Death, Mourning, and Humanism: A Personal Reflection
September 4, 2013
The arguments surrounding religion and secularism are many and varied. Most of you reading this are likely familiar with the arguments both for and against religion, gods, and the afterlife and if you are reading this are likely in the atheist camp. There is however, an argument in favor of religious belief that has great weight and which only the most belligerent of atheists would confront: the argument from personal comfort. I have often read and heard people go back and forth on this question and have always been quite assured in how I would react in a similar situation. I never would have guessed that the test of my ethos would come so soon.
Several months ago, my grandfather was diagnosed with late stage pancreatic cancer. Being well into his eighties and already having his affairs in order, he opted to forego treatment and let the cancer take its course. I watched this once incredibly strong willed, stoic, and imposing figure slowly deteriorate into a shadow of the man he once was. He lost control of his faculties one by one and he eventually reached the point where he was confined to his bed. My grandmother, father, and I were lucky to have several months of time with him to say our goodbyes and to prepare ourselves for what we knew was coming and, as the end approached, my grandfather was ready for. He developed a high fever and lapsed into unconsciousness, only capable of brief moments of awareness when asked if he was in pain. The people from hospice care utilized morphine to keep him as comfortable as possible as his condition got worse and worse. On Thursday, August 15th at approximately 4:30pm, I went into my grandfather’s room to tell him that I loved him and to say goodbye. Unbeknownst to my family, the nursing home staff, or myself he was already dead. I checked for a pulse and felt none. I asked a nurse to check for a heartbeat and there was none. I stepped outside where my father and grandmother were sitting, my father looked at me and I just shook my head.
I’m sure that I need not go into any further detail for you, my colleagues and comrades, to imagine what followed. Why have I taken this time to tell you a story that I’m sure is nothing new to so many of you? Because there are likely those among you who have not been confronted by death in your lives or who may be concerned about whether or not you will be able to endure the grief without the consolation of religion. As my grandfather’s death came closer and its inevitability began to press down on me, I began to search in advance for sources of consolation.
Where did I find comfort in the face of this loss? Philosophy. The study of ethics is an oft-neglected area of inquiry for atheists. Sure, there is a lot of talk about morals, law, justice, and equality in our movement, but questions of how the individual should live life and face death, are seldom considered. I sometimes think that the obsession with political causes and the welfare of faceless others is how atheists avoid dealing with these fundamental ethical questions. I also believe it is this avoidance that is responsible for so many deathbed conversions so loved by religious apologists. I have devoted most of my time as a philosopher to addressing the questions of ethics, and now I know that it has been time well spent. The Athenian philosopher Epicurus said, “Death is nothing to us” as it is the end of sensation, so we can feel no physical pain, and the end of consciousness, so it cannot be emotionally painful. The traditional Epicurean epitaph is “I was not, I was, I am not, I do not care.” The British philosopher A.C. Grayling in The God Argument reflects this sentiment:
“…(B)eing dead is indistinguishable – from a subjective perspective – from being unborn or from dreamless sleep, it can hold no terrors. What seems frightening is the act of dying. But dying is a living act, and as with any other such it might be pleasant or unpleasant.”
And the comedian Eric Idle said in Monty Python and the Life of Brian, “You come from nothing and you go back to nothing, so what have you lost? Nothing!”
These words, along with many others, gave me the perspective I needed to get me through these difficult days. A dedication to my philosophical principles of inquiry and ethics allow me to think on these disquieting emotions and to come out on the other side still quite able to live my life and stay focused. But of all the works I have studied, and of all the thoughts I have had of my own, the words that keep me going come from the great Enlightenment thinker Voltaire in his epic Candide:
“Sometimes Pangloss would say to Candide: ‘All events form a chain in this, the best of all possible worlds. After all, had you not been expelled from a beautiful castle with great kicks to the behind… and had you not been turned over to the Inquisition, and had you not roamed America on foot, and had you not run the Baron through with a fine thrust of your sword, and had you not lost all your sheep from the good land of Eldorado, you would not be sitting here now eating candied citron and pistachios.’ – ‘That is well said,’ replied Candide, ‘but we must cultivate our garden.’”
Much the same faced with good fortune or bad, joy or sorrow, pleasure or pain, I still have a life to live, and I have to do my utmost to live it well. I would ask you, brothers and sisters, colleagues and comrades, not to dwell on whether or not this is the best or worst world in which we can live, but instead live your life, live it well, or at least sincerely try.
Special thanks to the Meridian Village nursing staff, the hospice care workers, and Reverend Brad Thomas for supporting my family in their time of loss, and above all my late grandfather, Ralph Elliott, who taught me the value of dignity, integrity, and bullheaded determination. “Fortiter et recte.”
About the Author: Jeffrey Elliott
Jeffrey Elliott is an undergraduate student of philosophy at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He holds a degree in control systems technology from Ranken Technical College in St. Louis Missouri and is a licensed industrial radiographer. His experience in blue-collar jobs combined with his pragmatic approach to philosophy has informed his work in skeptical inquiry and STEM outreach. He is co-founder and president of the Freethought Society of SIUE, an associate member of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
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