I've been soaking up every interview and article about Hitch ever since he announced his grave state of health.
Let me be frank here. I have, ever since I was a little boy, had a terrible fear of death.
It has been my biggest struggle ever since I left the faith of religion.
Knowing you are different from everyone around you at the young age of 12 is a lot to take in. Then pile on the guilt trips from family, the uncertainty about whether or not I will always be alone in my feelings toward religion, and a constant fear that if I'm wrong I will pay "The Ultimate Price". (The Ultimate Price is trademarked dogma, all rights reserved.)
But, after I was able to break free from the christian home-schooling I found comfort in friends, books, and writing.
My first true experience with non-religious schooling came the second semester of ninth grade. Lee Freshman scared the shit out of me the first few days.I felt like I was all alone in a prison full of people who I didn't know and was too shy to really be accepted by.
Three days into this experience my Granny died.
So I was immediately thrown into a tailspin of family depression, regret, and fear.
To this day my biggest fear is not being there when a loved one needs me.
I can remember being quite young, five years old or so, and spending the night at a friends house for the first time. Daniel "Striped Tiger" Thompson (pronounced stri-PED) lived in Stanton with his newly divorced mother. His father had weekend visitation so he was my next door BFF back when we were still learning to ride bikes. Anyway, I felt adventerous and excited to go somewhere new and be without parental supervision as we could walk all over this small town all alone and not be in any danger.
Memories of walking to the local general store and buying candy and soda with our pocket change make me smile. I felt like I was back in the fifties like my own father, free to experience the world around me without boundaries.
We would climb up to the top of playground equipment or onto the roof of carports and garages and just watch the clouds and drink Nehi Blue.
But then night would come and I would begin to fear that something bad could happen to my parents while I was gone. Suddenly this world of happiness and freedom became a prison filled with fear. Little did I know I was already experiencing anxiety and panic attacks.
I would dial my parents in the middle of the night and beg them to come and get me.
And they did, they always did. That really speaks volumes about their love and understanding as parents. I never got in trouble, instead I was whisked away in the night by two weary eyed parents who even cared enough to bring me a blanket and pillow so I could sleep on the drive home.
In a way this comfort and unconditional love is what religion offered me back then. It was like being wrapped in a warm blanket by your mother while she sings soft lullabies as you drift off to sleep. Religion was my comfort brain food.
I would recite prayers and bible verses obsessively throughout the day. It appealed to both my OCD (which was also present in my youth) and my fears. It was like I was a little monk, constantly studying scripture and always chanting one thing or another in my head.
"Please lord, forgive of my sins. I thank you and praise you. In jesus name I pray, amen."
To this day that mantra is still stuck in my head. I would say that over and over all day, thinking that if I kept saying it I would be safe and by default my loved ones would be safe.
From a very young age my parents and the youth group leaders planted seeds in my head about death. Fire, torture, agony. The charred walls of the damned awaited all souls that god felt were not worthy of heaven. Telling that to a kid with serious anxiety issues is probably the worst thing they could have done. I don't blame my parents, they were just doing what they thought was right. But nonetheless, the damage was done.
Fast forward back to my teen years. All of these fears and obsessions were bigger and stronger than ever, except now I knew that there was most likely no magical deity to watch over me and save me from terrible things.
I felt so alone. I was different in every way. I was the weird home-schooled kid who had no social skills. I was nerdy and nervous, cautious about even talking to other people.
It was hell. Then Granny died and a feeling of guilt overcame me.
I was too busy to talk to her when she called the last time, I just blew it off.
To this day I still carry guilt for that. I really think she was by far the most innocently sweet and loving person I've ever met. I even get moist around the eyes just typing this.
So upon losing her I reverted to my old comfort system, religion. And for about six months I relapsed into faith.
Thinking about someone you love so dearly just being gone forever is hard to deal with. So I took the easy way of blinded comfort.
I really think that a vast majority of religious people are taking the easy step toward comfort. Life is so fragile, it's hard to look at our own existence as a truly small and insignificant mortality. But that's the indoctrination talking.
IT DOESN'T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY!
Over the last decade I've slowly and painfully come to terms with who I am, what I don't believe, and what will happen to me and my loved ones when we meet our final hours.
My obsession with the morbid is lesser and lesser the more I read and think.
Death anxiety is our animal instinct conflicting with our capacity to realize our death is in fact inevitable. Less intelligent animals don't know they are going to die, even as they watch other animals like them die. Just like cattle lining up at a slaughterhouse or sheep walking off a cliff. As long as we are intelligent and retain our survival instincts, death anxiety will always be there.
That is why the younger me and the religious fall for the whole faith and heaven bullshit.
People find comfort in having their own death anxiety relieved by stories of the proposed afterlife. This is simply just denial that death occurs. Most religious people will openly admit that they are in it for this reason. I remember my Mother telling me once, "What if you're wrong? What's the price? And what if I'm wrong? It won't bother me if I'm wrong because I won't be alive to care." In her mind the ultimate price is eternal suffering in hell.
This is why religious people expect atheists like Christopher Hitchens to convert on their death bed. They cannot imagine how they themselves could make it without their religious crutch so they expect us to have the same problem with our own death anxiety.
I think this is why atheists piss off christians so much. Our mere presence in the world causes pressure on the psychological patch-job that they use to tell themselves that death is an illusion. We make them uncomfortable. And that, is truly important to understand.
Religion is like methadone for death anxiety, it's just a temporary way to relieve discomfort caused by thinking. Yes, thinking. Thought is the mortal enemy of all religion.
To me, atheism was at first like a rehab to recover from the torrid love affair with the methadone of christianity. But now with each passing year I feel like a recovered addict, clean and sober from the hell of faith for 14 straight years. Any relapse has been short lived, and rightfully so. As with most addictions it was rough at first going without, but now I can honestly say that standing where I am today is a thousand times more comforting than what blind faith in ancient mistranslations ever gave me.
I wonder though, why don't the news cameras flock to dying religious icons? Constantly asking the same question, "Do you think you'll change your mind on your deathbed?".
Why didn't they ask John Paul II the same questions they ask Hitch and every other dying atheist?
I myself want to reassure my loved ones and myself that death is natural and nothing to fear. We don't fear birth, why fear death? It's the same basic principle but in reverse.
Imagine a world where no one died. What a mess that would be!
Death is good in that it keeps the living in touch with what makes life so very special: Life is fleeting. It is rare in the universe. The fact that I am here now typing away is so incredibly special. One slight difference in the day of my conception could have led to my non-existence. I am but one sperm and one egg. I am stardust, part of the entire universe as a whole and yet small and insignificant in the big picture of the endlessness of space.
I learned to fear death and to even hate death as a result of my indoctrination. It fed my already rampant anxiety and in all honesty brought me more pain than happiness.
This is why I would never expose my children to the same.
They don't need to be told to fear death, instead they need to learn that it's just as beautiful and special as birth. Like the final scene of a wonderful movie, or the last page of a literary masterpiece, death gives us the final piece of life.
It's the final adventure, and we should all learn to accept it.
Instead of living in fear we should understand our own mortality for what it is, a reason to live life to the fullest. So many religious people waste their lives away thinking that what they truly want is on the other side. It's like devouring a fine steak dinner as fast as possible just so you can get to dessert. You forget to take time to enjoy what is there in front of you.
I really do find it insulting when theists imply that common sense is so weak and fleeting that we would abandon it grave situations. I would rather be in a foxhole full of atheists than christians. I would want to be surrounded by others who know just how dangerous taking life for granted can be.
So in closing I will say that although it is hard to watch Hitch deteriorate I find all new comfort within his plight. Just as both he and Dawkins helped me come to terms with who I am, his words on death have helped me to accept my own mortality.
And that, to me, is more comforting than any prayer.