This is the third and final part of a three part serial. When our story began, our heroine had gone from the deep-rooted but unexamined agnosticism of her childhood, through a credulous hippie woo-woo bullshit phase, to a general belief in some sort of animating spirit that inhabited all living things and that survived in some form after death. When we last left her, she was beginning to question even this broadest, most general belief in some sort of soul that might survive death…
…when the accident happened.
That makes it sound a whole lot more dramatic than it was. It wasn’t a very bad accident: I fell off my bicycle, I broke my arm, and I had to have pins put in the bone. Fairly painful, but nothing life-threatening, or even very dangerous. I was only under general anesthesia for an hour, maybe an hour and a half.
Have you ever been under general anesthesia?
General anesthesia is nothing at all like sleep. When you sleep, you have some feeling of presence even while youâre asleep, some sense when you wake that time has passed and you were there when it did — even if you weren’t aware of it.
Anesthesia was completely different. When I came out of it, it felt as if the time I’d been under had simply been erased. I had no idea if I’d been under for an hour, or six hours, or twenty-four. If the nurses had told me I’d been out for days or even months, I would have believed it. All my sense of self, of having had a self during that time, was utterly absent.
It didn’t feel like I’d been asleep. It felt like Iâd been obliterated. It felt like death, and coming out of it was like clawing my way out of a grave.
Not so surprisingly, this was a profoundly upsetting experience. And not just because it was scary and freaky. It was upsetting because it destroyed the last remaining shreds of the idea that I might possibly have a soul that would survive me after my death. After all, if just a small amount of some drug injected into my bloodstream could wipe out my sense of selfhood so thoroughly, merely by altering my brain chemistry a little bit… then why on Earth would I think that this selfhood could somehow survive the total decay of my flesh and my brain?
So I had to face the fact that this is what death would almost certainly be like. I had to face the idea of my own non-existence — not just intellectually, but with a visceral and immediate experience of what that might be like. I had to face the idea that, when I died, I wouldn’t be going to Heaven, or getting reincarnated as a lazy housecat, or resting peacefully in an eternal afternoon nap. I had to face the idea that, in all likelihood, I simply wouldn’t be.
And now I had a very bad few months indeed. It’s one thing to believe, in some abstract sense, that death is the real and final end of your existence. It’s another thing entirely to get a taste of that non-existence. I went into a fairly serious depression, and the memory of my non-existence experience — or to be more accurate, the âcrawling out of the graveâ experience afterwards — would spring out at me unexpectedly like a mugger with a knife. (To be fair, this wasn’t the only thing triggering the depression — a lot of bad shit was happening right around then — but it was definitely a major contributor.)
I knew that I had to rethink everything. I knew I had to come up with some way to deal with the shortness of my life and the finality of my death, some philosophy that would let me come to some sort of peace with the idea of my non-existence, without making me feel like I was lying to myself.
And it worked. It was a hard, bad time, and I spent months at my computer with tears running down my face while I wrote. It was an extremely scary piece to write: I went into it without any real idea of what conclusion I was going to reach, and I knew I was getting into treacherous emotional waters without any clear sense of how I was going to get out. But I got there. I got to a place where I could contemplate the finality of my death, and the death of the people I love… not without sadness or grief, but without panic and despair, and with a reasonable degree of acceptance and peace.
And once I got there, I didn’t need to believe in the soul anymore. Or the World-Soul. I didnât need to hang on to a belief that I was finding increasingly implausible, just because I wanted to believe it.
I think I probably would have gotten there without the accident. But it sure speeded things up. And it definitely started a sort of cascade effect. The more comfortable I felt with the idea of the absence of the soul and the finality of death, the more willing I was to see the soul as an unnecessary, needlessly complicated hypothesis, one that doesn’t really explain anything and doesn’t fit with what we know about how the self and the mind works. And the more willing I was to see all that, the more comfortable I got with the idea of the absence of the soul and the finality of death.
Which takes us to the more recent place in this little saga:
1. thinking that God or the soul, while theoretically possible, are not only unproven, but extremely implausible — about as implausible as Zeus, or fairies, or the invisible hand guiding the Tarot cards, or any number of other beliefs that I now feel entirely comfortable discounting as hypotheses;
2. thinking that, while I disagree with people who have religious beliefs and think that they’re mistaken, it’s really none of my business what they believe and isn’t a matter of earth-shaking, deal-breaking importance — as long as they respect my atheism, don’t treat their faith as if it were fact, don’t act as if the fact that they believe something they have no evidence for somehow makes them virtuous people, don’t try to shove their faith down other people’s throats, and generally act like decent people;
3. at the same time also thinking that, in the larger sense, the question of religion or the lack thereof is not merely a personal issue of faith and opinion, but a political issue of enormous importance for this country and for the world — and becoming radicalized about the need to speak and act about it;
4. becoming increasingly aware that there is a growing movement of atheists and other non-believers — a movement that’s becoming more outspoken on an almost daily basis — and wanting to be an active part of that movement;
5. deciding to call myself an atheist instead of an agnostic, not because of a change in my beliefs or lack thereof, but because of a change in my thinking about the language;
Which pretty much brings us up to date. If you’ve been reading the atheism rants on my blog for the past few months, you pretty much know the rest. (If you’re a newcomer to this blog, may I suggest Oh, The Believer and the Skeptic Should be Friends, Why Are We Here? One Agnostic’s Half-Baked Philosophy, The Unexplained, the Unproven, and the Unlikely, Atheist or Agnostic?, and Defending the Blasphemy Challenge. (Or you could try A Dykeâs Defense of Blowjobs, or The Aging Slut, or Broccoli or Tofu? Sexual Differences in Relationships… which don’t have anything to do with atheism, but are funny and dirty. Or you could even throw your hat into the Harry Potter versus Lord of the Rings debate…)
And I don’t know where I’m going with this in the future. I’m curious to find out myself. I’ll keep you posted.