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Why Atheists Aren't Afraid to Die

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Christopher Hitchens is always an interesting read. I find his writing entertaining and found him to be a pleasant individual. Recently he wrote of his own impeding death.

In the preface to my first collection of essays, Prepared for the Worst, in 1988, I annexed a thought of Nadine Gordimer's, to the effect that a serious person should try and write posthumously. By that I took her to mean that one should compose as if the usual constraints -- of fashion, commerce, self-censorship, public and perhaps especially intellectual opinion -- did not operate. Impossible perhaps to live up to, this admonition and aspiration did possess some muscle, as well as some warning of how it can decay. Then, about a year ago, I was informed by a doctor that I might have as little as another year to live. In consequence, some of my recent articles were written with the full consciousness that they may be my very last. Sobering in one way and exhilarating in another, this practice can obviously never become perfected. But it has given me a more vivid idea of what makes life worth living, and defending.

This inspired me to reflect upon my own mortality. I, as is Hitchens, am an unbeliever. I lack a belief in a deity of any kind and I have no reason to assume there is life after death. That baffles the believers.

They seem unable to comprehend non-believers, especially those who have no fear of death. There is insecurity among them; they find it unsettling that others don't accept what they cling to so tenaciously. Some, to explain away the lack of fear pretended it existed and invented deathbed conversions for those who challenged them to think. Figures as diverse as Thomas Paine, Robert Ingersoll, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Charles Darwin have all been falsely credited with "seeing the light" and converting seconds before their deaths.

On three occasions, I assumed I would die -- not in the sense that we all assume we will die eventually, but imminently so. Oddly, all three occasions were in Nadine Gordimer's South Africa -- a nation that has had more than its share of dying. On the first occasion I almost drowned off the coast of Durban, but was rescued just before going under.

The second incident began as I was sleeping. Sean, my housemate, just left for work when something startled me and I jumped out of bed. The kitchen door opened and three men entered pushing Sean. Two of them were behind him. The third came toward me with a gun pointed at my forehead.

They tied my hands, as they had already done with Sean, and pushed me onto the bed. After ransacking the place, and beating me, they wanted the keys to other buildings on the property, where I had a business and ready cash. I told them where to find them but they took the wrong keys.

When the keys didn't work they came back and threatened loudly, furiously, and repeatedly to kill us. I laid there thinking that in a few seconds they would shoot Sean in the head and then do it to me. I don't remember feeling afraid, only concerned about Sean. After two more failed attempts to find the right keys, each followed by more threats and gun waving, they grabbed the correct keys and disappeared. I went to my office and called the police.

Months later I was standing at the bedroom window, waiting for Sean, who had just gone out the front door, to walk past. I would watch until he rounded the corner and then turn on a security camera to watch him get into his car and leave. All were precautions taken because of the previous attack.

Sean walked past but never reappeared on camera. Just as I was becoming impatient he walked past with two armed men behind him. I went to knock on the widow, to let them know they were seen and to show them a phone, but instead put my entire arm though it, shattering the glass in a loud explosion of shreds that flew outwards. The armed man turned and shot at me. The men fled and I called the police and then got Sean into the house.

In both incidents death seemed the likely outcome. Yet, that didn't worry me. I was far more upset that Sean was facing such violence.

That is what believers don't understand. Atheists tend to believe that life ends here; there is nothing beyond. Because there is nothing beyond life, there is nothing to fear. I don't fear because I don't believe.

A character in my novel City Limits expressed my view of life and death. Young Tony is dealing with the news that his mentor, Stella, is facing her own death. He was afraid to ask her about this because "he felt as if he were bringing death into her life in a way that she would never do herself." Stella patted his hand, comforting him and then she spoke.

"How did 1950 feel to you?" she asked him. Tony was confused. That was long before he was born. Stella knew this. Why ask such a question? But before he could respond, Stella answered the question herself.

"You didn't exist in 1950 and at some point in the future you will once again cease to exist. That's really it, you know. One day you came into being, and you sucked at life itself, grabbing everything you could. You learned, you lived, if lucky, you loved. And one day it simply ceases to be. What is there to fear? Did the time before your birth traumatize you or cause you pain? No. You weren't there to be traumatized or to feel pain. And someday you, and I as well, will simply stop being. It will be as it was for that eternity before our births. The world, for us, came into existence the day we were born and it will cease the day we die. There is an eternity after our death, and an eternity before our birth. Our life is like a slim, but wonderful book sitting between two vast bookends of nothingness. Why worry about the nothingness when we have such a wonderful volume in our hands right now?"

I don't worry about the nothingness, not when I have such a wonderful volume in my hands today. I think Hitchens would agree, even now as he reads his final chapter.