Never Quote Discworld to an Atheist

The other day, I found this article from a Google alert: an essay on the religious website First Things by the author and Catholic apologist Elizabeth Scalia (who also blogs as The Anchoress).

The post was about Terry Pratchett, the celebrated fantasy author and secular humanist. Since his personal beliefs come through clearly in his writing, I was surprised to find out that Scalia's a fan of his Discworld series. She quotes with approval the following passage from one of the Discworld books, Carpe Jugulum, which features a dialogue between the Discworld's greatest witch, Granny Weatherwax, and the Omnian priest Mightily Oats:

"There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment about the nature of sin, for example," said Oats.

"And what do they think? Against it, are they?" said Granny Weatherwax.

"It's not as simple as that. It's not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray."



"There's no grays, only white that's got grubby. I'm surprised you don't know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That's what sin is."

"It's a lot more complicated than that—"

"No. It ain't. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they're getting worried that they won't like the truth. People as things, that's where it starts."

"Oh, I'm sure there are worse crimes—"

"But they starts with thinking about people as things..."

It's interesting that Scalia didn't mention that Omnianism is a satire of Christianity. But in any case, she approves of this passage because, as she reminds us, Pratchett is suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's and has announced his intention to end his life on his own terms, when the time is right, rather than wait for the disease to rob him of himself. She thinks that Pratchett's own characters would counsel him against that course of action:

I wonder if Granny Weatherwax would agree with Pratchett, or if she would tell him he was making a thing of himself — placing his life within the context of a simple stop-start mechanism without regarding the inborn transcendence that, regardless of origin, is demonstrated so ripely in his own inventiveness. She might wonder what that ripeness might yet become — for others, if not himself — if allowed to remain on the vine rather then be plucked early. Perhaps she would warn Pratchett that he risks thing-nifying the people surrounding him and loving him, by turning them into mere markers and bystanders.

This sounds like a challenge, and I accept it. I've been a fan of Discworld for a long time, and I'll be damned if a Catholic apologist is going to tell me that Terry Pratchett's wonderful cast of characters is on her side. And as it happens, I remembered another passage from the very same book, one which bears far more directly on the topic, which Scalia's post didn't mention. Here it is:

Granny Weatherwax was airborne again, glad of the clean, crisp air. She was well above the trees and, to the benefit of all concerned, no one could see her face.

....There was a story under every roof, she knew. She knew all about stories. But those down there were the stories that were never to be told, the little secret stories, enacted in little rooms...

They were about those times when medicines didn't help and headology was at a loss because a mind was a rage of pain in a body that had become its own enemy, when people were simply in a prison made of flesh, and at times like this she could let them go. There was no need for desperate stuff with a pillow, or deliberate mistakes with the medicine. You didn't push them out of the world, you just stopped the world pulling them back. You just reached in, and... showed them the way.

There was never anything said. Sometimes you saw in the face of the relatives the request they'd never, ever put words around, or maybe they'd say "is there something you can do for him?" and this was, perhaps, the code. If you dared ask, they'd be shocked that you might have thought they meant anything other than, perhaps, a comfier pillow.

....She'd been a witch here all her life. And one of the things a witch did was stand right on the edge, where the decisions had to be made. You made them so that others didn't have to, so that others could even pretend to themselves that there were no decisions to be made, no little secrets, that things just happened. You never said what you knew. And you didn't ask for anything in return.

When I pointed this out in a comment, Scalia responded with the following. I invite you to judge how plausible an interpretation of the above passage it is:

I think I interpret that very differently, along the lines of both the death of JPII and my own brother's passing..."reaching in and showing them the way" through love and presence to the end.

I strongly suspect that Granny Weatherwax, far from siding with Elizabeth Scalia, would regard her as one of the people who "pretend to themselves that there were no decisions to be made". As many times as I read it, I can't understand her argument that ending your life on your own terms is degrading to the people around you by treating them as "mere markers". (Why doesn't this same argument apply to offering yourself as a substitutive sacrifice? Why doesn't it apply to the willing martyrs whom the Catholic church exalts? If anything, aren't they the ones who treat others as markers of their deaths?)

Insofar as this definition of sin is a useful moral standard, the Catholics are the ones who are guilty of transgressing it. If treating people as people means anything at all, it means recognizing their right to self-determination, allowing them to make their own choices even when we disagree. Yet it's the Catholics who think they have the right to control others' decisions; it's the Catholics who regard a person's happiness or suffering, their independence and autonomy, as unimportant, and it's the Catholics who advocate keeping a person alive, even against their own expressed wishes, to suffer the disintegration of self and the ravages of terminal illness. Terry Pratchett saw these people for what they are long ago, so I'll let him have the final word, by way of one more apt quote from Granny Weatherwax:

The smug mask of virtue triumphant could be almost as horrible as the face of wickedness revealed.

September 9, 2011, 5:36 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink34 comments

How to Create (Not Find) the Meaning of Your Life

Guest post by Samantha Eliza Benten

A friend recently paraphrased a statement from The Nature of Existence (the documentary, I believe, though I haven't seen it) as follows: "People should spend more time thinking about the meaning of their own lives, than the meaning of life in general." This strikes a chord with a notion I've held since at least my senior year of high school. (That was when I came up with the BLT theory of the purpose of life, which is to say that a purpose is a goal that's chosen and striven toward and that most people strive toward some combination of beauty, love, and truth. ... More on that in another post, perhaps.) I'm very happy that the statement got me musing, and I'd love to get feedback on my initial reaction.

I suspect that people often prefer contemplating "big picture, god-given meaning" because 1) it doesn't require them to critically examine their lives or change their behavior, 2) if their lives feel unimportant, it helps them to think of themselves as being part of an important "big picture," and 3) the natural state of the world being coincidence, it's pretty easy to come up with incidental "meaning" in any given event.

Regardless, this is actually a huge pet peeve of mine: people claiming that everything in life "means something." There isn't inherent "meaning" in anything. Meaning itself is a function of perception and reaction. If you pay attention to something, and especially if what you learn by paying attention to it causes you to change an opinion or a behavior, then that observation is meaningful to you. The very "meaningfulness" of a person's life can actually be increased if they are willing to scrutinize the causes and effects of their own feelings and behavior — and if they're willing to use that knowledge to guide their future thoughts and actions, that creates not only a more meaningful life, but a life of more focused and purposeful meaning. And then, if you manage to affect the thoughts and actions of others through your conscious behavior, that's yet another layer of meaning. But without at least an effort toward self-awareness, life isn't "meaningful" at all — it's just a series of actions and reactions. So the only way to create a truly meaningful life, imho, is to live the most self-aware life possible.

Now, am I saying that people who "just live their lives" without thinking about the causes and effects of their actions have a "meaningless" existence? No — at least, not if we're treating the word "meaningless" as a synonym for "worthless," which is how I think a statement like that could easily be misinterpreted. I do not in any way mean that people have to be philosophers in order for their lives to be worth existing. (Though I do side with Socrates on that issue myself, I get that it's not the most important thing to the vast majority of people.) I'm simply pointing out that without conscious interpretation, there isn't any such thing as "meaning." Meaning itself IS interpretation and reaction. How can something have "meaning" if no one is aware of it AND no one is affected by it?

It bothers me how many people treat the phrase "everything has a meaning" as something passive, as a given. Frequently, they treat it as a god-given. They figure every moment of existence, no matter how trivial or how horrible, must be part of the "bigger plan" that God has for everything. To some extent, I understand the desire to be part of a bigger picture — to feel like your day-to-day existence is key to the unfolding of human history. And yes, I can understand why some people wish to "find meaning" in tragic events. If that consoles them about the loss of their loved ones, I would never try to take that away from them. But for me, the idea that the death of a loved one is "justified" by its role in the "big picture" is to see God (if he/she/it exists) as a chess master — willing to sacrifice the happiness and safety of billions upon billions of people in human history in order to ... what? Give the final generation of humanity a utopia? I'm not one who believes in the "end times," so what in the world would a deity be "working toward"? And if he is building toward something, why are we so much less important than those who'd come after us? Or, why are we supposedly more important than so many who suffered and died, for example, in the Black Plague? If I genuinely thought that human tragedy was compelled in order to flesh out some grand scheme, I wouldn't be consoled — I'd be furious. But hey, that's just me, and obviously there are uncountable numbers of people who'd disagree. So, what do I know?

Still, I feel like it would be more liberating if people focused not on "finding meaning" in tragedy, but on "creating meaning" out of tragedy. Instead of looking for signs of the person who's passed on or simply assuming they were a pawn whose sacrifice was necessary (again, not something I see as consoling, though they obviously don't interpret their view in these terms anyway), what about making a beloved's death meaningful by talking to those who knew them, honoring them by changing our lives in ways inspired by them, or even doing good deeds in their honor? What about bringing their memory and their feelings into our own lives and the lives of others in any way we can? Isn't doing something to honor someone who's died a fitting way to keep them in our hearts? Isn't that "meaning" enough?

September 6, 2011, 5:37 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink24 comments

Weekly Link Roundup

Some scattered thoughts to contemplate on a Saturday morning:

• Earlier this year, my post on urban agriculture drew some spirited disagreement. Now there's a study from Ohio State University which concludes that Cleveland could supply all its own produce, poultry and honey if the many vacant lots in the shrinking, post-industrial city were converted into gardens.

• A Missouri high school, in response to a complaint from a homeschooling parent who doesn't even have kids in the school, has banned Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and Sarah Ockler's Twenty Boy Summer from its library. In response, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis is offering to send free copies of the book to any student in the school who wants one. They're asking for donations to cover their shipping costs, so please consider chipping in a few dollars if you can afford it.

Cosmos is being remade by Fox, with a production team including Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy (!). The fact that the creative team includes Ann Druyan, and the proposed host is Neil deGrasse Tyson (who knew Carl Sagan personally), gives me hope that the result will be good.

• Did you know that California permits its prison inmates to have vegetarian meals only for religious reasons, and not out of secular moral convictions? Another example of the unjust privilege that's often accorded to religion as more real or more sincere than other kinds of beliefs.

• New York's Woodlawn Cemetery is selling multimillion-dollar mausoleums for the deceased wealthy. I've tried without success to imagine the mindset that would lead someone to spend millions of dollars on a lavish container for their own corpse, rather than giving it away to living people who have genuine needs.

• Cult leader Warren Jeffs has been re-convicted of child sexual assault, this time in Texas, after an earlier conviction in Utah was overturned on a legal technicality. He probably didn't help his case by threatening the court with plagues for daring to put him on trial.

August 6, 2011, 11:28 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink12 comments

An Atheist's Confession

By Sarah Jane Braasch-Joy

In loving memory of my baby brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 – 02/02/10)

My beloved baby brother, Jacob, hung himself last year in my parents' basement. I wouldn't wish my pain on my worst enemy. It's been a year and a half, and, sometimes, I still can't get out of bed or stop crying. I'll be in public, and I'll inexplicably, to anyone else, burst into sobbing, jagged tears. I blame a lot of people for his death, especially my parents. But, mostly, I blame myself. I walked away from my life to save my life, when I was still a child myself, but, in doing so, I walked away from Jacob. I had promised to take care of him, to love him, to keep him safe and well, and I broke that promise. Now, I am broken. I will never forgive myself.

I would make a Faustian bargain, I would sell my soul to the devil, I would torture myself, to get five more minutes with him, to be able to tell him one last time how much I love him, to tell him how sorry I am. I would gouge out an eye. I would hack off a limb. I would sacrifice my life.

I would try to contact his spirit. And, I did try. When I was in Paris still, in the months following Jacob's suicide, I spent my days curled up in a fetal position on the floor of my apartment, screaming, and intermittently vomiting. At first, I couldn't even get up off the floor to go to the bathroom to vomit. I would just vomit on the floor and lie in it. It was the one time I was grateful for the indifference of my Parisian neighbors. I thought I would die of grief. I wanted to die, but I was stopped from killing myself when I thought of the pain I would be inflicting upon my remaining two siblings.

I begged Jacob's ghost or spirit or essence or alternate version living in a parallel universe to visit me, to communicate with me, to contact me in some way. I promised not to be scared. As I was raised as a Jehovah's Witness, which is a demon and occult-obsessed cult of demonology, not being scared of demons or evil spirits is not something that comes easily to me, even decades after leaving the religious community. They believe that demons are real. They believe that demons can hurt you physically, sexually, and psychologically. They believe that demonic attack is an ever-present threat. They don't believe in hell, so they have to bring hell to earth. I was already in hell, and I would have let a demon rape me, if it meant being able to see my baby brother again.

I tried everything. I bought all the books. I lit the candles. I did the research. I burned his ashes. I prayed to his picture. I cast a sacred circle with salt after I swept it clean with a broom. I built an altar to the four directions/elements. I cast the spells. I recorded my ceremonies and played back the video/audio, searching desperately for a message from the beyond.

I sat in my fucking sacred circle of salt, before my altar, and I screamed for Jacob to haunt me, even if he wanted to hurt me, even if he was mad at me, even if he hated me. I cut myself.

But, he didn't come.

I am slowly creating a new life for myself. Each day is a struggle. I can't tell you how maddening it is to want justice for your loved ones and for yourself when there is none to be had. You go crazy, you kill yourself, or you continue on. I sometimes envy my other beloved baby brother, Aaron. He's a heavily medicated paranoid schizophrenic. I sometimes just want to let go and lose my fucking mind too.

I've decided to devote the rest of my life to trying to fix all of those things, which hurt me and mine so much. In Jacob's honor and in Jacob's name. I am going to leave a glorious legacy for the both of us. I am going to live for the both of us.

Jacob is my savior. Jacob's death gave me back my relationship with my baby bro, Aaron. Jacob's suicide released me from my fear. It enraged me, and I am using that rage as motivation.

And, in a funny way, Jacob helps me to be less afraid of the dark and less afraid of demons.

Because, if there is a spirit world, then I know that Jacob is in it. And, I know that he would never let anyone or anything hurt me.

I know he would kick a demon's disembodied ass before he'd let him touch me.

I will always love you, Jacob.

And, you can come visit me anytime you want.

July 26, 2011, 4:55 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink16 comments

Grieving Without Religion

Recently, a long-time reader (thanks, Stacey!) sent me an e-mail with a link to this wrenching story, about a married couple chronicling the grief and anger they've been feeling since their daughter was stillborn in late 2009. By their own account, this tragedy happened in part because they put their trust in irrational thinking and home-birth woo [see below —Ebonmuse], rather than medicine, and didn't go to the hospital until well after it became obvious that they should have. The father, Gabe, has written with searing eloquence about how the death of his infant daughter and the near-death of his wife has reawakened his skepticism:

So I ask myself, why did I keep on trusting birth? Why did I believe in a supernatural aegis of protection? Did I think my family was more special than her parents? Really, I never thought about it, except to be afraid of not knowing what might happen or not being able to control it, and so responding to my fear I would prostrate myself further to this way of thinking. It would decrease my self-examination and in so doing give myself a reassuring rush of comfort, like a hit of opium.

...Now I have this space where faith used to be, not at all convinced that it was ever a virtue. I detest the supernatural explanations for things that used to satisfy me, and I miss the feelings that they used to give me. I sit in the audience at my family's church, which I saw as pleasant and innocuous but not a path to truth before Aquila died, now finding myself powerfully put off by messages everyone else takes as endearing.

If the atheist movement wants to thrive, we need to create a secular community that appeals to people in all walks of life, and to do that, it's essential that we offer help help and support to everyone, whatever their needs. That's why I was glad to get an e-mail from Greta Christina about Grief Beyond Belief, a newly formed nontheistic grief support group that's undoubtedly much needed. (See her post about the launch.)

The Grief Beyond Belief page offers an online support network for people grieving the death of a child, parent, partner, or other loved one -- without belief in a higher power or an afterlife. Atheists, agnostics, humanists and anyone else living without religious beliefs are invited to join and participate on the page. Bereaved people in the process of questioning or letting go of previously held religious beliefs are also welcome to be part of the community and seek support.

In many ways, Grief Beyond Belief resembles other online grief support networks and forums. However, religious grief support -- including prayer, faith in god, and belief in an afterlife -- is not welcome in posts or comments. In this way Grief Beyond Belief offers a safe space for atheists and other non-religious people to share and process the death of a loved one. Recognizing that the death of a loved one sometimes leads to reevaluation of religious beliefs, every effort will be made to make the page accessible to people who are still struggling with these issues. However, the page is not intended as a venue for debate, but as a space for shared compassion and support. While religious believers may participate on the page, they are required to follow these guidelines.

Once a participant has "liked" Grief Beyond Belief, she or he will periodically receive a thought, question, quote or link in her or his News Feed addressing various aspects of grief, often focusing on grieving a death without faith. Participants are also invited to post memories, photos, thoughts, feelings or questions they would like to share, on which other members can comment. In addition, the page serves as a central location on the web where members can link to writing about grief and loss that is coming from an non-religious perspective. Bloggers are strongly encouraged to post links to blog entries on this topic on the Grief Beyond Belief wall.

Grief Beyond Belief's founder, Rebecca Hensler, discovered the need for such a group when seeking support for her own grief after the death of her three-month-old son. "I quickly found a network of parents who were also grieving the deaths of their children at The Compassionate Friends (a 42-year-old parental grief support group). But I often felt alienated by assurances from other members that my son was in heaven or by offers to pray for me, comforts that were kindly meant but that I do not believe and cannot accept. It wasn't until an atheist member reached out to me in friendship that I understood what I had been missing." Hensler soon discovered that she was not the only non-believer who felt a need for safe space to grieve without faith or belief in an afterlife. "I have been particularly moved by the experiences of non-believers who are attempting to heal from loss while surrounded by religious people pressuring them to join or rejoin their religions; at its worst that kind of so-called 'help' can verge on abuse."

The need for faith-free space to share grief and healing has been addressed frequently on atheist blogs, such as Friendly Atheist. (Hemant Mehta. "Are There Resources for Atheist Widows?" *Friendly Atheist*, June 2, 2011.) While a Facebook page may only meet a small portion of that need, Grief Beyond Belief serves to open the door to grieving non-believers seeking community and compassion.

June 24, 2011, 5:45 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink17 comments

The Value of Autonomy

I've been following this debate between Ross Douthat and Kevin Drum about the morality of assisted suicide. In his latest post, Douthat made a telling, though apparently unintentional, statement:

The slippery slope that I discussed in the column doesn't amount to much if you don't disapprove at all of people deciding to take their own lives. Absent that disapproval (and an accompanying, even-stronger disapproval of the people who assist them), you won't be bothered by... people taking lethal prescriptions in Oregon because they're worried about "losing autonomy" or "being a burden" (both of which are more frequently cited reasons for choosing assisted suicide under Oregon's law than are concerns about physical pain)...

Douthat takes it entirely for granted that the fear of losing autonomy is an insufficient justification for desiring to commit suicide. But why should we believe this?

Not all suffering is purely physical. For a person who's severely disabled, such as with a disease like ALS, to the point of requiring 24-hour nursing care - the point of being unable to speak, to get dressed, to eat, to use the bathroom, even to sit up or roll over in bed without assistance - I would fully understand if that person decided their life had become intolerable and requested help to end it. In fact, it doesn't surprise me at all that people who commit assisted suicide cite loss of autonomy more than pain. Pain can be controlled with drugs, but loss of independence and dignity can't be controlled; and for many people, those things might well be worse than pain.

It's also true that some people who seek assisted suicide aren't "terminally" ill, in the sense that they can be kept alive indefinitely with life-support technology. But there's no reason why the only allowable justification for suicide should be a disease that's inevitably lethal. If the disease itself doesn't kill, but so alters the sufferer's life as to completely preclude future happiness, why shouldn't people be permitted to decide for themselves that they no longer wish to endure it?

Take the case of Edward and Joan Downes, which I wrote about in 2009. Joan Downes had terminal pancreatic cancer; her husband Edward was going blind and deaf, but unlike her, wasn't at imminent risk of death. Nevertheless, he decided that he didn't want to go on living without the woman who had been his love, his caretaker and his constant companion of over fifty years, and the two of them elected to commit suicide together so that they could die in each other's arms. (My eyes still sting a bit when I type that.) That was a poignantly beautiful, even heroic, death, and I hope, when my time comes, that I have one anywhere near as good. If this is the kind of conclusion that Douthat would prefer to see outlawed - if he would take away people's right to write an end to their own stories like the one Edward and Joan Downes did - then his view is cruel and senseless sadism.

Or take Terry Pratchett, who's been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's itself doesn't kill, but the end stages aren't pretty: mood swings, delusions, incontinence and paranoia, ultimately progressing to the complete loss of memory and even the capability for speech. Pratchett has announced his intention to end his life on his own terms, if necessary, when the time is right rather than suffer all this. But in Douthat's criteria, this would be outlawed, and people with Alzheimer's would be required to live as long as possible, regardless of the emotional pain and humiliation caused by loss of identity, regardless of the suffering inflicted on their family by watching a loved one's mind slowly disintegrate. (This, I presume, falls under the heading of "not wanting to be a burden" which, again, Douthat scoffingly dismisses as an illegitimate reason to commit suicide.)

To decide these cases and others, the only real question that needs to be asked is this: Who owns our lives? The humanist view is that we are the owners of our own lives, and we are entitled to end them when we choose. If a person is suffering from mental illness that deranges their reason and gives them an irrational desire to die, we should prevent that, just as we'd (hopefully) prevent a person in the throes of mental illness from taking any other rash and irreversible action. But if a person of sound mind genuinely desires to exit life, we have no moral grounds to stop them, nor to criminalize the actions of those who compassionately help them on the way.

For Douthat and those like him, however, their moral system is built on the basis that a being called God exists, that they know what this being wants, and that they're authorized to act on his behalf. In the name of these beliefs, they would force people to remain alive, force them to endure all the agonies of incurable illness, force them to endure all the humiliations of a disintegrating self, for no gain and no purpose. You couldn't ask for a better proof that religious morality is fundamentally anti-human in its outlook and its spirit.

June 9, 2011, 5:39 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink40 comments

On Religious Right Grave-Robbers

I realize this is the season for Christmas trees, candy canes and presents, not for jack-o'-lanterns, black cats and witches, but I can't help pointing out that a rotting ghoul has crawled out of its grave and is sitting around leering at us. Unfortunately this isn't the kind of creature that goes away if you politely ignore it, so a little house-cleaning is, I think, in order.

You may have heard that Elizabeth Edwards died recently after deciding to forego further treatment for metastatic breast cancer. By all accounts, she came to terms with her illness and departed life peacefully, surrounded by family and friends. She's not the ghoul I was referring to, of course. No, that dubious honor belongs to a right-wing blogger who took issue with Edwards' final statement on Facebook just a day before her passing:

You all know that I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces – my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope. These graces have carried me through difficult times and they have brought more joy to the good times than I ever could have imagined. The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. We know that. And, yes, there are certainly times when we aren't able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It's called being human.

But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious. And for that I am grateful. It isn't possible to put into words the love and gratitude I feel to everyone who has and continues to support and inspire me every day. To you I simply say: you know.

Who could take issue with that simple, beautiful statement? Well, apparently, this guy could. His objection? Well, it's obvious, isn't it - Elizabeth Edwards didn't spend her last days crying out to an imaginary god to save her life!

Clearly Elizabeth Edwards wants to put her faith in something, be it hope or strength or anything. But not God. I wonder if it's just bitterness... Still, at her death bed and giving what most folks are calling a final goodbye, Elizabeth Edwards couldn't find it somewhere down deep to ask for His blessings as she prepares for the hereafter? I guess that nihilism I've been discussing reaches up higher into the hard-left precincts than I thought.

Elizabeth Edwards herself, though she claimed membership in the Methodist church, was more of a deist - as in this 2007 interview where she explained that she did believe in a god, just not one who answers prayers. But this wasn't enough for this shambling, decaying right-wing zombie, who demands that everyone groan their assent to the same dead creed he himself subscribes to. His tactic of preying at others' funerals reminds me of nothing so much as his fellow bloodsucking undead, Fred Phelps - who, for the record, also attempted to protest Edwards' death, although he attracted only a handful of the like-minded and they never got closer than a few blocks away.

Hearing right-wing ghouls sneer about how we freethinkers will come to Jesus at the end of our lives is nothing new. But what is new is that they're now getting upset at people who refuse to conform to their stereotypes, going so far as to petulantly lash out at the dead and dying. Christopher Hitchens, for another example, despite having advanced and likely incurable cancer, is behaving with equanimity and is even continuing to publicly debate religious apologists - something that must enrage them no end, as they were probably rubbing their hands with anticipation for a last-minute conversion. And in our media-oversaturated era, fabricating a deathbed conversion story is no longer as easy as it once was.

Like the ghouls and revenants of myth, these people feed on suffering and death for their own sustenance. To see atheists and other nonbelievers dying peacefully and without fear denies them the food they've grown accustomed to, so it's no wonder they're upset. Worse, from their perspective, is the thought that this trend of courage might catch on! One day, perhaps sometime in the not-so-distant future, we might have a whole society of humanists who face death without the need for religious consolation - and what would these circling carrion-eaters do then?

December 15, 2010, 6:45 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink48 comments

How Much Comfort Does Religion Really Provide?

In past posts, I've argued that we shouldn't specifically target the beliefs of people in dire straits who rely on their religion for comfort. But there's an underlying assumption that at the very least deserves examination: Does religion actually comfort people in desperate circumstances? Does it make them feel better than they otherwise would?

This seems like it should be obvious, but things that are obvious aren't always true. Take this study reported on Science Daily, which examined the link between superstition and uncertainty about the future. The researchers found that superstitious beliefs give people a reassuring sense of control over outcomes that they otherwise thought of as beyond their power, and that superstition was more common in people who didn't believe they were in control of how their lives were going. No surprises there, of course. The surprising finding is that, after they were asked to contemplate their own death, people's levels of superstition went down.

Possibly, the explanation for this is that people use superstition as a coping strategy because they believe it will help them avoid undesirable outcomes. But since we know that death is unavoidable, superstition's value as a coping strategy is decreased. Although the study didn't directly address religious beliefs, the implications are obvious.

On a similar note, there's this study from 2009, on the correlation between religious beliefs and end-of-life care. Since we're always told that theists have faith in salvation and an afterlife, while atheists have no other existence to look forward to after death, you might expect that the atheists were the ones who'd demand the most aggressive, expensive medical care to extend their lives for as long as humanly possible. But in fact, the results were the opposite:

Terminally ill cancer patients who relied on their religious faith to help them cope with their disease were more likely to receive aggressive medical care during their last week of life, a study shows.

Patients who engaged in what the researchers called positive religious coping, which included prayer, meditation, and religious study, ended up having more intensive life-prolonging interventions such as mechanical ventilation or cardiopulmonary resuscitation....

The patients who reported a high level of positive religious coping at the start of the study were almost three times as likely to receive mechanical ventilation and other life-prolonging medical care in the last week of life as patients who said they relied less on their religious beliefs to help them deal with their illness.

A high level of religious coping was also associated with less use of end-of-life planning strategies, including do-not-resuscitate orders, living wills, and appointment of a health care power of attorney.

The reporters wrote, in a masterpiece of understatement:

It is not entirely clear why terminally ill patients who report relying more on their religion would choose more life-prolonging medical interventions.

Now, the obvious explanation is that this is because of religious opposition to euthanasia - that believers feel obligated not just to refuse any measure that might shorten their life, but to accept all treatment so as not to even give the impression that they want to hasten their own death. But even going by this reasoning, one might expect that the rates of aggressive end-of-life care among believers and nonbelievers would be at best equal - not that they'd be higher among believers, and much higher at that. Shouldn't there be some subset of believers who don't choose the aggressive option, who are content to "leave it up to God" whether they live or die? Why doesn't that effect show up in the data?

I'd like to propose an unorthodox explanation: Is it possible that religious believers, or even just a subset thereof, aren't as absolutely confident in their beliefs as they so often claim they are? Is it possible that faith unsupported by evidence isn't as helpful or as reassuring as its advocates claim - even, dare I say it, that some of these people doubt the very things they profess to believe? And if that's true, might it also be true that these believers aren't as immune to rational argument as we often think?

October 5, 2010, 5:50 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink46 comments

The Language of God: Ultimate Meaning

The Language of God, Chapter 2

By B.J. Marshall

In this section, Collins poses the questions of whether the near-ubiquity of the search for the existence of a supernatural being represents "a universal but groundless human longing for something outside ourselves to give meaning to a meaningless life and to take away the sting of death" (p.35). The search for meaning in one's life is an important question, but I don't think the search for the divine stops there. We have a curious approach to the world, and we like to understand why things happen. When we don't understand why things happen, we have throughout history tended (sadly, some still do) to invoke gods. Don't know why the sun goes around in the sky? Oh, that's Apollo's chariot. Not sure why there's thunder and lightning? It's due to Ah Peku, Inazuma, Karai-Shin, Lei Kung, Ninurta, Orko, Pajonn, Tien Mu, Thor, Zeus, or several others. Let's get more modern: Not sure where the universe came from, or why it seems so finely-tuned? Yahweh did it.

Back to Collins' point here: God gives meaning to a meaningless life and takes away the sting of death. I will grant that humanity has no ultimate purpose in the universe; in another five billion years, our sun will die and our planet with it. (I use "humanity" loosely here knowing that, since it took about three billion years to go from single-celled organisms to humans, our descendants five billion years hence will most likely look nothing like us.) Furthermore, some physicists theorize the universe itself will die a sort of heat-death; it's not a rosy picture for ultimate purpose. But just because there is no ultimate purpose does not mean life is without meaning. Many atheists find meaning in life. For me, I find meaning in: raising my son, sharing my life with my wife, enjoying time spent with friends, caring for my neighborhood, a chance to play golf, a good scotch. And that list is certainly not exclusive.

I find Collins' statement about removing the sting of death to be puzzling, especially given that it seems religious people are still rather afraid of dying. There are plenty of web sites addressing the Christian fear of death, so it leads me to think that there really isn't much sting taken out by a belief in God. If anything, there is an added fear of going to Hell, even if one thinks one's done the right things to avoid Hell. I think the frank and honest acknowledgement that there is no god, no heaven, and no hell, and that nothing other than death happens when you die is rather liberating. Furthermore, in addition to taking the sting out of death (or at least reducing that sting), this acknowledgement has the added bonus of provoking me to do the best I can in this life, rather than treating this life as a proving grounds for some afterlife.

Other posts in this series:

August 31, 2010, 5:54 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink13 comments

Some Sad News

I'm saddened to report the passing of David Randolph. He was 95 years old.

Mr. Randolph was a renowned conductor and choral director, a fixture in the New York music scene for decades. He was known for hosting a weekly classical music program on WNYC, for teaching music at several local universities, and for a critically praised book, This Is Music. However, he's best known as the conductor of the secular St. Cecilia Chorus, which he had led since 1965 (!). He was also an outspoken freethinker and atheist who, ironically, also held the record for the most lifetime performances of Handel's Messiah.

I first heard of David Randolph when I heard Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor interview him on Freethought Radio in 2007. Despite his advanced age (he was 92 at the time), he had a deep, resonant voice that still seemed full of life and vigor. The interview intrigued me, and I made it a point soon after to get tickets to one of his performances at Carnegie Hall, and I'm very happy I did. I went back several times and saw him conduct one of his famous Messiahs, as well as Verdi's Requiem, which I wrote about in 2008.

I had the privilege of meeting him in person in 2009, at a luncheon held by the FFRF in New York City in his honor. (That's also where I met my esteemed co-author Sarah Braasch, so you can thank David Randolph for her posting here!) When I saw him up close, I was a bit surprised. I hadn't been expecting a small, stooped old man, with owlish eyes and wispy tufts of gray hair - but that deep and powerful conductor's voice was the same as ever. I offered to shake hands with him, but he politely explained that at his age, he was too concerned about catching colds. He bumped elbows with me instead. He ultimately passed away from complications from pneumonia, so that was probably a wise policy.

Mr. Randolph died peacefully at his home in Manhattan in May, just before my wedding, although I didn't hear about it until I read it in this month's Freethought Today. The New York Times also has an obituary, and the New York Public Library has posted the last-ever interview with him, taped in March.

While I mourn David Randolph's passing, I can't be too saddened for too long. I can only hope to have a life so long and rich as his, and to spend it doing what I love until just before my death, as he did. A life so well-lived deserves to be celebrated, not excessively grieved. I'll miss him, but I'm happy that we had him!

July 10, 2010, 12:06 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink3 comments

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