I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Monday, August 23, 2010

Reason Zero: Death

Last year, I did a series of posts called Ten Reasons to Believe in God. I dealt with the most frequent arguments I've heard for the existence of God, such as the argument from design, eye-witness testimony, and documentary evidence such as the Bible or Koran. In the end, I remained firmly in the atheist camp, but I hope I gained at least a little insight as to why some people are believers. Still, looking back at the series now, I'm stunned that I completely skipped what is most likely the most important reason of all. It's so important that I can't really call it reason eleven. It's more like reason zero, a foundational truth that all the others rest upon.

God exists because death exists.

Before this sounds like a retreat from atheism, allow me to clarify that by the use of the word "God" I'm not admitting the existence of an actual deity. God does exist as a tool humans use to navigate the world, a purely human construct or concept like justice or money. It may sound a little deranged to argue that money doesn't exist, since I certainly carry around little green slips of paper in my wallet that I call money, and structure my entire life around accumulating these little green slips. In fact, I've even skipped the step where I collect the paper, and now hungrily pursue mere numbers on a computer screen. These numbers have zero actual value or reality. They exist purely as a shared fiction that makes our modern society possible. Money doesn't need to have any intrinsict value as long as we can all mutually pretend that it does.

And, so it is with God. He doesn't really need to exist as long as a critical mass of people believe that he does. God, like money, has many functions. Money can motivate behavior both good and bad, and so can God. Money can provide a sense of security and well-being, and so can God. But God can do one thing money can't: God provides relief from death.

Being smart enough to understand the future is a pretty horrible thing for humans to have evolved. We are (probably) the only animals smart enough to understand that our deaths are inevitable, and permanent. One day we exist, enjoying our meals, the sunshine, and the company of our loved ones, then, one day, it ends. And, as if the burden of our own mortality weren't enough to bear, we also must face the truth that everyone we love will die, and once they are gone they are gone forever.

Except, of course, we don't have to face these truths. We can, instead, adopt a shared fiction that sidesteps the unpleasant reality. Death isn't inevitable: We were actually created as immortals and death is just a temporary punishment inflicted upon us for our sins. But, one day, God will have finally punished us enough and death will go away. Poof! And, if you happen to die before that glorious day, no problem. God will just bring you back and you'll spend all of eternity surrounded by your friends and family, except for those horrible people who lived differently than you, who will burn in Hell forever and ever.

There are variants of this belief, of course. Some religions just sidestep God and heaven and instead when you die you get recycled into a new body here in this world. If you've behaved well, that body might even be human. And, of course, many people think that bodies are optional equipment, and that when you die you can simply linger on as a ghost, watching over your children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren like some benevolent intangible voyeur.

Death is a problem that no human mind has yet solved. But, our shared lie at least takes some of the sting out of death. The inevitability of death is kind of a raw deal: We can't escape it by eating well and exercising, we can't escape it by knowing the right people or having enough money in the bank, we can't escape it because we're famous, or loved by our parents and children, or because our cats need someone to operate the can-opener. The convict on death row, the brave and wise judge that sent him there, and the little girl that was his victim, all wind up with exactly the same fate: death, forever and always. Is it any wonder the mind rebels? Death in its blind and equal treatment of everyone just seems so unfair. You can't blame people for hoping there's a secret way out.

Which, of course, leave me as an atheist on somewhat strange ground. I'm smart enough to understand that money has no inherent value, but I'm also smart enough to understand that my life will be more pleasant if I pretend that it does. I have more access to food, shelter, and comic books by participating in the fiction than I would if I were dogmatic in my rejection of the value of cash. Couldn't the same argument then be made for God? Even if I understand him to be a fiction, wouldn't life be more pleasant if I partook in this fiction? Rather than staring into the abyss of my own inevitable death, or carrying the burden of my ever accumulating losses of people I love, wouldn't life be less stressful if I just went along with the shared coping mechanisms that have been tested and proven effective as a source of relief from the pain of death for thousands of years?

I suppose I'll never know. I've learned what I've learned over the years. I've devoted myself to understanding what's real versus what's false. My knowledge has been burned into me, bright and shining and hot, a candle guiding me through darkness. I can't unburn that candle. Nor would I want to. Because, in the end, it doesn't matter what coping mechanisms you might adopt: You and everyone you love will die. The God escape hatch from death is a door that doesn't actually lead anywhere. Knowing that you can't escape death doesn't devalue your life. Instead, it intensifies the experience. It helps to remind you not to take even the small things for granted. Enjoy that burger you're eating. Kiss your loved ones whenever you meet or depart. Play your car stereo as loud as you like it and sing along, even if you're at a stop light, even if your windows are down. You cannot be aware of death unless you are alive. If you are reading these words, you are alive. You've blood in your veins and breath in your lungs. Treasure these things, and don't waste them.

Atheism may not help you escape death. But it is a kick-ass tool for living life.


Loren Eaton said...

Not to stir the pot or anything, but there are religions that don't concern themselves with an afterlife ...

James Maxey said...

I love to have the pot of ignorance stirred by the spoon of knowledge, sir. And, I admit, you've stumped me. What religion doesn't concern itself with the afterlife?

Mr. Cavin said...

(Tumbleweeds, a distant bell, the lonely wind.)

James Maxey said...

Researching the question has led me to Epicurianism, a Greek philosophy that holds that there are gods, but they pay no attention to men, and that everything, including souls, are composed of atoms. When you die, the atoms disperse, so there is no afterlife. The basic moral code of this belief was to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Which is also the moral code of goldfish, lab rats, and most politicians.

John Voorhees said...

I made my way here from Reddit, and really enjoyed catching up with these discussions. Great stuff.

Perhaps your life would be easier for believing in God if it was really a "shared" delusion, as money is. There are different denominations of currency, but as far as I know, no one is willing to kill over the difference between pounds, pesos and yen.

The idea of there being someone/something outside our mundane reality that created us and/or holds all the cards is one shared by a lot of people, but many of them feel so strongly about the differences in the details that they ARE willing to kill or otherwise disrupt all the people who believe the wrong details.

In the abstract, belief in gods is something that unites humanity. In practice, it tears us apart.

James Maxey said...

John, thanks for contributing to the conversation. At the risk of being contentious, I'd have to argue that people do kill each other quite frequently over money. The love of money is probably the number one driver of one group of people deciding to kill another group, not to mention any other number of evils. (How strange to find myself agreeing with Jesus.)

Also, I'm not sure that even in the abstract, belief in God is something that unites humans. The problem with God as a unifying force is that he is, fundamentally, a fictional force, with non-objective attributes imposed on him at the whims of different humans. The fundamental arbitrary nature means that no one can ever be proven right or wrong. No one has anything on their side except opinion, so to settle debates they can't turn to evidence, which means instead that often the arguments are settled by force. (Not that arguments that can be settled by evidence are immune to this. Evolution is about as evidence heavy as any concept could ever hope to be, and there are still people who deny every aspect of it.)

Loren Eaton said...


Sorry, forgot to check back on this one. Regarding religions that don't concern themselves with the afterlife, there are various ancient sects of Judaism that fit the bill. Some people (C.S. Lewis among them) have argued that all of early Judaism was unconcerned with what happened after you died.

James Maxey said...

Loren, eh, I'll give you this one. It's a pretty small data point, though.

John Voorhees said...

I wasn't clear. I certainly agree that people kill over money, but they don't tend to kill over the philosophical difference between dollars and deutschmarks. The NUMERICAL difference, sure.

And I was basically trying to make the same point that your brief reference to release from death as a "shared fiction" isn't really shared very well at all. No argument here.

Loren Eaton said...


Wow, I didn't expect to convince anyone of anything. That's, uh, a rarity in my conversational life.

I think my point about religions that don't consider the afterlife is that we ought to understand what each religion is attempting to address in the human condition before evaluating it. For example, Confucianism deals with social chaos; Islam with pride; and Christianity with sin. To say that people invented religion simply to deal with death doesn't really interact with the primary stated concerns of various belief systems.

John Brown said...

The two most beneficial things I see about athiesm, being a gung-ho religionist myself, are the questions it asks about evidence and the idea to quit putting off life and live now.

James Maxey said...

Thanks, John. For what it's worth, I think there are beneficial aspects of religion as well. I have no doubt that there is more charity in the word with it than without it, and can't deny that it provides a source of hope and comfort for some people. (I've learned from the illness and deaths of those around me that false hope can get you through the day as well as genuine hope.)