Friday, 21 September 2007

I wanna live forever - but it ain't gonna happen

Those two premium bloggers, toomanytribbles and pharyngula, put up interesting posts this week - Who's morally pernicious? and Flat earth-creationist stupidity . Unfortunately the video from the second link has been removed from Youtube but it was a group of women on a programme called The View talking about evolution. There's been a lot of chatter on the internet about the stupidity of one of the women - I'm told her name is Sherri Shepherd. She not only would have nothing to do with evolution but also, when challenged by Whoopi Goldberg, would not even agree that the world was round. She said that she it was of no interest to her whether the world was round or flat, she had been focussed on feeding her children, or words to that effect. There's a whole load of chat about it too on Sherri's own site. A debate then ensued amongst the women.

In the other link, from pharyngula, Mary Midgley, the well-known philosopher said
People are not going to accept scientific fact if they think it is morally pernicious. When people are asked why they are persuaded by intelligent design, they often say that it's the only alternative to scientific atheism and Darwinism which are pernicious moral doctrines; they see it as the only refuge from this anti-human bloody-mindedness. It's at the level of attitudes to life that these choices are made. (my emphasis).

I think Dr Midgley has hit the nail on the head. Whether we atheists like it or not, most people want to have it both ways: they might want to embrace new scientific discoveries but they also want the comfort and certainty of their own particular brand of religion. The fact that we know atheism is not "morally pernicious" is no help. Timothy Reeves in this comment on the Sherri event compared the behaviour of people like Sherri to the Luddites who smashed up the latest textile machinery because they couldn't cope with the onslaught of progress. Dr Midgley says much the same

I have seen this at first hand. My late husband - the Golfer - was an intelligent man and a physicist. When we got married he was the one who didn't want us to marry in church (I hadn't made up my mind at this time); having been brought up on the fringes of one of the more extreme churches here, he hated religion of any kind. But like lots of people, he thought there was something - he thought that after we died, we continued in some way.

When I became convinced that there was nothing - no god, no life after death, no soul - I talked to him about it. I was excited at all the new things I had learned and thought he would be interested too, being a scientist. But I had to stop. Very quickly it became apparent that he was almost physically uncomfortable with the discussion. It was most disconcerting and, I have to admit, I was disappointed in him. Later, once he'd calmed down, he said that he didn't dare believe that this life was all there was because then all the work was worth nothing, he might as well chuck his job in and just live for the day - he couldn't afford to give the notion house room.

Now, before you all start screaming at your monitors, I agree with you. I know that he was talking nonsense; that atheism does not equal hedonism; that a finite life is still worth living; that people who do not believe in an afterlife still make sacrifices for other people. But the point is that the Golfer was the cleverest man I knew and he couldn't face the thought of a life without an afterlife. If he, with his mighty brain couldn't, what hope is there that other people without his science background will?

I have no answer. But I think that we atheists have to understand that it isn't easy for everyone to give up their faiths - those comforts that get them through their lives - any more than it's easy to give up cigarettes or eating too much - IT'S A COMFORT IN A DIFFICULT WORLD. When I watched the Golfer die I knew he wasn't going to a better place and I knew I wasn't going to see him again. That isn't easy to accept. It's much more comforting to pretend to yourself that he is and you will.


reasonable robinson said...

Powerful post Daisy. I found reading Unweaving the Rainbow very sobering, and, if I recall correctly Dawkins pointed out that those of use alive today will be dead for longer than the universe has existed to date! (gulp) I wonder if the 'afterlife' (should it exist) is probably more a reconfiguration of our atoms rather than the re-constitution of our present self. It is, of course, a downer that we might not 'go -on' (cue Celine) however the interesting puzzle is do we make sense of that then!

Puddock said...

Thanks rr

I comfort myself with the thought of all my atoms wandering up and becoming part of new stars and also, I suppose, new people too.

I recommend Stardust by John Gribbin. It's a brilliant and readable book that sets out the evidence that we are all starstuff.

As for the not-going-on business. I am still struggling with that one. It was one of the first and longest-lasting (still haven't got my head round it!) emotions when the Golfer died. How can he be in this world one minute and not exist the next?

But just because I am asking that question doesn't mean that I expect an answer. Death is almost as mysterious as birth and, of course, both occur in all animals - we are nothing special, we just think we are. When a bird dies, the question is the same - how can that existence - the sum of all that that creature was - no longer be?

How's the paper going btw?

toomanytribbles said...

i once commented on a blog and asked something to the effect of, isn't not continuing to exist the scariest thing you can think of? and another commenter said that hell was scarier and i was stunned.

to me hell's a silly little story -- but then i wasn't subjected to its threat as a kid.

sometimes i think that i wish i could turn to religion to be comforted but i just can't kid myself. hitchens said that some people simply can't believe.

salient said...

Thanks for the link to your moving post on Pharyngula.

"As for the not-going-on business. I am still struggling with that one. It was one of the first and longest-lasting (still haven't got my head round it!) emotions when the Golfer died. How can he be in this world one minute and not exist the next?"

First, let me say that I was saddened to read of your loss.

Even when an important someone is merely gone from our life and not from the planet, it can feel like walking around accompanied by a human-shaped volume of empty air.

As a physician, I have encountered more death than I care to think about. I am a strong atheist, so I share your conviction that we face neither heaven nor hell when the physical processes end. Death ensures peace for the departed, but not for the survivors.

I am actually content that there is nothing beyond so long as I can believe that my existence has done some little good while I am here. (When I am gone, I shall be past caring that I am gone, so why worry about it now?) I would say that as long as you remember your Golfer, then a trace of his golfing vacation lives on.

One of my friends told me that her mother continued to talk to her father after his death even though she knew that there could be no reply. People find strategies that comfort them and you are quite correct to tie *this* need to insistence on believing in religion. People want assurances.

On a more whimsical note: I have always thought that heaven might be a little dull with all those goody-two-shoes praying rather than partying, and clearly hell, though the company might be more interesting, is not designed for comfort.

Puddock said...

toomanytribbles - I never got hell either. I thought that if God was nice, which he was supposed to be, then he wouldn't really condemn people to eternal torment without hope of redemption.

Non-existence is terrifying, I agree - much scarier than hell. But just because it's scary doesn't mean it ain't going to happen. I think that's where people begin to self-delude - they daren't follow the logic.

Puddock said...

salient - thanks for commenting (and hello!)

"a human-shaped volume of air" - that describes the feeling exactly. For months, when I talked about the Golfer, I would almost physically gesture to where he would be sitting if he was still alive. Very weird sensation.

I think you are right that the key to acceptance of a finite life is to do some good with the life that you have. For me, there is a determination, an urgency almost, in making every day worth living, insofar as I can, and packing as much fun in there as I can too.

salient said...

"For me, there is a determination, an urgency almost, in making every day worth living, insofar as I can, and packing as much fun in there as I can too."

That's a good attitude. I think that as children we knew how to pack the fun into every moment, yet we adults often lost that ability in the midst of the demands of responsibilities. Loss makes people realize that time is short and every minute should, if possible, be optimized.