Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Nothing To Fear

Evangelist Billy Graham has a syndicated daily column, although it currently consists of re-runs from 2008. (I doubt that Graham, now 92 years old and in poor health, does much writing any more.) Yesterday's column dealt with atheism, a topic that Graham has addressed several times previously. The version I found on ArcaMax.com was titled simply "Are There More Atheists Than There Used to Be?", but the Kansas City Star displayed the column under the header "Atheism can't answer life's questions," and TheTownTalk.com ("Serving Alexandria, Pineville and Central Louisiana") used the title "Atheism ends in despair." (The latter two titles are paraphrases of comments that Graham made in the column.)

Statements like these make me wonder if Graham ever bothered to actually talk to any of these despairing atheists of whom he wrote. Of course we freethinkers are subject to all the same anxieties and misfortunes that befall everybody else, and—like everybody else, including Christians—some of us have to deal with serious mental health issues like clinical depression. I know lots of atheists, though, and I see no more despair in them than I do in believers. I'm reminded of the following story, which I've heard from multiple sources:
A woman who had labored against Christianity was on her death bed. Her unbelieving acquaintances, fearing that at the end she would renounce her infidelity, urged her to "hold on to the last." "Yes," she said, "I have no objection to holding on; but will you tell me what I am to hold on to?"
(This version is from "Studies in the Shorter Catechism" by the Rev. John H. Skilton, which appeared in the October 10, 1936 edition of The Presbyterian Guardian.)

Like any good skeptic, I'm willing to follow where the evidence leads. Can anybody can provide me with statistics on "despair" in atheists, or details of a conversation like the one described above that actually occurred between two non-believers, one of them dying? If not, I'd label the story as "apocryphal," the sort of parable that believers compose to assure themselves that there's some point to all the time, effort, and money that they invest in their faith.

Billy Graham's daughter Gigi has said of her father, "It’s not death that scares him; it’s the dying process." Most atheists, including myself, probably feel the same way, although for different reasons. Graham reportedly looks forward to "going home to heaven" to rejoin his late wife Ruth, while we non-believers expect that our "after-life" will be pretty much the same as our "before-life"...in other words, non-existence. Several Christian sects define "hell" not as "eternal torture" but as "eternal separation from God" (a doctrine known as annihilationism). If you regard your entire existence on Earth as preparation for your "real" life, then I guess that eternal separation from God would be quite a letdown...if you were able to experience it at all. For myself, I'm sure I'll be sad when I know that my life is nearing its end ("There is never enough time to do or say all the things that we would wish"), and I hope I won't be in too much pain or a burden to others, but beyond that, I'm not worried. Nothingness is nothing to fear.

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