The terror of the infinite desert: atheists in the face of death

When I was in my teenage years, I called myself an atheist. In my twenties, although still professing atheism if anyone asked about religious beliefs, I modified my stance to agnosticism. In my next decade, in 1984 when I was thirty three, I experienced an epiphany, which decisively changed my spiritual outlook. Since then, I’ve had other experiences which have made me certain that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in the atheist’s philosophy.

Today, atheism seems to me to be an adolescent phase of belief that some people get stuck in all their lives, either through a failure of imagination, a kind of anger with “God” or a rigidity of thinking. Nevertheless, many people persist with it and find it decidedly infra dig to hold any kind of view other than atheistic materialism.

If I’d been able to move in the literary and artistic circles to which I was most drawn when I was younger, I would like to have known successful writers such as Julian Barnes and Jenny Diski. If I’d ever got to meet them, I wouldn’t have had the intellectual self-confidence to say that I didn’t share their atheism, which to my mind has to some extent limited their capacity to be truly great writers; but I can still read their works with interest and enjoyment and the sympathy that comes from being of a similar generation. So when tragedy has struck them, as it has in recent years, and they have written about it, because that’s what writers do, my heart goes out to them as if they were long-standing friends whom I would help if I could.

Julian Barnes wrote a book about his fear of death called Nothing to be Frightened Of. With terrible irony this was published six months before his beloved wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, was diagnosed with a brain tumour. She died in October 2008, just thirty-seven days after the diagnosis. They had been married since 1979. In Levels of Life, published in 2013, he writes about his grief: “I was 32 when we met, 62 when she died. The heart of my life; the life of my heart.” He contemplates suicide and goes so far as to work out how he will do it; but then he realises that he is his wife’s chief rememberer, and if he kills himself he will be killing her too.

Pat Kavanagh & Julian Barnes in Venice - photo via the Daily Telegraph

Pat Kavanagh & Julian Barnes in Venice – photo via the Daily Telegraph

I feel that I know Jenny Diski well, even though we have never met, because I used to know people who could have been her; and she writes wonderfully well about herself. She had a pretty grim childhood and spent some of it as in- or outpatient at various psychiatric institutions. A natural rebel and a child of the ’60s, with all that that implies, she was taken into the Mornington Crescent home of the novelist Doris Lessing, whose son had told her about Jenny’s difficult family life. Eventually, Jenny was able to resume her education; and by the early 1970s was training as a teacher, starting a free school, and later publishing her first book. In September 2014, Jenny revealed in an article in the London Review of Books that she had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Since then, she has published several moving articles about her thoughts, feelings and experiences while facing death from cancer. In the 9th April 2015 issue, she expresses her views as an atheist about the nature of life and death by quoting both Samuel Beckett and Vladimir Nabokov

“I too shall cease and be as when I was not yet, only all over instead of in store.”

From an Abandoned Work (Beckett)

“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness” Speak, Memory (Nabokov)

Jenny Diski - photo via The Guardian

Jenny Diski – photo via The Guardian

Neither Beckett nor Nabokov are writers I would go to for reassurance when facing death but Jenny finds some solace in the thought that we have but one life between nothingness:

“This thought, this fact, is a genuine comfort, the only one that works, to calm me down when the panic comes. It brings me real solace in the terror of the infinite desert. It doesn’t resolve the question (though as an atheist I don’t really have one), but it offers me familiarity with ‘the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns’. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. And it soothes. When I find myself trembling at the prospect of extinction, I can steady myself by thinking of the abyss that I have already experienced. Sometimes I can almost take a kindly, unhurried interest in my own extinction. The not-being that I have already been. I whisper it to myself, like a mantra or a lullaby.”

As someone who is certain that life continues after physical death, I can say that I have no fear of dying, although I do have fear of a painful death or a long drawn-out disabling illness. But for atheists it must be far worse. Here is what Julian Baggini, philosopher and author of “Atheism: A Very Short Introduction” has to say:

“I think it’s time we atheists ‘fessed up and admitted that life without God can sometimes be pretty grim. Appropriating the label “heathen” is part of this. Heathens are unredeemed outcasts from heaven who roam the planet without hope of surviving the deaths of their bodies. They may have values but they are not secured by any divine source. Yet we embrace this because we think it represents the truth. And so we don’t just get on and enjoy life, we embark on our own intellectual pilgrimages, trying to make some progress in a universe on which no meaning has been writ. The journey can be wonderful but it can also be arduous and it may end horribly. But there is no other way, and anyone who urges you to follow a path that they promise leads to a bright future is either gravely mistaken or a charlatan.”

So as someone who could be gravely mistaken but hopes he is not a charlatan, is there anything comforting I could say to Julian Barnes or Jenny Diski? I apologise to them in advance for this assumption that I can address them as familiars. Julian Barnes has written in Flaubert’s Parrot: “Why does the writing make us chase the writer? Why can’t we leave well enough alone? Why aren’t the books enough?” Well, Julian, we pay good money to buy your books, which seem to take us some way into your life, and so we like to imagine that we know, and can say things, to you.

I don’t think it would be any good for me to try to reason, since you will undoubtedly regard my standpoint as irrational (although I might ask in passing: how do you suppose that life can come from lifeless matter and randomness? It’s like saying that a corpse is the true being of Man).

Nor do I think that it would cut any ice with you if I were to refer to anthroposophy, as you would only roll your eyes at my gauche attempt to introduce something so foreign to intellectual good manners. From your perspective, it would require an unfeasibly large amount of disbelief-suspension to take on board Rudolf Steiner’s cosmology: etheric and astral bodies, planetary evolutions, elemental beings, Lucifer, Ahriman, asuras and the rest. It would be like Alice in Wonderland with the White Queen:

“Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

But an even worse hurdle than getting past the jargon and the strange concepts, is that anthroposophy claims to be a science of the spirit, which implies that the results will be reproducible by anyone who masters the same necessary tools of cognition as Rudolf Steiner. Atheists find this claim particularly challenging in a way that they would not if anthroposophy called itself a religion. And this is a pity, because anthroposophy has great insights and indeed, comfort and reassurance for anyone who is scared of death.

One of the most important ways in which anthroposophy can help with this fear is by increasing understanding of the cosmic laws of karma and reincarnation that govern all our lives. The atheist’s key premise, of course, is that life and consciousness are inconceivable without a physical body – the existence of a living being without a physical counterpart is simply not possible and death extinguishes individual existence completely. Through anthroposophy we learn that this notion of one single life lived between not-being and extinction is simply wrong – a cruel illusion that can only increase the terror of death.

Anthroposophy tells us that the true reality of being human is that we are spiritual beings currently having human experiences in physical bodies. That is the true nature of what it means to be a human being – we come from the spirit and we will return to the spirit and this cycle continues over many lifetimes. And although this posting is about death, we should never forget that there is also life before birth, and indeed before conception. Steiner called this “unbornness” and said that the human soul’s will to incarnate exists before conception takes place.

If in former times we had been candidates for initiation, we might have experienced the reality of life beyond the physical body through what was called the “temple sleep”. After various trials, the priest or hierophant would have put us to sleep, then caused our etheric bodies to leave the physical bodies for three and a half days. During this time our etheric and astral bodies would have journeyed in the spiritual world. When our etheric bodies were brought back into the physical, we would have awakened and known with absolute certainty, through direct experience, of the reality of the spiritual world.

Human physical and metaphysical evolution has moved on and the temple sleep initiation ritual is no longer performed. Nowadays, comparable experiences can sometimes be had via shamanism. But in our present era, which extends from the 15th to the 35th century and is often called by anthroposophists the age of the consciousness soul, the spiritual world has largely withdrawn from the physical world for necessary reasons of human evolution. In Owen Barfield’s words, “Living in the consciousness soul man experiences isolation, loneliness, materialism, loss of faith in the spiritual world, above all, uncertainty. The soul has to make up its mind and to act in a positive way on its own unsupported initiative. And it finds great difficulty in doing so. For it is too much in the dark to be able to see any clear reason why it should, and it no longer feels the old (instinctive) promptings of the spirit within.”

But I suspect that anthroposophy is way beyond anything you want to hear at this stage, so perhaps you would prefer to know what a scientist has to say about these matters. I was interested to see reports in the press in 2013 of some comments made by a British doctor called Sam Parnia who is head of intensive care at the university hospital in New York and who specialises in what you might call resurrection, because he is an expert in resuscitation techniques for people who have suffered cardiac arrest. Dr. Parnia is also a researcher into near death experiences and what he calls actual death experiences. He has talked to many people about what they recall experiencing while they were dead in his intensive care unit. About half claim to have clear recollections, many of which involve looking down on the surgical team at work on their body or the familiar image of a bright threshold or a tunnel of light into which they were being drawn.   And when he was asked what conclusions he has drawn, he said this:

“When I first got interested in these mind/body questions, I was astonished to find that no-one had even begun to put forward a theory about exactly how neurons in the brain can generate thoughts. We always assume that all scientists believe the brain produces the mind, but in fact there are plenty who are not certain of that. Even prominent neuroscientists such as Sir John Eccles, a Nobel prizewinner, believe that we are never going to understand mind through neuronal activity. All I can say is what I have observed from my work. It seems that when consciousness shuts down in death, psyche or soul – by which I don’t mean ghosts, I mean your individual self – persists for at least those hours before you are resuscitated. From which you might justifiably begin to conclude that the brain is acting as an intermediary to manifest your idea of soul or self but it may not be the source or originator of it… I think that the evidence is beginning to suggest that we should keep open our minds to the possibility that memory, while obviously a scientific entity of some kind – I’m not saying it is magic or anything like that –is not neuronal.”

Dr Sam Parnia - photo via Stonybrook University

Dr Sam Parnia – photo via Stonybrook University

Well, there you have it – an eminent doctor and scientist who says that the mind and memory do not reside in the brain. Like you, Jenny and Julian, he does not have any religious faith, but he does observe that consciousness continues after “death”.

Is it possible that given a little more time and further research doctors might one day come to the conclusion that memory actually resides in something called the etheric body? We shall see! As Steiner said, “it is well to remember that, in the last analysis, there is nothing else in the universe beside consciousnesses…Thus beings in various states of consciousness are the only reality in the world.”

Let us leave the last word to Rainer Maria Rilke, to my mind a surer and wiser guide to the nature of reality than either Beckett or Nabokov:

“It is truly strange to no longer inhabit the earth,

to no longer practice customs barely acquired,

not to give a meaning of human futurity

to roses, and other expressly promising things:

no longer to be what one was in endlessly anxious hands,

and to set aside even one’s own

proper name like a broken plaything.

Strange: not to go on wishing one’s wishes. Strange

to see all that was once in place, floating

so loosely in space. And it’s hard being dead,

and full of retrieval, before one gradually feels

a little eternity…”

Rainer Maria Rilke – part of the first elegy from the Duino Elegies

8 Comments

Filed under Anthroposophy, Atheism, Dr Sam Parnia, Fear of Death, Jenny Diski, Julian Barnes

8 responses to “The terror of the infinite desert: atheists in the face of death

  1. Tom Hart Shea

    I enjoyed reading this posting, Jeremy. Your point of view is very well-stated and you respect those who cling to atheism. I have tried both Julian Barnes’ and Jenny Diski’s novels but was not engaged by their work. It is striking how individual the aesthetic sense is. But your sharing your enthusiasm has led me to resolve I will try their novels again. When I was in a book club I had to read books I would never have even picked off the shelf, some of which I liked and some of which I didn’t. However when the club met to talk about the chosen book I sometimes ended up thinking, ‘Oh, wow, How did I miss that?’, and I would go home after and read the book again.
    I always find it helpful to remember that if what Steiner says about 12 world-views is true, then materialism is as true as Spiritism (anthroposophy). The great thing is that as a free-thinking human being one can encompass and assent to both points of view and appreciate just in what way it sheds light on our being.

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  2. Well, this is a delightfully arrogant post (nothing wrong with that necessarily). But I find it fascinating that you believe atheists remain at the level of intellectual or philosophical sophistication that you had reached as a teenager. You seem to assume — I may be wrong — that we don’t change the way we see things, we don’t evolve. But in fact, as you must be aware, some people move towards religion, others move away from it, the point is — we all change, nobody is the same person they were at 17. And everybody, including the person who has left religion and embraced atheism, feel that they have evolved, that their way of seeing the world and man has become more advanced, not less.

    I’m continously baffled by how distasteful anthroposophists find atheism. It’s as though you’d find more affinity with a religious fundamentalists — now, there, if anywhere, you have people with an infantile image of God! — who chop peoples’ heads off; at least they definately believe in realms beyond! It may be a slight exaggeration to show the absurdity. But that’s the impression I get (not only from you, but in general).

    Of course, as a side note: not only is your perception of atheism and materialism rather crude, you also conflate atheism with materialism. An atheist isn’t necessarily a materialist. You mention reincarnation. A belief in reincarnation — or an immaterial soul for that matter — doesn’t require a belief in a God.

    Now to my question, though. Seeing that an atheist is simply a person who believes there is no God — which or what kind of God (a sophisticated one, I must assume!) do you believe in? And which kind do you think old Rudi believe in? (And do you really think you have more in common with the literalist theists than with atheists?)

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    • Dear Alicia,
      Thank you for your comment and question. Rather than leave a detailed reply here, I feel another blog post coming on. But I will say that your assumption that I find atheism distasteful is mistaken. I do find it wrong-headed but I also recognise that it is just another way of looking at the world, which has its own truths and validity, as I hope does mine. My purpose in writing the post was to try to point out, as gently as possible, that the terror of death experienced by many atheists might be relieved to some extent by taking a look at other ways of perceiving the world, after which one may or may not conclude that this notion of one single life lived between not-being and extinction is simply wrong. I might also observe that an atheist who believes in reincarnation and an immaterial soul is not in the usual run of atheists.
      Best wishes,
      Jeremy

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      • Steve Hale

        Alicia’s problem, which she makes evidently clear on the Waldorf-Critics
        list, is that she prefers ignorance to knowledge, which can very easily escalate the atheist posture. And yet, she also enjoys hearing the anthroposophist position, which likely makes an impression. As such,
        death in the mortal means life in the immortal, and repeated earth lives
        only make sense in the physical world when we truly consider our future.
        She, and her comrades on the WC list, are making this voyage and connection every day. It can be likened to the journey home by Ulysses to his beloved Ithaca, after the Iliad. He got there, which means we get there.
        Atheism, as such, is nothing more than a freedom symbol anyone can wear when it has been earned by experiencing the fall. And we have all done that.

        Steve

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      • Dear Jeremy,

        I’m glad you don’t find it distasteful (lots of anthroposophists seem to find it so, and worse…).

        Another potential perspective on what you write: is it not possible that those who take refuge in a belief in an afterlife (of some kind, whatever it may be) experience a greater terror of death than atheists — they just find a way to forget about the idea that death might be the ultimate end. What you’re suggesting seems to me to be quite simply that people need consolation! That may be the case (for some, at least). I’m not arguing against it… But this need itself tells us little about what’s true, so the atheist will then have to choose consolation over (what he or she would otherwise consider to be the) truth.

        (I suppose it isn’t the usual run of professed atheist. But on the other hand I wouldn’t be surprised to find people who don’t believe in a God — who are de facto atheists — and who have some spiritual beliefs — but don’t call themselves atheists.)

        Best,
        -alicia

        PS. As for Steve’s comment below, I’ll simply ignore it. I read with great interest what anthroposophists write. However, my enthusiasm for wasting time in non-discussions with fundamentalist and/or ignorant anthros who preach Steiner as literal truth, well, this enthusiasm has dwindled down to non-existant, despite the occasional entertainment value.

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  3. Dear Alicia,

    Thanks once again for your comment – I do appreciate what you have to say, as your thoughts often make me re-think and re-examine my own position. As for anthroposophists finding atheistical or materialist views distasteful, here is something that Steiner said in 1905 that should give us pause before condemning the opinions of others:

    “To be tolerant means in the sense of Spiritual Science something quite different from what one understands usually about it. It means also to respect the freedom of thought in others. To push others away from their place is an insult, but if one does the same thing in thought nobody would say this is an injustice. We talk a lot about “regard for the other’s opinion,” but are not really willing to apply this principle ourselves.
    The “Word” today has almost no meaning, one hears it and one has heard nothing. One has to learn to listen with one’s soul, to get hold of the most intimate things with our soul. What later manifests itself in physical life is always present in the spirit first. So we must suppress our opinion and really listen completely to the other, not only listen to the word but even to the feeling. Even then, if in us a feeling will stir that it is wrong what the other one says, it is much more powerful to be able to listen as long as the other one talks than to jump into their speech. This listening creates a completely different understanding — you feel as if the soul of the other starts to warm you through, to shine through you, if you confront “her” in this manner with absolute tolerance.”

    This also fits in with what Steiner had to say about 12 world-views in the Philosophy of Freedom (I shall be writing more about this in the blog post that your previous comment has provoked). So anthropops should be the last people to condemn others for their views, even if they think those views plain wrong.

    But here’s a thought – let’s assume that I am utterly deluded in my view of things and so is the atheist. We are both quite wrong and reality doesn’t conform to either of our views. Nevertheless, I would still argue that my illusion is preferable to that of the atheist, because it allows me to live my life with a sense of peace and optimism; and when the time of death approaches, I can face this with tranquillity. I would argue that in such a mad, bad and dangerous world, my approach is completely rational because of the benefits it brings, even if I’m deluded. But it’s even more rational if it does in fact approximate to the truth, which is what I believe.

    Best wishes,

    Jeremy

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Jeremy,
      I’m a bit embarassed it’s taken me so long to get back to this comment.

      As for Steiner’s advice, I suspect there are some anthroposophists who are good at ignoring him when he is — what I would consider — his wisest, and cling to his every word when perhaps he should be taken less literally.

      You may very well be right that your approach — or illusion — is ‘rational’ in some ways, regardless of whether it conforms to truth. But it only works as long as you’re able to tell yourself that it is as least likely to be true! The second you start to doubt it — at least if this doubt is more than just a fleeting thought — its ability to comfort diminishes, because if there’s serious doubt, you can’t lay the worries entirely to rest! (As a side-note, what happens after death according to anthroposophy is not necessarily a comforting thought — it is quite daunting.)

      Best wishes,
      -alicia

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Dear Alicia,
    A pleasure, as always, to hear from you – and as you’ve done before, you’ve provoked me into writing another post rather than leaving a long reply here. I’ll post it tomorrow (14th August).
    Best wishes,
    Jeremy

    Liked by 1 person

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