Sketches on Atheism

Can we please have a logical, rational, cosmologically sound conversation about death without all the magical bugaboos?

It’s coming to us all, there’s no avoiding it, and for far too long religion has occupied the high ground in any conversation concerning it. It’s death, and the balance of power swirling around this rather thorny subject has to shift back – radically back – to the rational and real.

Now, let’s face it, it might be a ghoulish thing, an abhorrent interruption to living, but death is not entirely without its funny side. In 456 B.C.E the founder of Greek tragedy, Aeschylus, died rather oddly when a sea eagle mistook the playwright’s bald head for a rock and dropped a tortoise on it. In 207 B.C.E the Greek stoic philosopher, Chrysippus, died of laughter after getting his donkey drunk then watching the inebriated creature trying to eat figs. In 1649 Sir Arthur Aston was beaten to death with his own wooden leg by revolting Parliamentarian soldiers who thought it concealed golden coins. U.S Congressman and lawyer, Clement Vallandigham, shot and killed himself in 1871 while demonstrating to a jury just how his clients pistol could have accidentally misfired. And one can only imagine the last thoughts going through Surinder Singh Bajwa’s head as he fell to his death from the balcony of his Deputy Mayoral office in Delhi while in the throes of fighting off a troupe of attacking Rhesus Macaque monkeys.

“Damn monkeys!” comes to mind, which was presumably the furthest thought on the mind of Marshall Applewhite as he and thirty-eight of his followers ingested poison on the 26th of March, 1997, and prepared themselves to leap on board a spaceship conveniently concealed in the tail of the passing comet, Hale-Bopp. For Applewhite, the founder of Human Individual Metamorphosis – a hybrid Christian apocalyptic UFO crisis cult later renamed Heaven’s Gate – his death was a good thing; a welcomed, self-prescribed, self-described timely “evacuation” before some great cataclysm ruined the planet. Awkwardly for Applewhite this prophesised planetary recycling failed to actually unravel quite as he’d expected, but on the upside he wasn’t around to live with the embarrassment. Surinder Singh Bajwa’s death on the other hand might not have been welcomed but his sudden and unexpected demise at the hands of enraged monkeys did at least spare him the enormous complications often attached to a slow and painfully drawn out death like those experienced by the terminally ill. Be it a doctors ghastly diagnosis or simply the impenetrable wall of old age, forewarnings of approaching death place on most individuals simply mountainous challenges that are not easily overcome.

A neighbour of mine, a woman I know very well and love dearly, is dying. She, let’s call her Helen, isn’t inflicted with a terminal disease, in the time I’ve known her she’s rarely even caught a cold, but at 73 her body is breaking down and in the coming years it will cease to work altogether. The eldest of nine children Helen’s already buried three of her younger siblings and recognises that age is simply catching up with her.

When we first met Helen was not a religious person. Despite being born into a catholic family in the deeply superstitious Brazilian countryside religion had no meaning in her life. She lived, married, worked for most of her adult life, raised a family, entertained a vast network of friends and all of it was done without a thought to the supernatural. In the last two years, however, Helen’s house has become a sort of Christian shrine. Paintings of Mary and Jesus adorn the walls, prayer pamphlets seem to be at arm’s reach around the house, a bible is now always on the dining room table, and CD’s playing sermons spoken by the one-man catholic marketing machine, Padre Marcelo Rossi, fill the air whenever I visit.

My friend knows i have no interest in such things, remembers when she too had no use for them, but we leave it at that. She’s finding solace in religion and surely only a thumping asshole would get in-between an honestly good hearted person and their mental well-being. The question though exists: why is she doing this? Why is this rational woman, a woman who understood the fictional nature of the gods and the snake oil salesmanship of the costumed clergy now turning to them?

Like all good answers this one is decidedly simple: for Helen there is no alternative. It’s the only game in town. There is no other product from which she can garner some sense of comfort and confidence to face her own death. Religion, the catholic religion in this instance for no other reason than it’s the one Helen is most accustomed to, is an insurance policy readily available for individuals facing their annihilation. It is the last stall at an airport departures gate handing out coffee, peanuts and biscuits before a no-frills long-haul flight, and with no other vendors around it’s difficult for a hungry individual like Helen to not take up that which is offered.

The perceived solution, the ‘fix,’ is however an illusion. In all reality it’s not even as good as an illusion. It’s a delusion. A magician can at the very least make an audience believe they’ve seen something that has defied the natural order. Promises as to events taking place after death can boast no such grounding in reality, be it trickery or not. It’s the greatest scam ever tripped over, and what’s more, it’s entirely fool proof. There isn’t a 1800 number or Customer Complaints Desk after you’re dead. There is no ombudsman’s office or consumer protection agency you can go to and lodge a complaint. Another customer is dead and without some product satisfaction feedback there will always be another customer coming right up behind.

That being said, the unavoidable cold hard fact is this: since man became what we consider “man” some 6,600 generations ago roughly 17 billion unique human beings have been born, walked the earth, and have subsequently died. 17 billion and not one of those 17 billion have ever returned to the earth or managed to get some message back to our biosphere to confirm the existence of some ethereal netherworld beyond.

Now understandably there will be those who say, “Hang on, Jesus did!” “Horus did!” “Dionysus did!” “Krishna did!” “Mithra did!” “Baal did, and so did Melqart, Adonis, Gullveig, Eshmun, Jarilo, Kaknu, Attis, Tammuz, Asclepius, Orpheus, Persephone, Ra, Dumuzi, Osiris, Kali, Zalmoxis, and even Lazarus too!” To these people I can only point out the intrinsic difficultly for a fictional character – be it Spiderman, Colonel Kurtz, Jesus or Dionysus – to re-join the living when they’d never actually left the living in the first place.

To be sure I’m no gambler, far from it, but I know enough about betting to say 17,000,000,000 to 0 are terribly long odds against any narcissistically inspired afterlife. Still, these fabulously atrocious odds don’t seem to faze the dying, and the more elaborate the promise the deeper it appears people will buy into them… and toward these ends there is perhaps no other church presently active on the planet that has taken the farce of a promised afterlife to such outer worldly heights as those contained in the uniquely American, Mormon Church.

To put it frankly, when it comes to outlandish postmortem promises the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is in a league quite literally of its own; a mesmerising colossus of outrageous fiction wrapped up in the most ludicrous Christian offshoot to have emerged in recent history. So whacky in fact is Mormonism that in my teens I believed that the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (the twelve-man apex of the LDS Church’s hierarchy presently based in Utah) actually invented The Church of Scientology just so there was a religion conceivably more preposterous than their own. If that had been true, which it isn’t, then the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles failed miserably. Remarkably, L. Ron Hubbard and his Xenu ruled Galactic Confederacy doesn’t even cast a shadow on the LDS church’s founder, Joseph Smith: a 19th Century horse-thief who claimed to have found a series of golden plates inscribed with Egyptianesque hieroglyphics which only he (of course) could interpret by way of magical stones placed at the bottom of a top hat; revelations so absurd it’s honestly difficult to imagine a five year old, let alone a grown adult, falling for them.

It’s fabulous fiction, but unlike a straight-up UFO religion like the Czech founded Universe People who claim extraterrestrials are waiting in orbit around the earth to lift individuals to a higher dimension (a sufficiently obscure promise to fuel devotees imaginations), the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leaves no room for doubt as to what is awaiting the resurrected dead. At death, or more specifically after the dead’s resurrection, the body is zapped back to a better, healthier time; perhaps age 26 when we all had hair, homegrown teeth, an out of control sex drive, and our stomach muscles hadn’t taken an early retirement.

Now provided you actually liked your body in your twenties things only get much better after death according to Smith in Section 76 of his Doctrine and Covenants where he outlines the ‘degrees of glory.’ An entire planet is waiting for you, and not just any planet. Provided you have extra Mormon credit your planet is located in the Celestial Kingdom in orbit around a star called, Kolob. Also in orbit with you is the planet run by Jesus and another by the Mormon God which, like your own, are filled with buxom Mormon beauties – as many as you like, and the more the merrier – ready to service you through eternity and make boatloads of “spirit babies.” Only men (but not black men as they are apparently descendants of Cain) can acquire this celestial harem and spend a blissful eternity in what can only be described as a sort of cosmic, interplanetary, polygamist, whites-only swingers club hosted by none other than Jesus himself.

Cracking!

Millions have bought into this nonsense. Millions who believe that if they just give themselves over to the whims of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (who only ask for 10% of everything dollar you ever earn) that an entire planet furnished with puritan-looking but otherwise magnificently naughty women in orbit around Kolob is waiting for them. Again, the reason why people buy into such foolishness is simple: there is no alternative. Religion has positioned itself in the death marketplace as the only game in town, but that’s not at all entirely true.

If it can be called an alternative there is another game and it thankfully doesn’t involve some absurd promise of well-stocked planets circling a star with a terrible 19th Century science fiction name.  It doesn’t involve a promise at all. It’s fact, and although first touched upon in ancient times it has only been in the last three generations – this golden age of cosmology – that brilliant men and women have come to understand the full extent of its factual grounding. It’s beautiful because its real, it can be touched, and it all boils down to this one seemingly innocuous sentence uttered by the British comedian and one time president of the Cambridge Footlights, David Mitchell: “King Lear is just English words put in order.”

Here’s how that works:

82 generations ago the Greek Atomist Leucippus and in particular his student (a man who’d come to be known as the “laughing philosopher”), Democritus, came awfully close to figuring out the nature of the physical world. It sounds grand, but it is by no means an exaggeration. Without as much as a microscope they tickled and teased at the very fabric of reality, and it all began with a question: If you break a piece of matter in half, and then break it in half again, how many breaks will you have to make before you can break it no further?

Incredibly, the answer they came to was almost entirely correct in the Newtonian concept of the world where physical laws rule supreme. In Leucippus and Democritus’s minds the universe was the composite of tiny, indivisible building blocks, ‘atoms,’ which moved freely through a ‘void’ – everything that wasn’t an atom – bumping into one another and on occasion hooking onto other atoms to form clusters, whereby clusters of clusters fashioned everything in the physical universe. In the atomist’s worldview everything, literally everything except the fundamental, unbreakable building block of the atom itself was an illusion; a pictogram of atomic clusters with no bearing whatsoever between the image and the thing that it truly was. A dog, Democritus would argue, was not really a dog rather a unique suitcase-sized bundle of hooked atoms clustered together in one order and not another so as to create the illusion of a dog.

They were almost right.

What Leucippus and Democritus could not have known was that atoms do not come in just one flavour rather ninety-two, and are in fact protons and neutrons in a positively charged ball, a nucleus, with electrons (equalling the number of protons) whizzing around it. Change the number of protons and neutrons by just one and you get a completely different elemental unit starting from the most abundant and lightest, Hydrogen (one proton, one neutron, and one electron), all the way to the most complex and heaviest, Uranium. Still, the concept of all physical things being little more but a particular arrangement of what they thought was the smallest indivisible building block was pretty much spot on. Of course, deep inside the atom, inside the protons, neutrons and electrons all sorts of craziness is going on. It’s a veritable particle zoo of increasing oddity, but at the super-atomic level these two giants of critical thought were certainly barking up the right tree.

Regretfully for us all, Leucippus and Democritus’s work would be dismissed by Aristotle and essentially lost to the Western psyche until the English chemist, John Dalton, discovered “lumpy particles” in chemical experiments conducted in the very early stages of 1800’s and got to thinking. Remarkably, though, the Greeks were not however the first spearhead to penetrate the fabric of the natural world. Seven generations earlier and 5,000 kilometres to the east an extraordinary champion of the human species opened his mind and accidently found himself holding the very nature of physical reality. That towering figure was Yāska, the Vedic grammarian and author of the Nirukta; a technical treatise on etymology, lexical categorisation, and the semantics of words.

An unlikely hero, but a hero just the same.

Unawares of what he would soon discover, Yāska’s work began as an urgent response to a very real problem: the spoken language of his day had drifted away from the almost perfectly preserved Vedic language alive in the ancient Vedas – orally transmitted canonical scriptures, the formative creation myths of Hinduism  – rendering entire passages of the hymns obscure at best and unintelligible at worst. In Yāska’s day, as noted by the Buddhist author Jayarava, there were no books, no dictionaries or grammars. “One met texts orally, and could only study them once they were memorised.” Yāska’s solution to the problem would go on to form the foundation of contemporary studies in cognitive linguistics and semantics, including phonetics, grammar, syntax, lexicography and morphology. It was Yāska who first categorised nāma (nouns), ākhyāta (verbs), upasarga (prefixes), and nipāta (particles and prepositions). He created ontological categories to describe actions (bhāva) with past, present and future connotations. He formulated grammatical aspect, the murta, which identified perfective and imperfective situations. In all, it was Yāska who first looked at the entire lexicon of language and wrestled it into a system of understanding which we still use today.

An astonishing man, but his true stroke of genius came in the seemingly elementary conclusion that words, not sentences, were the fundamental carriers of meaning. That is to say, words were the primary element, or prakṛti, of reality. Words, like Democritus’s atom, were the smallest indivisible unit where clusters of words arranged in a certain way following certain grammatical systems – laws – formed a sentence whose meaning was intended but entirely unique to its constituent parts.

It sounds intuitively simple, almost childish, but Yāska had arrived at atomism. Reality, he saw, was nothing but the arrangement of tiny units clustered together to fashion the meaningful universe. Arrange words in a certain way and one external meaning is derived. Arranged in another way the same words produced another meaning altogether. Linked to suffixes and prefixes and the meaning of the sentence would change again, and reality with it.

Or in other words, the supremely complex King Lear is just 5,939 English words put in one order, and not another.

I’m 30,000,000,000,000 words put in one order, and not another. That’s to say, I’m 30,000,000,000,000 cells. Vastly more complex than the 5,939 words that make up King Lear, but also frightfully less stable.

I was born at 6.23am on the 19th of May, 1970, and since then I have been entirely, completely, and categorically remade from the inside out four or five times. That’s not a philosophy rather an observed fact. Not one cell in my body today was present that breakfast time forty-two years ago, and although not noticing it I have in effect physically died and been resurrected at least five times. After roughly every 7 to 10 years every cell in a healthy human body has been replaced. Some organs and tissue of course churn through the replacements faster than others – drinkers will be pleased to learn the liver replaces itself every thirty days – but as a rule of thumb every decade the body, including the computer that is the brain, has physically remade itself.

Or at least sort of.

The pulmonary trunk heart cell being fashioned inside me right now to replace one that’s perhaps 4 years old and fast approaching its use-by date will not, sadly, be made as “new.” Instead it will be a heart cell with all new parts – new molecular strings – pretending to be forty-two years old. Presently that’s not so terrible, although I wouldn’t say no to the lungs and lower back I had at 17 but failed to appreciate at the time. The cell is new, yes, but it is a copy of the used cell. Age is not reversed. No organism lives ten years then remakes itself as it was; younger and healthier. It sounds counterintuitive but ailments, diseases, rot, and scar tissue are all reconstructed with brand new material and provided I last that long in forty years’ time my body will produce another brand spanking new pulmonary trunk heart cell although that one will be pretending to be a cranky eighty-two year old wandering aimlessly, mumbling incoherently, possibly void of pants, and presumably looking for soup.

Dive a little deeper and things get even looser and even more transient. Presently I’m composed of about 7, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 flavoured atoms bundled together to make up those 30,000,000,000,000 cells. Virtually every one of those atoms – 98% of them – will have divorced me by this time next year. The atoms presently making my left elbow today (an energetic handbag of mostly oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and calcium) have absolutely no relation to the elbow that existed 12 months ago. In this sense, at the atomic level, I’ve been remade – reborn – over forty-two times since that May 19th.

Admittedly, that is a bit farfetched. Atoms don’t just pack their bags and vacate in one foul swoop like 7 billion, billion, billion lemmings jumping off a cliff all at once. They come and go quite fluidly through every sandwich we eat, every breath we take, every trip to the toilet we make, and every kiss we plant. The carbon atoms though that make my left elbow today are not pretending to be forty-two years old. They’re just being an atom, ageless in any true sense of the word but with a sort of birth as the discarded waste product of helium fusion and, if the conditions are right, a sort of death in their own fusion into sodium and neon.

It’s something my friend Helen should know.

As death however gets closer the more inclined my friend is to accept the promises contained in the sermons she now listens to, and the more sermons she listens to the less willing she becomes to question the promises contained within. She is, in effect, turning her back on observed reality, and she is doing so because a part of her fears those 5,939 words that make up King Lear will be scattered and forgotten forever. The branch of Yahwehism she has turned to promises that won’t happen. What she is being told is that at death her King Lear – her self – will not be thrown to the wind rather moved complete to another library, a beautiful space free from the tyranny’s of existence here and which is kept by the Librarian of Librarians, a chap named Yahweh.

As a happy sceptic – a humanist, an atheist – I am under no such delusion. I see no evidence for a Librarian of Librarians and cannot see why a universe would even require one. No permanent editions of King Lear exist to catalogue and watch over. Every new edition, every life form, every star, every planet no matter how magnificent is destined to be broken apart and its remnants remade into something new according to conditions we cannot predict. My King Lear, just like our planet and our nearest star will be disbanded, scrambled and ejected to go on and make (I hope) even better stories for just as long as the conditions are right to do so, and to those ends I have a great deal of confidence. In fact, not only do I have forty-two years of personal evidence of just that happening at the cellular and atomic levels, I have 13.7 billion years of evidence unravelling on truly majestic scales telling me the same thing.

Stars died so I could be here to understand why they died, and if we are to then consider the question, what is life, the best possible answer we get from this golden age of cosmology is as simple as it is elegant: Life is the Universe trying to understand itself. It’s an experiment that started 13.3 billion years ago when the first stellar masses took smaller, lighter stuff and began making it into more complex, heavier stuff:  hydrogen to helium, helium into carbon and oxygen, nitrogen to magnesium, to neon, to sodium, aluminium, sulphur, and all the way up to the 26th element, iron: the star killer. The experiment could have all ended there at iron, but it didn’t. In the outrageous conditions found in a supernova are forged the next 66 heavier than iron elements: 99% of all the stuff that not only makes up our planet, but us as well.

I rejoice that I’m a part of that experiment. My involvement will be brief, but hopefully meaningful. For this reason I see it as a duty to be cheerleader for those out ahead of me, and a doorman – or perhaps one day even a doormat – for those coming up from behind.

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7 thoughts on “Can we please have a logical, rational, cosmologically sound conversation about death without all the magical bugaboos?

  1. This is the finest piece I have read in my lifetime. An eye-opener. Well-researched and neatly constructed. I understand your angst, your frustration with ignorance abundant around us hence you abuse. I have been wanting to say this, but fearing I will lose a good friend (i already consider you one) i opted not to say but i should right now. If need be, please edit my comment or delete it. Whatever you think right.

    Take away the venting out. People are fools and they are inapt to make sense of what you are aware of. You are hard-pressed to make people see the light, the truth but it’s a hard task not a futile one. Take away the abuses out of your posts like this particular one I’ll have to read probably 100 times to absorb a sea of information you have allowed readers to experience. Pure facts and the ending especially is overwhelming. You are a good soul, John.

    To my understanding, when a person is old, he or she cannot fathom the fact they will be finished. Gone, no trace. Religion offers them a respite, a candy. Their souls will live on and become one with God if their deeds are right, as instructed by the book, written by ones who saw a way to control mankind. It’s like if you want to be in the football team, follow the coach. Hence the web, we willingly or not fall in that trap, in old age especially.

    My apologies if i have wronged in my response, in my understanding of you or this post.

    Warm Regards

    Arjun

    P.S. It’s 3 in the night. I will see you here after a few hours of sleep.

    Like

    • Wow! That’s quite a reply. I’m honoured, but i seriously doubt its the best piece you’ve ever read. Still, the sentiment means a lot. I consider you a friend too. Funny how that happens. A very pleasant surprise. Arjun, a poet can’t wrong anyone. That’s the beauty and power of the poet… He holds up the mirror. Nothing more, nothing less, and you sir do it brilliantly!

      Like

      • It is the best piece, I have read so far. I reiterate.
        I am so proud of your new post.
        What are your views on Einstein?

        Like

      • Einstein? To be honest i’ve never read a book on the man. I loved the movie Eddington and Einstein and that gave a wonderful insight into his life. As for his work: a genius seems to be the word that comes to mind. Recasting human thought to see space and time as a physical fabric was astonishing, to say the least. Cosmologically speaking we haven’t gotten much past that yet. We need a theory of quantum gravity, and until that gets nailed down we won’t have a unified theory of everything. What’s your views?

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      • I find his views on atheism/God quite interesting.
        As far as science goes, I am at a nascent level, though I realize I need to catch up soon to strengthen my views on atheism.
        You could suggest me what or whom to read

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      • For me the launching pad into ‘academic’ atheism was Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. It cast the dye, so to speak, for everything that followed. I haven’t read the God Delusion but it seems a lot of people quote it. Trust me on the Selfish Gene (Pub. 1979), though. For cosmology you really can’t go past Brian Cox. He has such a wonderful way of molding such a huge topic into something manageable that its hard to pass over. It was from his mouth i first heard the sentence: Life is the universe trying to understand itself. His book, Wonders of the Universe, is a great overview. It’s the word version of his excellent BBC series.

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