought to be useful or desirable (which is itself a question worthy of debate). But our glimpses of heaven in Revelation have enough shape and structure to them to please even the most routine-oriented humanist.

And — oh, my — how do we speak intelligibly of meaning and purpose in a universe without God? Do we mean whatever subjective value you or I might ascribe to our existences? Fry’s usage here is not the ordinary English employment of these terms since meaning and purpose are inextricably bound up in the creative process. For instance, when I inquire, “What is the meaning of this red sign with the letters STOP on it?” or “What is the purpose of this device?” I am asking what the person who placed the sign was trying to communicate or how the inventor intended me to make use of his invention. I may decide STOP is a street name or a brand of clothing. I may use a can opener as a club. But neither conclusion correctly answers the question of the meaning and purpose of the sign or can opener.

The sign has objective meaning. The can opener has an intended purpose. But we cannot speak of them usefully without reference to the mind from which they originated.

In any case, if we are talking about a sense of existential meaning and purpose, a random universe excludes both by definition. Even the humanist’s vocabulary is borrowed from the deist.

An Infinity of Identical Cupcakes

“Think about reading a good book or eating a delicious cake. These may be great pleasures, but one of the things that makes them pleasures is that they come to an end. A book that went on and on forever and a cake that you never stopped eating would both soon lose their appeal.”

Sure, a single book by a single author that went on forever might well become tedious. Or a single, gigantic cake might become unbearable. (In the animated video, an endless sea of identical cartoon cupcakes is displayed to alert us to the potential horror of eternal sameness.) But we don’t even have to concede that the universe was created by God to observe the unbelievable variety of life, ideas and food types on this planet, let alone potentially throughout the rest of the universe. The idea of becoming bored by all this is patently ludicrous, no matter how expansive or meager our concept of eternity may be.

When I finish a good book, I long for another. When I finish a good meal, I am temporarily sated. But only temporarily.

Fry and his friends are grasping here. A child could see through these sorts of specious arguments. If there is so much pleasure in endings, why are so many atheists desperate to extend human life as long as possible?

The Circle of Life

“Death is a natural part of life.

It makes sense for us to try not to be afraid of this but instead to come to terms with it.”

Again, not the Christian picture. Death is a horror, an enemy, a gigantic violation.

Jesus Christ wept at the tomb of Lazarus. This accords with all our natural instincts, and not just those of religious people.

Embrace death if you like, but it will not embrace you back. People instinctively know this. The less hope we have, the more violently we react to the deaths of our loved ones.

Choosing Good Over Evil

“Then we can focus on finding meaning and purpose in the here and now, making the most of the one life we know we have and helping others to do the same, choosing good over evil without the expectation of reward in some other place.”

Oh. Wait. Define “good” and “evil” without reference to God? If I am a random collection of tissue destined to obliteration in a few short years, what possible obligation do I have to others? How can such “meaning” and “purpose” as I may self-generate in the random atoms of my random brain over my short and surely random life amount to anything of objective consequence?

Very, Very Temporary

“When we do die, we will live on in the work we have done and in the memories of the other people whose lives we have been part of.”

For a few days, weeks or years. Then their pain will abate or at least diminish, they will move on and think of us less regularly, and when they do, it will not be “us” that they are really thinking of, but their own manufactured version of us within their failing memories. Ultimately, they too will pass from this scene and be as forgotten as we are.

A wonderful legacy to aspire to.

Trees, Birds, Flowers and Serial Killers

“Our bodies will break up and become part again of the cycle of nature. The atoms that form us now will go on to form others things — trees and birds, flowers and butterflies.”

And equally they will go on to form sharks, mosquitos, maggots and serial killers. Should we cheer on our atoms in the hope they animate the next Mother Teresa or Bill Gates or should we boo them in case they animate the next Stalin and Hitler?

And what will it possibly matter to us anyway, supposing the humanists are right?

See, two can play at this game, and it’s a silly game indeed.

What Do You Think?

So what should we think about death really?

I live my life in hope of resurrection, in an ongoing quest to know my Savior and become like him. My life is full of joy, despite experiencing the same difficulties, trials and sorrows encountered by anyone living on this planet. If I’m wrong about Jesus Christ, resurrection and eternal life, I will die content with my lot in life one day and never know the difference.

But what happens to Stephen Fry if he is wrong?

No comments :

Post a Comment