In one of the CM forums, I was asked -- very nicely and respectfully -- how I would (as a religious skeptic) answer the following question:
When you are holding your dying child whom all medical science has already failed and for whom you can do nothing - not even take away much of her pain - how do you deal with that? You can't even offer her (or you) the comforting thought that there might be something good waiting for her on the other side of her imminant death. Is there anything better you can promise her than that her pain will end when she ceases to exist but you'll remember her (and miss her?) as long as you live? If all you and your child have to depend on in such a period is you, friends and family, then what can any of them do? How can any of them really help?
What follows below was my answer and I hope it speaks well for those of you out there who are either agnostic, skeptics or possibly even atheist. Love, transcendent experiences and hope are shared by people from ALL walks of life and from every kind of belief system. :-)
That's a good question and one I'll try to answer as honestly as possible (this will be long, be forewarned).
I can only answer as an agnostic: I don't believe it's possible to KNOW if God exists or doesn't -- all we have is what we choose to believe. For me, to say "I know" either way is untrue and an ethical copout. I don't believe in a Christian (or any other religious) God because I believe all religion is a man-made myth designed to help us explain/cope with the unknown, as well as (unfortunately in many cases) maintain control over the masses. That doesn't mean, however, that I completely rule out the possibility of some kind of existence (a transfer of energy or consciousness) after we die or the idea of some kind unifying power bigger than myself. If that is the case, it's something I define NOT in religious terms, but simply as something we don't yet understand because our knowledge base and scientific worldview lags behind that reality of what IS. I firmly believe that every "miracle" has a rational explanation -- we just haven't found it yet. Do I think an "afterlife" is possible? Yes. Do I think it's likely? Not so much.
I can tell you what I think I would do in the "dying child" scenario. I'm a firm believer that until we are confronted with a tragic or dangerous situation, none of us know for sure how we will react unless we've already experienced it. If I'm holding my dying child who has suffered unremitting pain and will undoubtedly die, it will be horrible. There's no way around it. I can't even comprehend that kind of pain. My main focus would be on doing what I could to be there emotionally for her and to simply surround her with love, carrying her when her "legs" (both literal and otherwise) no longer support the weight of her burden. Of course I would apologize for not being able to take away her pain and, quite honestly, that would be the toughest part knowing that my child is suffering while I can bring her no succor.
What would I tell my dying daughter? What I believe to be the truth -- that some people believe in "heaven" where we meet up with loved ones after we die; that some people believe in reincarnation; and, that some people believe that we just go to sleep and never wake up again. I would say that we don't know for sure what happens, but that either way, we'll be together. If there is an afterlife, she'll be waiting for us. If we are reincarnated, we will cross paths in another lifetime. If not, we will all eventually "sleep" together wrapped in an eternal embrace. If there is no conscious existence after we die, we return to the earth and become part of the cycle of nature and energy once again, in a very real sense becoming "one" with everything. I make no claim to absolute truth and all answers, to me, are honest and offer peace.
Before I was born, I have no recollection of pain or suffering. I was NOT, period. I have no fear if this is the only life I have because it is worthy in and of itself, full of beauty, love, laughter and magical, transcendent moments that will reverberate throughout not only my existence, but those of my children and grandchildren. I need no promise of eternal life to fill my life with purpose because it exists in a million different ways right now. To teach my children compassion, acceptance and empathy is purpose. To listen attentively to a child whose parents ignore her is purpose. To become friends with my elderly neighbor and visit her each week, chatting and laughing together and reminding her that she is of value and needed by others regardless of her age is purpose. To be there to comfort friends and family through rough waters is purpose. If there is an afterlife, all the better. But my life now and how I move in the world depends NOT on an eternal reward (what I will get), but truly upon how I use myself as a postive force in the lives of those around me (what I can give).
If a Christian God would look upon my lifetime of service to His children with a spiteful eye simply because I wasn't 100% sure of his existence -- even though my actions clearly showed that I was filled with love and empathy for all His creation and that I strived to leave His "world" better off than I found it, then I want nothing to do with him because he puts allegiance to Him well above the care of His children. That's petty, immature and selfish. We teach our own children that "actions speak louder than words," but from a Christian perspective (and many other religions), that just isn't so.
From 2000-2007, my mother suffered several mini-strokes that slowly took away the essence of who she was. A once vibrant, sarcastic, loving and intelligent woman was reduced, over the years, to sitting in diapers, not being able to maintain focus or hold a conversation for more than a minute because of the damage to her brain, trapped in a body that no longer served her well. She lost much of her ability to smell and taste (and combined with her brain damage), and consequently let food rot for days on weeks and made meals with it, thinking it was perfectly fine to eat. When we politely declined her edible gift, she was often hurt, so I had to lie and say, "We just ate, but I'd love to take it home with me for dinner tonight." She spent the last several years of her life sitting in her living room, TV remote in hand, waiting patiently for the love of her life (my Dad) to return from work twice a day to care for her because she no longer could. There were times when she recognized the dilemma she was in and it was pure hell for her, as well as everyone in her life. By the time she died in her sleep from another stroke, I was in part relieved that she no longer suffered and hopeful that I had served her well with love, empathy and the knowledge that I still saw her for whom she was and had always been, in spite of the strokes that robbed her of her identity.
Did she go to "heaven" when she died? Or did she just cease to exist anymore and slip into an "eternal sleep?" I honestly don't know. What I do know is that she was a beautiful person who made me who I am today and that every action I take, every word I speak to someone else, is somehow inevitably tied to her. The spirit of who she was and how she loved is carried with me always and guides me in everything I do. It's a legacy I hope to pass onto my children.
In the end, what matters most is whether or not I lived an honorable life with much love towards others, not if I picked the right "God" to believe in. If that's how it works, count me out.