Most people think death is bad. They approach it with a degree of trepidation, possibly even denial. The prospect is particularly acute for someone who does not believe in an afterlife. Could such a person ever view death as a gift, something for which they should be grateful? That’s the intriguing question asked by Mikel Burley in his article “Atheism and the Gift of Death”. I want to take a look at his answer in this post.
I’ll start by dismissing a relatively trivial sense in which a non-believer can view death as a gift. They can view it as a gift when the life they are living is unremittingly bad. They could be suffering tremendous pain due to a terminal illness. There might be no prospect of recovery. Death could be, consequently, the only possible release from the burden of existence. A person in such a state could view death as a gift. In fact, they might even want to hasten death. This position is common in defences of euthanasia.
I dismiss this sense of a death-as-a-gift not because it is uninteresting or unimportant. It is clearly both. But it is also relatively trivial. The deeper question is whether someone whose life is otherwise good can welcome its end as a gift. In other words, can death be viewed as a gift no matter what the life it ends involves?
1. The Standard Religious View
Let’s start by looking at the religious view. The typical monotheistic position maintains that there is an afterlife (heaven/paradise) in which we (and all our friends and family members) will live after we die. In this place, we will be united with our creator (God) and will be rewarded with an existence that is greater than what we previously had on earth.
This typical religious position makes it relatively easy to conceptualise death as a gift. It is an opportunity to shake off this veil of tears. Burley uses a nice quote from Hermann Lange to underscore the point. Lange was a Catholic priest in Nazi Germany. He publicly opposed the Nazi party and was executed for his troubles. Just before his execution he sent a letter to his parents:
For, after all, death means homecoming. The gift we thereupon receive is so unimaginably great that all human joys pale beside it, and the bitterness of death as such — however sinister it may appear to our human nature — is completely conquered by it.
The logic applies both to those whose lives are going well and those whose lives are going badly. If their life is going badly then you they be compensated for this by the unimaginably great joys in the afterlife. And if their life is going well, then they should still regard death as a gift because the joys they will experience in heaven are so much greater than those they currently experience.
In essence, according to this religious view, death is a gift because it allows for our lives to continue in a superior form. There is no way that an atheist (who disbelieves in an afterlife) could embrace a similar view.
2. An Alternative Religious View
But this typical religious view has been challenged by some religious scholars. They consider its conception of the afterlife as a temporal continuation of this life (only in a much better form) to be ethically and metaphysically flawed. Nicholas Lash is one such scholar. He doesn’t conceive of the afterlife in temporal terms. He does not think that we continue to live on in some cloudy paradise, dancing and frolicking with our friends and families. Instead, he thinks we will join with God and partake of His eternal (non-temporal) existence.
On this view, the afterlife is less a continuation of life here on earth and more a completion of life. It is the end of our existence as we know it and the transition to something else. Lash thinks that the continuation view is ethically damaging. We have duties to perform here on earth. We should take these duties seriously. If we think that the present life is simply a waiting room to something better; and that no matter how bad things presently are they will be recompensed in the afterlife; then we run the risk of thinking that our present duties do not ultimately matter. This can erode ethical sensibilities. And the risk is not entirely negligible. There is a destructive and apocalyptic tendency in some religions which is in part driven by the belief that the afterlife will compensate for everything.
This alternative religious view is interesting. It still conceives of death as a gift, but it does so in a different way. It conceives of death as a gift because it is the moment at which life is completed, not continued in a better form. It seems more plausible for there to be an atheistic equivalent of this view. There is nothing obviously metaphysically out of line with an atheistic conception of death as a fitting capstone or end to life taken as a whole. As Burley puts it:
Despite the atheist’s being unable to join the Christian in regarding death as a completion of that which stands in eternal relation to God, he may nevertheless concur that death constitutes the final moment of a finite whole, and thereby gives a determinate structure or shape to that life. To see death as a gift may be to regard it as that which completes and to some extent defines who one is…When one’s death actually occurs, life becomes complete; in so far as one’s life as a whole is a gift, so is one’s death, for it is one of the conditions of having a recognizably human life at all.
This is a somewhat complex view. It presumes that the atheist is grateful for their life. Whether such an emotional reaction is appropriate for the atheist is a contentious matter, but one that I explored in a recent blogpost. For the time being we will assume that the atheist can indeed be grateful for living. This is usually premised on the belief that life itself is good (i.e. has positive value) and so we should be grateful for the opportunity to live it. What Burley is proposing is that we add to this the view that death is necessary to give the atheist’s life-as-a-whole its value. How can we make sense of this?
3. How does death complete the atheist’s life?
We can start by considering an obvious objection. There is a life extension movement out there. Members of this movement think that medical breakthroughs can be leveraged to enable us to extend our lives indefinitely. In my experience, most members of this movement tend to be non-religious. They do not believe in an afterlife. They accept the claim that life is good and hence something we can be grateful for. They dispute the claim that death gives life value. They favour the polar opposite. They think that death robs life of its value. We should do everything we can to avoid it.
If Burley’s suggestion is to gain any traction, it must be able to show why this view is flawed. Burley doesn’t attempt a full-blown critique. He isn’t trying to show that the atheist should view death as a gift always and everywhere. He argues for a more abstract view: particular instances of dying could be bad, but mortality itself (i.e. the fact that life must come to end) could be essential for value. Burley chooses a popular line of support for this: the arguments of Bernard Williams in his famous article ‘The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Morality’. I’ve covered these arguments before in pretty exhaustive detail. In essence, they maintain that an immortal life (one in which death is not possible) would be bad in various ways. The two main ways are that it would erode individual identity (you cannot live forever and maintain a single consistent identity) and that it would lead to boredom. Other philosophers, like Martha Nussbaum and Aaron Smuts, offer similar arguments. Nussbaum claims that an immortal life would rob our decisions of their normative significance; and Smuts argues that an immortal life would take away the good of achievement. These arguments can be challenged, of course, but if they work they lend support to the kind of view that Burley is trying to push. They suggest that mortality is essential to a life with the sorts of values we deem important to life as it is currently lived. (Samuel Scheffler has also supported this kind of argument and I covered his contribution in a previous blogpost).
Burley covers two objections to this line of thought. The first holds that the atheist still cannot view death as a gift because in order for one to conceive of death as a gift there must be a recipient of the gift. But, of course, if you cease to exist after your death you cannot receive the gift. One can quibble with the details of this. You will still be alive during the process of dying, so perhaps the gift accrues at that point. This seems somewhat unpalatable. Alternatively, you could embrace the idea of posthumous gifts. Burley notes that honours are sometimes conferred on deceased persons. Even if those people continue to exist in another form, they are definitely not around to receive those honours. This suggests that recipients may not be necessary for gifts. Gifts may be possible sub specie aeternitatis.
The second, and slightly more interesting, objection focuses on the strength of Burley’s argument. Burley claims that, if he is right, it is possible for the atheist to view death as a gift. But so what? Mere possibility is not enough in this debate. It may be possible for the atheist to do this but should they? Will they?
Burley has some interesting things to say about this. First he suggests that philosophical argument has a limited role to play in changing how people will view their lives and deaths:
To come to see one’s life as a gift, and perhaps one’s death as well, and to express gratitude for these things, is not a matter of assenting to the truth or plausibility of certain propositions….It is more like coming to see life, or the world, under a different aspect — coming to feel the compulsion of that way of looking at things. And that compulsion is unlikely to be generated by means of arguments, at least in any formal sense of ‘argument’.
So what will generate the compulsion?
More likely, I think, is that someone will come across the words of individuals who, either in life or in literature, express the attitude concerned, and will come, gradually or perhaps in some cases suddenly, to feel an affinity with those forms of words; will recognise that speaking of life and death, and many other things besides, as gifts expresses something with which she can identify.
This may be the function of certain literary passages from famous atheists. I think, in particular, of Richard Dawkins’s famous ‘We are going to die’ passage, which I analysed on a previous occasion.
To sum up, Burley is arguing that it is possible for an atheist to view death as a gift, not just because it sometimes offers a release from a horrendous existence, but because it gives shape and purpose to a life that is valuable. I find all of this very interesting.