the absurd observers

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

the contradiction of mourning


Gregg Easterbrook makes the following point:

[L]et's think ahead to his [Pope John Paul II] approaching end and the likelihood there will be international expressions of grief. If Christianity is true, there is no need to mourn the natural death in old age of any believer, much less a future saint. When a Christian lives a full life and dies a natural death in senescence, there is nothing to be sad about--if Christianity is true.

As an agnostic, I have always wondered whether religious people actually believe the metaphysical claims of their religions or whether they simply think it wrong to act as if anything other than the claims of their religion could be true. The case of Christian mourning illustrates this point. Easterbrook, argueing from the presumption that Christianity is true, claims that there ought to be no mourning.

I argue the opposite. The mourning of devoutly religious people, who purport to believe that the righteous are going to heaven, indicates at least some doubt on their behalf. Rather than embrace the genuine sorrow people ought to feel at the end of a person's existence, Christianity allows people to pretend that nothing sad has really happened. Yet with the displays of sorrow and mourning that accompany death, this diversion is less compelling. No matter hwo much people may claim to believe in the dictates of their religion, they still harbor some doubt.


  • Seth,
    Your narrow understanding of the reasons people mourn has left a hole in your reasoning.

    If people only mourned the fate of the departed, then your argument would seem more reasonable. However, people mourn for a host of reasons. Some people mourn because they themselves are deprived of the company of the departed. Some people mourn because it reminds them of their own mortality. Some people mourn because they revel in the melodramatic. Any of these reasons for mourning would not necessarily expose a doubt in the idea of heaven.

    Asa general rule, tangling up an act as culturally significant as mourning, be it in ritual form or more of a reaction/instinctual form, with an enterprise as high-handed as exposing people's belief in the truths of their religion seems to be a form of academic tunnel vision.

    By Blogger Dan J, at 12:44 PM  

  • You can't take the Catholic out of Dan...

    Let's unpack the reasons you give for people mourning:

    1. Some people mourn becasue they themselves are deprived of the company of the departed. Unlike your other cliams, this at least has a scintilla of merit. This reason would be adequate but for the fact that people have an entirely different reaction when told they can never interact with someone again than they do when that person actaully dies. For example, when Reagan announced he had alzheimers and retreated from public view, the national sadness did not approach the level of mourning at his death, even though people knew that they would never hear from him again. Furthermore, the rituals and language of mourning do not bear out yur claim of what people are really doing.

    2. Some people mourn becasue it reminds them of their own mortality. Fear of one's own mortality is equally contradictory as mounring another's death if people actually believe in the afterlife. If this is the reason people mourn, it also means they don't belive that they will go to heaven.

    3. Some people mourn because they revel in the melodramatic. While perhaps true on occassion, surely you admit that people feel genuine grief when others die and are not merely being melodramatic.

    By Blogger Seth Y, at 1:22 PM  

  • I am not a religious person, but I will respond to your argument which poses as an indictment of people who are so, yet fails miserably. Bringing up my Catholicism, even as a tongue-in-cheek reference to its absence, merely reveals your own doubts in your argument.

    The scintilla of merit you see in my first reason that people mourn is actually a fraction of the greater implication of the idea. People are sad because they lose the company of the departed, not necessarily because they cannot communicate with the departed or actually interact with the departed. Think of it as more of an abstract sense of comfort at the thought of the existence of a person. People don't have a hard time letting go of loved ones because they are afraid where the loved one may end up, it is more selfish or self-centered. The sadness people felt when Reagan died was not due to worry over his eternal soul, but rather because they would exist in a world without the tangible Reagan, even if they functionally existed in a world where they would never communicate with the guy.

    Furthermore, people reminded of their own mortality might not think they are going to heaven. In fact, many Christians might figure they are going to hell because of all the ruled, and thus be very sad about passing away. A person could believe in heaven and hell, believe they are going to hell, and my guess is that's a good reason to be upset.

    Moreover, people do revel in the melodramatic, but you are right that they also feel genuine grief. That genuine grief is not, however, the result of a complicated analysis on the future of a person's soul, necessarily. I think it is a more visceral reaction.

    Overall, your view of mourning is dry and scientific. It transforms people into philosophy machines that evaluate theories and then tailor their responses as affirmations or rejections of those theories. I think there is more to it. Instinct. Reaction. Feeling.

    By Blogger Dan J, at 1:57 PM  

  • Dan, I am glad you disavow your Catholicism, becasue your incoherent arguments were making me scared that you were only the latest in a long line of opposition to reason that dates back to the persecution of Galileo...

    Let us start with your
    obviously worthless arguments and then procedd to your more subtely flawed ones.

    You argue that people fear their own mortality becasue they think they are going to hell... obviously most people don't think they are going to hell and especially most Catholics who believe that their sins can be forgiven if they confess them...

    You also argue that Catholics feel a visceral grief that is not reasoned. You claim that does not contradict a belief in the afterlife. This grief, however, would not exist but for some feeling that a person is no longer around. The fact that it is not reasoned, only confirms my argument when believers in the afterlife are forced to confront death, their true beliefs manifest themselves.

    Now to address your one argument with a shred of merit. Your claim is that people mourn the loss of some sort of tangible presense and that this constitutes the entirety of their sadness. This stands in the face of reason and in the face of what people actually claim they are losing.

    Despite your aversion to / incompetence at philosophy, let's engage in a thought experiment. If a Catholic knew his mother would die, but an exact replica who would do everything she did would replace her, he would still feel sadness.

    Furthermore, the rituals of mourning are not self reflective in the way you suggest. People do not claim to mourn becasue they personally have lost something, but rather because a person they care about has ceased to live.

    I realize your approach religious discourse is limited to appreciating The Litte Red Engine That Could, but please try to use some reasoning on occassion.

    By Blogger Seth Y, at 2:54 PM  

  • I'm with Dan on this one, which of course will only serve to further expand Seth's sense of his own enlightenment over us "other 99%ers".

    My opinion on the matter is best summed up in the words of the great Austin Sarat: "Death is different". There is a finality and irreversibility in death that makes it different from every single other life experience.

    By Blogger CB, at 3:17 PM  

  • Your arguments are as logical as your spelling is accurate, not that my spelling is any better. Neither, however, are as interesting as the structure of this passage: "The fact that it is not reasoned, only confirms my argument when believers in the afterlife are forced to confront death, their true beliefs manifest themselves." This appears to be evidence that your mind is possibly made of the same material as a nerf football.

    But beyond these technical gripes...

    It is not obvious that most people think they are not going to hell. In fact, my guess is, if you believe in hell, you're somewhat scared of ending up there. I think that some people are scared of passing on because they fear any change from the status quo of life. We fear what we do not know, be it good or bad. If it is hell, then we surely fear it.

    You're next pretentious and desperate attempt at saving face comes in the form of a thought experiment. However, I suggest you could have experimented with thinking when you "thought" of the thought experiment. And I put "thought" in quotes because I am pretty sure you may have fallen asleep at the computer and your drool may have typed out the words "thought experiment". The problem is: your thought experiment proves nothing, except your belief in replicas, an example that might have some bearing on our argument if there were such a thing as a replica. My guess is: if there was a replica of a loved one I'd probably be a little freaked out. I'd probably consider it a different person. I'd probably still feel as though I was missing out on experience with the real person that passed away. However, I can't even really evaluate such a suggestion, and maybe its only worth is to again point out the confinement of your analysis to academic pap.

    Your argument mischaracterizes and misdirects and narrows and digresses. But, as the old lady said: "where's the beef?" Mourning is more than an evaluation of the heavenly prospects of a person's soul, even if it is convenient to your hypothesis to consider it as that limited.

    By Blogger Dan J, at 3:28 PM  

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