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The art of secular dying

The art of secular dying

When Stephen Hawking died recently, a report echoed around the internet that he had rejected atheism in his last hours and turned to God. The story was utterly false; Hawking experienced no such deathbed conversion. Similar spurious accounts circulated after the deaths of other notoriously secular figures, including Christopher Hitchens and, back in the day, Charles Darwin.

It’s pretty clear what lies behind these fabrications. Many people with religious faith have a hard time understanding how secular souls can find peace in the face of death. What might an unbeliever possibly find that could be as comforting as the prospect of a blissful afterlife? Wouldn’t their distress naturally lead the godless to faith? And, of course, there have been genuine instances of deathbed conversions—whether the result of grace, inspiration, or just a last-minute Pascal wager.

The topic of secular dying has been on my mind for a while now. In the middle of 2016, I learned that an incurable cancer had taken lodging inside me. (Newfangled treatments that alter the immune system have stalled the cancer’s progress, at least for now, and given me more time than expected.) As I tried to sort things out, I thought of two scenes from the verge of secular death. One was fictional: Lord Marchmain, the bitter apostate from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, made a sign of the cross as he received last rites, shortly before he died. The other scene came from a family memory. My younger brother Grant, an atheist through and through, was under hospice care with only another day or two to live. We gathered around him, keeping a fire going in the chilly living room, as he lay on the hospice bed. Strong opiates had done their work; we all assumed he would never regain consciousness. But when one of my sisters said something about “after he dies,” Grant suddenly burst out with his last words: “I don’t want to die!”

My challenge: find equanimity and some sense of cosmic resolution—which my brother apparently did not find—but without Lord Marchmain’s sacramental revival of faith. It’s not an easy thing to do. You might think that the warming support of family and friends would be a key to peace of mind, and anyone (secular or faithful) can find nourishment there. But here’s the problem: the more you focus on the people you love, the more unhappy you feel about leaving them for good.

As fate had it, when I received my diagnosis, I was writing an essay about “psychedelic last rites.” I was comparing the Catholic sacrament of extreme unction with a secular counterpart that deployed psychiatrists and psychedelic drugs instead of priests and oil. Scientists in the 1960s had experimented with LSD as therapy for terminal cancer patients who suffered from depression. The clinical trials showed promising results. But LSD was soon overwhelmed by bad publicity and regulatory opprobrium, and these experiments ceased. Recently, a few new psychedelic trials have begun, this time mainly with psilocybin. Again, results look quite promising.

I didn’t feel much of a need to participate in such a trial. I had studied the reports of both the early and the recent experiments, and I had my own psychedelic memories to draw on. My trips had happened long ago, in college, but the memories remained vivid. Facing death, I sought peace of mind by reviving my psychedelic insights and comparing them with what the clinical subjects reported about their therapy.

Let me admit, first of all, that I did not find comfort in the way that many have after their psychedelic doses. Both in early and recent trials, dying psychonauts marveled at the dissolution of the ego: conventional self and identity lost all meaning with the revelation of a seamless cosmic unity. Not for a moment would I doubt the validity and influence of such visions of transcendence. But they don’t work for me. There’s just too much I value that depends on the familiar old me (as delivered by the default mode network in my brain). Or, to put it another way: “I don’t want to dissolve my ego!”

So what else might serve? My secular self took comfort from two other residual effects of psychedelic experience. One came from a memory of a college acid trip. I realize that psychedelic profundities never translate very well onto the page, and I promise to deliver this one in as few words as possible. As I sat in a Santa Cruz meadow, it suddenly occurred to me that life and death are not opposites, or even two different things at all. “Lifedeath” is what we have.

The second comfort came more from a general psychedelic impression, rather than any one specific moment. Altered by these drugs, the mind discovers a transfigured natural world. Nature seems fresh, Edenic, infinitely interesting. This sort of inspiration helps to explain the effectiveness of LSD, even in microdoses, as treatment for depression. Do we really need God or the supernatural, given such a splendid natural world?

My recollection of psychedelic Eden has led me to appreciate the Enlightenment philosopher Spinoza as a kind of spiritual mentor. Spinoza has always been hard to label: Deist? Pantheist? Atheist? Referring to the uncaused cause at the foundation of the universe, he wrote, “Deus sive Natura”: God, or Nature. Take your pick. At least as I interpret this ambiguity, you can retain a sense of God (and all that implies), if it helps you—but you don’t need to. This world is enough.

I don’t want to leave the impression that my do-it-yourself psychedelic therapy has simply trumped uneasiness about death. It’s a new challenge every day, and I’m still working on some things, especially my perception of time. But for now, anyway, I don’t find myself as anxious as my brother was, or tempted to replace secular with sacramental dying.

Featured Image Credit: Big bubble, London by Berit. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. D.. Brandt

    Death is life’s greatest gift. Without death, life would have no meaning.

  2. Rona Epstein

    I have found this a most interesting and moving essay, and salute Professor Glausser’s clarity of thought and courage. As time has now passed since he wrote this, I would like to tell him that I wish him well, and would like to ask him how he is doing. I hope the support of family and friends is helping him face his difficult moments. I send him my best wishes
    Rona Epstein
    Law School
    Coventry University
    R.Epstein@coventry.ac.uk

  3. Wayne Glausser

    Thanks for your generous comments and your good wishes, Rona. I’m doing pretty well now, trying not to think too far ahead.

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