Good Reason

It's okay to be wrong. It's not okay to stay wrong.

Still alive, more than ever.

This is a post about my Mom. It’s not intended to distress family members — I think I’ve written it with a modicum of sensitivity and tact — but it may. If you think you may be offended by my views on the implications of religious belief as they pertain to mortality, best to stop reading now, instead of making a scene at the funeral later. If, however, you’re willing to risk it, or you just want to know where I’m coming from, please read on.

Facebook friends will already know that my Mom passed away last week. It wasn’t unexpected — she hadn’t been well for a long time, and I’m glad she’s not in the pain and the frame of mind that she was in. I’d already done a lot of the emotional work and the ‘letting go’, but I was still surprised at how tender I felt that first day; I felt the fragility of my body, my heartbeat, the delicate chemistry of my consciousness. I walked and moved gingerly, as one does at the beginning of a cold. I’d always lived in a world where my mother existed, and now I didn’t.

It must have been a long time since we really talked, what with her being ill for such a long time. My memories of her come back in pieces. I’ll remember something she said, a conversation we had, something she taught me. If we went to McDonalds, we had a ritual where I’d wind up the straw, and she’d flick it with a loud crack! All with the most blasé expression on our faces. It’s much funnier if it’s your Mom. As I said on Facebook, “My mom was a great person. She always encouraged me to develop my mind and my talents. She loved me. And she taught me to shop.” She really was amazing, and I’m really going to miss her.

Subsequent days have been fine. I may feel different at the funeral (jet-lagged), but for now I feel like I’ve bounced back. In particular, I feel no desire to revert to the comforting myths of the religion of my youth. Quite to the contrary — when someone wrote that Mom was in a ‘better place’, I felt a quiver of very mild exasperation.

This has raised a question for me, though. I’ve often heard that stories of an afterlife serve to ‘comfort’ believers in times of death. So why are the religious members of my family so glum? Of course, we’re all sad because we’re going to miss her. But among all the condolences and the contacts I’ve heard and read, there has been precious little optimism (so far). Why are they expressing sadness at all?

They ought to be delighted! Right now, Mom’s wearing a robe, padding around in little white slippers, waiting to be taken to some kind of veil thing where she can give the handshakes and passwords. Whereupon she will be ushered into a bright white place with tasteful furniture, there to be with my father, her sisters, parents, Jesus, and everyone, for all eternity.

I believed in that story, and I talked with other believers for years, so I think I know the mindset pretty well. When you believe in the supernatural stuff, there’s always some vacillation between certainty and doubt. It comes in cycles. You can have a doubting period, but then you pump yourself up with faith until you’re ‘strong’ again. Maybe some people don’t let themselves doubt, but I’m sure many believers are familiar with what I’m describing.

For me, the conflict ended when I realised that the evidence for gods was poor. The concept of a ‘spirit’, or a little ghost inside of us, was equally unsubstantiated. The sensible explanation was that our brains were the things that produced the sensations of cognition and perception, and when the brain died, perception would simply stop and we would experience nothing. I wasn’t fond of this conclusion (and I’m still not), but I found it to be the explanation that best fit the facts. You could say I ‘took the hit’, and accepted its implications for my life.

As a result, I’ve accepted my Mom’s passing with an equanimity that I couldn’t have mustered in my believing days. I was taking all my time going between belief and doubt. Someone who believes in heaven and an afterlife is just dodging the inevitable conflict. They can’t do the work of accepting the finite nature of human existence because they think they’re going to live forever. Their religion keeps them from accomplishing this very important task of adulthood. They are prevented from growing up.

Me, I’m waking up today and feeling grateful. I’m enjoying all the sensations my body feels. I realise that my life is a tiny blip in an eternity that will go on without me, and I feel happy and amazed that I get to be here on this day that will never come again. I’m tasting food. I’m enjoying the touch of a sweetheart. I’m the guy you saw riding the bicycle too fast, shouting “I’M ALIIIVE!”

For so we are. All of us here today are alive. Let’s get out there and do it.

12 Comments

  1. What a wonderful, beautiful post. I admit I teared up a little bit at the end. Thanks for the inspiration.

  2. I'm sorry for your loss.

  3. When my grandfather died, my mum sent me an e-mail saying that it must be especially difficult for me (more so than it was for them) because I "didn't believe in anything anymore". I responded and said, in fact, it was the exact opposite. I now understand death as I never did before, and I've accepted it. I feel that once you fully accept the fact of your own inevitable ceasing to exist, it's easier to deal with the deaths of others.

    For me too as a Mormon there were always the nagging doubts – what if there is nothing after death? What if this is all there is. Now that I know (as well as we can) that this is actually all there is, I know how to process death. It's still hard, and it's still sad, but it makes sense.

  4. I'm touched by the beautiful memory you have of your mum.

    This topic reminds me that I know nothing about what atheists teach their children. I was raised in a Christian family and I know (or I thought I knew) of how to raise children in Christianity. As a new atheist, I have some ideas but what if I'm wrong and I scar my daughter for life? How should I console her of the loss of our loved ones?
    Telling them that great grandma is now sitting on Jesus' lap is much easier and nicer.

  5. Waaaahoooooo!!! To live, really live, is the greatest testament to those who came before us. This is what I will teach my children. We only have a small time in this wonder we call life and I want them to experience it fully and awake.

  6. I'm sorry for your loss.

    I'm grateful you feel you can publicly share your grief, specifically of death without the pretty, comforting stories of an afterlife.

    I agree that in the case of a family that truly believes in a heavenly afterlife, death should be a cause for celebration, not grief, shouldn't it? Your Mum is finally fulfilling her destiny, isn't she? Unfortunately I think it will just prove to the believing members of your family what a soulless, heartless person you have become since giving away the church.

    A couple years ago a close friend of mine suicided, leaving behind two young children. Mutual friends still sometimes say things like "She is watching over them from above". I feel the frustration of just wanting to snap "No she isn't, she has died. She is longer exists!"

    Death is final. Don't waste this life 'preparing' for the next one. There is no next one.

    Great title, too. Something we shuld all remember, everyday.

  7. I wonder how I will react when I have to face the mortality of a close friend or family member. I noticed that as I read your post I still kept thinking "but hopefully there is something after this?!". Yes I've still got issues.

    Aside from all of that, I really enjoyed reading your post. Your ode to your mothers life is very heartwarming and inspiring. It radiates the love of a son for his mum. It gets me thinking about my son and my daughter, my husband, and all the people that I love. The gift (to people like me) from this event in your life is the remembrance that life is amazing and is happening now. Thanks for the reminder.

  8. I've just been listening to a podcast where a couple talk about their son who died whilst they were in the 'deconversion process'. It was extremely tough on them of course but what struck me just now was that people who attended the funeral commented on how beautiful the ceremony was because everyone shared wonderful things about the young man and rather than the focus being on god or the afterlife, the focus was on this young man and how he had touched everyone else's lives.

  9. Beautiful. To live for life, not for a dream beyond it.

  10. Nice post and I'm sorry you lost your Mum.
    With believers who are fearful of death, is it fear of failing the big exam – of going to hell?

  11. Hi Daniel, a wonderful, moving post. I especially love the image of your flicking your straw, and you cycling while shouting "I'm aliive". Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights at this time.

  12. If either of you know much about Christianity, then you'd know about the Biblical injunction not to go after familiar spirits.

    But never mind. You've given me an idea. See front page.

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