To Die Once, and then the Judgement

It was the philosopher Thoreau (not to be confused with Marcuse or Mark Hughes) who said,

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”

I reckon he was probably not the life or soul of the average party.

But I was wondering about this, as I thought about the mass of human beings who go to work, who sit at home and watch X-factor, who trudge around the supermarket or who die senselessly and swiftly. How is that not “resignation”, which is really “desperation”?

Especially at this time of remembrance. I guess, in the face of the horrendous suffering and pointlessness of the First World War, a mythology of heroism, of death in a worthy cause – of Dulce et Decorum – had to be created. The boys drowning in mud, blown to pieces, burnt to death – they couldn’t have died in some foolish disagreement over a patch of Eastern Europe which had somehow spilled out of hand. It had to have a purpose – a meaning – a reason.

But they were only spelling out, in short and dramatic form, the same thing the rest of us face. That question of life – what is it for, and how should we use it?

Strikes me we’ve got two fundamental positions here. I’ll put the agnostics over with the atheists on this one. The believers must think that, at the end of life’s great mystery, there lies a greater mystery. And the atheists and agnostics must assume that at the end of it all, all things considered, there’s probably not much.

And this is the great conundrum. It’s just about possible, if you’re a believer, and especially a believer in a Pietist or generally fairly low-key-on-everyday-life God, that you believe that life is best got through peaceably, by a combination of prayer and sitting quietly, on the grounds that there will be great adventures of a spiritual kind to be obtained at the End of All Things. If you think that God is expecting us to be boring and dull now, yet massively exciting later – it may be an odd position, but let’s go with it – then that’s the best bet.

But to be an atheist, and believe the best bet is to just have a bit of a quiet life? If I thought this life was all there is – would I think the best way of living it was to be fundamentally boring? If I had but three-score and ten (or four-score, had I the strength) years – would I think the best way to relax after a hard day’s crafting CSS at the HTML-face was to sit around being sarcastic under the line on Guardian Comment is Free? It’s a bit strange to consider, isn’t it? You’d want to be out taming badgers, or leaping across chasms or skating naked down the north face of the Eiger. What would be the point, given one, finite life, of eking it out slowly over seven or eight decades or boredom? If this is all there is, it should be lived – relished – loved – the life smashed out of it – and then given up joyfully knowing that’s it, it’s all finished.

That’s what I can’t get over Richard Dawkins. His “principle” which he moaned about last week will mean nothing in something under 30 years, when his mortal coil will be shuffled off and his name will mostly be remembered as something associated with some fuss over a pot of honey. And the irony is that, out of Prof Dawkins, the pot of honey, and the person who removed it from him, it’s the honey – sealed, antiseptic and high in sugar in an airtight pot in a landfill somewhere – that is going to last longest. Why get  so het up? Why not just enjoy the bizarre knowledge that, against our total lack of wings and requirement for relatively high concentrations of oxygen, he was on his way to fly high in the air above the clouds – honey-free or honey-blessed?

If atheists really believe their schtick, they’ll act like some atheists I know – ignore their medical conditions, have a good time, get out, see the world, meet people, have exciting face-to-face arguments. Not sit around primly flaming other people and each other.

So radical atheists of the world, unlike the rest of us you have no excuse. Go out and do something daring, dramatic, exciting and above all fun. Otherwise we’ll think you don’t really believe your own unbelief and that you are, as we could mostly guess from your smugness, judgmental nature and general boringness, actually Calvinists in disguise.

Just my thought. Still, it’s nearly 11 o’clock. Time for cocoa and Radio 4. Night, all.


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