Here’s another post inspired by the outstanding ‘Young Atheist’s Handbook’ by Alom Shaha.
I hope that these will help a few to consider donating to the campaign to get copies of the book in all English and Welsh secondary schools, the website for which can be found here: http://yah4schools.org.uk/.
“Nothing that has happened in my life since [I learned of my mother's death], nothing I believe and nothing I know, can provide consolation. This is why I suspect that I am in some way predisposed not to believe in God, because God is the only thing that could have provided solace… If I had felt that there was an afterlife, believe me, I would have killed myself then and there to join her.” – Alom Shaha, The Young Atheist’s Handbook.
Death happens, constantly. And, as social animals, the fact of it can hit us hard – especially when confronted with the loss of a friend, or relative.
I’ve been to funerals, but never of anyone I’ve had very many memories of or of people especially close to me. I have seen close family members heavy with grief themselves though, and it’s hard not to sympathise. Death clearly hurts.
The closest I guess I can come to empathising, and I know it may sound silly (even insensitive, as I began with a quote of Alom describing his feelings towards the death of his mother), is when I think of my experience with the death of not a person, but our old family dog. This animal, I’m sure, was one of the most caring creatures I will ever meet. I understand that it may be wrong to ascribe care, such a seemingly human attribute, to this dog – but I don’t mind if I’m wrong in doing so; care was what I felt.
She was immensely protective. She would, I’m told, follow me around as a toddler on days out at the park giving other dogs she mistrusted evil eyes, which was enough to turn them away. She would, I can clearly remember, silently stand guard at night, without prompting, at the door to our tent if we were ever camping; only coming in to sleep once all of us had woken up the next day. In fact, each time, we’d try to get her in before settling down, but she’d insist on sitting there in the dark.
Most of all, she was the only dog I have ever known to simply refuse to fetch a stick. It’s not that she was lazy, or unfit – she’d just rather be by your side (and, I like to think, saw the game for what it really was: pointless).
I adored her, as everyone who came into contact with her did – so finding her dead and stiff at the bottom of the stairs as I walked out of my room ready for school one morning was crushing. I had to step over the cold (I’d checked) corpse of this friend to go upstairs and tell my parents.
I can only imagine what hearing of the death of my Mother at a similar age would have been like.
I, too, didn’t believe in God at that age. There was no consolation to look for in ideas of ‘Doggie Heaven’, especially through the afternoons I spent relieving other family members of the burden of digging a hole for her. My beloved pet, like all ex-life, simply began to degrade – and her bones now have a place in our garden.
But, as with dead people, I can see why my using language implying post-death ownership of a body is misleading. Just as I doubt the existence of an afterlife, I see no reason to presume that we, or any other animal, have ‘souls’. Everything that we are, no matter how crude it sounds, is nothing more than the sum of our parts. We are physical – and, once dead, everything we are made of, every atom, is simply recycled.
To many, even considering this is depressing, and I can understand a strong desire to meet again with those who you love and have lost. But, just as I recognise the reality of the feeling itself, I see no reason to think that that feeling materialises – in a strictly physical sense – a God.
So, how am I ever happy?
Considering the fact of my own life, for a start, is one way I go about it. I am stardust, thinking about stardust. Existence itself is awe inspiring – a reason to live and enjoy it. Considering my own death? Once dead, I won’t be able to ponder it – so I see no reason to worry about my own non-existence. After all, I didn’t exist for billions of years, and that fact’s yet to cause me any significant hardship.
When someone (or something) close dies though, this unashamedly selfish approach doesn’t seem to work so well. It’s fine to rationalise your own death, but it’s a lot harder to get over the brute fact of another’s.
However, I don’t see this hurdle as a massive existential problem. It’s there for a reason: grief is natural, a biological response to separation from kin. Acknowledgement of that fact does not diminish the very real and often extreme immediate feelings of loss, as some may assume is my purpose; but instead, for me, it’s used to take some comfort in the realisation that it is those feelings with which we pay the price of friendship – emphasising the happy nostalgia that one can (hopefully) eventually reach after overcoming the initial grief.
Just as I hope Alom can now happily recall his most treasured motherly memories without breaking down, I can think on the ‘you get it‘ looks my dog would give me each time I threw sticks, with a smile.
The ‘Young Atheist’s Handbook 4 Schools’ campaign: http://yah4schools.org.uk/