Dying Alone

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
14th January 2008

Tagged: atheism death

Related:

Return to the articles index.



One news item this week was profoundly sad and troubling. Apparently a man, who had died in his bed, possibly as long as a year ago, has only just been discovered.

The efficiency of modern city life allowed this state of affairs to continue. His pension was paid directly into his bank. His rent was paid directly out of his bank. Apparently it was his full letterbox that indicated to his neighbours that something was wrong.

Without knowing the details of this sad event, it symbolises the isolation of today's culture.

There is something deeply disturbing about being left alone in death. Humans are not just part of the material world. Our physical bodies need to be disposed of appropriately. Our passing needs to be mourned and grieved by somebody. To die without being noticed and to lie in death without the honour of a decent funeral is to reduce us to nothing more than a collection of atoms.

But there is the problem for modern culture. Atheism has taught us that we are nothing more than a collection of atoms.

The Bible does not deny that we are material: “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” But the Bible says that we are more than dust. We are created “in the image of God.”

Denying God means losing our humanity. For the atheist, we are not created. Furthermore, we are not created in God's image. We are an accidental collection of atoms. We are a cleverer and more able collection than other collections like animals or plants. But we are not fundamentally different. Certainly we are no different in purpose or moral value.

Fortunately, such atheism has not yet overwhelmed our culture. Denying our humanity is too inhuman even for most atheists. Even atheists are outraged when the amoral consequences of their beliefs are exposed.

A culture overwhelmed by atheism would make life monstrous, meaningless and hideous. It would be monstrous as indicated in the writings of Nietzsche, Kafka, Dostoevsky and Ayn Rand. It would be as meaningless as the plays of Becket and Pinter. And it would be as hideous as existence under the atheist dictators Pol Pot, Mao, Lenin, and Stalin.

The Australian version of atheism is individualism plus economic materialism. We are consumers. Society is held together by economic activity. There is no common moral culture. If you can pay for it, you can have it. If it contributes to the economy—the government likes it.

Without a common moral culture, tolerance has been distorted into relativism. We used to “tolerate” people with whom we disagree. Now we agree with everybody. There is no right or wrong, only personal preference. When personal choice reigns, selfishness is king. The reign of the individual is the society of the selfish. Each person doing what they believe is right for them without deferring to anybody else or the good of society as a whole.

At some points we can see philosophical atheism working itself out in the lives of atheists. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has identified atheists as having the lowest birth rate. Atheists are the most common members of the “childfree” clubs. They have redefined the marriage commitment of husbands and wives into the convenience of “partners”.

Across the society as a whole we see the “enlightened” culture of atheism slowly gaining ground. More people choose economics and career over family and relationships. More people choose to live alone or make choices that reduce life to loneliness.

Yet, we all still have the longing for community and relationships. It is partly because of our Christian heritage, partly because we are created in the image of God.

So, as we build high-rise apartments we talk of “vertical villages”. Then we put security locks on the lifts and doors. So people in the vertical villages cannot talk to each other, except at the business meeting of the strata owners.

Our Christian heritage and our common humanity created in God's image makes us recoil in sorrow to hear of a man lying dead in his bed for a whole year. Pure atheism only analyses the economic cost and benefits of the system that makes automatic payments of pensions and rents possible.