Friday, February 05, 2010

The Fury of the Resurrected Atheist

I read Julian Barnes's Nothing To Be Frightened Of on my flights to and from San Diego. It is a brilliant book. What a writer Barnes is! Creative, intelligent, deep, witty, sad, funny. He puts phrases and words together so well, filling page after page with unexpected delights. More than once I almost laughed out loud, which is the Finnish equivalent of side-splitting-rolling-on-the-floor-drooling-eyewatering-guffawing.

Barnes is either agnostic or atheist, depending on which page you are on. He writes: "If I called myself an atheist at twenty, and an agnostic at fifty and sixty, it isn't becaue I have acquired more knowledge in the meantime: just more awareness of ignorance. How can we be sure that we know enough to know?" (24-25)

Here's a few quotes from Barnes that caused me to Nordic-struggle to contain myself (which I did - nothing of myelf leaked out).

"Platonists believed that, after death, things started looking up. Epicureans, on the other hand, believed that, after death, there was nothing. Cicero, apparently, combined the two traditions into a cheery Antique either/or: "After death, either we feel better or we feel nothing." (44)

"The fury of the resurrected atheist: that would be something worth seeing." (65)

(On the unhelpfulness of "Einsteinian wonder") "If what is out there comes from nothing, if all is unrolling mechanically according to a programme laid down by nobody, and if our perceptions of it are mere micromoments of biochemical activity, the mere snap and crackle of a few synapses, then what does this sense of wonder amount to? Should we not be a little more suspicious of it? A dung beetle might well have a primitive sense of awe at the size of the mighty dung ball it is rolling. Is this wonder of ours merely a posher version?" (71)

(On the idea that writing about death is a kind of thereapy - the "therapeuto-autobiographical fallacy") "Perhaps with certain kinds of autobiography [this works]: you have a painful childhood, nobody loves you, you write about it, the book is a success, you make lots of money, and people love you. (Though for every such Hollywood moment, there must be a few which go: you have a painful childhood, nobody loves you, you write about it, the book is unpublishable, and still nobody loves you.)" (97)

Barnes has some fun things to say about free will.

"Like everyone, I have always had - an amateur in and of my own life - assumed that I had free will, and always, to my own mind, behaved as if I did." (115)

"Some scientists think we shall never entirely decipher the mysteries of consciousness because all we can use to understand the brain is the brain itself. Perhaps we shall never abandon the illusion of free will because it would take an act of the free will we don't have to abandon our belief in it. We shall go on living as if we are the full arbiters of our every decision. (The various adjustments of grammar and sense that I made to that last sentence, both immediately in the writing and after subsequent time and thought - how can "I" not believe that "I" made them? How can I believe that those words, and this parenthesis which follows them, and every elaboration I make within it, and the occasional misytpings, and the next word, whether completed or abandoned-halfway-through-as-I-have-second-thoughts-about-it and left as a wo , are not emanations of a coherent self making literary decisions by a process of free will? I cannot get my head round this not being the case.)" (118)

Me either. And, I think, no one who holds to a philosophically strict naturalism.

Barnes sounds like Nietzsche's madman when he writes: "We live broadly according to the tenets of a religion we no longer believe in. We live as if we are creatures of free will when philosophers and evolutionary biologists tell us this is largely a fiction." (119)

Because God does not exist, there is nothing after this life. Hence the book's title - "nothing" to be afraid of. Mostly Barnes is not so afraid of death, but of dying. He collects many stories, some personal and some historical, of dying persons. Most deaths are supremely banal. Barnes's own death will probably amount to the same, by his own reasoning. He's just afraid that, as he is dying, he will be afraid.

Barnes is correct when he writes that, without God, our lives are not part of some "narrative." (183) Human life is not "a story progressing towards a meaningful conclusion." (187) Yet many non-believers still hold on to this idea that their life has some kind of meaning within a narrative framework. To Barnes such beliefs are like vestigial organs that have done their part and now lie useless inside of us.

There is so much worth quoting in this book. Barnes is outrageously hilarious when he writes, e.g., of his future "last reader" and begins to curse him for not suggesting to others that they read the deceased Barnes's books. (220-221)

Postiive things aside, I do find what is perhaps his main view on dying objectionable. Barnes holds that, for most, death is terrifying. Neither logic nor rational argumentation, grave-visiting or book-writing, shall change the terror of dying should one have the chance to do this. "Dread," so it seems to Barnes, will take over. But his catalogue of death-testimonials is missing many people I have seen die. Barnes has walked through a lot of cemetraries; I have done a lot of funerals and been with people leading up to them. I have been with the dying.

This past year I met a number of times with a man who knew he was going to die because he refused kidney dialysis. When he took himself off dialysis he knew he had no more than ten days to live. How odd and sad to be talking with him as we both knew we would never do this again. I saw him meticulously and lovingly prepared his loved ones for his death. He said all the loving words that needed to be said and more. He did not seem "frightened" at all. I am certain he was not. Why?

Because he knew where he was going. He trusted in Jesus, and therefore knew he would be with God forever and see his wife and children again. Was he stupid? On the contrary, he was very intelligent. He possessed both epistemic and existential certainty about these things. I submit to you that this is why he was not filled with the kind of terror and dread Barnes describes.

I've met many people who go out of this life in the same way. I feel certain there are many more. At this point it all comes down to worldviews. On Barnes's worldview there is "nothing" after death. On a Christian worldview there is nothing to be frightened of because Christ has conquered death in his resurrection. In the end which worldview one holds to makes a world of difference in how one dies. I've seen both sides.