I just attended a funeral today. Well, for the past 3 days, actually, being Chinese and all. A grandmother* whom I suppose I'll now be referring to in the past tense. I did what I could to hold my peace, seeing as there were a few services held by her church, led by her pastor and his wife (herself a reverend, apparently), who are, frankly, the most atrociously tactless, pious, self-righteous, smarmy, God-bothering goits I've ever encountered on this side of the Pacific.
Anyway, I've no mood to be angry at fundies right now - there's a kitten purring on my desk, trying to paw my nose. Moving right along, I was asked at the funeral, "What's the point of life?" - a wonderfully existential question that all thinking atheists will have pondered at some point or other. What do we, the infidels, have to look forward to? Suffice it to say, this led me to ponder the subject of death and how drastically different my own outlook was compared to those in my immediate vicinity at the time. Admittedly, most of them were the pastor's sheeple who viewed such things as art, science and philosophy as "stuff smartass gweilos do". It's like being surrounded by little yellow Republicans.
In any case, I found myself just about to say something about my heathen outlook on death and the afterlife, but stopped short, deciding I'd best put something like this down in writing, where I can better structure my thoughts. So, here's me on death.
To be honest, I think I'm fairly comfortable with it. Well, with regards to my own death, I won't be in a position to object or even care after it happens, so there's not much of a fuss to kick up about it, other than to plan ahead and help those remaining to deal with the consequences of own's own expiry, timely or not. Anyway, as Steven Wright said, "I intend to live forever. So far, so good."
A lot of people have trouble dealing with death. Ok, I read that again and just realised the sheer magnitude of understatement there. What I meant to bring up was the fact that as living organisms, we have a big stake (which is to say, everything) in our own self preservation and as such, our genes program us to do everything in our power to stay alive. Hence, part of the software (or hardware, depending on who you ask) that comes with our marvellous brains is a fear of death. As we form relationships with and become attached to the people around us, our fear extends to losing them, as well. And so it is that one of the cornerstones of the Abrahamic religions is to exploit the sheeple's fear of death, to cast that most seductive of illusions - death is not the end, but a beginning. Charming, probably reassuring, but utterly baseless.
In a sense, the Abrahamic religions have pulled off (and are keeping up!) the biggest, most heinous scam in human history, that is, they are selling a product that cannot be claimed until the customer is actually dead, i.e. a happy afterlife. There is no way whatsoever to verify the authenticy, or even the existence of said product, yet people will expend ludicrous amounts of money and effort securing it, keeping the clergy's pockets very well-padded indeed, with absolutely no way of expressing one's dissatisfaction upon failure of delivery.
And it was while considering this that it occurred to me that I'd read of another, very similar situation. When the first human explorers first landed on Mauritius, they encountered a plump, flightless and endearingly naive bird, that is, the Dodo. Apparently, this critter had evolved happily on that island with no natural enemies, and hence viewed the newcomers not with fear or caution, but with curiousity. Indeed, when the first hungry sailor reached out, grabbed one inquisitive bird and broke its hapless little neck, its fellows, rather than run away with fear, crowded around wondering what the hairless beach ape had just done with their suddenly very relaxed comrade. Seems to me that the seduction of faith is not unlike the doom of the Dodo - a pit of ignorance with little to no hope of escape.
But what about the secular understanding of death? I can't speak for all us infidels, but I can speak for myself and the happy few who share my view. My view is quite simple and nigh impossible to sugar-coat - death is the end. Of the individual, of course. We live, we procreate and so we must die. As sexually reproducing creatures, each new generation represents a shuffling of genes, with time and experience selecting for the individuals most fit for their environment during their lives. For each successive generation to evolve, older generations must die. From the point of view of the gene, immortality simply means stagnation, nothing more.
In the most simple terms, we strive to be the best and brightest we can, marry, have kids, raise them to be the best and brightest they can be, fulfilling the imperatives set for us by our genes: survive, evolve, prosper. Even looking at life and death from this simplistic perspective, one may be inclined to slip towards despair. Such temporary creatures we are! What's the point of it all? Oddly enough, one encounters a surprisingly witty and charming response to this painful question from a movie with, of all people, Jack Black:
"Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift. That is why it is called the present." - Master Wu Gui, Kung Fu Panda, 2008.
Pleasure and pain are all too real for us, regardless of race or creed. If we are here for such a short while, why waste so much effort visiting misery upon others? Is it not better to live for our happiness and that of those around us? And by happiness I don't refer to the raving, frenzied hedonism of pubs and clubs, but just simple contentment. A full stomach, a healthy body and mind, companionship, a wide universe to explore - what more can one ask for? In my eyes, the only thing more one could wish for is the same for those who haven't. In that cute old tortoise's words, I see a touch of Zhaozhou Congshen's Zen of everyday-mindedness.
To me, this world is what this life is about. No childish promises of angels, houris and immortality in the hereafter. No empty threats of eternal damnation, lakes of fire and everlasting torment. And definitely no hurting or killing people trying to convince them otherwise.
This, in itself, is justification enough for living my life the way I do. My sense of morality leans towards the utilitarian, and so I am very much convinced that I do indeed serve the greater good of humanity in trying to tear down religion and open closed minds to new ways of thinking. But, shortly after encountering Dawkins, another element to the purpose of life came to light, in the form of memes.
Artists and poets have known this in their gut for thousands of years, and it is only in recent years we see scientists and philosophers looking closely at memes as a concept. But its no new revelation that an individual's ideas (if the idea is catchy enough) will far outlive the individual. Shakespeare, Archimedes, Al-Khwarismi, Einstein and other such luminaries will live forever in human memory for their contributions to the sum of human intellect. Note that I say catchy. An idea does not necessarily have to be good, or even true for it to gain a healthy following, but I digress. The point is, in memes, we may live far beyond our corporeal forms. What will we leave behind? A cute habit? A fad? A scientific breakthrough? A trail of blood? A better world? A dazzling wit?
So there's a little something more to keep a guy motivated. Granted, one won't actually be conscious to admire how your memes are doing, but I think it's kind of fun to try putting together something nice to stand the test of time. I suppose that's why I write what I write. When I was a kid, I thought the coolest thing in the world would be to have a unit of measurement named after me. I must confess, to this day, I haven't the damnedest idea what one could possibly measure with a Cheng.
Right, this post is way longer than I'd expected. Will continue elaborating in later posts as the whim takes me. Or on request, I suppose, rare as those are. But, next couple of posts will be happier stuff, 'onest guv...
* Not sure what's the right term here. My maternal granddad, who expired long before I was even a gleam in my father's eye, had 4 wives. My mum is the daughter of the 3rd, the one who just expired is the 4th. My parents tell me I still refer to #4 as 'grandmother'. I'm not sure that's quite right, and so would be grateful for clarification on the matter.