Editor’s Note: Clergy Project members are very creatively applying their knowledge of religion to the COVID-19 pandemic. A couple of days ago, we heard from Andy, a working pastor, and now we have the musings, religious and otherwise, of a member who left religion decades ago. /Linda LaScola, Editor
By Scott Stahlecker
Up, up, up! The numbers of people dying seem to double every week. Since America is now expected to suffer the most casualties from COVID-19, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit anxious. And the pace in which this virus is spreading is forcing me to think about an event I’ve done a great job of avoiding all my life: death.
“I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Woody Allen once quipped.
As it so happens . . . I recently turned 59, my wife works as a nurse in the recovery room at the main hospital, I live in a multi-generational home with two grandkids who attend school and daycare, and to cap it off, I reside in Washington State where the first person in the US died from the coronavirus. So, I’d say my chances of dying sooner than I anticipated are looking better than ever!
Hmm, what to do?
My focus these days centers on three priorities: pondering, planning—and yes—partying. Before I get to these incidentals, however, a bit of eschatology is in order. Most of us who frequent this blog are familiar with the Christian perspective what happens when a person dies, but I’d like to dig into an atheist’s perspective on this grave matter.
“Behold, I show you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’” 1 Corinthians 15: 51-54.
These words undoubtedly offer a great sense of comfort for believers. With promises like this that infuse disciples with hope, it’s no wonder so few people are attracted to atheism. When it comes to death, Christianity seems to offer the whole benefits package? If one believes that the promises offered in 1 Corinthians are true, then I concede Christianity offers a version of hope which atheism cannot rival.
As an atheist, about the only thing I have to look forward to in death is that it’s a mystery. Of this I’m certain: I won’t be moving up in the neighborhood to live in a mansion God has prepared for me. I won’t be walking on streets paved in gold. And I won’t be earning a special position in God’s kingdom based on how well I’ve followed the guidance offered from the pulpit. On the plus side, I don’t believe I’ll be punished for my misdeeds by being cast into hell.
What I suspect happens after I die is absolutely nothing, and the experience of having died will likely mirror my experiences before I was born. Since I lacked consciousness before being conceived, I don’t recall experiencing anything. I think death is simply the opposite of life. I call it the “un-life.” And if there’s nothing but un-life waiting for me after I die, then it seems truly unfortunate. To put this in modern lingo, the prospect of the un-life sucks, because life, is, everything. Yet, if nothing happens after I die, then henceforth, nothing will matter anyway.
So, while I’d love to believe the biblical promises concerning an afterlife, I’m essentially left with nothing to look forward to upon my death. I’ll never see my wife or children again; never write another thought-provoking word; never play music, and never again laugh, cry, dream or share another glass of wine with a friend. This is hard to accept, but as an atheist I don’t have a choice in the matter. Truth be told, there’s only two ways to think about the prospect of dying:
We choose a scenario invented by a religion that gives us hope and makes us feel good.
We simply admit that we don’t know what happens after we die.
Christianity works if you believe what it teaches. When you stop believing what it teaches, its beliefs ring more like platitudes, which no longer square with reality. In that case, reality itself becomes the best teacher. So, if you believe you can cheat death and achieve immortality, then you do indeed have a lot to look forward to. However, if you believe what Christianity teaches about death is true, then you must concede that all the promises other religions offer about life after death are equally valid.
The reason for this is that lots of religions and cults promise different endgame scenarios to their followers. In America, we value freedom of religion and people’s rights to believe what they choose even if we think those beliefs are false. But all beliefs that detail events in the afterlife are inherently false, because these beliefs are not based on facts. Since we value freedom of religion, we are more than happy to grant religious individuals the right to cling to whatever hope their beliefs may offer them. Yet, in doing so, we also abide by the unspoken agreement that what religion teaches about the afterlife is far less important than the hope those beliefs impart.
Yet, if we were to stretch this analogy we’d find that even the dynamic of hope becomes irrelevant. A Buddhist, for example, believes he’ll be reincarnated into one of six realms of existence, but this means he also stands the chance of being reincarnated as a cow. Mormons have more to look forward to: they believe their disciples will become gods and goddesses. Catholics believe in Purgatory, a thoughtful consideration invented by the church hierarchy, grants sinners a place to suffer and purge themselves of evil in order to become qualified to enter heaven. For those who enjoy sci-fi, Scientology offers a spectacular “Hollywood” version of the afterlife. On a more ruthless and sexist note, Islamic martyrs who are male are rumored to receive 72 virgins.No Christian looks forward to the possibility of being reincarnated into a cow. And Buddhists (some of whom live in caves in an effort to free themselves from worldly possessions) have no interest in acquiring a mansion. Becoming a god, as Mormons believe might sound appealing to Catholics who would like to avoid Purgatory. As to the number of fellow human beings a martyr must extinguish to earn 72 virgin, my hope is that those who are attracted to this abhorrent belief will come to understand how immoral it is.
My point is that every believer, from every religious persuasion, enjoys similar emotional highs regarding what they hope to experience in an afterlife. Believers experience these emotional highs to varying degrees regardless of how different, bizarre, or mind-boggling the beliefs are. To me, this says that the beliefs are irrelevant. Our brains are far less concerned about what we believe than about experiencing the emotional highs associated with the hope that these beliefs are real. And if the beliefs are not real, how real and justified are the feelings of hope?
Knowing the truth about the afterlife is not a matter of who is right, the atheist or the religious believer, based on who has the most optimistic scenario. The goal is to accept what is real and thus truthful, even if this shatters our expectations. The fact is we just don’t know what happens to us after we die. We may not like this ambiguity, but it’s better than picking one religious version of an afterlife over another simply because it makes us feel better. When a person accepts this truth, it can completely realign their appreciation for life.
I’ve always thought that one of the best ways to die would be to know death when death is knocking on my door. Whether or not this pandemic will visit me in the coming months, I don’t know. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying this forced reprieve in which I have ample time to contemplate how wonderful it has been to experience life. One common cliché I’ve heard all my life is that “there are no atheists in foxholes.” The insinuation being, that when death appears to be near, those who don’t believe in God will instantly convert because of an overwhelming sense of terror. As for myself, while I am feeling a bit anxious about the uncertainty of what I could and should be doing during these troubling times, I’m experiencing no fear about what transpires the moment after I might lose consciousness.
Unfortunately, most of the plans I’ve made for the summer are now shot to hell. I’ve canceled the camping trips I planned on the Oregon coast, as well as an airplane trip to visit friends. The airline industry will still be in business when this all blows over, but for now I’d prefer not to be sandwiched in the middle seat between two individuals who are coughing. Meanwhile,
- I’m prepping my humble RV as a place of quarantine just in case I get sick.
- I’m spending quality time calling or conversing with friends on social media. I’m enjoying the hours I can now devote to writing about the joys of being freed from religion.
- Despite the underlying hysteria, this pandemic is serving up wonderful opportunities to strengthen friend and family ties, and to do what I can to help others.
A professor of mine once said that the world revolves around food. If you think about it, he’s correct. Since I’m fortunate to be living in a multi-generational home, dining with my entire family around the kitchen table is infusing me with a renewed sense of my familial connections. While just a few weeks ago, I was enjoying wining, dining, and playing music. While I’m certain humanity will survive this latest, horrible, natural occurrence, I can’t help but feel the humanist in me coming out. And this humanist, free from all the beliefs that a vengeful God orchestrates this pandemic, is enthralled by how well we are coming together in this moment of crisis.
**Editor’s Question: What’s your opinion of how humanity is handling this crisis?**
Bio: Scott Stahlecker was raised a Lutheran but converted to Seventh-Day Adventism in 1980. After serving the church in both lay and professional capacities, he left the church in 1990. He identified as an agnostic until 2004 and has been an outspoken atheist ever since. Throughout his life he and his wife have owned many businesses to include hospice agencies in Texas and music stores in Alaska. He is the author of the novel Blind Guides and Picking Wings Off Butterflies, a memoir about raising a child with a traumatic brain injury. He continues to write extensively about the benefits of living life as a freethinking individual. Learn more about him at www.scottstahlecker.com
>>>>>>Photo Credits: By Georges Biard, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49011499 ; By Dimasamsusam – Own work by me, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6910809