Wednesday, September 09, 2015
Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God by Greta Christina (Book Review #72 of 2015)
Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God
I read this book about mourning in an attempt to compare an atheist philosophy on death and mourning with a Christian philosophy/theology of mourning as found in C.S. Lewis' A Grief Observed, which I read together with Greta Christina's work. This review and my review of Lewis' book should be read in parallel.
The author has two missions with this book, the first is to put forth an atheist philosophy on death and grief and to be critical of Christian approaches to death and Christian disrespect toward atheists who are mourning. She definitely has an axe to grind as far as Christians are concerned. I think the book is shallow on the philosophy side because the author never bothers to engage with the vast amount that has been written by philosophers over the ages. Wouldn't one want to quote Aristotle, Aquinas, anybody? But she does little of this, reasoning on her own and making logical errors along the way. At least show your manuscript to someone with a degree in philosophy for editing...
Christina writes that loss and death mark the passing of time, they're necessary for progress. If things stayed as they were then we would have no new technology, no new points of view. Death, then, is essentially the opposite side of the coin of progress. We want a progressive world that changes, and death is what makes it possible.
There is "no meaning" to death, and the atheist can "take comfort" in this. To an atheist there is no objective meaning to life-- we are all just a collection of molecules which will one day be spread about the universe. There is no soul, no afterlife, no eternity that we'll consciously be a part of. She writes that "We create our own meaning for life." A glaring weakness of the book is that she does not deal with the logical conclusion from that statement-- why, then, does anyone have a right or a purpose to live? Maybe I think your meaning for life is incorrect, when we all create our own "meaning" then there is no objective measure. Why do we bother trying to rescue or resuscitate someone we've found in a suicide attempt? To follow Christina's logic, the proper thing to do would be to allow that person to assign their own value and meaning to life and allow them to die since they obviously assigned less value to living than they did dying.
Similarly, perhaps I have power and deem you to be a threat to my value of life, your molecules are not as good as mine. Then why shouldn't I simply scatter your molecules abroad without consequence? Atheist physicist/philosopher Alan Lightman at least presents this contradiction in his book The Accidental Universe-- he wants to believe that his daughter's life is precious and means something, but then remembers that she came from random molecules and will return to scattered molecules-- nothing more. Christina does not seem that well-read or have had a course on logic, she doesn't understand that not all ideas are equally valid. She, like Lightman, writes that "life is precious" but does not explain why-- if life and death have no absolute meaning then how can she call it "precious?" That's illogical. (She mentions Christian philosopher William Lane Craig but appears not to have read him.)
Yet, somehow for the author the "finality of death gives meaning and motivation to life." I suppose this means you are living to die? Is the goal to mark as much off your "bucket list" as possible? But again, life is absurd if we're simply a random collection of molecules who happen to exist in a state we consider "consciousness" for a brief moment of time. Why obey anyone's laws if I think I know better than they do? What right do you have to tell me otherwise? If I truly have no fear of the consequences of my actions because there is no eternity to deal with them, then I am likely to take actions that Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins argue radical Christians and Muslims take in the name of religion.
Christina is correct to point out that Christians seem logically inconsistent in their grieving, which is one reason I wanted to explore a theology of mourning (and found C.S. Lewis' book rather satisfying). Why do Christians mourn the loss of fellow Christians if they think they're in a heavenly paradise? Why do they take such extreme measures to keep people like Terry Schiavo alive? In some cases, the author suffers from fundamental attribution error-- the sample of Christians she has seen may not be representative of the whole. Christians know that we do not mourn as those who have no hope (1 Cor. 13), and that we have a promise of a better future. We can grieve because we see daily reminders of the consequence of sin-- that is why death exists in the first place. But we ultimately embrace the promises of Romans 8, that God is working everything for His glory, our good, and that He knows best. But she cites an interesting study suggesting a negative correlation between after-life belief and end-of-life medical expenditures, wills, and living wills. If true, it suggests hypocrisy among believers, a callousness toward the costs their deaths will impose on loved ones.
The author ultimately errs, like many Americans, in making her starting point theologically to be herself. "If God loves us, how can he do ______, because _____ hurts me." They cannot reconcile why "bad things happen," and reject or become angry with God. The Bible that Christians read says that God does things to bring glory to Himself and that man exists to glorify God and(by) enjoy(ing) Him forever. The starting point our theology should be God and not ourself. The author clearly errs and accuses God of being a "cosmic jerk," to put it mildly-- she's pretty profane in her accusations. This extends to her understanding of the Christian afterlife, she agrees with Christopher Hitchens that heaven "sounds like North Korea," where people must be brainwashed to be ignorant or unmindful of their loved ones who supposedly are burning in hell for eternity. This, again, makes our comfort and happiness above that of God's. It is difficult to comprehend, I agree, but the Bible shows us that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. Our love for Him and satisfaction in His glory, is such as to outweigh the pain we might feel-- here in this life or there. God wipes away every tear (Rev 21). (There is also much written about eternally learning and exploring the new earth, it's not like we're not still growing holistically after we die).
The author fully acknowledges the fear of death by atheists as "natural," it's biological instinct towards self-preservation. But atheists ultimately have it easier, death is just death and there are no consequences to think about. But she rejects her understanding of the Christian view of the afterlife. She cites many examples of Christians who were callous towards atheists who had died, ignoring their explicit written wishes not to be eulogized by a pastor, for example. She does show a misunderstanding of the Gospel, that we do nothing to merit God's grace and our sins are forgiven because of Christ's death, burial, and resurrection. He has conquered death, so it has no "sting" (1 Cor. 15:55). So, in many areas she is attacking a straw man of a false gospel.
Paul wrote in Romans 1, and Christians therefore believe, that creation is evidence of God's power and provision for all, so that no man has an excuse for not believing in God. Christina admonishes the Christian that this simply isn't true-- the "no atheists in foxholes" bit is a lie. When she is grieving the loss of someone, she simply does not want some rude Christian to tell her what he thinks she's actually thinking. I respect her statement, my own youthful callousness comes to mind. As C.S. Lewis writes, grief is not a state but a process, and that process deserves respect and not a sermon. But I have to side with Romans 1, ultimately. If your statement that "life is precious" logically contradicts your statement that life has no objective meaning or value and therefore "death has no meaning," then I think you are ignoring the contradictions-- suppressing truth.
In all, I give this book 2 stars out of 5. I might give it to someone to illustrate an example of shallow and incomplete philosophy with logical contradictions and whose conclusions are unsatisfying to me. It doesn't matter if it comes from a physicist with a PhD or a well-meaning woman who makes valid points about the logically inconsistent behavior within the sample of religious people she has encountered. I'd love to invite her to experience life for a while with those who believe they have found it more abundantly (John 10:10).