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For atheists, death is the only point of life – that is Christianity’s great selling point

While we should, like Steve Jobs, live every day like it was our last, we should never allow our lives to be defined by this ‘one appalling fact’

By on Thursday, 13 October 2011

For atheists, death is the only point of life – that is Christianity’s great selling point

Death is in the air. To be more specific, it is on the air waves. I turned on the car radio last week to hear a recording of a speech that the late Steve Jobs, co-founder and chief executive of the Apple empire, had made in 2005 to the students of Stanford University. In its own way it was electrifying.

Jobs said that when he was 17 he had come across the saying, “If you live each day as though it were your last, some day you will most certainly be right.” Apparently it had made a deep impression on him, leading him to ask himself every day, “If today were the last day of my life would I wish to do what I am now doing?” He went on to tell the students, “Death is the destination we all share. No-one has ever escaped it….Your time is limited so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” A difficult colleague to work with, Jobs brought an urgency and intensity to his work that clearly contributed to his success.

I don’t know what his listeners made of it. Apparently Jobs had been influenced by Eastern religions; certainly there was a Buddhist element to his thought: the endless cycle of birth and death of which humans are just a part. And his admonition, “Don’t be trapped by dogma which is living with the results of other people’s thinking” lacked a Catholic understanding of the word “dogma”. The recording made me immediately think of the (probably apocryphal) story of a former headmaster of Ampleforth who, when asked by a parent what he was preparing the boys for, answered robustly, “Death.”

Then yesterday morning on Radio 4 there was more of the Grim Reaper: an interview with the novelist Julian Barnes, who is the favourite to win this year’s Man Booker Prize. Barnes wrote in his autobiographical book, Nothing to be Frightened Of, “For me, death is the one appalling fact which defines life; unless you are constantly aware of it, you cannot begin to understand what life is about.” Like Jobs, Barnes is very preoccupied with the subject, telling interviewer Rebecca Jones, “I don’t think we talk or think enough about death.” Describing death as “an eternity of non-existence” he concluded with a mordant half-laugh, “You are only here once.”

My Catholic ears were twitching. For Christians, death is not the point of life; it is “the life of the world to come” that we recite – often so unthinkingly – in the Creed at Mass. St Paul grasped this immediately, knowing that our faith is ‘vain’ without belief in the Resurrection. As it happened, I had a conversation about Jobs’ speech last weekend with my brother-in-law. As with his fellow-atheists, Jobs and Barnes, the finality and vastness of non-existence is troubling to him. I explained that Christians see it differently: this life is simply a preparation for the fullness of life that we hope to experience after death. He could see this might be a consoling thought, a happy illusion, but as he did not believe it he was not consoled.

I sometimes think we Christians don’t emphasise enough to our non-believing friends that the grave is not victorious and that death has no sting. We give assent to the dogma but we don’t live it in our daily lives with the heartfelt urgency that Jobs and Barnes give to thinking of death. If we did, we might possibly convert people like them, terrified of the dreariness of non-being but without hope of an alternative. After all, the atheist Edith Stein was deeply influenced by the example of a Christian friend whose husband had died in the Great War and who, despite her sorrow, was quietly convinced she would meet him again one day.

  • http://twitter.com/Acleron1 Acleron

    Now you can see what is wrong with your definition of humanity. The process I have described is that of cloning. A pretty similar process occurs naturally. It happens about 0.3% of the time in humans. The result is identical twins. Now one or the other or both twins did not come from a fertilisation. Which one is human according to your definition? If both are human, then humanity doesn’t start at fertilisation or conception.

  • Anonymous

    We are clearly responsible to the people around us.  If I cause harm it is my responsibility to make it right and seek their forgiveness.  How does seeking the forgiveness of an un-involved 3rd party (God) help the people I’ve hurt?

    He set the standards, then hides the means by which to meet them. If he has control why not make it clear that only one way is correct? With 30,000 different types of Christianity the Bible has clearly failed to create a consensus.  With millions of recorded gods in human history the human mind has clearly failed to discover him. Was he unable to make us a little bit smarter?  Did he really think it was just to punish the descendants for the ancestors crimes?  Was he incapable of making an ancestor who was better?

    These questions need complex and hard thought answers which then only create even more absurd questions.  But, as soon as you realize God is a man-made concept which is as flawed as all man-made things all of the questions disappear.  It doesn’t make life simple, but it does make understanding it easier.

  • Anonymous

    If I tell you I live a good and just life. Family, charity, concern for my fellow man.  Yet I do so without any regard for a god you are faced with believing one of 3 things: 1) I am lying, 2) I am going to be punished by God anyway, 3) I am going to be rewarded by God anyway.

    1 is convenient for you but you will eventually have to call all good atheists liars and ignore reality.
    2 is supported by the Bible, but isn’t just.  It portrays God as vain and cruel.
    3 negates the need for theology, since we can and have reasoned out good and evil without God, as have many cultures and none Biblical religions

  • http://twitter.com/Acleron1 Acleron

    So you cannot supply any evidence that secularism spreads STD.

    Did you mean Edward Green? The only Andrew Green I can find is very much for condoms.
    ‘Clearly the Pope has, finally, caught up with the public health community in recognizing that condoms can help save lives. Now it’s time to start saving them.’ http://news.change.org/stories/condom-time-translate-the-popes-new-message-into-action

    And it is quite correct that no sex stops STDs. However stopping sex, is just impossible. Evolution has formed us to actively enjoy the act, so unless you advocate gene therapy to change the human genome in the whole population then you have no chance.

  • http://twitter.com/Acleron1 Acleron

    Whoever said that atheists don’t accept the evidence of the laws of physics? Can you name any, or is this just a troll?

     Various adherents to religion are the ones who don’t believe in the evidence of evolution and radioactive decay. 

  • Anonymous

    @Damo.
                     Ah,, so it runs in the family!

  • http://twitter.com/Acleron1 Acleron

    Sorry ms Catholic State, I didn’t see this earlier. But you made my exact point. But it is probably better to continue this debate in the thread below.

  • Oconnordamien

    Along with stunning good looks…..

  • Anonymous

    I don’t doubt that atheists can carry out selfless acts and be thoughtful about their fellow man and woman. But where does those qualities Good and evil come from that cannot be measured by scientific tests within the confines of a laboratory?  They are intangible, non-materialistic, even abstract concepts that we know in our hearts exist but what source did they emanate from?  You say that you can live your life without reference to a Divine Creator but have you thought the implications about doing good, apart from your default materialistic standpoint? As regards my attitude to a final reckoning for you or anyone else, I would not be so bold as to offer any opinion as it will not be me who will be sitting in judgement but the God who created us all.  Your rather narrow description of the God of the bible as “vain and cruel” ignores the sacrifice He made in sending His only begotten Son to suffer the humiliation and death that the Roman Empire meted out to those regarded as common criminals on the cross and then to triumphantly rise again to free us from the enslavement of sin and death.  Hardly the actions of one who is self-important or sadistic.

  • Anonymous

    The balanced distribution of money and goods and the efficient use of the world’s resources around the world can be achieved to maintain the world’s current needs.  In 1990, the UNFAO Report on the State of Food and Agriculture estimated that with present technologies fully employed, the world could feed 30 to 35 billion people. Roger Revelle, Director of the Harvard Centre for Population Studies, estimates that the world’s agricultural resources are capable of supporting 40 billion people.  So no real need for the ideology of the population-control lobby to interfere with the inherent rights of families in the developing world to be fruitful and multiply

  • Anonymous

    Would you issue a safety vest to a policeman with the full knowledge that a robbery is about to take place and that the best course of action would be to arrest the would-be robber or discourage him?  Surely logic dictates that the best course of action to the scourge of AIDS in Sub-saharan Africa, would be government-backed programs to encourage a change of behavior on the part of those who carry out relationships with multiple partners.  Condoms have singularly failed to achieve any appreciable fall in the rate of infection across this region.  When the change of behavior perspective is applied along with faithfulness to one partner and less emphasis on condoms as a panacea the changes to the infection rates have been startling in those countries in the region which adopt these measures.

  • Anonymous

    The 2009 FAO report The State Of Food And Agriculture(PDF) paints a different picture. What use is it being able to grow the food if people can’t afford it?

  • Oconnordamien

    To lighten things somewhat with a simple analogy. I could pretty easily drive my little hatchback car with 10 people in it, a person sitting on another’s lap in each of the seats and one curled in the boot. But I’d be arrested for being utterly reckless. If anything went wrong it would be a disaster, of course in a utopian world where everybody is a perfect driver and the roads are 100% safe no problem but the world will never be that way. People will make mistakes, technology will fail and the climate will be inclement. 

  • Oconnordamien

    As an omnipotent god there were an infinite number of ways he could make a sacrifice without “sending His only begotten Son to suffer the humiliation and death that the Roman Empire meted out”.  He chose that one. Indeed why a sacrifice at all. Why not as a leader who united the known world through love and unity. 

  • Oconnordamien

    Christians certainly can be good….. but they don’t HAVE to do good.

  • Oconnordamien

    My point is which is the better man, who is “Good”. the man who does good things because he can, without reward or punishment. Or the one who does it fearing punishment or expecting reward.

    When raising children you start teaching them by reward and punishment, as they get older you explain why certain behaviour is good or bad and as they become adults they realise why it is better to do a good thing than bad. Once they are full adults they are in a position to make choices for themselves.

    Religions treat adults  as merely above toddlers, do what I tell you is good and you’ll get a reward later. Do the things I say are bad and your father will punish you when he gets home. Ask why it’s bad and the answer is “because I say so and I know more than you!”

  • Oconnordamien

    That rings a bell. One of my favourites was a theme where a god-like figure was not allowed to act so had to use a proxy to achieve his goals. But the proxy was a murdering, rapist who would do anything to survive. As things progressed the only way he could survive was by putting himself under the control of a woman he had raped. Not a story of redemption by any means but an interesting concept.

     

  • Oconnordamien

    Hang on a mo’ now that I think of it .. How was it a sacrifice? He knew all along that’s what would happen, he set the plan in motion from creation. 

  • Anonymous

    @Damo,
                    What with the looks, quick wit and repartee, as near to perfection as makes no difference……..

  • Anonymous

    Yes. The graphs in the FAO report cannot take account of unpredictable events. It strikes me that they seem rather optimistic regarding predictable events, but I think the report is sufficiently gloomy regarding the cost of food production and transportation (i.e. sufficient to concern those politicians who look beyond the next election, and perhaps even theroadmaster).

  • http://twitter.com/Acleron1 Acleron

    That’s just a false analogy. The fact is that people have sex for enjoyment. Catholics have sex for enjoyment as well. They use contraceptives. You have a method of preventing infection and because of something written in a book, which is contradictory and often wrong, you want to condemn people to an unnecessary death. Here is the CDC statement.

    ‘Epidemiologic studies that are conducted in real-life settings, where one partner is infected with HIV and the other partner is not, demonstrate that the consistent use of latex condoms provides a high degree of protection.’   http://www.cdc.gov/condomeffectiveness/latex.htm

    But I’d be interested in refs to studies that shows that ‘condoms have singularly failed…’ and to your last statement.

  • Oconnordamien

    Oh Lord it’s so hard to humble,
    When you’re perfect in every way……..

    You forgot talent at quoting cheesy songs, Father Ted and The Simpsons.

  • Anonymous

    We only have a story of dubious authenticity to go one about the sacrifice, but even if we had real evidence, so what? 1st “death” is only death because you don’t come back.  No matter how horrific, the expectation that He could return negates “death”.  Good for him, but what did He really give up?  I’m sure it was torture, but many people today are tortured equally if not worse and they don’t get to ascend into heaven a day and a 1/2 later.  If you equating God and Jesus, he knew he wasn’t doing anything other than changing his own rules.

    As for what He was getting for us, why was it even needed?  If it’s to satisfy God’s need for punishment, you are asking people to accept that one persons wrong doing can be absolved by punishing an innocent.  That is monstrous!  Sure, you could pay my monetary debt, but if I commit murder and you are sent to prison that isn’t justice, that is another immoral crime.

    Remember, I wasn’t calling God “vain and cruel”.  It was option 2.  If I live a good life without God and I’m punished for it, how is that mercy or love?

    Wouldn’t a benevolent God reward me for the merits of my life?  Wouldn’t He be MORE inclined to reward me, since I did so with no expectation that I would be rewarded?  If He requires me to acknowledge him as a condition for reward there is no other term for that than vanity.  If he punishes me, despite a kind life then he does NOT care about our human morality to each other.  That is cruel.   

    Before anyone starts appealing to His mystery, all these problem vanish when the are realized to be man-made concepts.