April 26, 2009

Death and the False Comfort of Faith

Philippe <span class=Image via Wikipedia

It has been less than 48 hours since my grandmother died, and I know full well that this is not enough time to give me much perspective. I write this more in the hopes that it will be cathartic and that it may provide me with something to which I can later return when I have more perspective. Coming to terms with the death of a loved one is a gradual process, and one which I am merely beginning.

Our collective inability to deal with death in industrialized Western cultures is a central component in many psychological theories and is widely considered to be one of the factors maintaining the cultural importance of religious belief. We are so uncomfortable with the reality of our mortality that we resort to a variety of mental gymnastics to keep this reality at bay. These range from subtle psychological defenses to the actual conjuration of supernatural entities on which we impose human characteristics.

I have to say that I understand the appeal of telling myself that my grandmother is "in a better place" even though I know this is false. There is no better place unless one wants to argue that nonexistence is somehow superior to existence. But if I could somehow make myself believe this falsehood, I see how it might make me feel better, at least temporarily. Of course, so would a variety of substances that I no longer ingest, so that is a pretty weak case.

I also understand how my grandmother's strong Christian faith helped to comfort her, at least initially, as she came to terms with her impending death. Wait a second, you say, aren't such beliefs supposed to bring peace right up to the moment of death? Aren't we always hearing about atheists finding (only the Christian) god on their deathbeds? Sadly, my grandmother showed me that this is just another convenient fiction manufactured by Christians as a way of avoiding the reality of death.

You see, this devout Christian woman who had been "blessed" with good health and a sharp mind well into her 90s died slowly, gasping for air as her lungs gradually filled with fluid and her heart failed. Those with her as she died told me that she was conscience, terrified, and repeatedly called on her god to help her. This went on for more than a week. Evidently her god had better things to do.

My mother was there at the bedside to witness this torturous experience. It was what she wanted, but she was clearly traumatized by the experience. It was frustrating that the doctors would give my grandmother just enough morphine to make it possible for her to breathe but not enough to do anything about the pain. As ridiculous at it sounds, they were worried it might kill her. Remind me to eat a gun well before it gets to that point.

Contrary to what our culture insists, death is not a pretty experience. Only a tiny minority die peacefully in their sleep in familiar surroundings. I had hoped that my grandmother would be one, but her destiny lay with most of the rest of us: prolonged agony.

How then, can Christians praise a god who lets this happen to so many? It must be that the comfort of the "better place" delusion outweighs the reality of the suffering. But this is only a guess on my part. In truth, I have no idea how anyone could find such a god anything but worthy of contempt and disgust.

I'll tell you one thing - since the Christian god doesn't seem to give a damn about how much suffering we humans must endure, we had better figure out how to legalize assisted suicide and make it more accessible. Nobody deserves to go out this way, and they shouldn't have to.

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