Death from an Atheist Perspective

I ditched my belief in God long ago. But then my dad died suddenly

NICK HOBSON

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I am a scientist. I am also an atheist. I grew up in a devout Catholic household, my memories marked by never-missed Sunday masses and crucifixes above doorways. I once considered myself a strong believer. I even did the whole altar boy thing. But that was a long time ago.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my childhood, and about religion these past few days. My otherwise healthy 68-year-old dad got sick recently. It all happened so quickly. In the evening, he said he felt under the weather. Typical flu symptoms. By morning, he lost his ability to speak. Four hours after that, he lost all consciousness; the only form of movement an eerie rhythmic pulsing of his body from recurring seizures.

For the next seven days, his condition worsened and still we had no answers. The specialists were stumped. From the ER to the ICU, to infectious disease and finally to neurology, doctor after doctor came to us without any clear explanation of what was happening to my dad’s brain. As one neurologist said to me, “This is one of the most striking cases I’ve seen in my entire career.”

As my dad’s mystery illness shut down his brain one bit at a time, the family around me – my mom and brothers and extended network of aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, and cousins – took to their religion to try and make sense of the unsensible. While they did this, I wrestled with my own personal dilemma: What does the atheist do when confronted with death? Some believe that there are no atheists in foxholes, or in ICUs.

The day we learned about his official brain death, one week after he was admitted to the ICU, a priest gave dad his “last rites,” praying over his body so that his spirit could pass through the kingdom of heaven, or so the story goes. We stood around his bed. Off to the side, I observed almost like an anthropologist does when studying the foreign practices of some ancestral hunter-gatherer group. My Mom and two brothers crossed themselves, thumbed their rosary beads and recited prayers, their faithful echoes a barely audible mumbling choked back by tears and medical masks.

They did this to find some peace. I was glad they had something to hold onto. Having studied the cognitive science of religion in my PhD, I know firsthand just how powerful religion is in helping a person find meaning in the greatest of life’s mysteries, in trying to come to grips with the ultimate anxiety: that one day we will die and so too will our loved ones; an anxiety amplified when the death and dying is as sudden and inexplicable as my dad’s.

But, what about me, the poor atheist of the family? The world was taken out from under my feet, too. What greater purpose did I have to stand on? Where was my ancient holy story that I could turn to?

It was there. But the story reads differently.

Darwin, Newton, Galton and Galileo. These are my Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. On the Origin of Species, my Bible. What religion does for my family (and for much of the world), science does for me. And, given the rise in secularism, especially among young people, I suspect I’m not alone in feeling this. We, the secularists, believe we can fill our cups as well. It’s a line of thinking that is well-supported by recent research.

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In the past couple of decades, the psychologists and neuroscientists in my field challenged the notion that religion and religious belief had a unique psychological underpinning. As psychologist Justin Barrett says, “It’s really your basic, garden-variety cognitions that provide the impetus for religious beliefs.” Religion is just one more chapter in the long, twisted story of our hominid evolution.

There are other things to believe in, other ways to look at the world, other ways to cope with the harshness of life and death.

I don’t believe that a spiritual, non-material version of my dad is out there in some sort of fluffy cloud afterlife. I bristle at the idea that he is looking down on me from heaven. I find consolation in the fact that my dad’s case will give the gift of scientific insight to those who study his death.

As the answers begin to come in from his post-mortem tests and autopsy results, the specialists involved will begin to piece together the story of what happened and where their gaps in treatment failed to keep him alive. The thing that caused my dad to die will, at last, reveal itself to the medical team, and to us. The plan is, that the knowledge we gain will become a published manuscript as a formal medical documentation of my dad’s case. When that happens, I know that his tragic ending will not be in vain. He will “continue on’” not in the afterlife, but in the annals of science. It brings me peace, and a sense of purpose to think that maybe, just maybe this medical knowledge will help ease the pain of others in the future.

According to astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the basis of all science is to “lessen the suffering of others.” It’s here, at this point of compassion, where science and religion blend into one another. Because the inherent desire to care for our fellow humans is an undeniable truth that rises above it all. If I have faith in anything, it’s that.

Nick Hobson lives in Hamilton, Ont.

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