Up@dawn 2.0

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Atheism and death

The Friendly Atheist passes along Greta Chritina's "Comforting Thoughts About Death":
Greta Christina just released a short ebook compiling several essays on the subject of death. It’s called, very straightforwardly, Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God.

Contrary to popular prejudice, atheists do death just fine, thanks.* Another great read on the topic: Samuel Scheffler's Death and the Afterlife, whose main message was featured in The Stone:

 I believe in life after death.
No, I don’t think that I will live on as a conscious being after my earthly demise. I’m firmly convinced that death marks the unqualified and irreversible end of our lives.
My belief in life after death is more mundane. What I believe is that other people will continue to live after I myself have died. You probably make the same assumption in your own case. Although we know that humanity won’t exist forever, most of us take it for granted that the human race will survive, at least for a while, after we ourselves are gone.
Because we take this belief for granted, we don’t think much about its significance. Yet I think that this belief plays an extremely important role in our lives, quietly but critically shaping our values, commitments and sense of what is worth doing. Astonishing though it may seem, there are ways in which the continuing existence of other people after our deaths — even that of complete strangers — matters more to us than does our own survival and that of our loved ones... (continues)
I think I sense a developing theme for the next rendition of our course: "Atheism, death, and life's rich pagaent," maybe?

Or more broadly, perhaps, we could subsume the mortality theme under Varieties of Irreligious Experience. We'd begin with appropriate selections from James's Varieties, making common ground with the godless over his point that the religious impulse is less a speculation concerning an invisible transcendent deity behind life, than about the quality and quantity of life itself. Then we'd read Sagan's Varieties, Philip Kitcher's Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism, Bayer & Figdor's Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart, maybe Sam Harris's Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. Russell and Comte-Sponville too. So many possibilities.

I've also been pondering the possibility of doing something with John Rawls' "veil of ignorance"  thought experiment, trying to enlist students in the exercise of contemplating a godless universe without explicit knowledge of their own religious or secular personal histories. If you didn't know your own attitude towards life and its earthly terminus, how would you read these texts? What might you conclude? What principles of (im)mortality might you prefer?

*Case in point:

In Carl Sagan's Death, an Amazing Life Lesson

18 years ago last Saturday, the human race lost one of its finest. Carl Sagan passed away. As an astrophysicist, a science communicator, a husband, and a father, Carl Sagan spent much of his adult life inspiring others. Not by spouting flowery falsehoods, but by conveying -- as perhaps no one else could -- the radiant majesty of reality.
Sagan's death at age 62 to myelodysplasia, a rare blood disorder, represented one of the harsher realities of life. But while undeniably unfortunate, it was no less beautiful. As told by his wife Ann Druyan to magician and skeptic James Randi:
"I held Carl’s Hand as he died and I looked at him and he smiled and I said ‘Goodbye, Carl.’ And he said 'Goodbye, Ann.' And he closed his eyes and he died. We knew as we said those words we were never going to see one another again, and it was okay. It was very sad. But it was okay."
"Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions," Druyan later recalled. "I don't ever expect to be reunited with Carl. But, the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief and precious life is."
Sagan knew that death represents the final brushstroke of a glorious painting. During our limited time in the universe, we get to style the work of art that is our life as we see fit. What an opportunity that is!
"My parents taught me that even though it’s not forever — because it’s not forever — being alive is a profoundly beautiful thing for which each of us should feel deeply grateful," Carl's daughter Sasha wrote in April. "If we lived forever it would not be so amazing."
"We knew we were beneficiaries of chance. . . ." Ann Dryuan wrote. "That pure chance could be so generous and so kind. . . . That we could find each other, as Carl wrote so beautifully inCosmos, you know, in the vastness of space and the immensity of time. . . . That we could be together for twenty years... I don't think I'll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful."
Hitch on the never-ending party - http://www.openculture.com/2014/12/is-there-an-afterlife-christopher-hitchens-speculates-in-an-animated-video.html

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