Barbara G. Walker: I have no problem contemplating life’s end
By Barbara G. Walker
hey ask, “Aren’t you afraid of what might happen to you after you die?” Well, I don’t see that what will happen to me is anything particularly fearful. One way or another, my body will dissolve into its component atoms and be reabsorbed into the surrounding environment; and along with this general dissolution will go my brain, the mechanism of my consciousness. Thus, I will be unconscious forever, since I will no longer exist as a single entity. That’s hardly anything frightening. I have experienced periods of unconsciousness every night of my life and found no inconvenience in it. To me it makes perfect sense to call death the “final sleep.”
“But what about God?” they ask. “Aren’t you afraid that you may have to face him after all, and you might end up in a state of eternal torture?” But I can hardly fear any such abuse when all the nerves and synapses of my body and brain are long gone. How can sensations exist when there is no way to feel them? Moreover, I have nothing but contempt for a God who would be so sadistic as to create eternal hells for his allegedly beloved children, and would punish the most trivial offenses with something so drastic as eternal torture.
One of the Catholic Church’s favorite idols, St. Thomas Aquinas, revealed an amazing depth of sadism when he said that one of the greatest pleasures God would give the blessed souls in heaven would be a perfect view of all the tortures of the damned. Both Aquinas and his God fall far below my personal moral standards.
The other alternative, I was told in Sunday school, is going to heaven and spending all eternity joining the angels in singing praises to this incredibly egotistic deity who wants to be praised every second by everyone everywhere. In view of his offensive vanity, this God hasn’t much to offer.
Ancient sex-oriented religions claimed that paradise would resemble an eternal orgasm, but the patriarchal Judeo/Christian/Muslim “father” would have nothing to do with that idea. I’m not fond of choral singing, and the idea of having to do it forever sounded to me more hellish than heavenly. Surely nonexistence would be preferable to either of these alternatives.
Throughout the history of our civilization, it has been customary to locate heaven literally in the sky and hell below the Earth’s surface. Believers still speak of God looking “down,” and address their prayers upward. But we now know perfectly well what our atmosphere consists of, and also the space beyond it. We know as well what lies under the surface of the Earth, and it’s not a vast torture chamber.
No, I’m not at all afraid of death, but I am afraid of dying if it means a period of being in pain. I dislike pain. My mother died many years ago in far too much pain, because the social network to give her relief did not then exist. More recently, dying people can receive palliative lethal medications, thanks to the efforts of the esteemed Dr. Jack Kevorkian and the hospice movement. But this is still not in full legal recognition, and many religious authorities condemn it.
Mother Teresa was known to withhold painkilling drugs, even aspirin, from her suffering terminally ill patients, on the grounds that God intends their pain for the betterment of their souls. To my mind, the most acceptable death is one that can be painlessly administered at the patient’s request. Vets euthanize our beloved pets when it’s necessary; why can’t doctors do the same for our beloved relatives?
The real reason behind the church’s centuries-old battle against suicide was simple greed. As George Carlin once remarked, what God always wants is more money. When the Inquisition was in full swing, all the property of arrested victims was immediately seized by the church, a centuries-old habit that eventually made the church the richest organization in Europe. But if the victim managed to commit suicide before being taken to the torture chamber, the church was deprived of its loot. Therefore, suicides were condemned to the nethermost levels of hell.
Religion still seeks to control all of life’s important occasions: birth, baptism, marriage and death all present money-making opportunities for religions. It’s tax-free income, too. Thus, religious authorities want to keep these matters “holy” so they can make a profit from every ceremonial turning point of life.
I am fortunate to have lived a long, productive, enjoyable life, and I have no problem with contemplating its end. Ever since I reached an age of reason, I have turned up my nose at this absurd hangover from a dark age, the vain, pompous, punitive all-male deity that many adults seem to think they still can’t live without.
Someday, in what I hope is the not-too-distant future, most of the world will finally realize how absurd the whole idea is, and celebrations of life’s beginnings and endings will become much more secular. And — not incidentally — last words will begin to make much more sense.
FFRF Lifetime Member Barbara G. Walker is a researcher, lecturer and author of 24 books.