Safraz Mansoor on death and the atheist bus

Safraz Mansoor’s feelings expressed on Comment is Free yesterday about death as the end of our personal existence are common ones. In one poll, even some people who said that science was the best way to understand reality stated a belief in life after death and only 41% of people said that they believed that death was the total end of personal existence. A belief that death is not the end seems to be one artefact of faith that, in an increasingly secular age, is faring better than others and many people who do not, because of the evidence and their own reason, believe that there is life after death, would still nonetheless like to.

One strange assumption that lies behind this is that life after death will be better or at least as good as our present one. Mansoor’s problem with the bus adverts comes from the phrase ‘stop worrying’, but let’s remember why that phrase appears in the adverts. The Christian ads to which the Atheist Bus Campaign was a response linked to a website that promised non-Christians an eternity of torment in a lake of fire. Pretty worrying. Just as distressing to the thoughtful might be the prospect of infinite existence, deprived of the finitude that gives meaning to our feelings and experiences. So, although there may well be many who are comforted by the hope of a future existence, there are many others who will rejoice with the 2,300 year old reassurance of the humanistic philosopher Epicurus: ‘…death is nothing to us. All good and evil consists in sensation, but death is deprivation of sensation.’ We need not worry about torment and suffering in a future existence – it is the present world, comprehensible and time-bound where we must exist and flourish.

Reality can cause discomfort but to worry about genuinely unalterable facts is fruitless and can only increase unnecessary inner torment. There is some wisdom in that self-help mantra, ‘If you can’t change it, change how you think about it’. We may not all achieve the full and active 98 years of Bertrand Russell, but we can aim to cultivate his sentiments on this question: ‘An individual human existence should be like a river — small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past boulders and over waterfalls. Gradually, the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The man or woman who, in old age, can see his or her life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things they care for will continue.’

There are many other non-religious responses to the fact of death as the end that we can draw on as consolations from the rich tradition of humanist thought. The idea of returning to nature consoles many of those who reflect, with Carl Sagan, that we are all made of ‘star-stuff’ and will return to nature when we are finished. ‘Nature’s law is that all things change and turn, and pass away, so that in due course, different things may be,’ as the stoic Marcus Aurelius said, many centuries ago, and this feeling persists in the contemporary trend towards eco-burials where human bodies nurture the soil of beautiful places. Others draw comfort from the fact that, though those we love die, the echoes of their lives remain with us as do their achievements. Sometimes they are so present in our thoughts we forget they are dead. ‘To die completely, a person must not only forget but be forgotten, and he who is not forgotten is not dead,’ said Samuel Butler, and in facing our own deaths we can reflect that we too will leave behind us some legacy.

The main point is not about death, however, but about life. Our individual lives and feelings are important to us, even if death is the end of them. Some have pretended that an exhortation to ‘enjoy life’ must result in shallow hedonism and consumerism. This says a lot about the critics in question, but not much about anything else. Human beings have intelligence, imagination and creativity to give direction and purpose to their lives. By seeking to be happy and to make it easier for others to be happy, by taking enjoyment in the wonders of nature and of human art, by valuing that inner life that makes us more than other animals, and by working together to overcome our problems and make the bad times better, human beings can give the human world a meaning and purpose of its own. In fact, the conviction that death is the end can act as a powerful spur towards these goals and Sigmund Freud’s assertion that ‘Limiting the possibility of an enjoyment raises the value of an enjoyment,’ will be embraced by many who believe in no life to come.

Dark moments of futility and angst are a part of our existence – there is no point denying it. But they are not all there is, they may themselves be part of eventually beneficial emotional processes, and for most people they are rare. And speaking only for myself in answer to Mansoor’s question: no, I have never envied religious believers their certainties (and not just because those certainties are sometime those of hellfire). I am with the late humanist Peter Ustinov: ‘Beliefs are what divide people – doubts unite them.’

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