I’m an athe­ist, and com­fort­able with it in the same way that I’m com­fort­able about being a left-​​handed, bisex­ual male.

But one of the hur­dles I had to jump dur­ing my slow sur­ren­der of reli­gios­ity was the con­cept of after­life. It’s hard some­times to tol­er­ate the real­ity that this life is all there is. There are plenty of peo­ple whom I believe should suf­fer for the mis­ery they’ve caused; and oth­ers whom I believe should be rewarded. That this will never hap­pen is not always easy to deal with.

That, plus the knowl­edge of the extinc­tion of con­scious­ness. It’s not even the desire to live — for me, at least — so much as the cer­tainty that I’ll be miss­ing some really great stuff in a cou­ple hun­dred years, like rea­son­able inter­plan­e­tary travel, teeny weensy com­put­ers that are embed­ded directly into the cor­tex, and maybe even a work­ing jet­pack, at last.

So this seems like a rel­e­vant ques­tion to ask. Suppose there are two peo­ple who are essen­tially the same. Same age, about the same wealth, same quan­tity of life expe­ri­ences, same health insur­ance, same fam­ily sat­is­fac­tion. They’re both in their 80s when they’re diag­nosed as hav­ing pan­cre­atic can­cer. They’re given the options of increasingly-​​drastic inter­ven­tional treat­ment to fore­stall what is, in essence, the inevitable; or pal­lia­tive care to pro­vide com­fort and a mea­sur­able hope at death with dignity.

Well, okay, there’s one impor­tant dif­fer­ence between them — one is an athe­ist, and the other believes in a god/​dess/​es.

Which per­son will choose the dras­tic treat­ment course, try­ing as hard as pos­si­ble for as long as pos­si­ble to avoid his own death — and which one will accept the pal­lia­tive care, accept­ing the end with resolve?

If you thought the reli­gious per­son would be more accept­ing of his death, you wouldn’t be alone in that assump­tion — it’s what I would have guessed, speak­ing in gen­eral terms — but you’d be wrong, as the Beeb reports in a study whose results are gen­uinely sur­pris­ing to me.

Those who reg­u­larly prayed were more than three times more likely to receive inten­sive life-​​prolonging care than those who relied least on reli­gion. […] The researchers from the Dana-​​Faber Cancer Institute found these peo­ple were the least likely to have filled in a “do not resus­ci­tate” order.

This is actu­ally a sig­nif­i­cant issue, because dras­tic inter­ven­tional treat­ment is almost cer­tainly not con­sis­tent with improv­ing qual­ity of life (or expe­ri­ence, at any rate) for patients in end-​​of-​​life situations.

Eking out a few more days or weeks of life is not in itself the issue; it’s the level of suf­fer­ing brought about in doing so that makes it ques­tion­able. That is, if you’re in a state of con­stant pain that even drugs can’t address, immo­bi­lized in a bed and eat­ing, breath­ing, drink­ing, piss­ing and shit­ting through tubes, is it really worth it to keep going?

I’d think not, but what’s amaz­ing to me is that many reli­gious peo­ple would appar­ently disagree.

Some of this, no doubt, comes from the reli­gious idea of life being sacred. Simply “giv­ing up” would, from that point of view, be a mis­take, pos­si­bly an unfor­giv­able sin. I think this per­spec­tive is naïve, though, because there is a dif­fer­ence between “giv­ing up” and accept­ing the real­ity of death’s inevitabil­ity in all cir­cum­stances.

The urge to live is nat­ural and nor­ma­tive. But this has to be bal­anced against rea­son­able expec­ta­tions for sur­vival ver­sus suf­fer­ing and recov­ery — or we end up with hideous deba­cles such as brain-​​dead peo­ple being kept “alive” on ven­ti­la­tors for years after any hope of men­tal re-​​awakening has faded.

The find­ings also sur­prised me because reli­gion assures its prac­ti­tion­ers of a here­after, which will be free from suf­fer­ing and sor­row, assum­ing proper piety; I’d imag­ine some­one fac­ing the prospect of unbear­able agony in life would be wholly pre­pared to move on to what­ever they believed came next. Yet, rather than has­ten­ing to meet their deity of choice, the reli­giously inclined seem to be more afraid of dying than any­one else.

This is some­thing (as the report sug­gests) that really should be addressed by clergy, I think. There seems to be some evi­dence offered here that reli­gion really doesn’t help when fac­ing the big issues — in this case, the biggest issue of all.

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