The scene: a generic deathbed. For the purposes of this exercise, you are an atheist. You are present at this deathbed to comfort the dying, but what are you supposed to say? You do not believe in heaven, or the happy hunting grounds, or nirvana, or reincarnation. You cannot honestly assure the dying that they’re on their way to a better place, or that Grandpa and Uncle Joe will be waiting for them on the other side. So what do you say?
This question was posed on the JREF forum the other day, by a believer. It came across, to me anyway, as an attempted gotcha – as if the atheists on the thread were expected to shuffle their feet in embarrassment and retire in confusion, because (as most believers believe) atheists can neither take nor offer any consolation in the face of the Grim Reaper. But if that was the intention, the questioner was doomed to disappointment. It turned out that the atheists involved had no end of ideas on the subject.
Apparently, some would lie, if that’s what the person in extremis seemed to need. Some would stand on their atheistic principles, but try not to be dicks about it. Some would take it on a situational basis, depending on whom they were trying to console. A small child? A stranger, an accident victim, dying in their arms? A Muslim? Another atheist? But the over-riding theme was the imperative not to obtrude one’s own beliefs, or lack of them, into another person’s last moments; rather, to listen, to respond, to speak of good times and happy memories, to affirm the value of the life lived, to assure that last wishes would be carried out, to allay anxieties about loved ones left behind. Fibbing about the soon-to-be-deceased’s imaginary future in the bosom of Abraham came across as a last resort, to be avoided if possible, and of dubious value anyway. It was thoughtful and even inspiring stuff, but it got me thinking about a couple of contingencies, not really discussed, where the temptation to lie might be harder to resist. That is, situations where the other party virtually demands that you lie to them.
The scene: your silver-haired mother’s deathbed. She has long cherished totally unrealistic hopes of leading you into the safety of Christ’s salvation, and now her time is running out. She gazes up at you pleadingly as she presses your hand with those work-worn old fingers, and begs you – with her antepenultimate breath – to let her die happy and in the blessed assurance of meeting you in Heaven. What do you say?
Do you say, “Sorry, Ma, still heathen.” Do you pat her dear old crepe-skinned hand, and whisper, “Yes, Ma, praise Jesus, I’ll see you on the other side.” Or do you just try and change the subject? Myself, I can imagine being powerfully tempted to ease those final moments with a little white lie, if it would make a dying woman happy. I tend to think that kindness should sometimes be allowed to trump honesty. It is entirely possible I would lie my head off, without hesitation and without shame. But now let’s put the shoe on the other foot.
Scene: your own deathbed. Clustered around you are loved ones who have long agonized over the fate of your immortal soul, and are genuinely desperate to pull you back from the brink of damnation. They pray for you. They entreat you to pray with them. They are not doing it to annoy you – they are doing it because they love you. And however irrational and barbaric their beliefs are in your estimation, to them the danger is absolutely real and imminent.
Now, it’s your deathbed; if ever there was a moment that was all about you, this is the one. How dare they waste your last precious breaths with yet another load of religious bullcrap? How dare they take advantage of your weakness? And yet, the moments after you die will be all about the survivors – and you know bloody well that a deathbed conversion would go a long way towards comforting them after you were gone. Plus, since you’d be dead, it would be a lie you would never have to live with. But you also have a shrewd idea that your last-minute surrender would have potential propaganda value – another atheist snatched from the jaws of perdition! Another victory for Jesus! Another proof of the hollowness of atheism! So what do you do?
Do you say, “Thanks, guys, but knock it off already.” Do you beam feebly up at that circle of loving faces and say, “Hallellujah, Jesus, here I come!” Or do you just pick at the bedclothes and waffle for a bit, hoping you’ll manage to croak before things get too embarrassing? Indeed, I wonder how many deathbed conversions have more to do with obliging the survivors than with last-minute bets laid with Pascal’s hypothetical bookie. But I digress – the question is, what would I do?
In this case, I would hope to die an honest woman. My Bible-believing survivors would have to lump it. Giving in to their fears, to beliefs that I have always found repulsive and inhumane, would be too expensive a betrayal of my own life. They would be wrong to press me; I would be wrong to indulge them. All I can hope is, when the time comes, they will offer me the same kind of solace that the afore-mentioned atheists would: companionship, happy memories, and the press of loving hands.