When we talk about ways we can cope with mortality and death, there’s this weird, hard reality: Some people aren’t going to agree. Not everyone finds the same ideas comforting. In fact, a particular view of death might give great solace to Person A — while Person B finds it hollow, or even upsetting.
I recently posted a link to a piece PZ Myers had written about death. PZ reviewed my new book, Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God — and he then went on to talk about death from the point of view of an evolutionary biologist. That view, in short: Dying is, quite literally, a necessary and inevitable consequence of being alive and multi-cellular. If you want to not die, and you want the people in your life to not die, the only option is for us to not be born.
Commenter ethereal had serious problems with this idea — or, to be more accurate, with presenting this idea as a comfort. In her comment, she said:
PZ Myers’ post is absolutely terrible where comforting thoughts are concerned. It couldn’t have been more terrible if he spontaneously converted to Evangelical Christianity in the middle of writing it. Behind the scientific explanation of death (which might be appreciated in a different context), his post is a giant is-ought fallacy. And it’s awful. It can be used to justify anything. Ebola? Shut up you whiners, this is how the disease spreads, this is how it kills people, everything is okay, nothing sad here. Hurricanes? This is how they arise, this is how the human body reacts to blunt trauma, nothing sad here. Terrorism? This is how guns work, this is the result of ballistic trauma, nothing sad here.
She then went on to tell a heartbreaking story about a friend who was killed by a drunk driver less than a year ago — and about some of the appalling reactions she had to deal with from religious believers. (Her complete comment is here.) She wound up by saying:
Too TL;DR? Let’s put it in PZ Myers’ terms:
Vehicular homicide? Bicycle dynamics, internal combustion, effects of alcohol on reaction time, blunt trauma. It’s natural, nothing to be sad about, shut up.
Here’s my reply (edited slightly from my original comment):
ethereal: First, and most importantly: I am so sorry for your loss. And I’m so sorry that you had such a horrible experience with how the people around you handled that death and your grief.
If I’ve learned anything from what grieving people say about their grief, it’s that people grieve very differently. Among other things, people have very different reactions to different ideas about death, and to different forms of comfort in the face of it. That’s obviously true when it comes to believers and atheists — but it’s also true for different atheists. [Read more…]