Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Questions of mortality

I spent a couple of hours yesterday afternoon at a remembrance service for a family friend who died of cancer a few weeks ago. It was a lovely event in a very pretty village church (he was very religious) loads of people turned up and there were many heart-felt reflections on his life and loves. It was a very traditional event and was a perfect reflection of his character, I'm sure he would have been delighted with how it went and his family should feel very proud.

The event made me reflect on how we think about death, particularly the differences between believers (the majority of people there) and how I (a non-believer) think about it. The service was a bit of a mash-up in the sense that our friend was a Baptist but the service was being held in a CofE church so both flavours of Christianity were represented by different speakers. The sermons were certainly different in style, which was interesting, but both centred on one theme and both used almost identical words to set that theme up. Paraphrasing, they said, "you may be angry, you may be asking why X died so young (he was only 42), but don't dwell on these questions, celebrate his life instead". Many people in the audience nodded sagely at this point. I was thinking, "I'm not angry, I know why he died, he had pancreatic cancer and if we're inclined to dwell then surely this question is the most prescient question of all?". To me it felt like one of those times when I've been applying pressure to a particularly bad wound on one of my kids elbows or knees, saying, "don't look at it, you'll be fine, just think happy thoughts" whilst all the time feeling fear and anxiety but desperately not wanting to show it. We all know why we say such things but we also know that the words are intended to distract, the way we speak to children.

As we grow up and encounter real-life we soon realise that when our position is weak often the best bet is to distract attention back onto more solid ground. So why do bad things happen to good people?For Christians and other religious people this must be the most difficult circle to square,  there doesn't seem to be a satisfying answer in their philosophy; they seem to prefer to avoid the question, "mysterious ways" is what they're told. For atheists there is a satisfying answer, one that seems to agree with the reality we all experience, does it help? maybe, sometimes, I guess it depends how your brain is wired, it certainly makes me feel satisfied.

For me that explanation goes something like this...

We live for a brief time on a tiny decaying rock in a vast universe that is largely unaware of our existence, 4.5 billion years of evolution have made us what we are but we're not perfect, destructive flaws in our DNA are faithfully copied from generation to generation by purely natural (chemical) processes and some of us are unlucky enough to inherit these defects which sometimes interact unfavourably with our bodies causing cancerous cells to replicate out of control. Nothing and no one is guiding these processes, it's not about what we did or what we thought, nor what we didn't do or didn't say we have all been dealt a certain hand and derive our own purpose from playing that hand the best way we can in order to learn about our world and ourselves and most importantly leave our children a better world than the one we experienced, we don't always succeed. This explanation fits the evidence of our senses and eyes perfectly, it explains things in a way that no Deistic religion does. Living in a post-enlightenment age and possessing this deeper (and yet incomplete) understanding of how life actually works (rather than how we would like it to work) in no way diminishes or negates our emotions, we can still feel inspired to love, hate, fear and cherish but this knowledge gives us the power to shape our destinies, it liberates and empowers us to change the future for better or worse, we need no longer settle for comforting distractions.

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