Christopher Hitchens's death has led to a predictable eruption of religious hostilities. For some Christian fundamentalists it's along the lines of 'that nasty atheist will have got a terrible shock'. For his part sceptic PZ Myers 'takes joy in discomfiting the godly'.
'We find our hope and joy in our lives, right now...not in an imaginary world, sight unseen, that we only get to enter after we're dead and unable to come back and tell everyone that the priests lied to us.'
It's hard not to wonder what a deeply committed atheist might feel on finding himself conscious after his death. Initial confusion and puzzlement, certainly, but gloating over a miscreant getting his come-uppance is surely misplaced.
Hitchens was praised for holding fast to his beliefs, even under the pressure of illness. I'd have expected no less. Even so, according to a BBC report he told an interviewer that if it turned out he'd been wrong he would be surprised, but that was OK, because he liked surprises. That sounds characteristic. I don't think he would feel any guilt. Like Bertrand Russell, he would say there hadn't been enough evidence. During life, the curiosity upon which he set such store just didn't stretch to psychic phenomena.
But perhaps all this is beside the point. I agree with the Huffpost's religious editor, Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, who thinks Hitchens' thoughts about his own death, and death in general, deserve respect.
His fierce atheism was determined to yank our thoughts away from any future place and time after we die, back to the world that is present to us in this very moment. Take, for example, this arresting passage from The Portable Atheist:
'Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.'This emphasis on the present may feel incomplete to some. But concentrating on what we know -- our own experiences, senses and rational mind -- does not, in fact create a void; rather, it fills these precious moments that we have on earth with intensity, urgency and inherent meaning. An atheist perspective on the afterlife eliminates the option of patient endurance in hopes of rewards in the sweet by and by; rather, it insists that any hopes and desires must be realized in this life, or not at all.
A powerful disbelief in afterlife might be seen as an affirmation the value of life - one of humanism's more attractive qualities. If we're sure this is the only one we have, we should live it to the full, and not go 'gentle into that good night'.
But could the opposite be true? Does a belief in afterlife actually weaken one's commitment to life. Do we value it less if we look forward to the kind of existence described for instance by near-death experiencers?
It's possible. I sometimes wonder if Frederic Myers, who died relatively young at 58, might have lived longer if he had fought against his last illness. He looked forward to the next life so much he seemed happy enough to let go of this one. But then Myers was powerfully immersed in the idea of survival of consciousness. He was deeply romantic. He believed he was in communication with the married woman he had fallen in love with, and who taken her life in tragic circumstances, and that she was waiting for him. He couldn't wait to move on.
So perhaps his case is exceptional. One certainly can't generalise, and say that religious people don't value life. What one thinks about that surely depends as much on temperament and circumstances as metaphysical beliefs.
Hitchens had a good life, doing what he loved, surrounded by friends, and well cared for at the end. Someone in his position doesn't need to find consolation in the idea of an afterlife. But concepts of 'loving life' and 'living it the full' are not so much of an option for peasant farmers struggling with floods and famine, wage slaves in dystopian urban hells, African child soldiers, the homeless and the chronically long-term sick. The slaves labouring in American plantations found solace in the Christian message of a better future life, and could they be blamed for that?