My favourite quote from professor Richard Dawkins is not the one where he calls the God of the Old testament a “capriciously malevolent bully”, or any of those where he otherwise openly mocks religion.
It's one where he doesn't even mention religion at all, even though he's destroying its very foundations.
(Btw, the quote also got featured in The Greatest Song on Earth️)
I first read it in his 1998 book “Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder”. It was a turning point of my journey towards abandoning the Catholic mythology. It removed the greatest obstacle on the road of rationalism: the fear of death.
Here's the quote:
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?
Yes. How dare we? How dare we!?
I'm convinced that every major religion exists for just two main reasons:
- people used to have no idea where did they come from and how the world works,
- people are terrified of death.
Making up a story that (poorly) answers “the big questions”, while also giving you hope that death is not the end, is not a perfect idea, but I guess better than nothing.
Now we have science though! But while it helps with the first part tremendously, my mind was still struggling to give up religion because of the second part… Death is scary, it's unknown… Pretending that it's not real is so very soothing…
Religion's approach to death is to give promises that it can't deliver, while using your fear to make you behave the way they want you to (or else you'll burn in hell!). Priests are wolves in sheep's clothing – their fairy tales sound soothing, but really they just enslave your mind.
Dawkins doesn't try to be nice or soothing. Instead of making up a story that will make you feel better, he scolds you for demanding a story in the first place.
Death is just an end of something beautiful. Focus on the beautiful. Appreciate the beautiful. You won a fucking lottery of existence! So appreciate it, make the best out of it while you can. Just don't be so arrogant as to demand that it lasted forever. It won't. You'll have to deal with it. It's harsh, but it's true. And accepting it is liberating.
The quote might sound like it's about death, but for me it's more about life, actually. It puts life into a proper perspective. It makes you focus on the joy and gratitude instead of fear. On the process instead of its end.
Accepting that I'm going to die, inevitably, without any “afterlife” to look forward to, realising that things can be wonderful and amazing even if they don't last forever – that might have been the most liberating moment of my life.