by Daniel C. Dennett
About two weeks ago, Daniel was rushed by ambulance to a hospital. His heart was stopped entirely and his body and brain were chilled down to about 45 degrees to prevent brain damage from lack of oxygen until the medical staff could get the heart-lung machine pumping.
Friends were anxious to learn if I had had a near-death experience, and if so, what effect it had had on my longstanding public atheism. Had I had an epiphany? Was I going to follow in the footsteps of Ayer (who recovered his aplomb and insisted a few days later "what I should have said is that my experiences have weakened, not my belief that there is no life after death, but my inflexible attitude towards that belief"), or was my atheism still intact and unchanged?
DANIEL C. DENNETT is University Professor, Professor of Philosophy, and Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. His most recent book is Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.
Here are some notable quotes from this wonderful, must read essay.
Yes, I did have an epiphany. I saw with greater clarity than ever before in my life that when I say "Thank goodness!" this is not merely a euphemism for "Thank God!" (We atheists don't believe that there is any God to thank.) I really do mean thank goodness! There is a lot of goodness in this world, and more goodness every day, and this fantastic human-made fabric of excellence is genuinely responsible for the fact that I am alive today. It is a worthy recipient of the gratitude I feel today, and I want to celebrate that fact here and now.
Daniel acknowledged that his own a debt of gratitude: the cardiologist, the surgeons, neurologists, anesthesiologists, and the perfusionist, the dozen or so physician assistants, and to nurses and physical therapists and x-ray technicians and a small army of phlebotomists.
More importantly for those who prayed for him, he has gladly forgiven them. "I am not joking when I say that I have had to forgive my friends who said that they were praying for me. I have resisted the temptation to respond "Thanks, I appreciate it, but did you also sacrifice a goat?" I feel about this the same way I would feel if one of them said "I just paid a voodoo doctor to cast a spell for your health." What a gullible waste of money that could have been spent on more important projects! Don't expect me to be grateful, or even indifferent. I do appreciate the affection and generosity of spirit that motivated you, but wish you had found a more reasonable way of expressing it. "
The best thing about saying thank goodness in place of thank God is that there really are lots of ways of repaying your debt to goodness—by setting out to create more of it, for the benefit of those to come.
Or you can thank God—but the very idea of repaying God is ludicrous. What could an omniscient, omnipotent Being (the Man Who has Everything?) do with any paltry repayments from you? (And besides, according to the Christian tradition God has already redeemed the debt for all time, by sacrificing his own son. Try to repay that loan!) Yes, I know, those themes are not to be understood literally; they are symbolic. I grant it, but then the idea that by thanking God you are actually doing some good has got to be understood to be just symbolic, too. I prefer real good to symbolic good.
cross posted to Random Walk in Learning