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A secular priesthood of death?


It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens. – Woody Allen

Philip Adams is the host of the nightly Radio National program, Late Night Live.

He’s an affable liberal humanist who sometimes has some interesting guests, but I find him pretty hard to take.

The program is primarily interview format and he’s a lousy interviewer.

He is condescending and patronising to many of his overseas guests, especially if English is clearly not their first language. He seems to equate English language skills with intellect.

Worse is the way he is constantly inserting his own usually banal opinions into the mix; opinions regular listeners will have heard him expound many times in the past.

Nonetheless, though I would not call myself a regular listener – I no longer consume any media on a regular basis – I still stop to listen to some part of his program once or twice a week due to the quality and variety of his guests. Plus there’s the fact that I’m usually in the kitchen near the radio when Late Night Live is on.

One of Adams’ constant insertions is that he considers himself an atheist humanist – though his position doesn’t seem to be particularly well thought out and consists primarily of identifying with the label. To his credit he is not a Dawkinist and shows a real fondness for religious people of a left liberal bent – notably radical Catholic nuns. However he spends so much time explaining to such guests why he is sympathetic to them in spite of his atheism we rarely get to hear much of what the guest has to say.

Another of his tropes is his support for legalised voluntary euthanasia and his constant promotion of the repugnant Dr Philip Nitschke.

Adams deploys all of the usual bullshit of the pro-euthanasia lobby, equating the right to legal euthanasia with the right to suicide and pretending the latter is somehow restricted under Australian law (it is not). He also pretends euthanasia is the only option in the face of a medical system that will otherwise take all possible measures to keep you alive and suffering against your explicit wishes. In fact Australian law guarantees the right to refuse medical treatment unless a psychiatrist declares you to be suffering from a mental illness and a possible danger to yourself or others, though I must admit it can be hard to get those rights respected when you are extremely ill – especially if family members don’t want to let you go. Like most euthanasia advocates Adams prefers to ignore the secular opponents of euthanasia – including the majority of the medical fraternity – and pretend only religious fanatics oppose it’s legalisation.

Though Adams himself would deny it, it seems very clear to me he is terrified of death. He is quite old and overweight and has had several heart attacks and a pacemaker implanted. He admits to being scared of the pain and suffering that often comes before death but, as with most secular humanists, claims that as death is ‘nothing’ it is nothing to be afraid of.

But he is also an overweening egotist and clearly cannot bear to contemplate the dissolution of his own ego. I suspect that, as was once the case with myself, Adams is relatively relaxed with the abstract notion of his own physical, perceptual and intellectual dissolution but can’t face the possibility of his social dissolution. He can abide being gone, but not being forgotten.

I had assumed the main reason Adams and so many other aging middle class white Australians wanted legalised euthanasia was because they have always believed themselves to be more or less in control of their lives and could not bear the thought of relinquishing control over their deaths. Never mind the fact that, unlike home based suicide, legalised euthanasia would involve handing a lot of control to the exact same medical system they claim to fear would keep them alive against their will without the option of euthanasia.

But last night while preparing dinner I was half listening to Adams hosting a panel discussion on death when I was presented with an alternative explanation for the overwhelming support self-described atheists have for legalised euthanasia.

In my experience, most people who wear their atheism on their sleeve are converts who take great pride in having freed themselves from the religious shackles of their youth. Adams is no exception. But many seem to be floundering for something to replace the rituals and certainties they were raised in. This is, I believe, why Scientism is so popular among atheists. They think science can provide the certainties, explanations and sense of purpose and meaning their abandoned religious faith once did.

One of Adams’ guests last night was a woman who seems to be deeply involved in Zen Buddhism. At one point she mentioned how important it is for many people to have a priest presiding over their death, especially if they didn’t have a lot of family support.

That was when the penny dropped for me.

Modern medicine does not usually force life extending treatment upon those who make it clear they don’t want it. However by removing the seriously ill from their homes and putting them in nursing homes or intensive care units it does tear the dying person away from her community for the last period of her life. Even if friends and family can be called to assemble at the bedside for the last few hours it is in an environment controlled by a hospital bureaucracy and not conducive to allowing people to take their leave from loved ones in the open and intimate way they would probably have preferred.

In such circumstances, ritual becomes even more important to maintain the connection the dying person has with their community up until the very end. By receiving the last rites a religious person has the meaning of their life affirmed when they need it most.

But where does this leave atheists – especially the converts?

Are atheist converts terrified of a last minute ‘loss of faith’ that would consist of an overwhelming fear they had got it wrong when they abandoned religion?

Even if they don’t believe in life after death, could it be they are scared their last moments will reveal their lives to have been lacking in meaning?

There seems to be a huge fear driving many proponents of legalised euthanasia towards the sort of cognitive dissonance that allows them to hang onto many of the arguments in favour despite the fact they don’t bear critical examination and to deafen themselves to the arguments against despite the way many of those arguments are being vindicated in the Dignitas Clinic they hold up as an exemplar.

Could this be not an existential fear of suffering, death or the possibility of life after death but a fear of facing themselves alone in their last minutes of life?

If so, could it be they are looking towards euthanasia doctors not as facilitators of their painless exit, but rather as secular priests who will ritually confirm their choices in life?

If that’s the case it is no wonder Australian euthanasia advocates need to vehemently reject the possibility of unassisted suicide.

They simply can’t bear the thought of dying alone, unconsecrated and unjustified.

From → radio

  1. I think it depends on life experience and the level of pain experienced and or witnessed…


  2. Anonymous permalink

    I notice in there, although I don’t agree with all new age things, but you don’t believe the human can be healed through positive thoughts and energy and without medicine? I think it has more to do with avoiding negative things that can hurt you or another’s future.
    Science has failed in some of those areas where they began using oil and reactors near water where they destroy and effect the climate and nature So science isn’t perfect either.

    I do like in science that theories and concepts can be proved. Like religion, science can have failures too, though.

    It’s what I said before there is good and bad in everything, the good just needs a bigger push.


    • I think this comment was meant to be in response to ‘Junk science junkies‘ but since it was posted here I’ll respond to it here.

      I don’t believe humans can be healed with ‘positive thoughts’. Research shows, for example, that people with ‘positive attitudes’ to their cancers have, if anything, slightly lower survival rates than those who fret about it. You can think nice thoughts at your broken leg as much as you like and it will still take just as long to knit.

      However, as I indicate in the article, the placebo effect is real, as are various neural top down control of physiology effects that can be harnessed to promote healing. There are also somatic disorders rooted in stress and anxiety that can be ‘healed’ by addressing the underlying psychological problem. Stress can also compromise immune response so removing stress can enhance the body’s natural healing capacity.

      What I definitely don’t believe is that all illness is caused by wrong thinking and can be healed instantly by fixing how you think. That is the fundamental tenet of New Thought and underlies much New Age thinking.

      And yeah, the application of science is fraught with many problems that are often glossed over or denied by those with a vested interest. Scientific research itself often gets diverted into theoretical dead ends – such as phlogiston theory – and even the most rigorously tested scientific theories must still be considered tentative or they are not scientific at all. It is through the unrelenting application of skepticism and self-criticism that science advances and sadly that often goes AWOL when there those with an interest in flogging a particular scientific agenda come to dominate a field.

      IMHO genetics and neurology are fields sorely lacking in adequate skepticism right now. And I think much of what has been going on in the mind sciences for over a century is basically ‘phlogiston theory’.


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