This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anesthetic from which none come round
- Philip Larkin ‘Aubade’
I’m unsure Larkin was right about what we fear. On the surface of things he seems to get to root of the matter. The idea of not existing is a troubling one. But are there ways of thinking about not existing which might make the idea bearable?
One of the (so-called) ‘new’ atheists, Sam Harris, said – and was quite amusing when he said it – that if a person really can’t imagine the world without them in it, then it must be just from want of trying. There were a few laughs from the audience. In the example I’m thinking of Harris suggested the crowd think about the city of Paris, and how Paris was getting along just fine without anyone from the crowd in it. He certainly had a point. Another way of putting it is to ask people to think about the world before they were born. The person’s town or village was getting along happily, and so were the cities and other people in it. It seems correct to think about matters in this way, because the world was getting along nicely before you were born, but thinking this way doesn’t quite dissolve the problem.
The idea of not existing could mean several things to a person. That you can even have the idea means you exist. So it appears – after thinking about Paris and the years before you were born – that the problem isn’t quite a world in which you don’t exist, the problem is more a world in which you don’t exist after having existed. That seems to be closer to the point, and it’s that idea which needs examining.
Larkin was an atheist, and the last four lines are odd ones for an atheist to have written. The last line – especially the word ‘anesthetic’ – carries a thought which could have been pushed further. An atheist might fear what Larkin describes, but an atheist also knows he won’t actually experience being dead, which means there is no reason to have this fear: if you have fear you know you don’t need to have, then you are choosing to have it because you prefer having it. I mean to say, why fear something you know you will never experience? This ‘fear’ of something you won’t and can’t experience, then, might not be ‘our’ problem. It’s more likely that the real point is as I described it, or as the late Christopher Hitchens put it ‘You get tapped on the shoulder and told, “the party’s going on without you, and you have to leave.”’
(He then amusingly offered the religious version for comparison: ‘The party’s going on forever, and you can’t leave.’) But why do we care if we won’t know we’ve left? It doesn’t make sense to ‘fear’ not being at the party because we know we won’t know we’re not there: we won’t know we’re missing anything. Is what Larkin calls ‘fear’ really a form of cheap resentment, a type of childish foot-stamping? Is the ‘fear’ an expression from a part of the mind which hasn’t grown up? One can easily imagine an irritated child having a little tantrum ‘Oh my God it’s so unfair! when told that playtime’s over.
To ask a person ’Do you believe in God’ could get you any number of responses, though a common one is the one which says ‘Well, I don’t believe in God but I do believe in something. I don’t think this (motions to surroundings) is the end.’ It’s a barely disguised way of saying ‘I don’t like the idea of death, so have told myself we don’t die.’ Larkin’s fourth line is true of all religions. I don’t know any religion which says the universe was created by a loving god who answers prayers and what not, yet has designed things so that – although he loves you while you are here – death is the end. Such a religion wouldn’t catch on.
All religions are predicated on the survival of death. Licensing that idea, allowing it to be reinforced through groupthink (or ‘worship’ if you really must), is what you get in return for your critical faculties, money and obedience. Yet if Larkin’s ‘fear’ is a form of intellectualised, disguised tantrum, then it’s certainly true that atheism is not an automatically superior worldview to the religious one. One could say of the atheist that he isn’t confusing what he believes is true with what he hopes is true, but doing that, and on its own, might not make you the full grown up.
Is there a difference between knowing you are going to die and accepting it?