My (biological) father died of cancer recently. Attending his deathbed, I discovered that death has a new terror for us. It seems there is a certain kind of clergyman that haunts the palliative care units of hospitals, in hopes of gaining converts among those too weak or unconscious to offer much resistance to their insistent Christianity.
As my father lay a-dying, a nurse took it upon herself to call for a certain horrid little pastor. This, despite the fact that my father was well past the point where he could even be aware of the pastor’s presence, or to concern himself with thoughts of his immortal soul. Summoning a clergyman was high presumption on the nurse’s part. This little pastor she conjured up wormed himself into the good graces of the dying man’s family, to the extent that he wound up giving the eulogy at his funeral. The eulogy! For a man he had only “known” for a couple of days.
And what a eulogy it was. I can see in my mind’s eye how it was composed: he asks the man’s widow about his hobbies. Fishing? Perfect. The pastor has a pithy little self-help parable about fishing. Gardening? Excellent. He has one about that too. Thus, he stitches together a patchwork tribute out of cast-off bits of platitude, gleaned from whatever Christian comfort books are passing for theology in these debased times.
Given that his sermons seem to basically write themselves, I would at least have expected good delivery. No such luck. The man had no charisma whatsoever. He couldn’t read his own notes without stumbling and spluttering, and most of the time his diction was flat, lacking warmth. What’s worse, when he did decide to move himself into a transport of emotionality, it was obviously forced: there was no build-up to it, and it always seemed to accompany an irrelevant part of his text.
Where do they get these people? I was trained as an ethicist, and yet, I can find no work in my chosen field, because every opening is for someone with a degree in theology, as if you can’t possibly have any insight into questions of right conduct, the good life, or the human condition unless you’re a preacher of some kind. One sends one’s car to a mechanic, not a carpenter. Why are ethicists not qualified to speak on questions of ethical import? And let’s face it, when it comes to death, I’m afraid that only the dead are really qualified to speak. The rest of us are talking through our behinds.
The rest of this blog post will be devoted to two interesting examples where some famous non-believer is either reported — spuriously — to have had a deathbed change of heart, along with one example where the infidel died bravely, holding on to his reasoned beliefs, to the chagrin of deathbed parasites who would have loved to have been able to report otherwise.
John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647-1680).
Those who have seen the film The Libertine, starring Johnny Depp, will be familiar with the naughty Lord Rochester. Rochester was a Restoration courtier and poet, infamous for his womanizing and hard drinking, as well as for his lewd poetry and notorious godlessness. By the age of thirty-three Rochester’s bright-burning candle was snuffed, done in by the combined effects of alcohol and venereal disease. He died, in the words of his eulogist, “a martyr to sin”.
A clergyman named Gilbert Burnet (1643-1715), future Bishop of Salisbury, attended Rochester at his deathbed and wrote a best-selling account entitled Some Passages in the Life and Death of the Honourable John, Earl of Rochester (1680). Apparently, Rochester had shown some interest in matters theological as he entered his final illness. According to Burnet, Rochester repented of his wicked ways, and died in the bosom of Abraham.
There is a putative letter of Rochester’s to Burnet, dated June 25, 1680, in which he expresses the hope that the Lord would “except [sic] of my death bed repentance”, etc. All very uplifting, except that this letter has the rather strange distinction of not being written in Rochester’s own hand, but rather in that of his mother, an upright Puritan at whose invitation Burnet attended the deathbed in the first place. Certainly those who knew Rochester more personally were buying none of it. One of these friends, the tragedian Thomas Otway (1651-1685), obviously alluded to the whole affair in his play Venice Preserv’d (1682). There, the character Pierre stands on the scaffold, awaiting execution, attended by a priest. He addresses the hangman thus: “Captain, I’d have hereafter / This fellow write no Lies of my Conversion, / Because he has crept upon my troubled Hours” (Act V, scene ii).
Thus, even more than three centuries ago, clergymen were an additional terror that death had to offer.
David Hume (1711-1776).
Hume was an atheist par excellence, and he was celebrated (or rather excoriated?) as such by his contemporaries. As he lay dying of cancer in 1776, many were curious to see if the consciousness of his imminent demise would occasion in him a change of heart. One of these was the famous biographer, James Boswell, who gave us his account of visiting Hume’s bedside.
Boswell, despite his womanizing and his many bouts of venereal disease, was a prig. He was — or claimed to be — a pious believer in the Deity and the life hereafter. He assumed Hume would see the light and seemed mightily disconcerted to find him in fine spirits, untroubled by the thought that he would soon cease to be, and in no hurry to revise his opinions on the matter.
In short, Boswell went to glory in the great atheist’s craven conversion, but instead, “I left him with impressions which disturbed me for some time.” Boswell and many others were denied their triumph.
A. J. Ayer (1910-1989).
In 1988, shortly before his actual death, A. J. “Freddie” Ayer, had a near-death experience. Ayer was one of the foremost twentieth-century analytic philosophers, a thinker of the most hard-nosed disposition. He was a well-known atheist. And yet, his near death experience, of which he published an account (National Review, Oct. 14, 1988), softened his stance somewhat. Although he remained an atheist, he could now understand how he could conceivably be wrong. As he put it, “my recent experiences have slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death, which is due fairly soon, will be the end of me, though I continue to hope that it will be. They have not weakened my conviction that there is no god. I trust that my remaining an atheist will allay the anxieties of my fellow supporters of the Humanist Association, the Rationalist Press, and the South Place Ethical Society.” Hardly an inspiring deathbed conversion.
And yet, in 2001 Ayer’s attending physician, a Dr. Jeremy George, quoted Ayer as having said, “I saw a Divine Being. I'm afraid I'm going to have to revise all my books and opinions.” Of course, this came after Ayer had been dead for over a decade and was in no position to refute the claim. Interestingly, Ayer’s son was sceptical, noting that his father had never mentioned any such change of heart to him.