While browsing ThinkAtheist, I encountered a blog post that called my attention; it was this one, called "Billy Mays... Dead. Four "Celebrities" in a week WTF". While the post itself had nothing wrong in it, the comments seemed more controversial, including jokes about Billy Mays that I considered to be bad tasted. Reggie Hammond replied: "Respect the dead? Why? Will they haunt me? No, I'd rather respect the living, unless they are undeserving."

I concede that my point is not an easy one to make. It seems like nothing happens when we die - we can't be sure though, since nobody has came back from the dead and told us about it (I'm not taking seriously Out of Body Experiences). So, it looks like there should be nothing wrong about what we might say about a deceased person - they don't care, because they don't exist anymore.

So, why should we abstain from making such comments? While it's true that that person is not alive anymore, a common argument I use against the typical wishful-thinking theist complaint that goes along the lines "life cannot be that boring and meaningless! it cannot end with our physical death, there has to be something else!" is that we don't just die when our body dies, but that we live on, in the memories and the footprint we left in everybody that got the chance to know us. Of course that's rethorical, because we're actually dead, for good, and nothing can change that; but that sort of footprint, the only thing left from us, IMHO, deserves respect, since it's a kind of feeling shared by an indeterminable amount of people. When insulting Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett or even Billy Mays, I feel your comment is disrespectful to their legacy, and through it, to the many people you don't even know that cherish it as something of great value to their lives. I realize this argument can be used to justify the criticism that religion gets, since worshipping Jesus or Muhammed can be understood as a legacy left by dead people that deserve respect. But the point is, I'm not making an argument in favor of an eternal untouchable legacy, but for respect while these people are being mourned, which should not last long.

Comments like "One down, now there's about 10 more of these annoying jerkoffs I'd like to see gone" make me wonder about what is our level, as atheists, of respect for life (I'm keeping abortion out of this question). While it's true that ideas have to earn the respect they claim, I think we people deserve respect and dignity no matter what we do or think, as a basic human right. I think our attitude towards senseless sets of ideas, like religions, might make us disrespectful to people that adhere to them, in some kind of intelectual snobbery. And that's dangerous, I think.

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Comment by Whitney on June 29, 2009 at 9:20am
While I understand being respectful of the dead for the sake of those who are grieving, I do not see why someone who was rightly mocked or disliked during their lifetime suddenly becomes off limits just because they died; and really that person is only off limits if the majority don't necessarily agree the person was not worth respect. If it's going to be wrong to do that after they die why do we as a society consider it okay while they are living? I think people deserve to be treated nicely as a default position, but some people simply don't deserve respect in life or death due to their own actions.
Comment by Dan on June 29, 2009 at 9:23am
Bravo Whitney.
Comment by Gaytor on June 29, 2009 at 9:38am
Billy Mays openly was a caricature of himself. He made millions and make no mistake, he knew what he was. Check out a Pitchmen episode and he's pretty clear about it. He does some stuff for a radio station on Youtube too. I think I threw out the first shot at Billy. It's not that I don't respect him, the guy that was on Pitchmen would laugh at my comment.
I'm with Whitney, death invokes no new clause.
Comment by Dave G on June 29, 2009 at 10:09am
While I can see the importance of being considerate of those who are grieving, I too do not see death as instantly bestowing respect upon someone, just because they are dead.

I give respect to people, living or dead, as I feel they deserve. Everyone starts off with a default level of respect, just for being a sentient human being. That level of respect can then change, depending on their behavior. Just being dead does not alter that level of respect, although the manner of dying can adjust it.

As Voltaire said, "One owes respect to the living, to the dead one owes only truth."

And as a postscript, her name was Farrah Fawcett, not Sarah Fawcett.
Comment by Andres Kazan on June 29, 2009 at 10:12am
I'm not saying that being dead automatically places you off limits of criticism; don't get me wrong. I think we all deserve respect being alive, but we are subject to criticism no matter if we're alive or dead. When we're dead, there's no more "us" anymore, so you can't actually disrespect somebody who doesn't exist. Having said that, we should be clear if we're critizicing or mocking. Criticism is sane, and it's always desirable. If we do good, it's OK to be praised. If we do something considered as wrong, we deserve the corresponding punishment, even if it consists of just being frowned upon. Mockery, on the other hand, is insulting, which is quite different. Mockery can be completely undeserved.
The other thing I'd like to point out, is that the respect we deserve is different from social approval or dissent. I agree that a murderer or child abuser deserves jail time; that doesn't mean I'm not going to respect him/her as a citizen with the same rights that I have. Not because somebody commits a crime, for example, he/she can then be lynched in the streets by a mob. As a society, we understand he/she has done wrong, and has to go to jail, after a trial with a due process, if he/she's found guilty. But we still respect him/her enough to do that and not just kill him or beat him as soon as we can.
Comment by Andres Kazan on June 29, 2009 at 10:15am
Dave G: Spelling error fixed. Thanks for pointing it out!
Comment by Misty: Baytheist Living! on June 29, 2009 at 10:15am
I didn't find Dan's comments insulting, but then again, I'm not this guy's widow or family member. They might have. The chances of them lurking around TA? Well, I dunno. I guess my point is that it isn't a matter of how nice you have to be concerning a dead person, it's the company you're in and the respect for their potentially raw, still-mourning-feelings. The dead person doesn't care. He's dead.

As for the other comments... eh. Humor is one thing. It doesn't get a free pass, but I'm more likely to excuse something that makes me smile. Those comments weren't even entertaining.
Comment by Serotonin Wraith on June 29, 2009 at 10:27am
While views of people might not have to change just because they are dead, perhaps the views of the living do need to be adjusted in the first place. Making fun of someone or disliking them is one thing, wishing for their deaths and enjoying the fact they are dead is quite another.

With life as precious as it is - this being the only planet out of billions that we know even has it - seems to me the tolerance bar should be set pretty high before wanting someone dead. Celebrities that annoy us isn't exactly the same as mass murderers.

But this is the internet, and people say all kinds of things while not really thinking that way inside.
Comment by Misty: Baytheist Living! on June 29, 2009 at 10:32am
Pretty much spot on.. though I reserve the right to wish for and enjoy the death of Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robertson. I'd not go out and incite a mob to kill them... I'd not go out and list reasons for why they should die.. but when it happens, I'll smile a little inside.
Comment by Andres Kazan on June 29, 2009 at 10:35am
Well said, SW. I choose to blame the Internet, as well.


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