Agnosticism: is ignorance bliss?
August 18, 2010
In 1726, in The Political History of the Devil, author Daniel Defoe wrote, “Things as certain as death and taxes, can be more firmly believed.” Ben Franklin, paraphrasing Defoe said, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Both Defoe and Franklin were giving voice to what we most loathe and/or fear.
Personally, I loathe death more than taxes, but that’s because I’m not a conservative. But whatever our political inclination, we tip-toe around death out of a profound sense of impotence regarding it, and because, of the two, (death and taxes) death is the most final. In fact, if you die you won’t have to worry about paying even one more cent in taxes which is why conservatives (especially religious ones) have built such finely detailed architectures around death. Preferring death to taxes they’ve made post-death more palatable: a heavenly place with seraphim and cherubim and no IRS.
I don’t mean to be gloomy but two recent personal experiences have made me more sensitive to my mortality and that of my loved-ones. One I won’t go into because it’s awful and heart-rending enough to make an honest fundamentalist question the idea of a benevolent god. The other is just plain narcissistic; namely, anxiety at having just had a birthday represented by too many digits over 6.
As with most things a simple, straight-forward acknowledgement of death might be best; but we’re fearful creatures, so, when dealing with end-of-life issues we beat around the bush with a million euphemisms.
In a funk a year or so ago, considering our universal and mysterious end I penned a poem I titled Whatcham’callit. I opened Whatcham’callit with the simple, straight-forward acknowledgement I mentioned above but then, to lighten up my meditation of the worst of events, I found myself setting down some of our oblique references to our basic taboo. This is how the poem goes:
“She’s dead,” he said
“So’s he,” said she.
“Kicked the bucket,” he said.
“Bought the farm,” said she.
“Under the clover,” he said.
“Crossed over,” said she.
“Iced with a heater,” he said.
“Sleeps with the fishes,” said she.
“Taken for a little ride,” he said.
“Gone to the other side,” said she.
“Flat-lined,” he said.
“Out of mind,” said she.
Up to this point in the poem I merely jotted a few of those less-than-lethal terms we use to gloss over what really happens. They cover much of the verbal territory we high-tail it to for sanctuary from death by robbing it of some of its sting. But for centuries (maybe even eons) we’ve speculated that there’s more to “passing on” than meets the eye. You might say we crave an after-life, otherwise how could this one make any sense?
For instance, Christians will meet Jesus when they cross over and Jesus will introduce them to his father. There will be untold joy and fulfillment in (according to Revelation) a place of “… unspeakable beauty, a city and streets of gold, gates of pearl, and precious stones” and they will again meet all those they loved in life. By contrast, who would not love that sort of place and party.
When Muslims buy the farm (according to the Koran) they will come to a place which is “…a Garden, as wide as the heavens and the earth; … prepared for those who keep their duty.” A lush garden; very appealing to life-long desert dwellers.
For Hindus who kick the bucket heaven is not so much a place but a period of rest for souls between death and rebirth, until they achieve release from the cycle of births —which is not unappealing, especially now, given the current state of global affairs.
Native Americans are eclectic about the afterlife. Some apparently believe in reincarnation, with a person being reborn either as a human or animal, while others believe that humans return as ghosts, or that people go to another world. Still others believe that nothing definitely can be known about one’s fate after this life. This last indicates a realistic humility I think would appeal to god. “I just don’t know,” is refreshingly honest.
Whereas some atheists seem as arrogantly certain as any fundamentalist, agnostics take the position that a simple declaration of ignorance in face of the ineffable and inscrutable is not a cop-out, but an admission of the limits of our intellects in dealing with the most persistent of mysteries. It’s a perspective not of denial, but of wonder.
And so Whatcham’callit ends:
“Flat-lined,” he said.
“Out of mind,” said she.
“To a better place,” he said.
“By heaven’s grace,” said she.
“Under the sod,” he said.
“To be with God,” said she.
“To Paradise?” he said.
“Would be nice,” said she.
“Could it be?” he said.
“Could it not?” said she.