I should have mentioned this story much earlier, but better late than never.
If you’re an atheist and a regular reader of sci-fi and fantasy, you probably know the name Terry Pratchett – and if you don’t, you should. He’s the award-winning and much-loved author of Discworld, a series of fantasy novels set in a flat, circular world that’s carried through space on the back of a giant tortoise. Discworld began as a straight-up parody of other fantasy novels, but it’s moved on to parodying all different aspects of our culture, and doing so in the midst of surprisingly deep and affecting storytelling. Pratchett is also an atheist, and many of the Discworld books (including my personal favorite, Small Gods) show the virtues of atheism and humanism – no small feat in a riotous fantasy world where, as the author puts it, “the gods had a habit of going round to atheists’ houses and smashing their windows”.
And if you’re a fan of Pratchett, you may also know that in December 2007, he announced he was suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease – a grim prognosis, since the early-onset form of the disease tends to be the fastest-developing, and treatment options tend to do no more than delay the spread. As Pratchett himself said, “I know three people who have successfully survived brain tumors but no one who has beaten Alzheimer’s.”
Although he’s still writing and still cheerful, Pratchett has said in recent weeks that he does not believe in “a duty to suffer the worst ravages of terminal illness”, and that when the time comes when he faces an irreversible disintegration of self, he would rather end his life on his own terms:
Now, however, I live in hope – hope that before the disease in my brain finally wipes it clean, I can jump before I am pushed and drag my evil Nemesis to its doom, like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty locked in combat as they go over the waterfall.
…I am enjoying my life to the full, and hope to continue for quite some time. But I also intend, before the endgame looms, to die sitting in a chair in my own garden with a glass of brandy in my hand and Thomas Tallis on the iPod – the latter because Thomas’s music could lift even an atheist a little bit closer to Heaven – and perhaps a second brandy if there is time.Oh, and since this is England I had better add: ‘If wet, in the library.’
In recent weeks, he’s also spoken out against assisted-suicide guidelines which appear to leave open the possibility that citizens of the U.K. could be prosecuted for murder for helping a terminally ill loved one take their own life.
Of course, I hope Terry Pratchett, despite the diagnosis, has many more years of happy and productive life ahead of him (and not just for my own selfish reason of wanting to read more of his books!). I hope with all my might that a cure for Alzheimer’s will be found in time. But when my time comes, as it will for all of us, I hope to face the inevitable even half as well as he has this far: with good humor and courage, a fearless self-determination to take my destiny into my own hands, and a hope that some greater good can come about from individual tragedy.
And I’m encouraged to believe that comfort and acceptance in the face of mortality may not be as hard to come by as people think (or as religious proselytizers would like us to believe). There have been many freethinkers who exited life in peace and dignity, such as Edward and Joan Downes, whose story I mentioned this past July. It’s likely that the more high-profile examples there are of atheists peacefully coming to terms with the inevitable, the more common and accepted it will be, and the easier it will become for all of us.