Thu 23rd Oct 2014 | Last updated: Wed 22nd Oct 2014 at 18:57pm

Facebook Logo Twitter Logo RSS Logo
Hot Topics

Comment & Blogs

Why the chattering classes are keeping life-ending pills close to hand

If you don’t believe in eternal life it’s hard to find meaning in the indignities of old age

By on Monday, 2 July 2012

The news reporter John Simpson says he has 'a couple of pills handy' (PA photo)

The news reporter John Simpson says he has 'a couple of pills handy' (PA photo)

In his column in the Telegraph on Saturday, Damian Thompson asks: “Why are the chattering classes so keen on assisted suicide, even volunteering to undergo it themselves?” This was a reference to broadcaster John Simpson’s extraordinary remark earlier in the week. He said: “I’m already working on ways of ensuring that I don’t end up dependent on someone else. I have a couple of pills handy. I don’t want my six-year-old son to have his only memory of me as a gibbering wreck.” Reading this brought to my mind (as it did to Damian’s) a similar statement once made by Baroness Mary Warnock; it seems she is also keeping pills handy, though dithering about when to use them.

That’s the problem for the chattering classes – all atheists, one assumes (you can’t pray and chatter at the same time), and all determined to be in total control of their deaths as well as their lives. Former TV presenter Joan Bakewell in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph says she knows elderly people who are starting to ask: “Do you know which tablets?” Personally she admires Simpson’s wish to be in control but adds: “I’m not sure at what point you would say, ‘Tomorrow I’ll go’.” This was not the attitude of a cultured, well-educated, elderly couple I blogged about earlier this year: living in Denmark and with the husband diagnosed with terminal cancer, they simply took their dog to a neighbour’s, put out a note cancelling the milk, then took to their bed – and took the pills.

All this is a counsel of despair – and you start to despair of life when you can’t find meaning in the inevitable suffering and indignities of old age and don’t believe in eternal life. If I thought like that, I might easily give way to despair. It so happens, Rome Reports put out a charming little video yesterday, which providentially lifted my spirits from the depressing scenario that seems to be beginning to envelop NW1. Entitled, “What happens after death?” and only lasting for a minute or so, it suggested several different possibilities: nothingness – the chattering classes’ theory; reincarnation, which is favoured by Hindus; a ghostly existence – attractive to artists and poets as it gives rise to gripping if spooky drama; and the Christian option – that God himself came down to earth, died for us, rose from the dead after three days and opened the way to everlasting life and happiness in heaven for those who choose to follow him.

The video clip challenged the viewer: “Are you ready for death? You can be.” It ended with the words of Jesus: “I am the Resurrection and the life…” For those who refuse to believe, this is, of course, gibberish; but the video simply invites the viewer to make a choice, pointing out that of all the possibilities listed, the only one that is truly life-enhancing, both here and in the hereafter, is the Christian story. As Pascal pointed out a few centuries ago, if you accept it you have certainly nothing to lose (except the proud isolationism offered by suicide) and possibly everything to gain.

I was distracted by these thoughts at Mass yesterday, and the first reading, from the Book of Wisdom, seemed very apposite: “Death was not God’s doing, he takes no pleasure in the extinction of the living. To be – for this he created all; the world’s created things have health in them, in them no fatal poison can be found…” My message to John Simpson is: “The pills are poison – and they are fatal. Get a life.”

  • http://jacquelineparkes.blogspot.com/ Jackie Parkes

    It’s such a dangerous road. I remember someone close ..very independent saying in her 60s I hope someone shoots me when I get needing help..strange thing that all changed in her 70s & 80s when i was on occasion tempted to bring out the gun..err

    Another point to bear in mind is depression & its effects making people wish to end their lives as their life is not worth living. When i was suffering severe depression my family & i said they wouldn’t allow a dog to suffer so much. however taking lifeending pills is such an act of despair that does not allow for god’s grace & even the possibility of a miracle. After 10 years in deepest darkness I am fully recovered.Even older people can recover or endure to much benefit to themselves & others. However even a life that doesn’t seem worth living is valuable. would John Simpson’s 6 year old son prefer him dead?

    Re Francis Phillips, i know she walks the walk rather than talking the talk..having 8 children, being sole carer for her daughter with Downs & carer for her mother who has dementia. We need Francis to point out the dangers to life – in fact she is a beacon of light who helped me when I was severely suicidal. Thankyou Francis..

  • Jonathan West

    The video clip challenged the viewer: “Are you ready for death? You can be.” It ended with the words of Jesus: “I am the Resurrection and the life…” For those who refuse to believe, this is, of course, gibberish
    Not gibberish. We can understand the concept perfectly well. It’s just that there is no evidence that it is true.

    As Pascal pointed out a few centuries ago, if you accept it you have certainly nothing to lose (except the proud isolationism offered by suicide) and possibly everything to gain. 

    Pascal failed to take into account the huge multiplicity of gods on offer. Suppose I took the wager and became a catholic, and it turns out the the real God is the muslim kind and I should have been making pilgrimages to Mecca. You will be in serious trouble after your death if that is the case, and I will be no worse off than you for having rejected the wager.

  • tim

    Not ‘no evidence’ – just evidence that you (and others) reject a priori.  For example, miracles don’t happen – so any evidence tending to support them is insufficient.

  • Jonathan West

    Not at all. If somebody can demonstrate water turning into wine under laboratory conditions in the presence of scientists with appropriate instruments, then I’ll happily believe it. But I don’t expect it ever to happen and if you’re honest, neither do you.

  • Edward

    The chattering classes have the pills at hand?  Why not just take them now and let the rest of us live in peace!

  • JessicaHof

    No evidence it is true if you dismiss the one set of evidence we have, the Bible and the Christian tradition. Still, you take Pascal’s wager, and if you are wrong what then? If I am wrong, I am no worse off, and have had some consolation on my way.

  • JessicaHof

    If one has no hope, I suppose giving into despair is natural. Reminds me of Denethor in ‘The Return of the King; who, despairing, killed himself and wished to kill his one remaining son – as did the pagan kings of old. The new paganism differs but little from the old.

  • http://jacquelineparkes.blogspot.com/ Jackie Parkes

    It reminds me a bit of the Nazis..

  • JessicaHof

    Indeed, and of all regimes which regard people as expendable. One of the things which marked out the early Christians was the way they regarded all human life as sacred; the opposed abortions, infanticide and the killing of the elderly; they still do!

  • paulsays

    People don’t like not being in control – that’s quite a natural human
    response. Most of human fear is at least related to the loss of control.

    Suicide pills, or more likely a handgun in the United States give people at least the perception of control – although I would doubt that many at all go through with it.

  • JByrne24

    I think the weakness in Pascal’s wager is the assumption that we can actually CHOOSE to believe (or not) in this thing or the other thing.
    Surely belief or non-belief in any and all matters is not a question of choice.

    Tradition is not evidence of anything. The Church has always held the Bible at arm’s length (unlike most Protestants) for good reasons: viz. its careful selection and its multiple mouth to mouth histories and written versions.

  • JByrne24

    Is it really the case that people seeking a planned death are always atheists?
    I really don’t think so.

    I also thought that people going to Dignitas were screened for depression. I remember a woman (a medic) choosing to die there saying that she had consulted two psychologists who both confirmed that she was not depressed. She would not have taken a planned death if she had thought herself depressed (for the obvious reason that her judgement would be impaired).

  • JByrne24

    But it’s not always a matter of despair.

    The person might be old, very sick, in great pain, a nuisance (in THEIR own opinion) to others, with no hope of cure or respite – it can be a fully logical and reasonable act.

  • JessicaHof

    Yes, you have a good point on Pascal; but if we make a choice to investigate and explore Christianity rather than to reject it, we might be surprised by the result, might we not? The Church, for the reasons you give, has always held that Scripture is best read in the light of its teaching, but since at least Vatican II it has encouraged the faithful to read the Bible.

  • JessicaHof

    As can all decisions to end the life of another. Illness and depression do not necessarily lead to clear thinking.

  • Patrickhowes

    They have probably been on the pills all their lives!!What´s one more?

  • Jonathan West

    The Bible is not evidence of God, it is merely evidence that a lot of people have believed in God, which is not at all the same thing.

    As for Pascal’s wager, even if I took it then surely God, if he is the omniscient kind you claim he is, would recognise that I’m faking it. So what good would that do me?

    In the extremely unlikely event that on my death I find myself face to face with God asking me why I didn’t believe in him, I’ll use Bertrand Russell’s (immortal) reply. “Not enough evidence, God. Not enough evidence.”

    As for exploring he Bible, I think that you will find that most ex-Christian atheists are more familiar with the Bible than those who continue to believe. If you want to stay a believer, I recommend that you read as little of the Bible as you can get away with lest its manifest contradictions and dubious morality get to you.

  • Patrickhowes

    You try to undretsnad Catholocism as a humanist rather than a Chrisitian humanist.

  • Patrickhowes

    She sounds like a fine woman

  • JessicaHof

    Thanks for your response, which is most interesting. The Bible is evidence for God, it is simply not conclusive for many, including yourself. Were one to take belief as seriously as one might unbelief, then the results might be interesting; I am not sure many do that.

    I can’t hope to speak for a majority of anyone, but I know few atheists who were properly catechised – indeed I know a lot of Christians who weren’t either.

    If one reads the Bible simply by the light of one’s own conviction in one’s own intellect, then I daresay almost anything can happen, even real enlightenment. For my own part, I have found reading it with the aid of many commentaries and of the Church Fathers, a better way.

  • Jonathan West

    Would you care to offer an example of evidence for God that is in the Bible? Then we can examine it together.

  • JessicaHof

    On Good Friday a group of followers of Jesus were broken men. His chief follower had denied Him thrice, and only one of them managed to pluck up the courage to stand at the foot of the Cross. This death was the most shameful imaginable for a Jew. The whole picture at this point is of a group of men who had not really understood what was going on and who had lost their nerve. You may know of another sacred text which depicts its founders in this way, and if so, I’d be grateful to know what it is.

    Three days later comes the story that the crucified Jesus had risen. The first evidence is from a woman, who under Jewish law was no witness at all; if you are going about making stuff up, you don’t do it that way. Suddenly that group of broken men are willing to risk their lives, and indeed, lose them for a claim which brought them no power, no riches and no personal rewards. It may be that there is another example of what the Bible describes here, and one which went on to propagate a faith which two thousand years later has a coup,e of billion followers, and again, I’d be interested in that.

    That’s the basic evidence, as either Jesus did not rise, in which case it is profoundly odd that a buch of observant Jews made up something so unlikely to win over their follow Jews, and did so with no discernible motive, as they knew he was dead; or they did what they did for the reason they said, in which case He was who they said He was. Over to you now.

  • paulsays

    Well no civilisation was for the killing of the elderly… you mention it I guess to simply muddy the water and spread falsehoods, that’s what I have to presume unless you actually explain and support what you mean by that…

    In terms of abortion, opinion has actually varied much in the Church. St. Augustine for example believed in the concept of ‘delayed ensoulment’ – that the human soul did not form at conception, but later into the pregnancy.

    Equally St. Jerome said that (abortion) ‘does not count as killing until the individual elements have acquired their external appearance and their limbs’
     

  • paulsays

    Well no civilisation was for the killing of the elderly… you mention it I guess to simply muddy the water and spread falsehoods, that’s what I have to presume unless you actually explain and support what you mean by that…

    In terms of abortion, opinion has actually varied much in the Church. St. Augustine for example believed in the concept of ‘delayed ensoulment’ – that the human soul did not form at conception, but later into the pregnancy.

    Equally St. Jerome said that (abortion) ‘does not count as killing until the individual elements have acquired their external appearance and their limbs’

  • Parasum

     “This was a reference to broadcaster John Simpson’s extraordinary remark earlier in the week. He said: “I’m already working on ways of ensuring that I don’t end up dependent on someone else. I have a couple of pills handy. I don’t want my six-year-old son to have his only memory of me as a gibbering wreck.””## “Extraordinary” ? How ? I don’t think those who are in good health should judge those who are not. I think his reasoning is good.

  • BigD

    Atheism is a dying religion.

  • Jonathan West

    (Reply to JessicaHof)

    OK, the resurrection. Have you ever attempted to read all four gospel accounts side by side? Have you noticed the discrepancies?

    If you read the four accounts in the order in which they were probably written (Mark, Matthew, Luke, John) what you find is a process of gradual elaboration. This is a story that grew in the telling. If something like that got around today (and believe me, unlikely stories do spread like wildfire even in this internet age) we would call it an urban myth.

    There are very probably a few true elements within it. I have no doubt that the disciples were profoundly shocked by the death of Jesus and the collapse of their hopes. By the way, I don’t believe that denying thrice stuff, it’s too obviously symbolic to be historically true, and Peter would hardly be willing to recount such a sequence of events that reflects so badly on him. It’s been made up.

    The idea of a resurrection was understood and accepted in those days – it had a basis in scripture. Indeed, Jesus’ death and resurrection was claimed to be in fulfilment of scripture. There were lots of other religions around at the time which had their own resurrection stories. So the idea that Jesus had risen would be quite easily accepted once the story got started.

    It could have got started deliberately by somebody who knew it to be false,or it could have got started quite innocently by somebody having mistakenly thought they saw Jesus when in fact they saw somebody else. Once the story started, it would have got progressively elaborated as people passed it on by word of mouth and added extra touches to add “corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative” as Pooh-Bar once said, in the context of another equally fictitious death and resurrection. 

    Such transmission by word of mouth is notoriously unreliable –  just try playing Chinese Whispers sometime. But it wasn’t until years or even decades after the supposed event that the first known written accounts were put down. What we have is four snapshots of the story at various stages of its development.

    But we now know that resurrections don’t happen. We have ample empirical evidence (all the millions upon millions of people who have died and stayed dead), scientific evidence (we know what happens to bodies when blood stops flowing to the brain, and we know the irreversible processes involved. Once you’re dead you stay dead, you don’t come back to life and talk to your disciples.

    So, we have two choices here. Either we can accept the resurrection story as being literally true in its miraculous content (disregarding the discrepancies in the various accounts) even though it contradicts everything we have learned in the subsequent two thousand years about how human bodies work, or we can treat it as a tall tale that grew in the telling by means of aspects of human behaviour and credulity which remain the same in there essence even today.

    One option requires us to discard all our other knowledge of the world, the other is entirely consonant with it.

    Which option do you think the evidence supports?

  • Jonathan West

    I provided a detailed reply to you, but it has been deleted from the site. In essence I provided reasons for thinking that the story isn’t true as written, it has been elaborated in the decades between the events supposedly happening and the first written accounts being created.

    We also have a wealth of medical evidence that dead people stay dead.  It’s far more likely that a story got round (we would call it an urban myth today) than that somebody really rose from the dead.

  • Oconnor

    If you accept that the Bible and christian tradition is evidence of the existence of a christian god, then you must accept that the Koran and islamic tradition is evidence of Allah. Same would also apply to hinduism, sikhism, jainism, shintoism… etc.

    At a push I could argue that “The Force” exists because of the Star Wars books, comics, games and movies. I could back that with the fact there were 400,000 self identifiying Jedi in the UK 2001 Census. This is more than the number of identifying Sikhs, and more than Jews and Buddhists combined.  

    The existence of a book, and a history of belief in that book, doesn’t provide any evidence that the claims made in the book are true. So to cite that as ” the one set of evidence we have” is not very convincing. 

    I would question your statement  “I am no worse off, and have had some consolation on my way.”

    Is that really true? As an atheist I have no fear of death, as I’ll be dead and gone. A christain must consider the chance of eternal torture and damnation. As someone once put it, a christain will be lying on their deathbed, considering Heaven and Hell, and remember what a XXXX they’ve been all their lives. Knowing themselves best, they will torment themselves about every misdeed of the past. 

    I admit that’s overly dramatic but it holds true. That does not seem in the least like consolation compared to an atheist.

  • Oconnor

    That’s far more plausible when you take into account how the story of Jesus’s birth was directly stolen from previous gods in the region. (Horus, Isis, Mithras etc.)

    Is it more likely that a risen god walked as man, or that the writers embellished his life and death story in line with the prevailing mythology of the time?

  • Oconnor

    Sorry, I didn’t see your comment and posted a similar but simplistic version. Can we call it accidental plagiarism? 

    I once had an interesting conversation where a friend compared Peter’s denial to a scene in “The Matrix”. When Neo meets The Oracle she tell’s him ” don’t worry about the vase”. In reaction he turns, knocking over the vase and breaking it. To which The Oracle relies ” what will really twist your noodle is if I hadn’t mentioned it, would you have broken it.”

    My friend reasoned by the same logic that Peter, (and by extension Judas) were innocent tools. They were deprived of free will by being told their future actions by an all-knowing, infallible being.   

  • Oconnor

    Because of course the religious are so good at letting other people live in peace.

  • Oconnor

    That’s a great point. Many hospitals allow patients to control pain relief by a machine which dispenses medication by the patient pressing a button. The result is that patients in control administer far less drugs than doctors would have prescribed. The simple feeling of self-determination allows patients to make “better” decisions. 

    Although Mrs. Philips seems to think this sort of continual self-assessment “dithering”. 

  • Oconnor

    I don’t know why the “chattering classes” are being picked on here. The idea of assisted suicide/ dignity in dying is widespread amongst “class groups”. 

    Is it simply because intelligent people are explaining why they don’t want to end their life in suffering or indignity? Do they “chatter” because people listen to them.. and agree?

    Or as pointed out in another article, did they not go to Cambridge? They might be deviant if they went to Oxford, the “other college”. Didn’t you know there’s only two places of higher learning in England? 

  • JessicaHof

    I should have been more specific on the elderly; Christians were famous for looking after their elderly rather than leaving them to the chance of whether there was a family to care for them; what do you suppose the fate of the elderly without families was in the pagan world? Christians were against abortion, and the fact that there was some disagreement on when a baby became human does not change that; now who is muddying water?

  • JessicaHof

    Sorry for that. If you try reading Tom Wright’s scholarly book on the Resurrection you’ll not only have a good read, but someone much more capable than myself of explaining these things. The idea that a group of demoralised men would suddenly be willing to lose their own lives for a rumour is such a curious one that I can’t understand anyone holding to it.

  • JessicaHof

    I am not at all unwilling to believe that other faiths have some glimpse of the divine,and that the modern fashion for atheism is nothing more than a small (in terms of the number of people who have ever lived) deviation from the norm, resulting from the Western man’s belief in himself. If you really think ‘the force’ is real, you are extremely credulous.

    Your understanding of what Christians believe seems to come from atheism for dummies 101. Have you ever actually read any Christian books or anything about Christianity not written by its opponents? I ask because God is love, and we love Him because He loved us first – all this is in the Bible. You seem to have taken one strand of medieval thought and made it the whole of Chrisitan thought, if you think we all worry about Hell.

    I, like many Christians, look forward to being united with the God who loved me enough to take my sins upon Him and to redeem me. He did the same for you, except you are too purblind to want to see it. Have you done half as much reading about the Faith as you have in writing half-baked stuff about it?

  • Jonathan West

    If they genuinely believed the rumour to be true, then they would. It wouldn’t take all that much in the way of wishful thinking to believe it true once the rumour had got started.

    By the way, I had thought my longer reply was deleted, but I was mistaken, I had simply had the order of comments displayed oldest first and so hadn’t noticed it down the bottom. of the comments.

  • Nesbyth

    That remark reminds me of Doubting Thomas, refusing to believe that Jesus had risen unless he could put his hands into the wounds of Christ. Thomas, of course, was given that opportunity.
    We should all join him in asking… “help my unbelief”.

  • Nesbyth

    Maybe John Simpson’s son already thinks he is a “gibbering wreck”…young.children think that anyone over about forty is pretty old and Simpson is well over that and into the age bracket of grandparents. Children always view them as old, even if hale and hearty.

  • Daniel_Borsell

      There appears to be some rather unpleasant attitudes by the
    Catholic commenters here towards unbelievers, which even compares them to
    Nazis! I would like to point out that what they identify as arrogance by non
    believers is generally the understandable reaction against the inherent arrogance
    of people of faith, who believe they know.

    I think this Youtube video explains my point much better than I ever could: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMAt0a5EWw0

  • JessicaHof

    As you, yourself, wrote, dead people stay dead, that we all know. The Apostles and the other 500 who saw were not stupid people, they were most insistent on seeing and touching the Risen Lord. I shall look for your longer reply, which does not show up on my disqus account.

  • Jonathan West

    According to the account in the Bible (which is invented anyway) St Thomas flunked it. When invited to put his hands in the wounds, he decided not to.

  • andr3w

     Daniel,

    The video is very interesting, thank you. But, while it is quite inspirational in its discussion of the unknowns at the extremes of the universe it doesn’t discuss any of the ‘middle’ that we can understand best.

    Since we inhabit this very average part of the world, and all our experiences take place in, mathematically speaking, a very ordinary part of the universe then surely we shouldn’t be looking to extremes to orient our knowledge of the world. We should be looking to the mundane and the everyday.

    Belief in God, or belief in absolute right and wrong, or that one kind of sex is morally better than another are very ordinary things, but mathematics has little to say about these or indeed any values aside from material quantities. Unless we are to throw reason and common sense to the wind we need to account for our experiences of value such as why, for example, coercion in sexual matters is wrong, or why it is unjust to compare advocates of assisted suicide to Nazis. If we follow these experiences through logically we frequently arrive at questions of what humans nature is, what life is and whether it has any meaning aside from material comfort. Existence after death is one account that allows for human life to have some sort of ultimate or universal meaning, which corresponds to our experience or belief of what justice ought to be, or what we wish love and morality were.

    Contrary to the montage of that chap at the end of the video speaking as if all knowledge were found in Holy Scripture most serious religious scholars (St. Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas, St. Anselm, Pope Benedict etc) have always used reason and ordinary human experiences as a way to account for those bits of life that demonstrate geniune, rather than simply wishful, value. They would agree that we know less than 5% about the reality of the world. St. Thomas Aquinas famously said of his magnum opus the Summa Theologica that is was no better than straw. The mysteries of science are exciting and wonderful, just as the mysteries of God are, but this does not mean that we are comdemed to ignorance about moral truths. There are moral things that we can know and they are facts, but no serious Catholic is going to say that they are all the facts. Just as no serious scientist will say that Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity is all the facts.

  • C_monsta

    You are avoiding the main point about ‘knowing’ things e.g. God exists or there is life after death, or God is love etc.

  • Jonathan West

    We know now that dead people stay dead and we know why.
     In biblical times they certainly didn’t know why, and from all the religious instances of people rising from the dead, its clear that they thought it possible.

  • Lewispbuckingham

     So in your version Thomas flunked.This could be consistent with the idea that Jesus seemed to attract the failures of the world, not the movers and shakers.
    But where did you get the idea that Thomas did not do as Jesus asked “Put your finger here and see my hands..put[your hand] into my side’ ‘You believe because you see me, don”t you? Happy are those who believe although they do not see.”
     From an Atheist point of view,assuming the account is a work of fiction, surely Thomas flunked out at flunking, as a matter of textural analysis.

  • Jason Clifford

    What you describe as logical and reasonable is the very definition of despair.

    it is only logical and reasonable if you do not see any intrinsic value in life itself. Those with faith know that God is faithful and that life, coming from God, is worth more than anything – including life with suffering, old age, illness and being a nuisance.

  • JessicaHof

    Do you really think so? There are very few examples outside of the Christian story of dead people rising again. There is nothing in the Jewish tradition, as Professor Wright shows, so you have to ask where this came from and why, given its inherent unlikelihood, it stuck. Of course, if you start from the position no one could ever rise from the dead, you have prejudged the answer and denied the eye-witness testimony of others based on your preconceived view.

  • Nesbyth

    If you think the bible is invented, there’s not much point discussing it!
    However, the fact that Thomas didn’t go ahead with his threat to place his hands on the wounds of Christ is that he was “gobsmacked” (in modern parlance) and fell to his knees in awe, sayin “My Lord and my God” as he realised what exactly he had witnessed….the Resurrection.