Listing entries tagged with death

Death Part VI

posted on 11.19.2006 at 8:26 PM

The opportunity to survive death certainly seems a major selling point for religion. Yet some of the more recent explanations for belief tend to underplay it.

This is, in part, because most preliterate peoples don't seem to make as big a deal of the afterlife as modern religions -- particularly Christianity and Islam -- tend to. Some of them don't dwell too much on what happens after death. Many don't see good behavior being rewarded. And one of their goals for the dead is often making sure they don't hang around too much -- because the recently deceased tend to be cranky and meddlesome.

Yet ask people today why religion has such a hold and they will often begin by talking about death.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:26 PM | Comments (6)

Death -- Part V

posted on 09.13.2006 at 11:08 PM

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 11:08 PM | Comments (15)

Death -- Part IV

posted on 08.18.2006 at 11:54 AM

What might/can/should a nonbeliever think about death? JM commented that I am too hasty in suggesting that atheists "find death pretty tough" -- possibly tougher than believers find it?

Here are some related comments from some very early kind-of, sort-of or not-really atheists (all characters in the second chapter of my book):

Gilgamesh (after his buddy dies)...

What my brother is now that shall I be when I am dead. How can I rest, how can I be at peace? Despair is in my heart.

Egyptian song from the third millennium BCE...

Let these things fade from your thoughts. Weeping does not save the heart from the grave.

Anacreon (Greek poet)...

My closing years pass by in haste/Soon I no more sweet life shall taste.

Koheleth in Ecclesiastes...

What a delight for the eyes to behold the sun! Even if a man lives many years, let him enjoy himself in all of them, remembering how many the days of darkness are going to be. The only future is nothingness!


Accustom yourself to the thought that death is nothing to us. For all good and evil reside in sensation, but death is the removal of all sensation.....There is nothing fearful in life for one who has grasped that there is nothing fearful in the absence of life....The wise man neither rejects life nor fears death.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:54 AM | Comments (12)

Death -- Part III

posted on 08.11.2006 at 2:23 PM

Euripides writes:

Who now can tell whether to live may not
Be properly to die. And whether that
Which men do call to die, may not in truth
Be but the entrance into real life?

This would seem to be among the aspects of religion the Europeans have outgrown? But shouldn't the "strict agnostic" acknowledge it as possibly true? Or do we have at least the right to say that it, like Martin Amis' universe-wide "intelligence," is hugely unlikely?

(Cited in Life of Pyrrho by Diogenes Laertius, trans. by, C. D. Younge)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:23 PM | Comments (3)

Waiting Out Religion

posted on 08.09.2006 at 11:41 PM

More from novelist Martin Amis (a nonbeliever who will no longer call himself an atheist), from a PBS interview with Bill Moyers:


MARTIN AMIS: I remember talking to Saul Bellow about this in his last years. And he did believe in a God equivalent of some kind. And he did say that I just can't stop thinking that I will see my brothers and my sister and my parents when I die. And he wrote in his last novel RAVELSTEIN, he said, "We all believe that. We just talk tough." And I was talking about this with my mother, who's 75. And I said, "I don't believe that, do you?" And she said, "No, I don't believe that."

I think in Europe, we have outgrown it. We've waited it out, and it's gone.

Cool. But "if ignorance of the universe is so vast that it would be premature" to reject the possibility of a universe-wide "intelligence" -- as Amis states -- why is it okay to reject an afterlife? How, in other words, do agnostics manage to decide what they've "outgrown" and what raises "too many questions"?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:41 PM | Comments (6)

Death -- Part II

posted on 07.27.2006 at 1:01 AM

Sometimes the flirtation of religion with death becomes truly eerie, frightening. Undoubtedly, you've seen this quote, but, in the current circumstance, it is probably worth revisiting. Nasrallah.jpg

This is man-of-the-moment Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah:

"We have discovered how to hit the Jews where they are the most vulnerable. The Jews love life, so that is what we shall take away from them. We are going to win because they love life and we love death."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:01 AM | Comments (5)

Death -- Part I

posted on 07.26.2006 at 2:49 PM

Seventh_Seal.jpgAllen_death.jpgEven those of us who don't get much of a kick out of heaven and hell, have to admit that some have had good fun with Death. There's Ingmar Bergman, of course; not to mention Woody Allen's takeoff on Bergman.

However, it is difficult to imagine anyone who had as entertaining a time with Death as Sisyphus. When Death came to get him -- a bit on the early side, as sometimes happens -- Sisyphus, instead, managed to get Death: chaining him up. This meant for a time, with Thanatos out of commission, that nobody could die -- a circumstance that put Ares, god of war, out of business. In order for armies to be able to resume killing each other (I know that the idea that armies once shot and bombed seems incomprehensible to us advanced 21st-century types), Ares had to go and free Death himself and make sure Sisyphus was sent safely on his way to Hades.

But Sisyphus, whom Homer describes as "the craftiest of all mankind," was still not ready to go "gentle into that good night." He instructed his wife not to bury him, and then moaned to functionaries in Hades that he was unburied. They allowed him to go back up to earth to rectify things. Camus, in his essay on the Sisyphus myth, gives a good account of what happened next: "When he had seen again the face of this world, enjoyed water and sun, warm stones and the sea, he no longer wanted to go back to the infernal darkness." Having once again tricked the gods out of death, Sisyphus lived "many years more" experiencing, in Camus' phrase, "the smiles of the earth."

Of course, in the end Death and the gods, as also happens, had the last laugh on old Sisyphus.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:49 PM | Comments (4)


posted on 07.07.2006 at 11:49 PM

I'm new to the wonders of Koheleth, the cynical wise man who speaks in Ecclesiastes, and his version of carpe diem:

There is nothing better for people than to eat and drink and enjoy their toil.

It gets tougher:

Enjoy life with the wife whom you love all the days of your meaningless life, that is, all the meaningless days he has given you under the sun, for it is your reward in life and for the toil that you do under the sun.
All that your hand finds to do, do with your power, for there is no action or thought or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going. (Translation by Tremper Longman III)

Ellen F. Davis reports that one Vietnam chaplain said this -- the term "meaningless" (hebel) appears in more than 30 passages -- "was the only part of the Bible that his soldiers were willing to hear."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:49 PM | Comments (2)

The Angel of Death

posted on 06.14.2006 at 2:58 PM

A blond woman in a white raincoat wanders through the Garrison Keillor/Robert Altman film "Prairie Home Companion" -- occasionally cozying up to someone...who subsequently expires. She contributes a few religious/philosophical platitudes as she makes her rounds.Angel_of_Death.jpg

The film -- which is warm and folksy but slight and a bit deficient in, of all things, irony -- contains, according to Catholic Online, some "mild irreligiosity." (The Church did not insist, however, that it be labeled "fiction.") Certainly, it does not seem another one of those There's-A-Meaning-Behind-It-All, which-if-we-weren't-so-cynical-we-could-see, films. Hence, the Angel of Death here is probably to be taken as a literary device, an allusion, a metaphor.

My question is whether religion-reduced-to-metaphor qualifies as belief's last gasp or as a harbinger of disbelief's triumph. Is it, in other (very different) words, the pathogen or the vaccine?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:58 PM | Comments (2)

Death and Religion

posted on 06.09.2006 at 11:57 PM

The prospect of evading death is supposed to be a great moral force: providing incentive -- the largest, longest possible of incentives -- for good behavior. Whether the logic here in any sense works is very much an open question, as is the issue of whether the carrot/stick of heaven/hell has in fact increased the world's supply of doing good. But this blurring of the line between life and death has surely had at least this cost: a cheapening of life and, on occasion, even a celebration of death.

Extreme figures make weak examples, but I can't help but note this reaction to the death of the great death merchant Musab al-Zarqawi:

"We herald the martyrdom of our mujahid Sheik Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and we stress that this is an honor for our nation," a statement signed by one of Mr. Zarqawi's deputies, Abu Abdul Rahman al-Iraqi, said.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:57 PM | Comments (4)

Come Off It!

posted on 01.30.2006 at 9:06 PM

Religious folks often suspect that, deep down, atheists -- particularly atheists as they face death -- really do have a feeling for God.

Do nonbelievers suspect that, deep down, religious folks have their doubts? That their faith in an afterlife, for example, is not quite strong enough to fend off fear of death?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:06 PM | Comments (3)

Religion and Happiness

posted on 12.22.2005 at 9:51 PM

"I have the very greatest fear that my life may hereafter be ruined by my having lost the support of religion" -- Bertrand Russell writing, in code, in a diary at the age of 15.

Religion provides meaning, purpose and consolation, not to mention some hope of evading death. Does this mean it provides happiness? Are the meaning, purpose, consolation and promise of an afterlife sufficently clear and convincing?

Russell, though he had a tumultuous emotional life, seemed no less happy than, say, your average pope. Do we find our pious friends to be cheerier than the skeptics?

I'm having trouble thinking this out. Faith. Trust. Truth. Wishful thinking. Where to begin? What to read?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:51 PM | Comments (14)