Death and the Lies We Tell Ourselves

Losing My Religion


To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?
— Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens’ words have haunted me since I first read them five years ago. Diagnosed with esophageal cancer, he faced his death as he lived his life: equal parts genius essayist and insufferable prick.

Hitchens’ writing is one long, eloquent violation of Wheaton’s Law. I find that…off-putting. Yet I’m drawn back to his “Topic of Cancer” essay again and again, a flammable moth to a mesmerizing bonfire.

It’s the bravery that I find both captivating and intimidating. Here is a man who stared into the abyss and found that the abyss didn’t care. But his reaction was not the despair one finds so commonly among existentialists. There was no wailing and gnashing of teeth. No foxhole conversion to a comforting belief in an afterlife. Hitchens faced his mortality, then simply carried on living for as long as he could. Would that we could all show such courage.

That religion is a reaction to the fear of death is hardly a novel observation. It’s a staple of Continental philosophy and bad high school poetry. The triteness of the observation doesn’t undermine its truth.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when I lost my own faith.

I grew up a fundamentalist Baptist. Attended a church-run school. We had Bible class daily, and twice on Wednesday. We would recite chants together.

I will not drink. I will not smoke. I will not listen to rock music.

We wore our American flag ties all day, even during pick-up soccer games at recess. We sang songs about how we’re not related to monkeys and won ribbons for memorizing Bible verses. We sat through entire lessons about the hidden Satanic messages in “Stairway to Heaven.” We attended a school-sponsored assembly featuring a speaker who advised that we arm ourselves in advance of the End Times. He sold nunchaku after his talk.

The difference between “Baptist fundamentalist church” and “cult” is mostly the number of members.

I attended the eighth most conservative college in the United States. We actually beat Brigham Young. Hampden-Sydney’s unofficial motto: We make Mormons look liberal.

That I found Hampden-Sydney liberating speaks volumes.

An Unordered List of Some Things I learned at H-SC:

  • Genesis isn’t a biology text.
  • Bourbon is delicious.
  • The novel as an art form peaked in the 19th C, and has never been as good since.
  • There are lots of really smart people using lots of different methods to try to answer the same questions. It’s really cool when that happens.
  • I don’t like pot all that much.
  • The Star Trek opening monologue contains a split infinitive.
  • The rule against splitting infinitives is dumb, but Rhetoric professors will still mark you down if you break it.
  • I wasn’t nearly as smart as I thought I was.
  • Hampden-Sydney students will give you a great deal of shit for your Clinton/Gore ’92 signs.
  • Schadenfreude (n., German): what you feel as the owner of a Clinton/Gore ’92 sign at Hampden-Sydney College on election night in 1992.

In graduate school, I was a teaching assistant for a course entitled “God.” We covered the problem of evil, critiqued Aquinas’s various (terrible) arguments for God’s existence, and explored iterations of (much better, but still not very good) ontological arguments for God’s existence. I spent a lot of time explaining that existence is not a property.

I often described teaching philosophy as getting paid (poorly) to play devil’s advocate. Most undergraduates at the University of Virginia were Christians, so I played the atheist. I spent most of my time poking holes in their arguments for theism. They were genuinely surprised on the last day of class when I told them that I too was a theist. By then, I was avoiding the label “Christian,” as I couldn’t quite lift the combined baggage of Old Testament barbarism and St. Paul’s misogyny.

My son Matthew was baptized an Episcopalian in the parish serving the West Point community. Depending on who you ask, “Episcopalian” either means “Catholic lite” or “atheist who likes traditions.” Before deciding on seminary, our rector had worked as second unit director for a couple of Woody Allen films. She counseled that one can be a Christian and not believe all the spooky supernatural stuff. That sounded promising. If you think of Christianity as a spectrum of beliefs, I’d started just this side of the snake handlers and moved all the way over to the Hippie Jesus crowd.

It wasn’t far enough.

Sometime not all that long after I left West Point, I realized I no longer believed any of it. There was no precipitating event, no crisis. One day, I just realized my faith was all gone. My own personal version of the Jefferson Bible was completely blank.

It was weird. Like a missing tooth, I’d poke at it, expecting each time to find something there, surprised when there wasn’t. It still happens, usually when the insomnia is particularly bad.

The comforts disappeared with the faith.

In Which I Demonstrate My Nerd Cred by Quoting LOTR

PIPPIN: I didn’t think it would end this way.
GANDALF: End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.
PIPPIN: What? Gandalf? See what?
GANDALF: White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.
PIPPIN: Well, that isn’t so bad.
GANDALF: No. No, it isn’t.

When you’re a theist (or, I guess, a fictional demigod), death isn’t to be feared. It’s just a necessary condition for The Great Awesomeness That Lies Beyond. Pick your preferred afterlife. Streets paved with gold. Shields and spears and all-you-can-drink mead. A room full of virgins. Hobbiton writ large.

But in the end, they’re just stories we tell to hold the darkness at bay.

Someday I will die. And the universe Does. Not. Fucking. Care.

There is no Plan. No Meaning. The best that we can do is to offer a giant middle finger to a universe that is indifferent to our lives. In the absence of Meaning, we create our own meanings. We live our lives. We look back in our final moments and say, “that was a journey worth taking.”

When I face my own inevitable mortality, my time to rage at the universe only to be met with a “meh,” I hope my response is a heartfelt, “Fuck You. I don’t need you to give me Meaning. I’ve created my own without you, thank you very much.”

In the face of cosmic indifference, defiance is our last best response.

Yet Hitchens’ words haunt me because I fear that I lack his courage. That faced with the horrifying reality that I will simply cease to be, I will retreat to the fairy tales of my youth. That I will embrace the pleasant lie rather than grapple with the cold and terrible truth. That I will trade my defiance for the false comfort of an imaginary hereafter.

That I will sacrifice whatever meaning I have carved for myself in exchange for the barest hope that maybe — just maybe — I’ll see those white shores.