Monday, September 01, 2008

How An Atheist Faces Death

I have not read Julian Barnes' new book Nothing To Be Frightened Of, but I might. Barnes' book is about living in the face of death; it's "an extended meditation on human mortality."

Barnes is an atheist. His book serves as a way an atheist faces death. From the's review, here are some highlights.

  • "For me, death is the one appalling fact which defines life; unless you are constantly aware of it, you cannot begin to understand what life is about; unless you know and feel that the days of wine and roses are limited, that the wine will madeirize and the roses turn brown in their stinking water before all are thrown out for ever -- including the jug -- there is no context to such pleasures and interests as come your way on the road to the grave. " Now that's some nice writing, and I think it's true. It's the Heideggarian truth that the meaning of death gives the answer to the meaning of life.

  • Here's a quote worth looking at in its entirety. "Bumper stickers and fridge magnets remind us that Life Is Not a Rehearsal. We encourage one another towards the secular modern heaven of self-fulfillment: the development of the personality, the relationships which help define us, the status-giving job, the material goods, the ownership of property, the foreign holidays, the acquisition of savings, the accumulation of sexual exploits, the visits to the gym, the consumption of culture. It all adds up to happiness, doesn't it -- doesn't it? This is our chosen myth, and almost as much of a delusion as the myth that insisted on fulfillment and rapture when the last trump sounded and the graves were flung open, when the healed and perfected souls joined in the community of saints and angels. But if life is viewed as a rehearsal, or a preparation, or an anteroom, or whichever metaphor we choose, but at any rate as something contingent, something dependent on a greater reality elsewhere, then it becomes at the same time less valuable and more serious. Those parts of the world where religion has drained away and there is a general acknowledgment that this short stretch of time is all we have, are not, on the whole, more serious places than those where heads are still jerked by the cathedral's bell or the minaret's muezzin. On the whole, they yield to a frenetic materialism; although the ingenious human animal is well capable of constructing civilizations where religion coexists with frenetic materialism (where the former might even be an emetic consequence of the latter): witness America." The salient points here for me are the atheistic insights that: 1) without God, one must create another myth; namely, the myth of frenetic materialism and self-gratification. After all, as the apostle Paul once said, if Christ has not been risen (or if there's no God at all) we might as well eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die; 2) "Life Is Not a Rehearsal." Or: there's no meaning to this life on atheism. Which is, of course, true. On atheism one creates an alternative myth.

  • Don't view your coming death through the eyes of the very, very, very few who will miss you when you're gone. "Rather," [Barnes] continues, one must see death "from the point of view of those who have never heard of you -- which is, after all, almost everybody. Unknown person dies: not many mourn. That is our certain obituary in the eyes of the rest of the world." He's right about this. Actually, this POV holds for the Christian theist, too. Even for us who believe in God and an afterlife, our earthly demise will go near-entirely unnoticed. The difference, for me, is this: while I will leave no personal legacy, nor should I attempt to (woe to those around me should I attempt to), God can leave his legacy in others through me.

  • "While some people on their deathbeds dutifully rage against the dying of the light, Barnes prefers those who simply remain true to themselves, who depart this life with, say, a gesture of quiet courtliness: "A few hours before dying in a Naples hospital," the Flaubert scholar Francis Steegmuller "said (presumably in Italian) to a male nurse who was cranking up his bed, 'You have beautiful hands.' " Barnes calls this "a last, admirable catching at a moment of pleasure in observing the world, even as you are leaving it." Similarly, the poet and classicist "A.E. Housman's last words were to the doctor giving him a final -- and perhaps knowingly sufficient -- morphine injection: 'Beautifully done.' " Au contraire, should I die before Linda my last words will be "See you very soon." The Post review says that, for Barnes, "certainly those gifted with religious faith possess an advantage over those without it: The dying believer will head straight for the door marked Enter, while the rest of us must settle for the one marked Exit." Yes, it's an advantage. And yes, I believe it's true.

  • Someone once described Barnes' life as this: "Got up. . . . Wrote book. Went out, bought bottle of wine. Came home, cooked dinner. Drank wine."

Such is the life of an atheist. Were there no God, then life's no more than this. No God = no value, no purpose, no meaning. Barnes serves as a decent example of trying to live this way. And, given his own post-mortem views, his book will become a mostly un-read and forgotten thing itself.