No no, I’m not going all morbid on you. It’s just that there have been a few things floating around that have made me think a bit about death, dying, and faith (or, in my case, the lack thereof).
The other day, there was an interesting article at Scientific American’s website (via PZ) about the extent to which people believe that a person continues to experience things after death. The upshot of the research the article references is that even people who are “extinctivists,” who believe that once you’re dead anything that was really “you,” namely your mind, just ceases to be.
Why is that? One theory is that our brains are incapable of conceptualizing the experience of nothingness. Life is always something, even if it’s mundane, painful, or just nonspecifically awful, after all. In order to fill gaps the mind grasps at straws for an explanation. The idea of some sort of life beyond death, even if only spiritual/mental, thus has a great deal of appeal.
That brings in the question of religion and what role cultural mores play in shaping an irrational belief in some kind of existence after death. A fairly big one:
On the one hand, then, from a very early age, children realize that dead bodies are not coming back to life. On the other hand, also from a very early age, kids endow the dead with ongoing psychological functions. So where do culture and religious teaching come into the mix, if at all?Which, of course, doesn’t mean it’s true, even if we want it to be. In my opinion, it is the maddening uncertainty of what happens after death that drives most people to seek religious guidance, whether it be in the form of heaven/hell or reincarnation. The not knowing is too much to live (or die) with.
In fact, exposure to the concept of an afterlife plays a crucial role in enriching and elaborating this natural cognitive stance; it’s sort of like an architectural scaffolding process, whereby culture develops and decorates the innate psychological building blocks of religious belief. The end product can be as ornate or austere as you like, from the headache-inducing reincarnation beliefs of Theravada Buddhists to the man on the street’s ‘I believe there’s something’ brand of philosophy—but it’s made of the same brick and mortar just the same.
With that uncertainty, is it natural to fear death? Or just the opposite – if death really is nothing, and we have no means of perceiving what “nothing” is, what is there to fear? That’s the question that Julian Barnes wrestles with in his new book, Nothing to be Frightened Of, which was reviewed in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago (by Garrison Keillor, of all people). It’s not quite clear from the review if Barnes came to a satisfactory answer, although the title gives a hint. But if the review is accurate, the fears he deals with seem not so much of death itself as dying.
Not only does it seem perfectly natural to fear dying, in modern Western society it’s positively rational. We have long since, in this country and elsewhere, given up the idea of what some call a “good death.” Medical procedures and pharmaceutical advancements keep us alive long past our ability to actually live, in far too many instances. Yet the “culture of life” is so ingrained into our law and custom that it’s unthinkable in most places to even consider providing an out for people who seek a good death.
There are areas of contrast – Oregon and The Netherlands, for example, when it comes to assisted suicide. The Supreme Court has held that Americans have a right to refuse certain end of life treatments, but few know the real extent of that right. To that end, the California legislature recently passed (and Schwarzenegger plans to sign) a bill requiring doctors to inform patients of those rights so they can make an informed choice. Of course, I see clients every day informed of their right to remain silent who nonetheless puke all over themselves, so who knows how effective that will be?
In addition to fear of the dying process, it also seems perfectly rational to fear being dead – not for fear of what experience death will bring (eternal hellfire or what have you), but for fear of an end to the experiences of living. Maybe it’s my privileged place in the world, but I generally find existence to be a pretty good thing. The thought that one day I might not be able to experience one of those weird family moments where an intense political argument is punctured by a joke that fills the house with laughter, or hear a glorious piece of music for the first (or one thousandth) time, or feel the zing up my spine when the girlfriend unexpectedly slips her hand inside mine scares the shit out of me. Of course, I’m somewhat comforted by the fact that I’ll never know I’m missing those things because, well, I’ll be dead.
So, as an atheist, materialist, and humanist who believes that this world and this life is all that we have, I can honestly say I’m not afraid of death. I’m just not looking forward to getting there any time soon.
With that being said, I’m off to find out what the ancient Japanese version of hell is like!