“Proof” of the afterlife in the Globe and Mail!

April 6, 2021 • 12:45 pm

The Globe and Mail is, I believe, a conservative newspaper, and one would guess that it’s that genre of paper that’s prone to printing palpable palaver that props up religion. (Well, one would guess wrong, as now papers like the New York Times do it as well.)

Here from the new G&M we have Cathy Bohlken, a respiratory therapist from Calgary, telling us how, after having rejected the existence of an afterlife, came to believe in it after all. Click on the screenshot to proceed:

Bohlken tells us that her scientific training led her to doubt the existence of an afterlife—until her boyfriend committed suicide. Then she had the need to get in touch with him, and right there is where the nonsense begins. (I don’t mean to be callous here, as her pain must have been immense, but she uses it to promote woo in a widely-read paper.)

I grieved for months, and in the spring I discovered the TV show Long Island Medium. I became completely mesmerized and decided that I needed to find my own psychic medium, hoping that someone could make a connection to Dave.

I went to see a psychic in Calgary who has a good record of helping law enforcement agencies from around the world locate missing and murdered persons.

And here’s how the psychic convinced her of an afterlife. (Note that Bohlken could have given the psychic her name when making an appointment, which would also allow some preliminary investigation.)

Patricia started the reading by trying to identify the different spirits that had walked in with me. She described one of my grandfathers perfectly, but she also said he was talking about somebody else who was there, someone that was missing the tip of a finger. I didn’t know of anyone that was missing any fingertips. (Later, I learned that my other grandfather had lost the tip of two fingers in a lawnmower accident. He died when I was a baby, so I didn’t remember him at all.) This was one of 50 validations of my life that she could never possibly have known.

Patricia sensed that there was somebody else in the room but the spirit was “wispy,” unlike my grandfather who was strongly present. After several minutes, she asked me if someone had died recently. [JAC: She’s a psychic—she should have known that!] When I told her that my boyfriend had died six months earlier, she exclaimed: “In the first year, it’s darn near impossible to reach them, but I will try because he is here.”

“He can hear you,” Patricia said. “It’s almost like he comes to you gently because you were very angry with him when he left.” She told me stories for almost an hour, telling me things that she could never possibly have known. She described how Dave would sit across from me at the kitchen island. How when I was at the kitchen sink, he would wrap his arms around me from behind. “He’s still doing that.”

She explained that “if you even think of them, it’s … like picking up the phone or having him right in front of you. If you know what you feel like, you’ll know what somebody else’s energy feels like.”

Presumably Ms. Bohlken has never heard of “cold readings“, in which experienced “readers” can make remarkably accurate guesses by noticing subtle expressions and body language, and knowing a few things about the subject. Note as well that Bohlken had a very strong will to believe, which would make her fixate on the information that was accurate and ignore the stuff that was wrong.

There would be ways to test these paranormal activities, like the strictures put into place by James Randi in his famous One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge, but no psychic ever accepted the challenge (at least two agreed to, but then backed out). I’m sure Randi could have designed a test to see if this medium could, without hints or prompting, tell things about the deceased she couldn’t possibly have known. Penn and Teller could do so as well. I could try, but magicians are much better at this than are scientists, who don’t know all the tricks.

And here’s the kicker that cemented Bohlken’s belief in the afterlife.

. . . About a week after the reading, I noticed a tingling sensation on the right side of my head when I thought of Dave – as if my hair was standing on edge, this ebbed and flowed depending on the intensity of my emotions. When my mom died suddenly a year later, I was more open to the sensation and I felt her energy differently, and immediately.

“More open to the sensation,” eh? And now Bohlken is about to foist this on the world, making credulous people even more woo-prone:

Patricia left me with a parting thought to consider once my grief had subsided. “It’s almost like you wanted to write a book, and now you have the material,” she noted.

Writing a book was not something I had ever considered, but after my experience, sharing my story is something that I simply have to do.

People want to believe this stuff, of course; who wouldn’t like to live on, or get a message that their friends, family, and beloved are out there somewhere thinking of you?

And, after all, what harm is done by making people think that? The harm is twofold. First, the psychic took money (probably a not insubstantial sum) from Bohlken. The amount spent yearly on “psychic services” in the U.S. is about $2.2 billion, or about $670 for every citizen. Twenty-two percent of Americans have consulted a psychic (that means that those who have pay about $3,000 for the consultations), and 34% believe they’ve had a psychic episode. This is, pure and simple, victimization of the vulnerable.

Second, essays like the one above merely buttress this kind of scam, and also weaken people’s organs of reason. This is exactly what religion does, but of course “psychic services” are just one form of religion.

h/t: Christopher

NYT column to explore the meaning of death, but only with religious scholars

February 3, 2020 • 12:15 pm

George Yancy, a professor of philosophy at Emory University, is obsessed with death—particularly his own. And I can understand, for I too share the existential dread he describes as a “shudder”. In the piece below, an introduction to a series of upcoming interviews that Yancy will conduct for the New York Times, he reveals his angst:

The fact of death is like a haunting. It frequents me, entangled in everything I do: It’s just beneath my pillow as I sleep, strolling next to me as I casually walk from one class to the next, inserting its presence between each heart beat in my chest, forcing its way into my consciousness when I say “I love you” to my children each night, assuring me that it can unravel the many promises that I continue to make, threatening the appointments that I need to keep. This sense of haunting is what the Harvard professor Cornel West calls the “death shudder.” Of this “shudder” in the face of death, he writes, “Yes, dread and terror were involved, but also perplexity. Exploration. Where does nonexistence take you? What does it mean to be stripped of your own consciousness? How do we live with the idea that we are always tantalizingly close to death? At any moment the bridge can collapse.”

I continue to shudder. Yet there is something about facing the fact of death that invites us to double back, to see our existence, our lives, differently.

Sometimes I think this dread is an especially Jewish trait, though Yancey isn’t Jewish. But Woody Allen is, and has repeatedly and eloquently expressed not only his fear of extinction, but how it renders everything meaningless, a meaninglessness that he thinks artists should counteract (see video here). Christopher Hitchens’s view of death, which haunts me, is this one, expressed in his memoir Hitch-22:

“The clear awareness of having been born into a losing struggle need not lead one into despair. I do not especially like the idea that one day I shall be tapped on the shoulder and informed, not that the party is over but that it is most assuredly going on—only henceforth in my absence. (It’s the second of those thoughts: the edition of the newspaper that will come out on the day after I have gone, that is the more distressing.)

I too want to stick around and see what happens! But I don’t share Hitchens’s fear of eternal life, so long as it’s on Earth. For after he said the above, he added this:

Much more horrible, though, would be the announcement that the party was continuing forever, and that I was forbidden to leave. Whether it was a hellishly bad party or a party that was perfectly heavenly in every respect, the moment that it became eternal and compulsory would be the precise moment that it began to pall.”

It’s worthwhile thinking about our extinction, though I’m more liable to be rendered depressed by such cogitation instead of grasping, as many do, the fragility and ephemerality of life and embracing a joy at still being alive. So be it.

What I’m kvetching about with Yancy’s column is that he’s going to explore the idea of death only with religious scholars. The intro says this:

This essay is an introduction to a series of monthly interviews to be conducted by the author with 12 religious scholars and practitioners on how individual religious traditions understand and respond to the inevitability of death.

At the end he notes this:

It is in this spirit of exploration that I will interview 12 deeply knowledgeable scholars, philosophers and teachers, one each month, about the meaning of death in their respective traditions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Jainism and others. I will be asking questions like: What is death? Why do we fear death? Is death final? Do we have immortal souls? What role does death play in how we ought to live our lives?

The objective is not to find definitive answers to these eternal questions, but to engage, as my students and I try to do in our classes, in a lively discussion about a fact that most of us would rather avoid, and move ourselves a little closer to the truth.

It looks, then, that only those with “faith traditions” are going to be interviewed. Now why on earth is that? There are plenty of secular philosophers and scholars who have dealt with the idea of one’s death, and dealt with it honestly, not having in one’s “tradition” the false idea of an eternal life—or the possibility of reincarnation as a higher or lower being. The secular tradition begins with the ancient Greeks and continues right up to the atheistic philosophers of today. A well known survey by Bourget and Chalmers showed that 73% of professional philosophers are atheists, with only 15% being theists. Why do theistic or “other” philosophers get a say here rather than the 3 out of 4 who are nonbelievers? I have no idea.

If you’re going to explore death, you must—absolutely must—explore it as it is: the end of our consciousness and existence, with no evidence of an afterlife. Yancy is missing a big opportunity here.

 

The poignant words of a dying woman

December 7, 2019 • 1:30 pm

This is a somber read for a Saturday, and it’s supposed to be my “day off,” which means I work for 6 hours instead of nine. When I finish this, I’m going to take a long walk, though I won’t see any penguins. But I’ll be thinking of Josie Rubio on the way.

Rubio was a writer and editor who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma six years ago. During her remaining years of life—she died four days ago at 42—she wrote prolifically on her website A Pain in the Neck, discussing her disease, its metastasis into neuroendocrine tumors, her suffering, her attempts to find a boyfriend, and her attitude, which was often surprisingly upbeat and always worth a read.  Her New York Times obituary, if it can be called that, is below, which includes some links to her published work about trying to find love at the same time she was dying.

Here’s perhaps her most famous piece (below), which, as the obituary above notes:

The online version of Ms. Rubio’s article, published on Aug. 24, garnered more than 225,000 page views; it appeared in print the next day in the Sunday Review section. That same weekend she learned that her prognosis was grimmer than she had thought.

“Instead of sitting at home feeling sorry for myself, I read a lot of really nice and encouraging emails” from her essay’s readers, Ms. Rubio wrote in a blog post soon afterward. “It sounds like dating sites are going to be inundated with cancer patients now. Good. Feel free to use my opening line.”

The opening lines grab you:

One night, as a friend and I were headed to a bar to see someone I had met on a dating app, she asked, “What do you tell these guys?” I pulled up my profile and handed her my phone.

“I have cancer so if you want to hang out, act now!” reads the first line.

“This is great,” she said with a laugh.

After her diagnosis, Rubio was ditched by her boyfriend of twelve years but, after pondering what to do, swallowed her pride and her knowledge that she was terminal, and dived into an online dating pool.  And she finally found love—with the the guy who was by her side when she died just a few days ago:

The guy who made me break some of my rules made me shatter more. I found myself, at his insistence, reluctantly and badly dancing, but laughing the entire time. I’ve held his hand across restaurant tables. I steal kisses from him in public. Sometimes I don’t recognize myself anymore.

I’m so happy and so sad at the same time.

Death isn’t an abstract concept. I live week to week, moment to moment. I live fully, but I have always done that. Since the new treatment, I can even walk around sometimes not thinking about cancer. I agree with my ex: It’s nice. Since that first 1992 date, I just wanted to find someone and feel like that part of my life was settled. But from ages 28 to 40, I just settled. Period.

When my ex kissed me goodbye on the day we broke up, I thought, “This will be the last time a man kisses me.”

It finally feels good to be wrong about something.

These pieces will make you weep, as will the words she wrote in the next-to-last post on her website (click on screenshot below), when she found that her cancer had spread massively through her body, that her death was imminent, and she would have to go to a hospice:

Josie was also a cat lover, as you can tell from the banner of her website (above).

In the end, my heart will stop, but it feels broken now. I don’t want to leave the cats. I don’t want to leave my boyfriend. I don’t want to leave my mom. I don’t want to leave my friends. This is very different than how I felt in May of 2018, when my boyfriend at the time wanted me to die so he could be with his Pilates instructor in London (it worked out for him in the end even though I didn’t die then). Then I didn’t care whether I lived or died because I felt broken. This time, I don’t want to go, and I know that makes me much luckier. My life is so much better than the way it was.

My friends decorated by room with photos. I’ve had a good life. I can’t comprehend that it’s going to stop so soon. How did this happen?

. . . I’ve received countless messages of love.

I asked my boyfriend what he thought happens after we die. He says you live on in other people’s memories, and I won’t be forgotten.

Still, the end looms close, and I feel like I’m not ready.

The final entry on Josie’s website, below, is given its entirety, and was posted after she died.

 

Here’s her image from her Twitter page, which had its last entry on November 21.

And one more photo.

YouTube has an interview with her before she was diagnosed with cancer.

If I’ve made you sad today, I’m sorry. But I hope I’ve also made you want to live more fully. As an old friend of mine used to say when talking of life, “Squeeze that lemon!”

al-Baghdadi finally meets his end

October 27, 2019 • 1:30 pm

As many sites have reported (the NYT is one), ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, 48, was hunted down by U.S. special forces and killed (or rather, committed suicide). He detonated a suicide belt, taking three of his children with him. As the NYT reports,

“Last night, the United States brought the world’s No. 1 terrorist leader to justice,” Mr. Trump said in an unusual nationally televised address from the White House. “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead.”

Mr. Trump said Mr. al-Baghdadi was chased to the end of a tunnel, “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way” as he was pursued by American military dogs. Accompanied by three children, Mr. al-Baghdadi then detonated a suicide vest, blowing up himself and the children, Mr. Trump said.

I can’t say I’m unhappy that he’s gone. Although I’m a pacifist, and would prefer that he be captured and tried, he was also an enemy. But I see Trump’s gloating as unseemly for several reasons.

1.) al-Baghdadi did not die “like a dog”: that is offensive to dogs. What does that mean, anyway? In fact, the only U.S. injury in the operation was a wounded U.S. attack dog. That dog was a hero and should be honored. Further, how many dogs would take their puppies with them?

2.) Is it really cowardly to blow yourself up? Perhaps “whimpering and screaming and crying” is cowardly, but suicide as an alternative to capture is not something I consider cowardly. If al-Baghdadi is a coward, so was Chilean President Salvador Allende, a socialist who did a lot for his country, but killed himself in a coup (engineered by the Chilean military and the CIA) as the military approached the Presidential Palace. After giving a final radio address, Allende killed himself with an AK-47. Was that cowardly? I think not.

3.) Finally, the credit for the al-Baghdadi operation should go primarily to the U.S. military. Trump, as Obama did with bin Laden, simply gave the go-ahead. But Trump is going to be trump-eting this as evidence for his “stable genius” until the next election. Compare the President’s gloating and swaggering now with the low-key way that Obama announced the death of bin Laden.

Tennessee electrocutes convicted killer

August 19, 2019 • 9:00 am

From the Nashville Scene we learn that there’s just been an execution in Tennessee (why is it always the Red States that execute people?). The details are given in this article in The Nashville Scene (click on screenshot):

The details are horrific, and nobody claims that Stephen West is completely innocent. He did have an accomplice, however, and claims that he was incited by the accomplice. But the crime, in which both killers were found complicit, was horrifying:

Stephen West has been executed in the electric chair 33 years after he was sentenced to death for the 1986 murders of Wanda Romines, 51, and her 15-year-old daughter, Sheila, near Knoxville. West, who suffered from severe mental illness, was also convicted of raping the teen, and while he confessed to that crime he maintained that his accomplice stabbed the mother and daughter to death.

The curtains opened at 7:15 on Thursday night, revealing West, who appeared to be crying, sitting in the electric chair. Warden Tony Mays asked West if he had any last words. He responded by referencing scripture.

“In the beginning, God created man,” said West, pausing as he continued to weep. “And Jesus wept. That’s all.”

After West’s final statement, members of the execution team fastened a helmet to his head and placed a shroud over his face. At 7:19, West’s body jolted upward from the chair as the first current of electricity was administered. His body returned to the chair for a matter of seconds, before rising once again with a second jolt of electricity.

West was pronounced dead at 7:27 p.m.

Give the nature of the stab wounds, it’s likely that the killing was prolonged, with some of the wounds meant to torture rather than kill. The lawyers asked for clemency, and two jurors recommended it since West appears to have been mentally ill, but that didn’t stop the electrocution.

In West’s petition for clemency, his attorneys write that then-17-year-old Ronnie Martin had tried to date Sheila Romines and was humiliated when she rejected him. They say Martin coerced West, who was 23 years old at the time, to rape Sheila before Martin stabbed the women to death. The attorneys also note that West was tried first, and that his jury never heard a tape recording of Martin admitting that he was the one who had killed the two victims. They also write that Martin threatened to have West and his then-pregnant wife killed if West didn’t keep quiet about the crimes. Martin ultimately pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder and is currently serving a life sentence.

Two of the surviving jurors from West’s trial, both of whom had originally voted for the death sentence, told his attorneys they supported clemency in his case. Gov. Bill Lee announced Wednesday afternoon that he would not stop the execution.

There’s a forceful plea to end state-mandated executions in today’s New York Times written by Margaret Renkel:

Her Biblical “Thou shalt not kill” argument, which is simply a diktat without supporting arguments, doesn’t move me as much as other arguments, some of which she makes as well:

There is nothing about Mr. West’s case that would move staunch supporters of the death penalty to rethink their position, but the reasons for ending state-sanctioned murder are manifold: It fails to deter crime; it is far more expensive than life in prison without parole; it is racially biased. Perhaps most tellingly, death sentences are too often dealt to innocent people. Any one of those reasons, by itself, makes a compelling argument for ending executions altogether.

The death sentences given to innocent people is perhaps the most powerful of these arguments. You might say, “Well, we’ll give the death penalty only to people who confess, or whose guilt is absolutely certain,” but confessions can be false, and too often convictions and sentences are based on fallacious eyewitness evidence. But even beyond that, Renkl is right. The death penalty is not a deterrent, it costs more (given the lengthy appeal process) than life without parole, and (Renkl doesn’t mention this), life without parole effectively sequesters the criminal from society forever, so he poses no more danger.

Further, some cases killers can actually be rehabilitated and reformed, and in such cases, however rare, why should they be killed, or even stay in prison forever? There’s some suggestion that West might have been at least partly rehabilitated:

People who knew Mr. West said he had become a different man, and isn’t true rehabilitation justification enough for commuting his sentence to life without parole? As Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty tweeted a few days before the execution, “When an inmate’s severe mental illness is undisputed by the state’s own doctors, what does it take to show that life without parole is the appropriate sentence?”

Remember that even convicted killers like Anders Breivik in Norway, who killed 77 people, get a maximum sentence of only 21 years, and then are reviewed to see if they’ve changed enough to mandate parole.

Further, West appears to have been mentally ill, perhaps severely. That may have contributed to his crime. If he couldn’t help himself (and, in fact, no criminals can), what is achieved by punishment that is certainly retributive? Retributive punishment for crimes that were inevitable—for which the criminal had no choice—makes little sense to me. Yes, it may satisfy the blood lust of the victims’ friends and family, but that caters to our lowest and most primitive emotions.

From the Nashville Scene:

Prison officials have been treating West for severe mental illness for years, giving him powerful antipsychotic drugs that one psychiatrist described in a court filing as “chemical straitjackets.” In an extensive 2002 psychiatric evaluation, Dr. Richard Dudley writes that, in his opinion, West “was suffering from a mental disorder” at the time of the killings that sent him to death row. Dudley also says West’s “mental disorder was of the type that would have been relevant to his defense during the guilt phase of his trial and also relevant as mitigation during the penalty phase of his trial.” West’s mental health was not discussed during his trial.

I should add that electrocution is a particularly barbaric way to kill someone. Yes, if West did torture, rape, and stab the women, his own killings were far more barbaric. But do we have to be as inhumane as those we execute?

Here are some data that Renkl links to in her piece:

Public opinion in the U.S. appears to be against the death penalty:

Finally, out of all the First World countries on the planet, only the U.S. and Japan have the death penalty and use it (figure from Wikipedia):

Is it possible that all of Europe, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Colombia, and many other countries don’t see something that America does? Possibly, but I highly doubt it. We won’t regulate guns, and we execute people. Both bespeak a primitive mentality that needs to be changed.

By request, a husband shoots his terminally ill wife; he’s charged with manslaughter

June 22, 2019 • 1:10 pm

This New York Times story raises a moral conundrum. Click on the screenshot to read it:

The upshot: Lori Conners, 61 and a resident of Connecticut, was terminally ill with metastasized ovarian cancer. She also suffered from Lyme disease, which apparently conflicted with her chemotherapy regimen, making her very sick. She had been married to her husband Kevin for 40 years, and had four children and six grandchildren.

Lori wanted to die. As the Times reports,

She was “constantly” writing suicide letters, he told investigators, who found 13 such letters in the couple’s home, including three on her nightstand. When she was found, Ms. Conners “didn’t have much head hair,” the warrant noted, because of chemotherapy treatments.

. . . The two [Kevin and Lori] talked about taking razor blades to her wrists or getting the tranquilizing drug Klonopin. They debated going to Vermont, where the terminally ill can legally be prescribed medication to die, but she wasn’t a resident. Last summer, she tried using the sleep drug Ambien and whiskey, but did not overdose.

Connecticut doesn’t have an assisted dying provision in its law, although there is one stuck in the state legislature.

If they had that law, what happened wouldn’t have happened, and her husband wouldn’t be charged with manslaughter. Afraid that if she shot herself with the couple’s .38 caliber gun she’d botch the job, Lori asked her husband to do the deed for her. He shot her in the head last September, killing her.

But then he tried to make it look like a suicide, changing clothes, putting the gun on the pillow beside Lori’s body, and washing his hands and changing his shoes, which had blood on them. He told the cops that she had killed herself, but such a ruse is easily dispelled, and he quickly confessed to having shot her at her request.

Kevin Conner now faces manslaughter charges, and could go to jail for many years, all for helping his wife end her life.

Is this just? Well, he did lie to police and try to cover up what happened, and that is both wrong and illegal. On the other hand, that’s what one has to do to help a dying loved one make their exit in states where there are no assisted dying bills.

But were I on the jury, I would find him not guilty, nullifying any law that what he did was illegal. That is because there is almost nothing to be gained by finding him guilty.

I see three purposes to punishment: sequestering a person who might hurt others, attempted reformation of criminals, and deterrence of others from doing similar deeds. The first two don’t apply here: Kevin was not by any account a bad guy who needed to be removed from society, and he doesn’t need reformation.

As for the third—deterrence—there is a case to be made. One can envision “slippery slope” arguments involving killing invalids or dying people who don’t want to be killed, and then claiming that they really asked to be killed. Lying to police doesn’t help matters, either. It would have been much better for Kevin and Lori for her to have written a document saying that she requested to be killed, preferably with witnesses (but they would likely be accessories to the crime). But the suicide letters mentioned above show her state of mind.

I would still vote “not guilty” were I on the jury, and perhaps Kevin will go free. Of course I ask readers to weigh in below. How would you vote?’

But these sad situations are the result of states and countries refusing to pass assisted-dying bills (only a few states in America have them). People are thus forced to either linger in unspeakable torment, as did Lori, or take matters into their own hands; and if anybody helps them die, they’re accessories to a crime. This should not have to happen.

 

A woman who lost her faith deals with the death of her son

June 1, 2019 • 11:45 am

This piece by Amber Scorah in today’s New York Times tore at my heart, arousing all sorts of emotions that I’d prefer would stay dormant. Fear of mortality, fear of loss, frustration at not being able to believe what might make me feel better, and so on. This is the gamut of emotions that Scorah ran after she left her faith and then lost her son, a boy who died without apparent cause, simply stopping breathing while at daycare.

Scorah used to be a Jehovah’s Witness, one of the most all-consuming, odious, and dictatorial of the Abrahamic faiths. She became an atheist at 18, and thereby experienced yet another pain: the destruction of all her JW beliefs, including the conviction that you’ll see your loved ones in a post-death Paradise.

Click on the screenshot to read this moving cri du coeur:

There’s another problem for nonbelievers like me: we’re simply unable to comfort the bereaved by telling them that their loved ones are in a “better place,” and that they’ll reunite some day. Believers can do that sincerely, and the believing bereaved might thereby be consoled.  All I can do is express condolences, and, if I knew the deceased, give an anecdote or two about how I remember them and how I cared about them. That sounds like the useless tinkling of small bells.

Or you can say say “they’re not really dead, because they’ll live on in your memory,” but to me that rings false. Memories are not living people you can talk to, touch, and love. Lacking belief in an afterlife, atheists have no hope of ever meeting the deceased again. Yes, you can remember the good times, and be grateful that someone was in your life, but those memories are always mixed with sadness. I’ve lost two of my best friends, and, if I live, I will lose more. Often I forget that they’re gone and want to tell them something. “The Red Sox won the Series, Kenny!” And then I remember that he’s not here to hear it and get angry (he was always a Yankees fan).

Yes, it would perhaps be better to believe, though I’m told that believers die harder than do atheists, and maybe every believer harbors a doubt at the end that this is a true end. But our dilemma, or at least mine, is this: I cannot force myself to believe something that makes no sense, however consoling it would be. And that is also Scorah’s dilemma:

I was moved by these words from strangers. And I wanted to believe these messengers who told me my son lives or will live again. Perhaps these were the people we in my old religion called prophets and apostles — people who dispatched words of hope to those in distress.

But though they were sincere, none of what they said was true. There is no heaven, no door at the end of my life that I will find my boy behind, no paradise Earth. He simply had ceased to exist.

I suspect that these people rushed to save me because, deep down, somewhere unacknowledged, they too knew the truth. We all know that there is something desperately sad that we have to protect one another from. Our stomachs know it, our spines know it. Our humanity doesn’t want to let us believe that this is all there is, that a child can just disappear. And that is why these strangers cared so much about a stranger like me.

What I had not anticipated about the cost of losing my faith was that it would no longer be possible to deceive myself. I could no longer make a pact with any higher being. No hours of service could convince a God that I deserved to have this child again. Whatever I had done to deserve him once, I was not worthy of him twice.

I am not saying there is no God, but I am saying no God would do this to someone.

I don’t know anyone who gave up their faith in God and regained it, but I hear there are such people. It will not happen to me. Scorah’s last line is brutally honest and yes, she is saying that there is no God—at least no god worth worshiping.

She goes on:

If I could believe even a little again, perhaps it would happen to me, like it does to other people. Their dead come alive, appearing at bedsides on dark nights, or as voices in the wind. These voices tell the grieving ones that they forgive them, that they love them, that they are somewhere else, they exist, and all is not nothingness.

If belief were a choice, I might choose it. But it’s not. I don’t trade in certainty anymore. If there is something more, it’s not something we know. If we can’t even grasp how it is that we got here, how can we know with any certainty where, if anywhere, we go when we die?

Well, we sort of know how we got here: through the formation of planets out of the Big Bang, and then the evolution of humans on one of those planets. That much we can learn from evidence. We can’t know what happens after we die, but here the absence of evidence does constitute evidence of absence. If there is a god, as Delos McKown said, he’s arranged things so it looks very much like there is no god. “The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike.”

Scorah has found a silver lining in death, as many atheists do:

But death without hope also makes one acutely grateful for life, sensitive to it. In the absence of my son, I felt the presence of love all around me, from these strangers and friends alike. And then came my son’s little sister, with a smile and fingers just like his.

I wish I could feel this way. Yes, I’m grateful for life, but also greedy for it. I don’t want to die in ten or fifteen years. The show will go on, and I want to see what happens. Many readers here have said that they wouldn’t want to live forever: they’d get bored. But Ceiling Cat, is it too much to ask for another hundred years?

Here is Scorah’s book about leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses, click on the screenshot to see it at Amazon:

G. H. W. Bush “passed”?

December 2, 2018 • 6:00 pm

Humans have many ways to circumvent the reality and finality of death. Besides all my friends who are eating kale and quinoa to stave off the Reaper as long as possible, there are simple semantic fixes. When I visited Cornwall in 2005, I noticed that many gravestones in the local cemetery preceded the date of death with the line “Fell asleep on. . . “.

Twice today, in news reports about the death of George H. W. Bush, they used the euphemism “passed” for “die”—not even saying “passed away”. This one irks me a wee bit, as its blatant avoidance of the stark word “died” is so obvious. And it’s a bit ambiguous as well. Passed what?

When my mortal clay expires, I hope they’ll simply say, “Jerry Coyne died”.

By the way, I see Bush as a fundamentally decent man, totally undeserving of much of the hatred I’ve seen on social media (you can see a particularly noxious specimen here). This spewing of venom over political differences, to the point of gloating that Bush is “writhing in hell”, is just another instance of the kind of churlish behavior I discussed earlier today.

If the deceased was evil or hurtful to others, like Jerry Falwell, then it’s okay to denigrate him after death, though I’d ration that kind of hatred carefully.v(Postmortem hatred may indicate you aren’t such a nice person yourself.) But Bush was no Falwell; the hatred we see is based solely on political disagreements.

Suicide is not a “selfish” act

June 10, 2018 • 9:00 am

A fair number of people are criticizing Anthony Bourdain post mortem by claiming his act was “selfish”: the implication being that he should have thought about the people he’d leave behind (including the critics) before doing the deed.

This is not only selfish on the part of the critics, who make their own feelings the center of attention, but also ignorant about what many who contemplate suicide are really thinking.  From my own experience and talking to others, I gather that they’re not thinking, “Wait a minute: maybe I should think about the the people I’ll leave behind. They’ll be devastated.” In reality, most, I suspect, are thinking, “I”m in pain and I want it to end.”

The same goes for those, like Rose McGowan, who claim that the suicidal person is thinking “The world will be better off without me.” I suspect that’s not common, either.

I have no patience for those who have only anger for those who kill themselves, or who tut-tut about the selfishness of the suicide. Sadness, bafflement, empathy—those are more rational emotions. Anger is corrosive, as are accusations of selfishness. And remember, even with drugs and counseling, and the help of good friends and loved ones, not everybody can be helped. (I am not, of course, advocating that you don’t try to help someone in trouble.)

To see how one can make a suicide about oneself and one’s feelings of anger instead of about the deceased, have a gander at actor Val Kilmer’s incoherent rant on Facebook.  A few excerpts:

#anthonybourdainisdead
Oh the darkness.

Oh the dark thick pain of loss. The selfishness.

How many moments away were you from feeling the love that was universal. From every corner of the world you were loved. So selfish. You’ve given us cause to be so angry. A spiritual guide once told me suicide is the most selfish act a human can execute and I was confused but she explained there’s just no mental place further away from humanity and purpose than the hypnotized numbness that creates the false picture of despair, that forces the victim, unaware, to believe, life’s legacy is over. That there is no more service. No more task. No more love left to give to another to to be given. Nothing to heal.

. . . . o what? I hear you took your life in paris. What hotel? Did you relapse? Did you just get home from the best meal of your life? Did you cheat on your girl. Those of us that knew you are shocked and angry and angry and angry selfishly angry, for what you just did to us. Millions I should think. At least a million people like me who imagine they know you. Some imagine they know you even well. But you heard that phone ringing, you felt it buzzing in your coat or pants pocket, vibrating a million times, but you didn’t answer it. You let it ring out. Did you bleed out? Did you suffocate? Did you jump. No you didn’t jump. Is it important we know how you did it? No. But that you did it. One of the tentative titles of my new studio is Bourdains.

You could have and should have given it one more shot. Sometimes we must live in service to another’s life and live with no hope of equality. Life isn’t fair that way. Who says you had a right to take away all this love from us so soon? Oh the darkness. The darkness on the edge of town.

Theres a lot more, but it doesn’t show much sympathy for Bourdain, a man worthy of great respect who must have been in great pain. All Kilmer’s rantings do is show what a jerk Kilmer is.

Here are some nice tributes:

https://twitter.com/evanrachelwood/status/1005160318073430016

Thought for the day: On mental illness and assisted suicide

June 9, 2018 • 10:00 am

The suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have made me realize again how strongly the media and society regard every suicide as in some sense a failure: a failure of the deceased to get help, a failure of the caregivers to give proper help, or a failure of friends and family to notice a problem.  In general, I agree—but not always. Certainly those who have recognized suicidal tendencies, or who have been severely depressed, should be made aware of the opportunities for help, and everything should be done to provide that help.

But this doesn’t always work. Despite drugs, therapy, and so on, some people in tremendous mental distress are not improved, and simply want to end their pain by ending their lives. I don’t think that in every case we should say “they shouldn’t kill themselves.” The pain of severe depression can be so strong, and so persistent, that the sufferer feels it’s better to end the pain than to live with an incurable mental illness. Is this really so different from a terminal cancer patient in unbearable physical pain who wants the pain to stop? I don’t see how—not if every attempt to fix things has failed. After all, unbearable physical pain causes unbearable mental pain.

The Netherlands and Belgium allow people with severe psychiatric problems and suicidal ideation to undergo euthanasia, but of course only under the strictest medical and legal vetting. This has in fact happened; the story of a depressed 29-year-old who was euthanized in the Netherlands is here. (It’s in the Catholic Herald, and of course suicide is a sin in Catholicism, sometimes a mortal sin.) The idea that you’re going to hell for killing yourself is one of the many repugnant views of the Vatican.

You can also get legal euthanasia if you are old, in declining health, and yet don’t have a terminal disease. That was the case for 104 year old Australian scientist David Goodall, who peacefully ended his life in the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland, simply because it was becoming too difficult for him to live. In effect, he was allowed to be euthanized because he was distressed at the thought of his decline.

There are at least three reasons to allow physically healthy but severely depressed people—people who have tried every recourse but failed to improve—to undergo euthanasia. The first is that if we don’t give them a peaceful death, they may well try to kill themselves in a messier, more painful, or even an unsuccessful way.  And that is traumatic for family and friends, who aren’t allowed to be there in countries that don’t allow euthanasia (you can be charged with “abetting a death”). Why not die peacefully and legally, in the presence of those who care about you?

The second is that knowing you can get barbiturates if you qualify may be the very thing that keeps you alive. I know of one 24 year old Dutch woman who qualified, but changed her mind when the doctor was on the way, and it’s likely that knowing she had that alternative is what gave her the strength to go on. You can see a video about her here. This change of mind apparently occurs in about 25% of people approved for euthanasia in the Netherlands on mental-health grounds.

Mainly, though, who are we to judge that someone in unbearable and untreatable mental pain must be kept alive at all costs? It seems to me that if you meet the criteria various enlightened nations have set out for euthanasia, severe mental illness should qualify—so long as the person is sentient enough to make that decision. Some extremely depressed people, after all, are compos mentis and simply don’t want to live.

Before you weigh in, watch this story (the mental illness caused “somatoform [physical] pain). I also recommend your watching the video about the Dutch woman in the link above.

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ADDENDUM: Actor Rose McGowan made a lachrymose video about Bourdain’s suicide (below).  This seems to me the wrong reaction: Rose McGowan put this on her Twitter feed, expressing anger at Bourdain for killing himself and for thinking the world would be better off without him (I don’ t think this is something that most suicides even think about).  It’s also horribly solipsistic (she’s since taken it down, but it’s on the news and everywhere in the media).  But most relevant for this post, it assumes that depression is always a “temporary problem”. It isn’t—not always. And anger at someone who kills themselves is a corrosive emotion: how can you know why they did it?

Yes, publicizing suicide hotlines is a good idea, but the job of those hotlines, as you may know, is to keep people alive. Most potential suicides could indeed use that kind of intervention. But as I’ve just said, not everyone should be forced to stay alive at all costs.