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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