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September 13, 2006

Death -- Part V

Is there any consolation an atheist can provide about death? Here is Pat Berger, who became a crusading atheist after 9/11, in an public radio interview:

She says the hardest conversation about atheism she's ever had was with a dear, dying friend, who begged her to believe so they could be together in heaven.
All she could say, Berger says, was, "Roseanne, I love you."

Is there anything else she might have said?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at September 13, 2006 11:08 PM


I don't know if it would console anyone who was at death's door, but I've always thought that the Christian obsession with everlasting life, and the idea that finite life is meaningless, is pretty immatures. It's like saying that a Beethoven concerto is worthless because it doesn't last forever. Pesonally I think that eternal life would be meaningless - whatever you did, you would just go on living, so what's the point.

Posted by: No More Mr. Nice Guy! at September 14, 2006 1:40 AM

One thing to say: "You've lived your life with intellectual integrity, refusing to believe in afterlife myths even when life got rough."

It reminds me of the (perhaps apocryphal) story of the American atheist, the woman who tried to get "in God we trust" removed from the money ... that when she was on her deathbed, she converted to Christianity, and when asked why, she said: "Because I'd rather see one of them go than one of us."

Posted by: Wayne Jones at September 14, 2006 8:50 AM

I've known people whose lives were characterized by chronic irritability, who distrusted others and frequently treated them disrespectfully or even cruelly, and who lived to acquire more. I've known others who strove be good, who were generally kind to others, generous with what they had, and non-acquisitive. And I've lived long enough now to see too many friends and acquaintances from each of those camps reach the end of life. Those who lived well generally met their ends without fear and with remarkable equanimity; those who paid no mind to good behavior were bitter and frightened by the approaching end. Faith or lack of faith made no difference at all. If anything, those who were proclaimed and deliberate atheists were more frequently those who strove to live well and approached death without fear.

Posted by: Richard Blumberg at September 14, 2006 10:30 AM

If I had a friend that was truly dying I would say whatever I thought would ease their mind, even if that were to say I had let Jesus into my heart and all that.

Here is my simple test for good and evil:
Whatever brings beings closer (not physically but emotionally and empathetically) is good. Whatever divides beings is bad.

So, lying about your beliefs to a dying person can be the most caring thing to do. Personal integrity is a lame excuse to be confrontational as a loved one dies.

Now if it were a priest that was more concerned with saving souls and stamping out gays than caring for suffering.....

But then I do not have any friends or even acquaintances that are priests.

Posted by: Jay Saul at September 14, 2006 11:08 AM

Sorry Jay, I can't tell that kind of lie for anyone. I might say something like "If your god is a loving and forgiving god, then maybe he'll forgive me and we can see each other later on."

People who truly believe in god also believe that it's possible to make a rational, conscious choice to believe, but it's not. They believe either because they've been programmed at an early age, or they made the choice under the influence of strong emotions.

Posted by: Catana at September 14, 2006 12:17 PM

DNA, RNA and all the stuff in between we are just beginning to discover determine what we are able to believe and disbelieve.

In other words, it is not up to us, billions of years of dead things make us believe. As far as evolution goes, we have just crawled out of the slime.

And you mean you could not tell a lie to a dying person, knowing they would not remember it quit soon, because it would compromise your integrity as a truth teller? In my simple minded version of good and bad (above), that would be a bad choice. Giving a dying person one short, last moment of relief trumps one's self-image.

You are the one who will live on. Would you feel better knowing you had sacrificed your personal honesty for a dying person's feelings or would you rather live with having hurt a friends feelings in their last moments in life?

Honesty is vastly over rated as it is usually based on insufficient information anyway.

Posted by: Jay Saul at September 14, 2006 1:33 PM

Catana, "I might say something like "If your god is a loving and forgiving god, then maybe he'll forgive me and we can see each other later on."

If you do not believe in God, then that is a "soft" lie. You are splitting hairs. They are dying, for Christ's sake :o), they will not report you. And I assume you do not believe there is anyone else watching on high.

Posted by: Jay Saul at September 14, 2006 1:39 PM

Let's assume for a moment that turnabout is fair play. Does that mean that when an atheist says to a theist "Feed my cats" on their deathbed the theist should happily reply with something like "You know, I never really believed in all that god stuff". Just to make them feel better?

"Feed my cats" is seriously the best, most atheistic last words I could come up with. Anybody got anything any better?

Posted by: Todd Sayre at September 14, 2006 7:15 PM

"This could be the end of me. Yes, I believe it is."

Posted by: Jay Saul at September 14, 2006 9:04 PM

But turn about would be if the atheist said, "Please, before I go, tell me you don't really believe in that Heaven and Hell stuff.

To which the careful answer would be, "Of course not, you showed me how foolish that all is." Not, "I'll feed your cats." But you should feed their cats for sure. No matter how you think about religion.

Posted by: Jay Saul at September 14, 2006 9:11 PM

Yeah, that'a a bit of a trap though. Originally the line was going to be "Well, I guess I'm off to an eternity of pain in suffering in hell now". But that didn't work because no atheist would ever say that. Next I changed it to "Well, I guess you believe I'm off to an eternity of pain in suffering in hell now". Even that didn't work because I don't really think any atheist would really be that much concerned with what someone else believed in this situation.

Remember, the original concept was that a dying theist makes a theistic statement to an atheist then the atheist should make a theistic statement back just make the dying theist feel better. I wanted to try and reverse the situation so that it became a dying atheist makes an atheistic statement to a theist then the theist should make an atheistic statement back just make the dying atheist feel better.

Even now, I'm not quite so sure of how to craft a plausible situation where that would happen. And that's where the cats came in. "Feed my cats" is an atheistic statement. "Well, I guess I'm off to an eternity of pain in suffering in hell now" is a theistic statement. "Well, I guess you believe I'm off to an eternity of pain in suffering in hell now" is skating too close to being an antitheistic statement.

As an atheist I really don't worry about what other people think will happen to me after I'm dead. Weakening science education, that bothers me. Starting wars because they think they've been instructed to so by some invisible force, that scares me. Killing their children because they take a story in an old book a little too literally, that just makes me sad. Stymieing reproductive health, that sort of makes me angry. But just what goes on in their heads, can't say I spend alot of time worrying about that. It's an interesting topic from a psychological or sociological standpoint. But on a deathbed, I think those topics would take a back seat to more practical concerns. Like cats, for instance.

I guess I should have been less concerned with any particular contrived situation and just went with something close to the second paragraph of this comment. "If you should always say only theistic comments to a dying theist then I guess you should only make atheistic comments to a dying atheist" would have been good. That avoids the problem that atheistic dying statements are things like "goodbye", "I'm sorry I slept with your sister (and never told you)" and of course "feed my cats". Those are all things that when said would not occur to most people as being atheistic.

How would one differentiate between a theist who keeps it to himself and an atheist?

Posted by: Todd Sayre at September 15, 2006 9:03 AM

"Feed my cats ... to the Christians, to make up for what those lions did."

Posted by: Wayne Jones at September 15, 2006 9:28 AM

I don't really understand why there's an obligation to make the dying feel better about dying. We all die. That's something we need to face honestly. "If your god is a loving and forgiving god, then maybe he'll forgive me and we can see each other later on." No, Jay, that isn't a "soft lie." It doesn't claim any belief on my part, and it leaves the question open, which is a good thing. Why shouldn't a dying person have a last chance to face reality? It has nothing to do with my ego or self-image. It's really hard to resist psychoanalzing other people, isn't it?

My position is that either you live a reality-based life or you don't. I watched my beloved husband die. If he had asked at the last minute whether we would meet in heaven, I would have told him no.

Much of what's wrong with this world is a result of protecting people from reality.

Posted by: Catana at September 15, 2006 9:28 AM

As a theist who has been moments from death and faces mortality every day, I have to say that the last thing on my mind in my "last moments" was the salvation of the living. Yes, I wanted a rabbi present (impossible in the back of an ambulance) and to see my family one last time. Being alone at that moment was tremendously sad. But I did not fear hell or hope for heaven. I grieved not just for myself (I had so much left to do.) but for the devastation my family would experience. We grieve at the death of a loved one, not because we believe whatever about their place in the afterlife, but because we have lost something precious and will never again share our lives with this person.
As for what I hope my atheist friends would say at my deathbed, simply this: "You've done all that you can do. You've fought as long and as hard as possible. Your life has been worthwhile. Go in peace." Where I'm going or whether I'm going anywhere at all is irrelevant. Of course, if I'd died in that ambulance, my last words would have been something along the lines of "Shit! Motherf*cker!" and my last thought may very well have been that the paramedic saving my life was really cute. (Intravenous injection of epinephrine is NOT a pleasant experience.)

Posted by: Melinda Barton at September 15, 2006 9:37 AM

How about the last words of Socrates: "Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius. Will you remember to pay the debt?"

Posted by: Shell at September 15, 2006 2:40 PM

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