A Protestant reader writes:
To my eye, death is the most proximal intrusion on our lives of a more general fact -- the finiteness of our lives in contrast to the infinity (or nearly that) of time and space. The questions that once bothered me did not verge towards, "do I live on after death?" but ran more towards the cosmic. As quickly as I can summarize, "if I am just strutting and fretting my nanosecond upon an infinitesimally tiny stage in the great arc of the universe, with any evidence of my life disappearing in a few scant thousand years, with my species but a midget latecomer on a single planet around a single star, ready to be snuffed out at any moment by a passing asteroid or our own cleverness, just what the hell is the point of my getting out of bed this morning?"
The answer, in as much as I've been able to come up with one, is that I am faced with a question which is utterly beyond scientific inquiry or rational consideration. I can either believe that, as the great American prophet of the 20th century observed, "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice," and attempt to play my bit part in that play, or I can believe that this is false and that it is all a stack of amoral laws and properties and waveforms and such, and that any actions I take are, in the not-very-long run, utterly and completely moot. I make the conscious decision to believe the former, which is to my theology (and, despite what atheists looking for a straw man might rush to argue, that of my church), a statement of religious, irrational belief in God.
This problem does not, however, restrict itself to cosmic meditations. Your passage on your dying friend reminds me that in the experience of my life and those close to me, religion is not nearly so important in contemplating one's own death but in contemplating the deaths of those to which we are closest. The spiritual challenge of one's own mortality is tiny and remote compared to the challenge of the mortality of one's children or other dearest loved ones. I can contemplate my own finitude with little disconsolation, but as I think of childhood friends who died far too soon, something not from my rational faculties begins to cast frantically about, trying to seize upon something which might suggest some part of them lives on -- that memories and objects somehow preserve the person I felt close to. Surmises that "what a person does lives on in the lives of those touched by him or her" strike me as only slightly less irrational than the supposition of an immortal soul.
On a similar note to loss, there's the human problem of absence. In an exchange some time ago on your blog, one atheist reader angrily replied to religion's role in providing comforting words that as atheists, his family relied on each other. I'll certainly not interfere with this form of support, but the question remains -- what of those who lack some or all of their family? What of missing or abusive parents? While I look through the eyes of a believer, I can't see a "vast chasm" between on the one hand a perfectly rational orphan who, in times of despair, relies upon the belief that there are forces for good in the world which can lift her up, and on the other hand Obama's "audacity of hope," which didn't seem to trouble too many atheists.
In my own times of trouble, I've consoled myself with my belief that there is good inherent in the world, reinforced this with songs, scripture, and poetry, and called that force the Holy Spirit, but that doesn't seem any more of a stretch than ascribing the rain to Mother Nature or taxes to Uncle Sam. (I feel considerable sympathy with a Jesus of Nazareth who, divine or not, clearly realized at an early age that Joseph was not his father, and who called the God of Israel, Abe, or "daddy.")At extreme risk of sounding just as condescending and trite as the "you can't deal with death" atheists, I have to observe that it's much easier to say goodbye to a happy, healthy life than to one filled with unfairness and injustice and illness. If we're going to be ascribing religious beliefs to mental failings, I'm far more ready to accept that it comes from the offense to our innate sense of justice when a selfless and caring person suffers a long, horrible, painful, and lonely death than some fear of the terminal dark. It's far easier to accept an "unjust" death if one can imagine the soul sleeping peacefully in the arms of the Savior than imagining that years of humiliating pain are the final word on a life. Indeed, I confess to thinking that atheists are even able to hold these more scornful takes on religious belief because they haven't come face to face with truly horrible pain and suffering in their lives. Whatever gets you through that, I'm pretty sure it doesn't come from rational consideration.
And, if I may add something to this deeply personal note, reducing this religious experience to a "crutch" presupposes that a crutch is somehow unnatural. But this experience of suffering and loss and death is part of the core human experience. Which is why faith endures. Modernity has helped keep this suffering at bay - numbing it with pharmaceuticals and technology and material comfort previously unknown.
But it hasn't changed our deepest reality; it has merely muffled it and enabled our denial some more. Death comes. Injustice remains. Unfairness triumphs. On this earth, at least.
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