[Cross-posted from the Teapot Atheist
Atheism grips one's character most weakly when a loved one is dying- this is a critique well-taken, at least of the emotional appeal of atheism, though not at all of its truth. Right now, my mother's mother is probably on her last go-round, and this is inviting only for being contemplative.
She has lived with my parents for the better part of the last ten years because my mother's siblings haven't the means or the character to care for her, so I've seen her every time I go home. She's quite religious and politically conservative- at times judgmental and irritable, other times, delightful and funny. She's quite a bit like a human in many other ways, too. For one, her heart is imperfect, and its recent failure has left her in a way from which she probably will not recover.
I sometimes read various attempts to draw something good out of death- that its certainty gives life a meaning it would lack if it were imminent, that its proximity to today gives us drive, that its unpleasantness gives us cause to avert it in others and to so show compassion, that its infinitude gives us cosmic perspective, that its unpredictability gives us cause for enlightened detachment and the appreciation of every moment, so on, so on. All true- I concede it all. And yet death is terrible in its seizing from us our loved ones, in the trembling terror it excites in those who draw near to it unprepared.
is the finest commentary on death I know, though I thought it the worst until I heard its very last line. In short, its title character offers herself to Death as a sacrifice so that her husband can go on living; Death comes for her husband, Admetus, but agrees to give him a few more decades to go on with his wise, fair reign over his people if he can find a sacrifice, and only Alcestis will consent- his parents will not do it, though their years are short, his people won't do it, though they are all individually of less significance than him, his friends who love him loves their own lives more, and so forth. Only Alcestis will do it, but Admetus loves her so dearly that he enlists Hercules (his name transliterates, in I think the best reading of the Hera-
that is truncated to its first syllable, to "The Glory of the Seasons") to fight Death and so save Alcestis.
Whacky hijinks ensue, and of course, Hercules triumphs. In that sickly-saccarine kind of conclusion where all the friends and family are happily gathered reveling in their triumph comes the last line- in a good production it is a vicious hiss, Death leering across the stage- "Alcestis!"
Because Death always wins. Death knows that Hercules didn't defeat Death, he but delayed him- what are a few more seasons? Decades perhaps? They are a fart in the wind; the fullness of a long life is tugged back into the pool of atoms by the pure gravity of death.
So with us all. Alcestis
is fable; death (lower-case) is not. The real world is not a narrative-driven place: if death were purely instructive, purely informative, that would be suspicious; whenever you read a "news" story that too comfortably fits somebody's narrative, complete with a villain, a hero, and a moral, you know to be suspicious of misrepresentation or embellishment, and the same with facts about the world. If death were merely the things said of it in apology for atheism's bald-faced confrontation with mortality, then that itself would be suspicious.
Death is far worse than that. Death tears away our loved ones, it vacuums up memories, dreams, imaginations, plans, hopes, single fleshes and whole peoples together. Perhaps Ozymandias
is more accurate. My grandmother will be a corpse soon, and if the progression follows the norm, my parents will join her, then I will join her, then my children will join her, and yours, too. We will enjoy nothing of our lives at that point; we will enjoy nothing.
My life will end, as will all of my accomplishments. But for now I deal with death in its most embittering context, that of the helpless bystander to the dying. My grandmother believes she will awake in a glittering sky-palace, and she is wrong, but that comforts her and I am glad for it. Her comfort does not diminish my sadness, and I note that for all the consolations religion may offer to the dying, it seems to offer little to the bystanding, for the religious and the not mourn and feel loss just the same. That is because, whether death takes one to heaven or to the ground, the person is lost to us, gone forever. We have our memories of them, and we will distort them out of reverence, as I will do when I attend her funeral and say nothing of her casual racism, her puritanical thoughts on social politics, her fondness for televangelist frauds and game shows. I will speak of her as though she were perfect, because that is what is polite, and it is because that is what I will feel of her.
Death is not instructive, it is destructive; we do not learn from death, we learn about
it, and cultivate our excuses around it. Our excuses are good ones, don't get me wrong- if we were immortal, life would
be meaningless -but death still sucks, and I will miss my grandmother.
She is 93 years old. That is the immensity of age afforded only to the luckiest, healthiest of us. She probably will not be 94, certainly not 95, and laughably obviously not the thousands or millions of years most of us would like. I hope that she is comfortable. I hope that she finds reflection on her own life to be the greatest comfort of all. I hope that her mind is intact should I get to see her before she dies, though this is unlikely, and I cannot think of a better or more practical parting than we had on the phone today- we chatted a bit, she said she's feeling under the weather, she said good-bye when they brought her lunch and she was hungry. Practical, that.
My atheism will not comfort me in seasons to come when I think of how nice it would be to see her again, or of how annoying she was whenever the conversation turned deeper than how the other is. My atheism is not designed to comfort me; my atheism is not designed at all, it is a helpless reaction to reason. As I've said, I am more afflicted by atheism than anything else; no other descriptor fits it better. If I wanted to reject it when it ill-fit me, then I would not have a mind at all, because the mind is that which responds to facts and the facts guide me down a road that is sometimes sad and sometimes not, but it guides me nonetheless. It is like death in that way, in its power, its inevitability on me. The seasons to come will not have old Mildred in them, or young Mildred, but they will have me for a time, then they won't. I hope to populate these seasons with as much interest, happiness, and controversy as Mildred did. This is what keeps us afloat; this is the glory of the seasons.