I once witnessed the terrible shock experienced by a little girl of four, when her cousin, just two years older, innocently told her that both of them would die when they got old. The recent death of their great-grandmother no doubt precociously taught the older child the inevitability and universality of death. It is a hard truth to accept, even for people many decades their seniors. The denial of death, the expectation that it would not, could not, happen to oneself, is childish, acceptable in children, pathological in adults. (Woody Allen – my age – is in for a disappointment. He famously said that for himself he expects God to make an exception . . .)
Equally childish, in my mind, is the denial that death is the definitive end of personal existence. And yet it is safe to say that the majority of the seven billion human beings that we are firmly believes in an after-life. Freud was right to suggest that the human race is still in its childhood days. Even the adolescence of humankind is a long way off.
How long will it take that four-year old to accept the reality of her own future death ? How long will it take believers to accept that an after-life is a blind and baseless illusion ?
The little girl has no doubt since realized – twelve years later – that pets and people, and even parents, die. But like most people she will, very rightly, put the thought aside and get on with her life. She may very well become part of the majority which finds comfort in the illusion of death as a passage to eternal life. It is hard enough to accept death. It is too much to resign oneself, most feel, to the fact that death means the end of existence, the disintegration of personal identity, a return to the nothingness from which we came. All things considered, why not leave such illusions intact ? It’s bad enough that we have to discover that Santa Claus is a fabrication of well-meaning, sentimental parents who cultivate and exploit children’s delightful credulity. To discover that life after death is also a myth is more than most people can stand (Bertrand Russell’s “not enough evidence” will suffice as justification for calling it a myth – and don’t give me that nonsense about the “Resurrection” !). In one form or another, religious belief will be around for a long time to come. But the atheist can count him/herself lucky to have realized that life is worth living precisely because there is no other. Atheists are adults. Believers are naïve children.
Jesus Himself said as much : “I assure you, unless you change and become little children, you will not enter the kingdom of God” (Matt. 18:3). Paul of Tarsus made more sense by suggesting that we “act our age” : “When I was a child, I used to talk like a child, think like a child, reason like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways aside” (1 Cor. 13-11).
I am happy to have put aside the fables and fantasies I entertained as a child. It’s called growing up.