Thursday, December 20, 2007

Comfort at a Funeral

12/20/2007--Philip Kitcher writes, in Living With Darwin, that the atheist case is no comfort at a funeral. This, he thinks, is part of the reason that atheism does not catch on.

Kitcher is thinking about Christianity. At a Christian funeral, one would expect to hear both that the deceased is now in heaven, where the living might expect one day to be reunited, and that on the last great day, all believers will be all be resurrected.

Kitcher considers that a false hope and he recognizes that he has no alternative hope to offer.

But last night there was a memorial service for my Mom. At this service, there was no talk of heaven or resurrection. We did not expect to meet Mom again. We don’t think of her as now young and healthy.

The theme was her life of service and family and how remarkable she was. She was a blessing.

And this is how the Old Testament, the Torah, regarded the life of Abraham. He was not in heaven or to be resurrected. Abraham’s immortality lay in the promise for his descendents.

Nor was the tone of my Mom’s funeral much different from that of an orthodox Jewish funeral. And there are other religious traditions that would not promise future life, but which are a comfort at a funeral.

The point is that, as usual, atheism both underestimates religion and is complacent toward itself. Religion is not inherently a fairy tale that grown people should not believe. It is potentially a real and positive way of life. And atheism is empty because it refuses to address candidly the question of human life—why, which just means toward what end, are we here? What is our meaning?

Kitcher is right that religion is a comfort at a funeral and atheism is not. But the reason is that religion is engaged in the human condition and atheism is a bystander.

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