Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand. [C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 41]
After my wife Elizabeth died, I decided to read C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. When I had first read it, years before, it meant nothing to me. But when I read it, deep in grief myself, suddenly so much of it seemed to be true. The epigraph (above) seemed to me truest of it all. Religion was no consolation. During all the years that Elizabeth was sick, religion offered no consolation at all, no sense of any final destiny, just empty promises that would never come true.
It reminded me that when I had patiently piloted people through times of grief, through funeral arrangements, funeral services and other things that comprise the obsequies we owe to the beloved dead, it had always seemed to me that the religious words and promises were empty, and what helped was the purely human contact, the concern, the busy-ness of a death in the family, and the instinctive coming together of the community in support and encouragement.
These were the important things. The prayers, the services, the solemn burial — all these were the form of our grief or support, not the heart of it. Even when people said — and I could never say — that they would see their loved ones by and by, it was only half meant, I think, very often, just a way of filling the emptiness inside with words. And there’s nothing wrong with doing that. One of the things that the one dimensionality of secularity seems not to provide is something meaningful (even if untrue) to say about the dead. Their gone-ness is the most real thing, and we need something to accompany us in the days when the world simply relentlessly carries on, when, for us, inside, the world has stopped awhile. And here religion seems to provide a remedy, but it is, after all, only a seeming, I think.
Religion promises this, as I say, and many people think that this is religion’s chief contribution to the meaningfulness of life. Even though we seldom think of our own dying — that reality is too brutal for most of us to endure for more than moments at a time — when someone has died, and the chasm of their absence opens up before us, religion, it is thought, fills in the blanks with its assurances. I still remember what a professor of pastoral theology once said to us about the death of a child, and what we might say to the bereaved parents. “Tell them,” he said, “that God only picks the fairest flowers.” But we knew, and he must have known as well, that words like that are empty, for, if God picks flowers at all, he picks them all, not only the fairest and the best.
Of course, the one thing that we can say, and that people very often do say, after a person has died, after all the pain and distress and disintegration are over, is that the person is at rest, at peace now. How many people have I stood beside, as, looking into the open casket, their loved one dressed in their best and finest, their face wearing an expression of sweet contemplation, they say, “Well, at least he is at peace now”? And each time I heard this said, and sometimes, struggling to find words to say, I said it myself, I wanted to object. This is not peace. This is not even what you look like when you die. This is a charade, a game we play with ourselves, to hide the ghastly pallor of death, to hide the blotches, the slack skin, perhaps the jaundiced yellow — all the evidence that this person suffered, went through the last desperate hours, perhaps, gasping for breath or crying in pain. This is the end, not peace. Often we even refuse to use the words ‘dying’, ‘death’ or ‘dead’. We say that they passed, not that they died, as if speaking the word ‘death’ would spell dishonour, and say what we do not really want to say, that this person is no more, that we will never see them again, that they are now as if they had never been.
On these things C.S. Lewis is very good. He hides nothing about the brutal finality of death:
I look up at the night sky. Is anything more certain than that in all those vast times and spaces, if I were allowed to search them, I should nowhere find her face, her voice, her touch? She died. She is dead. Is the word so difficult to learn?
That has the touch of reality. This is the way it really is, after all the polite words, the cups of tea, the little sandwiches, the words of condolence that avoid those dreaded words. But they only protect themselves with reticence. What the sorrowing really want to hear is that the loss is real, not just this pretended separation, this absence for awhile.
Yet there is more, and Lewis is unerring here too. “They tell me,” he says, that
H. is happy now, they tell me she is at peace. What makes them so sure of this? I don’t mean that I fear the worst of all [viz., that she has gone to hell]. … But why are they so sure that all anguish ends with death? 
But she is, is she not, in God’s hands now? And are not those hands good? This, he suggests, is no comfort, because, after all,
… she was in God’s hands all the time, and I have seen what they did to her here. Do they suddenly become gentler to us the moment we are out of the body? And if so, why? If God’s goodness is inconsistent with hurting us, then either God is not good or there is no God: for in the only life we know He hurts us beyond our worst fears and beyond all that we can imagine. 
So, then, we might wonder, why we should still say, that even “at the grave we make our song: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!” Is not rejoicing just an empty pretence, whistling while the panic grows within us that we lived our lives in hope, and that hope itself is dead? Lewis is relentless, restlessly seeking an answer to the question that suffering and loss wring from him:
What reason have we [he says plangently], except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, ‘good’? Doesn’t all the prima facie evidence suggest exactly the opposite? 
After all the prayers, all the false hopes, all the X-rays, the strange remissions, the desperate lonely struggle, what is the result but more pain, yet more struggle, yet further hopes dashed — what is there after all this? If God is good, then this must be good. But if this is good, then what God calls good must be just the opposite to what we can call good. If so, then why should we trust God? Why believe in God at all?
The truth is that Lewis has dug such a deep pit, that nothing but a lie can get him out of it. God must be good in human terms or God is not good. And he promises us that he will not leave his loved one suffering without purpose. Yet, in human terms, there is no reason to think that, if suffering is our lot here, suffering will not continue to be our lot if we are destined to continue in life in another place or dimension, as the promises and consolations of religion so often encourage us to believe.
How does Lewis make the transition? He simply assumes that God is good, and that all that is purposed for us is good. If so, he says, a perfectly good god might be indistinguishable from a Cosmic Sadist (60). Suppose that the only way that God can achieve his purposes is through the pains and sufferings of this life. A perfectly good god would be like a perfectly good surgeon, Lewis tells us:
The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless. 
But why all this pain at all? Why, if God has good purposes for us, can’t these be achieved without all this pain? After all, some people suffer so much less than others. Does this mean that those who suffer most are most in need of suffering? This is a question that Lewis does not ask, nor does he try to answer it, but he should have. For he goes on to say:
Well, take your choice. The tortures occur. If they are unnecessary, then there is no God or a bad one. If there is a good God, then these tortures are necessary. For no even moderately good Being could possibly inflict or permit them if they weren’t. 
But Lewis did not consider that some people suffer more than others. Some people die quietly in their sleep, and how you die does not depend upon your character or your moral failings, but on the disease or trauma from which you die. Lewis’s tricky dilemma may have let him believe again, but it should not have. He forgot his implied promise that he would not leave his wife suffer the tortures that she suffered without answering the question about the goodness of God, whether God was good in human terms or not. All he does is to suggest that the torments must have been necessary, though we do not see the reason why. And that’s not good enough. In saying this he betrays the one he loved, and attaches himself desperately to a hope for which, as he has shown, there is no justification.
The consolations of religion are, I think this shows, empty. That does not mean that the religious community cannot offer its own consolations, and the strength which comes just from being a caring community. But it is not God, it is people who are kind and good, and it is upon them that we throw all our cares, even as we say that we cast them all upon the Lord.
This raises two problems. First, we need to find a way of saying this in such a way that human community alone is sufficient to comfort us in times of sorrow. When we can do this, perhaps we will see more clearly how important it is that we give individuals control over their own dying. So long as we believe that the answer to the sufferings that we endure lies somehow beyond this life, we will go on imagining that suffering has some transcendent purpose, and we will continue to obstruct the choices that people freely make.
But, second, we need to develop secular communities that can support people in times of sorrow and need, and this is something that at least religions do now provide. In my experience, the provision is inadequate, for religious community seldom gives the opportunity to celebrate real human community, for the religious agenda hijacks the community, and pretends that it is something else. And religious community seldom gives us the opportunity to celebrate the life of the one who has died. Elizabeth, before she died, chose a non-religious memorial service. At first she had intended to be buried from the church, in the context of the eucharistic liturgy, but the more she thought about the role of the church in her exile to Switzerland, the more she rebelled. And so she decided to write her own service. I helped her, but the shape of it was hers. And it became a true celebration of her life, of what she felt she had accomplished, and what her life had meant to her, and to me. Instead of being about Jesus, it was about her and what she valued. It spoke to us about the richness of what we had lost, but it also spoke to us about the wonder we had known.
The community that gathered around her, however, was the church community, not a secular one. It was, you might say, ready made. But if we had not been a part of the church community, would we have had a larger community in which we could have celebrated in the same way? I’m not sure, but I agree with Philip Kitcher’s claim that this is something that, if we really do think that it is past time to give up on religion, and find a better way, we must remedy. We must find, within secular reality the kinds of support that religion now provides. We cannot expect that people will simply give up religion without having something to put in its place. It is obvious that religion now satisfies a number of needs that people have. If we are serious about substituting secular forms of thinking for religious ones, we must find out what those needs are, and we must provide ways of satisfying them.
As Kitcher says, religions don’t have to be true to be successful (see Living with Darwin, 143). They provide people with things that they want. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t succeed. So, we have to be honest with ourselves, and with each other, those of us who seek to replace religion with something better and more humane. My own experience is that religion does not really provide the consolation that it promises. This means, as I understand it, that we do not need religion to be consoled, but we have to admit that most people do not know how this consolation without religion is to be found, and many of them do not believe that it can be. If we want, as secular people, and children of the Enlightenment, to find something better to replace the zealous inhumanity of so much religion, then we are going to have to look for it. Criticism alone is not enough. It is important, but it is not all that is necessary. Criticism of religion is only the beginning of enlightenment. We may put away the Gängelwagen (or “children’s walker”) of religion, as Kant bade us do (in his essay “What is Enlightenment?”), but we still need to know what fully adult communities looks like. Until we do, people will continue to seek out the empty consolations of religion, and we will continue to be bound by the rules that religions impose upon us. Finding the answers is a matter of some urgency, and those who want to see the end of theocracy must try to find them.