January 19, 2020

Against Immortality

“At a recent conference on belief and unbelief hosted by the journal Salmagundi, the novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson confessed to knowing some good people who are atheists, but lamented that she has yet to hear “the good Atheist position articulated.” She explained, “I cannot engage with an atheism that does not express itself.”

She who hath ears to hear, let her hear. One of the most beautifully succinct expressions of secular faith in our bounded life on earth was provided not long after Christ supposedly conquered death, by Pliny the Elder, who called down “a plague on this mad idea that life is renewed by death!” Pliny argued that belief in an afterlife removes “Nature’s particular boon,” the great blessing of death, and merely makes dying more anguished by adding anxiety about the future to the familiar grief of departure. How much easier, he continues, “for each person to trust in himself,” and for us to assume that death will offer exactly the same “freedom from care” that we experienced before we were born: oblivion.

No doubt much will depend on our definitions of “atheist” and “good.” But, if Pliny is too antique for Robinson, listen to Montaigne: the Montaigne who professed a nominal Christianity but proceeded as if his formal belief were essentially irrelevant to his daily existence, and perhaps even at odds with it; the Montaigne whose wanton pagan invocation of “fortune” in his essays provoked Vatican censors. Or attend to the work and life of Chekhov, the good nonbelieving doctor who asserted that his “holy of holies” was the human body, the writer whose adulterous characters in “The Lady with the Little Dog” stop to look at the sea near Yalta and are reminded that their small drama is nothing alongside the water’s timeless indifference…”

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