Dealing with Death

I was reading an article by Fr. Robert Barron about the film Gravity. I am not going to give away any of the film (because I haven’t seen it yet either) but a comment in the comboxes caught my eye. I had been thinking of just such a subject not too long ago.

Here is the quote:

It struck me, while reading Barron’s essay, that Christianity and many other forms of religion) and atheism represent different stages of grief according to the Kübler-Ross model. We grieve when considering our own obvious mortality, and thus grieve for ourselves. Christianity’s distinctive form of grief is, in the Kübler-Ross model, a mixture of Stage 1, Denial (“After I am dead I won’t really be dead!”) and Stage 3, Bargaining (“In return for the mere promise that I can live forever, I’ll believe ‘X’ and do ‘Y’!”). Atheism’s form of grief is Stage 5, Acceptance (“When I die, I will be no more, and that’s that!”).

First I am only going to concentrate on what this person says and ignore such objections as whether Christianity, or atheism for that matter, can be reduced to representing different stages of grief.

Obviously the author’s opinion is only the atheist stage is the correct one. But here is the rub. I was an atheist up to just recently, a fully convinced, philosophical, committed atheist, and I can assure you the atheist does do step number 5, but this person does not tell how he does step 5.

The atheist performs step 5 by never letting the step become fully real. Death, for the atheist, is always an abstraction. Now part of this is not his fault and part of the commenter’s flaw in logic is that the grief he talks about is a projection while the model he discusses is for actual loss – his whole point contains the abstracted methodology the atheist employs to arrive at a disinterested Acceptance.  The atheist never comes into intimate contact with his own mortality, to do so for any length of time would produce a morbid fixation, neurosis, or a need to join that “other camp”, or to jump into the plasma of blind life.

Words are terribly easy things to say. Nothing is more abstract than that, supposed, distant day. Hell, sometimes nothing is more abstract than the next day. Even the “I” is a merely a word, an conjured letter even, tossed out as another abstraction, a reference to the self. But only a part of the self because we only know ourselves as an integrated totality. It is not merely “I” this consciousness (and what this I is varies according to your flavor of atheism) but I this totality, body, mind, soul, knowledge, experience, feelings.

Whatever a Christian may feel about the end of his life on earth, he should know it is the end of his self and his existence as he knows it. An atheist should, if he is going to claim the stage 5 of Acceptance on the KR model, viscerally accept his annihilation. I would prefer that word but emphasize it a little more – utter annihilation. Because you don’t live on in your kids, nor in the memory of others, nor in a legacy, nor what is left of your body. You were an integration, and every bit of it counted for your existence, you miss a piece, you are annihilated.

The point is the atheist can’t really claim step 5, he hasn’t gone through any of it. I will not assert what the Christian can or cannot claim, I do not know. But I do know the atheist soul, his light treatment of the heaviest things of life is because he keeps his distance.


8 responses to “Dealing with Death

  • taichiwawa

    According to some biologists, the neurotransmitter, dopamine, does not so much express itself as a reward in the brain as it does an expectation of a reward. This establishes a misty (mystical?) middle ground between robotic and cognitive activity that drives our incredible meat-computer to go on, to move forward — not merely to survive, but to flourish as a conscious entity. While this is a materialistic view of what goes on, I don’t think it subtracts from a metaphysical perspective that questions: why should this be so? Is it just a (perhaps, cruel) consequence of blind evolutionary processes?

    Eating the fruit from the proverbial Tree of Knowledge caused us to be cursed, but maybe also to be blessed: “Felix culpa.”

    • bensira587

      I will have to wait until my weekend comes to swallow this one.

      I will say quickly that the metaphysical perspective of materialism cannot answer those questions – well except the second one. Yes, and then everything is is a brute “it just is”.

  • taichiwawa

    By the way, see Gravity — even though Brother Barron has deprived you of a first-hand understanding of it. Don’t wait for it to come out on Netflix, experience it on a big screen.

  • Sylvie D. Rousseau

    Whatever a Christian may feel about the end of his life on earth, he should know it is the end of his self, his existence as he knows it.

    Death is a passage to the perfect realization of self (in heaven, of course; the other place is another story…). Once, I answered a question from you on the subject of Pleroma (related to life in heaven) at Mr. Wright’s place (

    I think the 5 stages of Kübler-Ross are only natural to all humans and most Christians obviously experience them as anybody else. Indeed, if we are not very convinced Christians, we don’t really believe in our own death in the first place (Step 1. Denial). Many drop out of practice and lose their faith upon the issue.

    This is not true, however, of devout Christians who work their very best to become saints, as God commands us, for they are not anymore prisoners of the fallen nature, and become by grace existentially conscious that dying, however tragic and painful, is really entering full life.

    • bensira587

      Sorry, I was out of town visiting family and couldn’t respond.

      Thanks for pointing out a bad formulation on my part. It should be more along the lines of “… he should know it is the end of his self and his existence as he knows it.”

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