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That Night Is Not Good


David Dvorkin

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
   -- Dylan Thomas

The topic of fearing death seems to have popped up again in atheist publications and online areas, as it does occasionally. It seems to be the conventional wisdom that a real atheist shouldn't fear death but should anticipate it with a calmness and equanimity that I find creepy. Carl Sagan while dying, supposedly told his wife that he didn't fear the death he knew was near, and his fellow atheists are supposed to admire and emulate that attitude.

Of course, just as much as anyone else, atheists fear the nasty end of life. During his agonizing final hours, the atheist Charles Darwin said to his very Christian wife, "If I could but die!" Dreading the suffering that's so common is natural enough. Where the conventional atheist position differs from the conventional monotheist one has to with the attitude toward what comes after.

The standard argument against fearing death seems to be that, since we won't exist and thus will have no consciousness of being dead, what is there to fear? How can you fear nonexistence? A couple of hundred years ago or so, Jeremy Bentham put it this way: "People who do not believe in life after death do not fear being dead, but believers fear punishment more than they hope for bliss." A century earlier, Francis Bacon said something similar: "Men fear death as children fear to go in the dark; and as that natural fear in children is increased by tales, so is the other." So you see, if you don't think there are bogeymen in the dark, if in fact you think the darkness is simple oblivion, you will have no fear of it.

To which, Francis and Jeremy, I am compelled to reply, "Bullshit." And I also wonder just how many of my fellow atheists really do contemplate their own deaths with calmness and equanimity and how many dread and fear it and anticipate it with utter horror, as I do.

Now, by that I don't mean that I secretly fear that the monotheists are right and I'll find myself, after death, facing a terrible judge who will condemn me to hell for not going to weekly religious services. That's the idea behind Pascal's wager, and it's logically foolish. No, the problem is that the reasons given not to fear death miss the point: what I, and surely others, fear is precisely the loss of life. I love life and don't want it to end.

Nor does it work to say that when I'm dead I won't know that I'm not alive and therefore I won't regret not being alive. The point is that I know about it now, and the anticipation of life ending fills me with horror now. I can't understand why anyone who loves life doesn't feel the same way. The light is so beautiful. How can you not rage against its dying? We should all see death as an affront.

Oh, and it's also not good enough to say that we'll live on through the fond memories of those we've touched. That's nice, but I want to be there to keep interacting with them. I'm also not comforted by the hope that I'll live on in some way via some general effect on the world. Of course I'd like to think that people will be reading my written works far into the future, but even if that happens, that won't change the fact that I won't be there to enjoy it. I love the way Woody Allen put it: "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying."

This isn't a feeling that's come over me with advancing age. I've felt this way since I first understood mortality and realized that it applied to me. Immortality in various guises shows up in my fiction from the earliest stuff I wrote. It's been an obsession of mine for decades. Actually, I shouldn't call it an obsession. It's a sign of mental health. After all, I'm the only me I've got!

Another argument I've heard, what you could call the Just Who Do You Think You Are argument, says that death is natural and applies to everyone. Live your life and get out of the way. What makes you so important? Why should you keep on living and using up resources? That is in effect an argument for immediate suicide. It's certainly an argument against modern medicine and tornado warning systems. Emphasize the naturalness of death and the position becomes an argument against clothing, houses, agriculture, eyeglasses, and so on.

Of course, people say, we all want to protect ourselves against premature death. But what constitutes a premature death? Even putting aside murder, accident, and disease, we can expect longer lives and a less unpleasant old age than people in Darwin's or Bentham's or Bacon's times. Based on family history and my own health, I can probably expect to live into my nineties, possibly even to 100. If tomorrow medical science were to come up with a daily pill that extended that by ten years of mentally vigorous life, would any fellow atheist tell me it would be wrong for me take it? What if next year the pill were improved so that it added twenty years instead of ten? And then Version 3.0 added 30 years, and so on. At what magical point would the extension of life become unnatural or in some other way undesirable? Choosing such a point would be magical thinking, to my mind.

Well, if you feel obligated to die in order to free up resources for future generations, then go right ahead. As for me, I want that magic pill, and I want it now.

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