The other day on my way to work, NPR featured a report on the much publicized feud between esteemed atheist author Christopher Hitchens and his brother Peter, a devout Anglican who believes that the sheer presence of morality necessitates the existence of God. His brother Christopher could not disagree more, just look to his bestseller God is Not Great if you are looking for proof of that!
For the most part, Christopher Hitchens and I disagree, but as part of the interview Hitchens revealed some of his own vulnerability in discussing his bout with cancer and his potential demise, saying this, “The psychological makeup of [facing death] is roughly the same whether you assume a supernatural dimension or not.” Hitchens contends that the emotions of impending death are tantamount whether someone believes in God and an afterlife or if they are a pure atheist, like himself (read the full article, “Hitchens Brothers Agree to Disagree Over God” at NPR).
I agree with Hitchens.
Again, for clarity’s sake; I agree with Hitchens.
The emotions that one faces when dealing with a potentially deadly illness or is on one’s death bed are the same whether one is a Christian, a Buddhist, an atheist, agnostic or something else entirely. The emotions are equal in intensity and it would be unfair to say that Christians don’t have those emotions, or, as some have assumed of Hitchens, that atheists are indifferent towards death because there is neither something to fear or something to look forward to.
However, the way an individual resolves those emotions is an entirely different matter.
Being a public figure, and at that a very contentious one, who also happens to be going through a very public fight with a terminal illness, Hitchens naturally garners the mass public’s attention.
I don’t want there to be a mix up with what the truth of the matter is. So let’s clear it up.
Hitchens assumes that the emotions of facing death are the same for people of religion or not. To that point he is correct. It is not clear whether he assumes that the way a person deals with those emotions is the same across religious and secular lines. Knowing his work I would assume that he posits that religion is useless when it comes to dealing with the emotions of death, or at the very least, not necessary.
To answer that challenge I turn to research published by Kathryn L. Braun and Ana Zir in the December 2001 edition of the Death Studies Journal.Their report included case studies of Christian people facing death in Honolulu hospitals. These individuals then received spiritual care from local clergy. Although all reported feelings of fear and uncertainty concerning their death, the vast majority of them felt a certain sense of resolve after receiving spiritual counseling from the clergy. The conclusion was that Christian clergy visitation near the end of life can indeed play a role in achieving a “good” death in the eyes of end of life care providers. They noted that Christian clergy and end of life counseling helped those dying resolve both spiritual and practical death issues, facilitated a process of reconciliation and forgiveness between the ill and their estranged family or friends and helped guide attitudes related to dying and death in a positive direction among both the dying and the bereaving.
Now, all of these people were Christian. How this would play out with atheists I do not know.
But I do know this. Mr. Hitchens I agree with you. Death is a scary, intimidating, confusing and disheartening event. My thoughts and prayers are with you (for what that is worth) as you struggle with cancer, death and epistemology at such a time. It is my sincere hope that you survive. Yet, I cannot help but disagree with the inference behind your statement, because in reality faith does play a tangible role in helping people deal with death in a positive way. For that matter it helps deal well with the end of life, aiding the dying in forgiving past wrongs and reconciling differences. I am glad you and your brother are coming to a point of agreement about your disagreements, and I have no doubt that atheists can deal well with their emotions at death as well.
But ask yourself this, as you continually decry the mythic fairy tales of religion and call for its worldwide cessation might you concede that religion plays a positive role in helping people deal with death and see to a positive end to their life?
I think that’s a point we can both agree on and sincerely hope we will.