Atheist Author Julian Barnes on the Topic of Death November 2, 2008

Atheist Author Julian Barnes on the Topic of Death

In the latest issue of Maclean’s, author Julian Barnes is interviewed about his book Nothing to Be Frightened Of — a memoir about atheism and death.

Milena has transcribed excerpts of the interview (it’s not online yet) and you get to hear from an atheist who is not nearly as strident or anti-theist as people like Christopher Hitchens. In addition to his talk about the book, he makes a sad but true remark about the upcoming presidential elections:

Q: Your first line is, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”

A: That’s right, yes. I just found myself saying that when I was on some public stage and someone said, “Do you believe in God?” and that was my instant response, and it was one that on reflection I thought was true. I grew up in a family where, probably from the point when my grandmother lost her Methodist faith and became a Communist — or socialist — nearly, oh, 90 years ago, there hasn’t been anything that you would call faith in the family, let alone church attendance. But, you know, when a great story ends I think we all miss it, and it was a great story. There were aspects of it that leave a sense of want. One is that if life is a mere prelude or preparation for something else, then life becomes both more trivial and more important, and if not then we can grow to our full height but that height is comparatively dwarfish. If this is all there is and this is all we are then it’s a bit disappointing.

Q: There seems to be most certainty about atheism in the U.K., when in a lot of the rest of the world we’re seeing something of a revival in religious fervour.

A: Yes. The Brits, after all, gave Darwin to the world. I think in Europe the retreat of the traditional religions is strong. The collapse of religion in Ireland, for example, and France, and to a lesser extent Italy has been quite spectacular.

Q: America being one grand exception.

A: America is one grand exception indeed. America manages to combine extreme materialism with extreme religiosity, and it is a bizarre thought that in this presidential cycle, we could have had a woman in the White House, we might have a black man in the White House, but if either of them had said they were atheists neither of them would have had a hope in hell, all too literally.

On a brighter note, this is another book about atheism that isn’t all about trying to show how incorrect religious beliefs are. It’s about how to live life as an atheist — in this case, the end of life. I haven’t read the book yet, but it sounds like a welcome addition to the collection of atheist literature out there.

(via The Bitch Report)

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  • Cathy

    I don’t see why death shouldn’t be scary. It’s not good to let that fear take all of the joy out of the time you have, but I think being scared of death and not wanting to die is perfectly fine. Death sucks, this is a great reason to fight for a good national health care system and to advocate peace.

    I always wonder though, why Christians are afraid of death when they think they are going to paradise. You think they would put less effort into survival if they really believed that.

  • I dunno, Cathy. Death is something to be scared in the same way that we should be scared of getting hit by a car. Look both ways, but most of the time, don’t bother thinking about it.

  • bud

    cathy,
    the foundational Christian perspective of death is stated by the Apostle Paul: “For me, to live is Christ, to die is gain.” Our duty, as Christians, is to always be prepared to share the reason for the joy within us. To love our neighbors in a non-judgmental manner. To give without reservation, help without being asked, and to treat others as we would want to be treated. I, for one, would not like someone coming up to me and say “i am right and you are wrong. don’t be stupid. let me hit you in the head with this Book, then maybe you will understand.” but I would appreciate someone who listens to me explain the pains of guilt in my life, and then offers their understanding of how to relieve this pain by giving it to a loving God who offers to take it for us. How this God freely offers victory over our earthly death, so that the end of life becomes the transition to eternal happiness. Before this transition is to live representing the Truth of Christ’s Goodness in love, not legalism, which builds for us “treasures in heaven” and after is the gaining of heaven and these treasures. The level of the fear of death in a Christians life is generally proportionate to the depth of faith.

  • Cathy

    bud, it doesn’t really look like you answered my question. I understand the idea that someone might want to be good during their life to avoid hell, go to heaven, act like Jesus, etc. but wouldn’t they still want to die and go to heaven as soon as possible if “the end of life becomes the transition to eternal happiness”? Or are you saying that people who live longer get more heaven points, kind of like frequent flyer miles?

  • BZ

    I think he may have meant that the level of the fear of death in a Christians life is generally inversely proportionate to the depth of faith. It is easy to see why they could try to live while not fearing death if they truly believed, because that would be the moral thing to do so they could help others.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Cathy, I’m not a Christian, but I think might be helpful to quote more of the verse that bud cited:

    For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. (Phil 1:21-23, NRSV)

    I suspect few Christians actually long for death, and only want to live out of altruism, as Paul claimed to—regardless of what they believe will happen after they die, the biological urge to live is probably too deeply rooted.

  • mikespeir

    I have the same instinctual aversion to dying as anybody, but I really can’t get all that worked up over it. When I do think about it I find myself more sorry for those I’ll be leaving behind. Myself, I think I was more afraid of it as a Christian. What if, no matter how I was assured or tried to assure myself, it really did matter how I held my mouth? What if I hadn’t been doing it right all along?