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How do Christians offer an alternative to the ‘nonsense all around us’?

The growing acceptance of euthanasia represents the triumph of atheism over European society

By on Monday, 14 January 2013

Anne Turner Assisted Suicide

I have just finished reading Brighton Rock by Graham Greene, the story of the life and death of Pinkie, a young psychopath (for want of a better word to describe him). At the very end of the book, after Pinkie dies violently, Rose, a girl who has become tragically entangled with him, goes to Confession believing she is damned. The old priest, Greene writes, “Sighed and whistled, bending his old head. He said, ‘You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone, the…appalling…strangeness of the mercy of God.’”

This is a wonderful and arresting phrase and it has been reverberating in my mind ever since I read it. Yesterday morning I happened to turn on Radio 4 as the writer Will Self was giving his “Point of View” at 8.50 am. Called “Terminal Thoughts”, it was Self’s idea of how to die with dignity. Starting with the statement that at some future time in his life “I am expecting to kill myself”, he gave an atheist’s view of why suicide should be the acceptable and normal way to end life when “the alternative is a slow and painful death from a terminal illness.”

I have to say he gave a fluent, persuasive and seemingly reasonable presentation. He spoke of “an epidemic of old age” because “we are living longer and longer”. Due to the advances of modern medicine death, “the final tragic act of our lives”, is now “more and more protracted”. He described the deaths of both his parents from cancer “while heavily sedated”. He commented that “few of us really understand how to end our lives painlessly and effectively” and concluded with the opinion (which I do not quarrel with) that we cannot hope to understand how to have a good life unless we also prepare ourselves “for a good death.” Indeed, he quoted with approval the words of the Christian funeral rite, that “in the midst of life we are in death”.

It is all in the interpretation of these phrases: what do we mean by a good life or a good death? I blogged recently about my brother’s last day; he had said his goodbyes, made his peace, received the sacraments and was ready for the end. His dying was not unduly hastened but nor was it unnecessarily protracted. He had what Christians would describe as a “good death”. I think what Self seems to be advocating is suicide by (doctor-assisted?) morphine when you are staring a terminal and painful illness in the face. But this raises other questions and difficulties: what if you are old and ill – but not dying?

What if you are lonely, afraid and without friends? What if you are depressed or despairing or demented but otherwise healthy?

Our parish priest remarked in his homily yesterday that he sometimes wished Christians could live in a parallel world where they had their own schools and hospitals and did not have to engage with the “nonsense all around us”. Well, this is the time and the world that we are living in; we have to engage with it, not flee from it, and in the case of suicide, assisted dying or euthanasia, we should support the vast majority of doctors who have always voted against government legislation in this area. We should also work to ensure that end of life protocols like the Liverpool Care Pathway are not misused so as to precipitate death with indifferent haste.

If, as Christians, we really live as we profess, truly believing that we come from God and will one day return to Him, and that our lives are intrinsically sacred because of this, we can offer intelligent, questioning atheists like Self an alternative to the bleak image of white-coated professionals advancing with their hypodermic syringes: indeed, a compelling vision of “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God”.

  • Peter

    At the heart of the atheist mentality is the lack of belief in judgement after death and in redemptive suffering to lighten that judgement, hence a complete rejection of all terminal suffering.
    It is not just the physical pain.  A person dying in pain also suffers the mental anguish of knowing that he or she is now worthless in this world and can never return to be an active part of it.  An dying atheist who does not understand how valuable we are in God’s eyes, has no sense of his or her own worth.  They just want the physical and mental anguish to stop.

  • maxmarley

    I find it strange that a dying atheist does not consider for a moment that there may be God and judgement.
    Hedging ones bets when there is an eternity at stake seems sensible and yet as many priests have said that deathbed conversions rarely happen.
    Not even a scintilla of doubt seems so odd.
    After all when an atheist denies the existence of God it is speculation on his part.
    The atheist just does not know.
    Nor does the believer but he uses mature and steelly use of reason and firm faith in God’s blessings.
    There is a mystery to our existence not to be lightly dismissed.

  • Jonathan West

    Why would a dying atheist view the (lack of) evidence for God in any way differently when he is dying as compared to any other time of his life?

    The great atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell was once asked what he would say if he found himself standing before God on the judgement day and God asked him, “Why didn’t you believe in Me?”

    Russell replied, “I would say, ‘Not enough evidence, God!  Not enough evidence!’”

  • Jonathan West

    If they “just want the physical and mental anguish to stop”, then who are you to say that they cannot do this?

  • Peter

    On the contrary, given the atheist mindset, it is the rational way out. 

    If you dismiss free will as a delusion, then the decision to terminate one’s life is no longer a free choice made by a dying person, but the inevitable consequence of the position that person finds him or herself in.

    In other words, it would be irrational, perhaps even delusional, for an atheist suffering acutely painful terminal decline to do anything other than actively seek to end their life.

  • whytheworldisending

    Christians can only OFFER the alternative – the Good News - but if the offer is refused, then put into practice what the gospels say. About those who hear the Word and reject it, or refuse to listen, the gospel is clear. Christians should disengage. Luke says,”As for those who do not welcome you, when you leave their town shake the dust from your feet as evidence against them,” and “Leave the dead to bury their dead.” Having signalled the Christian stance on moral issues we do not stay to listen to more nonsense – even from those who have forged a career out of it. We walk away and attend to those who are listening. The same principle can be deployed in the workplace and in elections. All people of faith should make a pledge not to vote for ANY party or MP who is in favour of same-sex marriage, euthanasia or abortion. Even life-long Labour or Conservative voters should be prepared to sacrifice their political allegiances for this, as Jesus said, ” Anyone who loves … more than me is not worthy of me.” (Mt 10:37) At work, people should form Faith Unions – open to all who hold to christian morals, whatever their religious background - who can act collectively to support the rights of believers to disassociate themselves from immoral practices they want no part of.

  • OldMeena

    But none of that addresses the point made by JW.

    The point is that many people do not share your supernatural beliefs. If THEY (such people) WISH to have the option (in the UK) of euthanasia in the event of severe suffering near the end of their * “natural” lives, who are YOU, because of your supernatural beliefs, to say that they cannot have this?

    * Not necessarily truly “natural” as they might have already, some time previously, have received drugs to slow down the advance of their illness.

  • maxmarley

    And God might say “ Bertrand there was enough light for those who only desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition”
    ― Blaise Pascal

  • OldMeena

    If there were a God, I don’t think He would be impressed by a “hedging of bets deathbed ‘conversion’ “.

    Do you?

  • OldMeena

    I can’t imagine God saying that. It’s not a question of a “desire to see” or wanting to believe or having a “contrary disposition” to that. It is all about using ones mind in an honest, open and quite straightforward way – and reaching a conclusion.

    Belief or disbelief (of anything), as I understand it, is not a choice. It’s a conclusion reached as a result of the best thought and consideration an individual is capable of.

  • OldMeena

    I can’t imagine God saying that. It’s not a question of a “desire to see” or wanting to believe or having a “contrary disposition” to that. It is all about using ones mind in an honest, open and quite straightforward way – and reaching a conclusion.Belief or disbelief (of anything), as I understand it, is not a choice. It’s a conclusion reached as a result of the best thought and consideration an individual is capable of.


  • maxmarley

    This is the tug between individualism and the common good. Individualism and all the selfishness it brings is the current fad.
    The self destruct bottom that some want could ultimately become the destruct bottom that the unwanted and vulnerable don’t want.
    The tyranny of despair would dictate all our lives. The culture of death would prevail and probably is.
    Faith hope and love of God are cherished theological virtues of Christians.
    There are many wicked people who reject and despise these virtues.

  • Seanl0909

    Well there is one very good reason why they should not be allowed to do it : there is no such thing as a purely individual human. Every human act affects the rest of us. Furthermore, the nature of society itself will change if official approval is given for assisted suicide or euthanasia. In the NL there has been a gradual expanding of the grounds for euthanasia and, according to a House of Lords Committee which investigated the issue, about 1000 people are involuntarily killed every year by Dutch doctors. So will Self or Terry Pratchett will not just carry out an individual act in killing themselves but have a profound effect on the rest of us but especially on the most vulnerable members of society.

  • OldMeena

    So if others had a right (euthanasia) that they want and you do not, then “tyranny of despair would dictate” your life?

    You have no right to say that people are “wicked” if they do not share your supernatural beliefs.

  • maxmarley

    Judeo Christian revelation is that after judgement there is either eternal bliss with God or eternal loss.
    I accept that thoughts about eternity are somewhat smothered by the cares of every day existence. But dying to this existence must surely prompt ‘is there a hereafter, is there something I must tend to?.
    If you say that like mr Russell the evidence of God was too thin to warrant any further action, then i respectfully accept your understanding.
    But not even a hint of doubt? The absolute certainty that there is no God!
    It seems to me foolhardy and reckless in light of well established revelation not to make some provision for what is a very long time.
    Just curious.

  • Jonathan West

     In that case, I’ll ask again. Who are you to say that they cannot do this?

  • maxmarley

    The Christian belief is that God is Love and we are loved by God.
    We have free will to accept and love God or to reject Him.
    How we get to God’s love is a matter for each individual at any time.
    What we elect to do in life is the choice we make for ourselves for eternity.

  • Mike

    You mischaracterise (or perhaps misunderstand) the typical atheist’s position. It’s an extremely rare atheist that has not a scintilla of doubt, as you put it. Rather, we say that there is not enough evidence for a Christian God, or Allah, or Thor, or Vishnu, etc. for us to swallow the entire religious mythos surrounding that particular deity.

    There is a massive gulf between wondering (or even hoping) for some kind of continued existence beyond death, and believing that there is an entire system in the afterlife (Heaven, Hell, Purgatory) with specific rules and requirements to be met, especially when no two Christian sects/denominations can agree upon even some of its more basic characteristics.

  • Mike

    And yet according to the tenets believed by many Christians (maybe not Catholics in this case, since they tend to be more fuzzy on the doctrine of Hell) there are almost certainly more serial killers, rapists, and mass murderers in Heaven today than there are Muslim teenagers who died before reaching adulthood.

  • Benedict Carter

    First of all, see it for what it is; do not play with it (refuse to be PC in anything or go along with that mindset in any way, shape or form); laugh at it in public all you can.

  • Benedict Carter

    Never heard of the parable of the vineyard?

    You can find it in that thing called the Bible. 

  • Mike

    This is no different to the way many Christians feel when they are close to death. When the pain and suffering of anyone of any faith becomes intolerable to the point that there is no pleasure or sense of purpose to be gained from living, it’s not just the atheists who decide that it is time to go. Both my grandmothers–both Christians–realized that near the end.

    And since when did terminal suffering become a virtue? There are millions of elderly and dying Americans currently hooked up to life support systems and/or undergoing extremely painful heroic measures that in the vast majority of cases will only buy them a few more days or weeks of life. They are dying in agony, often far away from their loved ones in antiseptic hospital wards when they could spend their last few days at home (or in a hospice) where they can be surrounded by the people they love.

    I can understand the desire to keep on living (though why so many Christians want to keep putting off the day they believe they will be in Paradise is a constant puzzle to me) but there has to be a balance somewhere.

  • Jonathan West

    If an atheist has found “Judeo-Christian revelation” to be unconvincing during his or her life, why should that change towards the end of life? You may find revelation to be “well established” but there are a great many people who honestly disagree with you.

    You appear to be working on the principle of Pascal’s Wager, that if there is the slightest possibility of Goid’s existence, then one should act accordingly in order to hedge your bets.

    Pascal’s Wager is bad logic for several reasons, but two principal ones.

    First, it is not a binary choice between God/no God. There are a huge number of Gods to choose from, and choosing the wrong one would have consequences just as dire as choosing none. After all, if you choose to believe in the Christian God, you might find yourself in big trouble on your death if it turns out that Islam is true after all.

    Second, the logic assumes that God would prefer a hedging of bets, a dishonest outward display of belief at odds with your inner convictions, as opposed to honest action in accordance with those convictions. Since God is supposedly omniscient, he’s hardly going to be fooled by an outward hedging of bets, he will know the inner convictions, and according to Christian doctrine we are judged by the content of our hearts.

  • maxmarley

    Well Mike you have strayed into a good place in the Catholic Herald.
    Perhaps you might even read a bit more of this good paper and discover that the truth of Christ is a cherished one unfortunately not too well understood by many?

  • OldMeena

    Your posting is almost all dependent on the assumed truth of your supernatural beliefs.

    I say “almost” because it also seems to assume that somebody (say an atheist, agnostic or indeed a believer, and some Christian believers DO think that euthanasia is justified in some circumstances) wishing for euthanasia does so solely out of selfish motives.

    Surely a few moments thought should enable you to see that this is not always so.

  • OldMeena

    If people are “involuntarily killed” (and it MUST often be very difficult to ask them about this) the solution would be to stop that – it would not be euthanasia by the individual’s consent.

    There are always possible abuses to rights. We have the right to drive a car (if we satisfy the legal conditions) but up to 3,000 people a year (in the UK) have died on the roads.
    The solution is seen in safeguards and regulations enforced so as to stem this bad side-effect.

  • Kevin

    Your parish priest is right – we do need to take back our schools and hospitals and revive our communities. This is the time we are living in, and if we do that, a side effect will be that the Catholic vote will start to matter (at the same time as parliament’s power over us diminishes).

  • OldMeena

    I had always found that individualism was strongly supported by the RC Church. This has always been one of its attractive feature for me. Its stance against despotic Marxist states was always to be admired.

    Mind you Russell, when he returned from the Soviet Union in its earlier days (with GBS and a collection of other dimwits) famously remarked that “The Russian people are slaves”.
    A good atheist spotted it too.

  • OldMeena

    Matthew 20: 1 – 16

    Yes. I thought I knew it already (I did) and have just re-read it.

    I take it it’s not meant to be taken literally. In this parable we are the workers in the vineyard, God is the landowner and the denarius is eternal life in heaven. Our payment for accepting Jesus Christ as our personal God and Saviour is eternal life in heaven. What the Parable of the Vineyard is saying is that it doesn’t matter what time we start working for God, as long as we starting working for him at some point we’ll get the same reward as everybody else.  Is that right?

  • Lewispbuckingham

     Well sort of .The parable hits you at your own level and time and state of mind.Its a parable of hope.
    For me it says God desires us so much he will do anything possible to have us freely assent to his love.
     What happened to NewMeena?

  • rjt1


  • OldMeena

    NewMeena was “taken over” by somebody pretending to be me – posting under the same name – and saying nasty things about Catholics that I would never say.I told CH about this, but the posts remained (at least for a considerable time – I gave up looking). 

    I suppose that some clerics in the past (we wouldn’t know about the present), including more than the odd one or two Cardinals, might have been thinking about this parable rather often during their lives.
    They had a fine old time. Richelieu is the best known, with his girl-friend Jacqueline, the sister of Blaise (Pascal). 

  • karlf

    We have been shown that our personalities can be drastically altered through changes to the physiology of the brain. This shows that our personalities are created by the physical nature of the brain itself, and if a part of our consciousness was to survive our death, how would it be similar in any way to who we are now? Without our bodies and our personalities what sort of creatures would “we” exist as in heaven?

    With these thoughts in mind, I consider your notions of an afterlife part of the “nonsense all around us”.

  • OldMeena

    Much (and often almost all) of the life of individuals is pre-determined for them.  If you are brought-up in a “strong” Catholic family, which also happens to be a good family, you will probably end up a devout Catholic – or at least a believer. If there’s money for a good public school and you are of average intelligence (or quite a bit below it) you will probably go to a proper university and probably (too) have a comfortable life. And may I just say: “etc”? – I think you get the idea.

  • Nesbyth

    Yes! Be counter-cultural. I have taught my children not to be afraid to be so. It’s the sanest thing to be in today’s society.

  • Peter

    The danger lies in this atheist mindset becoming prevalent in society as a whole.

    Let’s say two or three generations down the line, Christian values wain and the majority are atheists with no belief in any afterlife and no tolerance of terminal suffering for themselves or anyone else.

    Since terminal humans will be deemed to have no hope of recovery in this life, and no hope of resurrection in the next, their final throes of suffering will be considered completely unnecessary and it will be considered an act of mercy to end their life quickly irrespective of their consent.

    They will be put down like suffering animals.  That is the future we can look forward to.

  • Jonathan West

    I think that it is a bit of a stretch to say that those who wish to end their own pain now cannot do so because you are afraid that at some unspecified pint in the future suffering people may be put down without their consent.

    It seems to me that you have consideration for somebody’s wishes and consent if they want to stay alive, but no such consideration for their consent and wishes if they don’t.

    I think that is a double standard. You might care to reflect on that.

  • Lewispbuckingham

     ‘After all,if you choose to believe  in the Christian God, you might find yourself in big trouble on your death if it turns out Islam is true after all’.
     Well,no not quite.Most of Islam considers those of The Book, ie Jews Christians and Muslims all to be followers of Allah, the one true God.
     That means for them that all Christians are nominal Muslims.
    In that context Christ himself was a Muslim, although he did not know it. So as such he is a Prophet.
     I know that you define Agnosticism in a certain way. I find when talking to certain Agnostics that their way is not yours.
     To me, irrespective of one’s views of Christianity, there probably is a God.
     If that God is indifferent to us then there is no heaven or hell, we are just a plaything.
     The Christian hope is that unlike some of us, that god is not only just but loving and merciful.

  • karlf

    Then he’ll be understanding of why we don’t believe in religions.
    By the way, I don’t think muslims would agree with your first point.

  • Peter

    The Darwinian inspired eugenics of the first half of the 20th century are a warning to mankind.  But then they were imposed by dictatorship from above.  

    The future we can look forward is to a dictatorship of the masses, where the majority will be atheist who regard terminal suffering as superfluous.  

    Humanism and humanist values will take the place of Christian values, and in the name of humanism, terminal suffering will be avoided at all costs.

    The unspoken consensus will be to automatically and systematically end the life of any patient deemed to be terminal and to be suffering. 

    Bad as it is in itself, this will lead to shocking abuses where patients who are neither terminal nor suffering could be euthanased simply because of their age or because of chronic mental or physical illness.

    Fundamental Christian values say that the person has worth and dignity regardless of earthly condition, because that person is valued by his or her Creator and will continue to live on after death.  

    If you remove Christian values and replace them with atheist humanist values where death represents total annihilation of the individual, a person’s earthly condition will dictate that person’s current worth, since that is the only standard one can go by.  

    A person facing inevitable annihilation due to terminal illness will be deemed to be worthless and will be euthanased.  But it will not stop there.  

    Once a standard of individual worthiness has been applied in a society devoid of Christian values, other  groups, groups which are not terminally ill, could be judged to be worthless such as the elderly, the chronically sick and the handicapped.

    This has happened before and it is a warning.  Atheists wanting to put an end to their suffering are the thin edge of the wedge.

  • JabbaPapa

    This shows that our personalities are created by the physical nature of the brain itself

    Of course it bloody well doesn’t.

    It shows that there are intrinsic links between the physiology of the brain and its higher functions.

    Well duh !!!

    … and if a part of our consciousness was to survive our death

    You have demonstrated no causal link between personality and “consciousness” — and you’ve not even *mentioned* the problem of the soul, let alone treated that specific question to any kind of satisfaction.

    Then you start ranting on about heaven, as if the gross intellectual deficiency of your “argument” were somehow relevant to the Catholic teleology.

    Except that you’ve clearly not the faintest grasp of even the basics.

  • JabbaPapa

    Much (and often almost all) of the life of individuals is pre-determined for them.

    This is complete rubbish.

    Otherwise, why not just get your own parents and teachers to post your opinions for you, instead of bothering to write them up yourself ? I mean logically, your own personality would be completely worthless in such a scenario …

  • JabbaPapa

    Given that the entirety of Reality is the evidence, his disclaimer is unacceptable.

  • JabbaPapa

    One naturally has a right to describe those who deliberately promote evil as being wicked, notwithstanding your nasty attempts at moral censorship.

  • karlf

    If our personalities can exist without the brain, why would physical or chemical differences and alterations affect them so drastically, and so permanently? What do you believe the actual function of the brain to be?
    Oh Jabba, font of great knowledge, both scientific and of supernatural magic, please give us the answers!

  • Savonarola

    ‘How do Christians offer an alternative to the nonsense all around us?” It seems sometimes as if all they do is offer a lot of nonsense of their own – parading of relics and other magical survivals, posing as martyrs engaged in a holy war against the Prime Minister, wrecking a good liturgy by imposing weird non-English on the people of God etc. etc. The one thing the Church will not do is the one and only thing it should be doing, helping everyone to know that they are loved by God.
    Having lobbed in this grenade I look forward to the explosions of wrath from all the traddieCaths falling over each other to perpetrate yet more of their nonsense.

  • JabbaPapa

    I notice that you have not responded to even ONE of the counter-points that I made.


    If our personalities can exist without the brain

    Why are you changing the subject ? You claimed that personalities are created *by* “the physical nature of” the brain.

    You then jumped from that, by the means of no logical demonstration whatsoever, to the problem of consciousness ; thence, again with no intervening logic nor demonstration, to the question of heaven — and all of this without examining the question of the soul, which is quite obviously central to such a metaphysical discussion.

    You’re simply demonstrating your inability to even *listen* to any answers you are provided with, as well as your crass inability to engage in anything even remotely resembling honest discussion.

  • JabbaPapa

    Is this some sort of attempt to “justify” your trolling ?

  • Jonathan West

    You’re being really very inconsistent.

    You talk of eugenics, which has nothing to do with the question of voluntary euthanasia (assisted suicide)

    Then you compare eugenics imposed by dictatorship with “a dictatorship of the masses, where the majority will be atheist who regard terminal suffering as superfluous”.

    But the point of voluntary euthanasia is that it is voluntary. In other wods, if you decide you don’t want to commit suicide to relieve the suffering at the end of your life, then nobody is making you, even if somebody else chooses differently.

    By preventing that choice from being made available, you are dictating to others. Why is your dictatorship justified?

  • Jonathan West

    So, can I call Catholics evil for wanting to prevent assisted suicide to relieve pain at the end of life?