Years ago when I first read David Hume, my eyes were opened. Amazed at his logic, conviction and his bravery, Hume the philosopher questioned everything. He asked moral questions, he pondered out loud about the existence of God and the problem of ‘if God exists, then who could have created this God?’ He doubted a heaven and hell, because he believed mankind flittered between good and evil. This doubt was quite brave, considering that he lived pre-Darwin. Hume was a great thinker. There is one particular piece of writing that stays in my mind, about his lack of faith. In it he said, that if he did happen to say anything about God when he was dying, it would just be because of a fear of death and not because he really believed in it. He pre-empted any kind of doubt about his own doubt.
Fast forward a few hundred years, and fellow atheist Christopher Hitchens said something somewhat similar. When Hitchens was dying he admitted he could say anything in a delirium at the end (with pain killers and so on), but he wanted to also make it clear that if he did say God, or anything of the kind, then it was beyond his control and not to believe any rumors of conversion on his death-bed. The two were adamant in saying this. They did not want their lifetimes of rational thought scrapped because of a moment of weakness at death.
When he was diagnosed with cancer, Hitchens received communication from various religious people. He said half tried to convert him and have him repent before it was too late, the other half seemed to enjoy that he was going to burn for eternity in hell (which he rejected anyway). Hitchens made the great point of saying ‘imagine if atheists went around to hospitals trying to convert the religious dying to an atheist viewpoint’. That way around would be considered deeply disrespectful and yet it is as if atheists do not have feelings here.
Hitchens and Hume had a few things in common. They were both great thinkers and during their rejection of God, both questioned God’s character. Hitchens saw God as a sadomasochistic North Korean-style dictator who wanted you to love and fear him. While Hume asked the ancient question about God and evil, that either God would do something about evil in the world, but chooses not to (malevolent) or God wanted to stop evil, but was not able to do anything about it (not omnipotent). Hitchens would refer to this problem when discussing those in awful predicaments, who would have prayed and prayed to God for help, with no answer. When people would say to Hitch “I will pray for you” he would reply with “I will think for you”.
When an atheist is dying, as with everyone, they are vulnerable. They will not see family and friends again. A belief in a God or an afterlife most likely brings great comfort to believers in this situation. So what does an atheist do? As Dawkins once said “if you are being chased by a tiger, it would be comforting to believe that it is just a rabbit, but that doesn’t make it so.” Belief systems throughout the years have attempted to explain the unknown. We still don’t really know what happens to our consciousness at death, but a faith in an afterlife seems to be primarily based on wishful thinking. When a person of faith explains what heaven will be, or who is there, or how you get there, the atheist’s response is often, “How can you possibly know that?”
It is also sometimes argued that atheists live a life of little meaning. But when we look at men such as Hume and Hitchens, the width and depths of their logic and reason, the immense work they produced in their lifetimes, it is astoundingly inspiring and valuable. Humanism is a worthy cause and when atheists die, their legacy is great rational thought, reason and courage.