Why Atheists Are Better Prepared for Death Than Believers
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I write a lot about atheist philosophies of death.
I've written about how loss, including death, is necessary for life and change to be possible. I've written about death as a natural, physical process, one that connects us intimately with nature and the universe. I've written about the idea of death as a deadline, something that helps us focus our lives and treasure the people and experiences we have now. I've written about the idea that our lives, our slice of the timeline, will always have existed even though we die. I've written about how things don't have to be permanent to be meaningful.
In the last few months, I've been dealing with some of death's harsher realities.
So I've been thinking a lot lately about how atheism, and humanism, can help us deal with death -- and with life. Not just in an abstract philosophical sense; not just in a "creating a meaningful frame for our lives" sense. I've been thinking about how we can apply atheist philosophies in a practical way. I've been thinking, not just about how these philosophies can help us face death, but about how they can improve the way we live our life.
Our cat, Lydia, was recently diagnosed with cancer. Now, if you've ever had pets, you know: when they get sick or injured, or when they die, it's obviously not as serious or traumatic as when a person we love gets sick or injured or dies -- but it's not trivial, either. It's a big deal.
So our cat Lydia was recently diagnosed with cancer, and it's been very difficult for both me and my wife, Ingrid. And it's been especially difficult because we've been having to make lots of difficult decisions, often with limited and incomplete information.
Lydia's not so sick that our decisions are all really obvious -- and she's not doing so great that our decisions are all really obvious, either. She's kind of in the middle. She's been having a hard time a lot of the time, but she's been doing okay a lot of the time, and there's reasonable hope that, with treatment, the cancer will go into remission.
And our information has been very incomplete. Tests on the cancer have been inconclusive, and we didn't know at first whether the cancer was a slow- growing kind that would very likely respond well to milder treatment, or a faster- growing kind that would need aggressive, difficult-to-tolerate treatment, with real uncertainty about whether it would even work. (It now looks like the former -- thank Loki! -- but even now we're not positive about that.) One test even suggested that she might not have cancer at all, and that the positive cancer tests might have been mistaken. As a friend who also has a sick cat put it: Rollercoaster is the new normal.
Plus, she's neither a very young nor a very old cat (she's 13), so the questions about how much more time we can give her, balanced against how much suffering the cancer treatment will cause her, are very iffy. She could have many more years, or she could only have a few more months. With or without the cancer. And she has other medical problems, with her appetite and digestion, which have been making diagnosis harder. Is her poor appetite and weight loss a result of the cancer, or the digestion problems? Did she respond so badly to the chemo because her digestive system is so screwed up, or because she really can't tolerate it?