This post is now available in Polish translation over at Racjonalista. Thanks again go to Malgorzata.
The Ottawa Citizen has an advice column which puts questions to so-called “religion experts,” who give answers on crucial issues facing individuals and society. There is a big problem with this, because religion experts are, almost by definition, not religion experts at all. What is there to be expert about? They might be experts in their own religion, but there is no such thing as a religion expert who is qualified to give religion’s answer to any question. A recent column in the Citizen’s “Ask the Religion Experts” column, for 31 January 2012 — thanks to Veronica Abbass for the link – asks the two questions: “Is euthanasia right? Would God want us to suffer?” And then the religion experts weigh in on the side of their favourite god. The nonsense that this makes of the questions should be clear right from the outset. We ask the experts their opinion, and all they can do is refer to the “experts” of their religion. According to Z, this is the way it is; according to Y, the truth is such-and-such, and so on. And, around the edges, a little lie or two will take you over the hump when reason fails.
The first one is perhaps the funniest. It’s by a Bahá’í scholar, Jack McLean. Seeing him described as a scholar reminds me of the day I took my M.Div. degree diploma and cut it to shreds. I no longer consider that to be a degree at all. It qualified me as an Anglican priest, but it no longer seems to me that there was anything to know, except, of course, historically, for the church does have a history (or perhaps I should say the churches have a history, for there is no point, during the whole history of Christianity, where there was an unquestioned unity within Christianity), but it is impossible to be a scholar of religion itself, for religion has no subject matter. The “theo” part of theology (the word ‘theology’ meaning, roughly, the logos of theos, or the reason, knowledge of god) is simply UA (on unauthorised absence), having departed his post, or, rather, never having been there in the first place, for all the confident pretence of religious believers, especially its officer class, to which, largely, the Ottawa Citizen has appealed for enlightenment upon a subject which has no object.
Nonetheless, let’s pretend, for a moment, that there is something of serious interest here. As I was saying, Jack McLean’s response is arguably the funniest. Here’s what he says:
In the Bahá’í Faith, moral determinations such as euthanasia are made on the basis of revealed law found in Bahá’u’lláh’s sacred writings. If these determinations do not exist, Bahá’ís have recourse to the authorized interpretations of those same writings by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (1844-1921), his eldest son and appointed successor, or Shoghi Effendi (1897-1921), ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s appointed successor. To date, no ruling on euthanasia has been found to exist in Bahá’í scripture or in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh’s authorized interpreters.
Convenient that revelation was passed down through eldest sons. I guess when Shoghi Effendi came along – the appointed successor of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá — there was no eldest son to whom to hand on the lineage. or perhaps the eldest son was a wastrel, and thus not a suitable conduit for a supposed revelation. Of course, the idea of revelation is itself deeply questionable. No doubt you could reveal to me something about yourself that I did not know before. But for non-existent entities to reveal something is a bit of a feat. But moral determinations that are made on the basis of revealed law make a nonsense of human life, as if being told something would ipso facto turn that something into a binding moral law, no matter from whom it comes. Let’s pore through our scriptures and see if this has been determined or not, as though Jack couldn’t have sought the answer in more reasonable ways, more consonant with the time in which he finds himself to be alive. Looking through scared writings is a mug’s game. There are simply too many of them. Why didn’t Jack consult the Mahabharata instead? Well, because he believes for some completely zany reason that he would do better to consult Bahá’u’lláh instead, and if not him, then Bahá’u’lláh’s eldest son and appointed successor. This has got to be a joke. It’s like applying to the House of Windsor for definitive moral advice.
But remember that this applies to all these supposed experts, who, each one of them, appeals to their own sacred writings or traditions and pretends to discern in them a sacred word that is binding on them now, as if nothing useful has been said since those writings were put down on paper or committed to memory thousands or perhaps only hundreds of years ago. Bahá’u’lláh, with what one can only assume to have been a reasonable concern about the multiplicity of faiths, decided to found a faith that would subsume them all, but like every such attempt it only succeeded in creating yet another faith, along with all the others, which became even more plural as a result, like some Christians who, concerned about disunity amongst Christians, found another denomination to solve the problem of disunity. ‘Twas always thus.
So we pass on to the Hindu, who holds a PhD in religious studies. He appeals to Gandhi for inspiration, as he often does when he is undecided. Why didn’t he think, instead, or read some bioethics? And in the end he is undecided still, for all his dependence on the Mahatma. He gives qualified approval to euthanasia, and then ends with the priceless statement that:
[Gandhi] emphasized that euthanasia and assisted suicide are not acceptable as an alternative to palliative care.
Which, of course, takes away with the left hand what he had already given with the right. This kind of vacillation is not helpful. And, in any event, what kind of authority is Gandhi? Is he a source of religious inspiration or of revealed truth, or is he just cleverer than those who are thinking about these things today? In what sense does he qualify as an authority on assisted dying?
The Roman Catholic’s answer, of course, we know. He begins with a crude accusation:
For some, life consists solely in seeking pleasure and avoiding suffering. Is life valuable only when it is pleasant?
The usual Roman Catholic smear and sneer at those who differ in belief from the pure word emanating from the precincts of the Vatican. It makes me sick just to read the stuff. People don’t seek to end their suffering by receiving help to die just because of suffering, but because suffering is interminable, and the only quietus they can make is by dying. There are conditions in which people suffer the pains of hell, when the only possible relief is death. It has nothing to do with simple pleasure and pain, but the endlessness and the purposelessness of continuing to suffer.
But Fr. Geoff Kerslake knows better, of course. “We know,” he says, “that life has a greater meaning.” But no, Geoff, you don’t know. You think there is a greater meaning yet to come, but you certainly don’t know. You believe that what is begun here has its consummation in some never-never land beyond death, but this is something you don’t know, and there is, in fact, no reason to suppose that there is such a life, or, given the evidence of this one, that if there is, it will be any improvement over what we now know. But then he simply has to go on to tell the familiar lie:
We know that those who ask to be euthanized are often not so much seeking to end their life as end their suffering. But we have the medical means to manage pain and to ease suffering short of ending the suffering patient’s life.
Telling lies is always easier than telling the truth, and Catholics have the practice down to a fine science. There are half-truths in this, but only half-truths. People who seek help in dying want their suffering to end. But they are seeking to end their lives, and they realise that this is the only way they can relieve their suffering. Catholic opponents of assisted dying do this all the time. They have this idea that the only thing that will justify assisted dying is intolerable pain, and the suggestion is that there are medical means to manage the pain and ease the suffering. But this is simply a lie. Not all pain can be managed. That’s the first thing, and it is simply a lie to suggest otherwise. But second, suffering is not always about pain. The indignities of some kinds of care, and the lack of individual control over life that reduces people to such indignities, can be existentially destructive and intolerable. My grandmother lived for ten years in a nursing home. She hard rhumetoid arthritis. She could barely hear. The could not see except shadows and lights, so she could neither read nor watch TV or knit. She sat there doing nothing day after day. There was nothing she could do without pain, and every time I visited her, she used to say that she wanted to die, that life like this was not worth it. It wasn’t. And no amount of compassion would have made a difference. Religious “experts” don’t want to acknowledge that, but palliative care departments, which often used palliative sedation as a control mechanism, know it well enough. And what, pray, is the difference between turning someone into a comatose zombie and helping that person to die? Well, they’re still alive, aren’t they? Yes, to the people who are caring for them, but not to the persons themselves. And if you gave me a choice between being turned into a comatose zombie and death, I’d choose death every time. I don’t want people handling my body until I die. I want to have control over my own dying. And telling lies, as Fr. Kerslake does is beneath his dignity and those who are on the receiving end of his dishonesty.
But then, as usual, Kerslake has a few things to say — all false — about assisted dying in other jurisdictions. He reads about non-consensual euthanasia in places like Belgium, and he concludes that “people are being euthanized without their express consent in alarmingly high numbers.” That is simply a caricature of the reports that are made yearly in Belgium, for instance, and of the interpretation of those reports. Kerslake has a responsibility to check his facts. But these guys never do. They know.
We’ll skip quickly over Kevin Smith. He’s not a religious expert at all. He’s a humanist, and he points out that the gods of the holy books are all of them pictured, like the Old Testament Yahweh, as pretty nasty characters. So why, he asks, should we consult these unsavoury characters in order to make end-of-life decisions? Of course, there’s no reason we should do so. They should have no authority over us. And that includes the gods of the Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Bahá’í, Buddhist (if they have any), Jews, or whatever other gods you can dream up or dredge up from history. Of course, we should not consult these imaginary beings and their supposed revelations. There are no revelations from gods. We can be pretty sure of that. We are left to our own devices, and we can do a great deal better than anyone consulting oracles that are thousands of years old, let alone scam artists like Joseph Smith. The preposterousness of religious claims should be dismissed out of hand. They have nothing to contribute to the present discussion about end-of-life issues. They are, in fact, the reason that the issue is so fraught with disagreement and division. In a sensible world we’d cancel through by all the supposed revelations and be left with reason, a much better way of settling questions of this sort.
Fortunately, there are some religions that don’t have gods. Though in many of its incarnations Buddhists worship gods, very often local popular deities that were never overcome by the Buddha’s teachings, and give comfort to ordinary Buddhists, Buddhism itself takes a very progressive stance over assistance in dying. That’s because Buddhism is, largely, a philosophy, and not just a religion. For this we can be thankful. And the Buddhist amongst the Citizen’s “religion experts” is quite progressive on this issue of assisted dying. Killing, of course, says the novice Tendai priest Ray Innen Parchelo, is subject to the law of karma, but assisted dying is not euthanasia, he points out, because the person involved “declares their will to die freely,” and he recognises that the scare tactic used by such as Fr. Kerslake is a lie. As he says:
Some raise the spectre of euthanasia as a 1984-ish, bureaucratic expedient, but in jurisdictions where dying with dignity laws exist this has not been the consequence. Sadly, Canadian law lags far behind on this issue, much to the detriment and suffering of those faced with painful terminal conditions.
Exactly. Let’s not have the lies, please, Geoff! One corrective, though. This is not only about terminal illness. People who are not going to die for some years can suffer the pains of hell while they wait. Why should the right of people to die be limited to those who are going to die quickly, if it does not apply to those whose suffering, just as serious as those who are terminally ill, will go on for even longer? It is a mystery to me why organisations, such as those in the US and the UK, seem to be satisfied with a law that governs only the terminally ill, but would not include someone like Tony Nicklinson. There is no reason for this restriction. Was not Tony as able to choose, as well as any other? The limitation is unwarranted, and should be opposed by all who support assisted dying, and the right of individuals to control how they die.
The Jewish representative amongst the “religion experts” is caught in a cleft stick, I am afraid. He thinks that we are under no obligation to prolong the process of dying, but we are under an obligation to extend the life process. That’s a bit like Buridan’s ass, who couldn’t make up his mind between hay and water, and died of starvation and thirst. If we are obliged to extend the life process, then we are obliged to prolong the process of dying, for the dying are still alive. It is a hopeless case of having a fence picket stuck in your ass (speaking of asses).
The Pentecostal in the gang asks the inevitable question:
Is it compassionate to make a suffering loved one feel their life is not worth living because of pain? Euthanasia implies that the only life worth prolonging is one that is pain-free. But to minister to the suffering and dying — that’s compassion! Whatever happened to expressing unselfish love to those suffering? Maybe the “compassion” of euthanasia is a lot more selfish than too many will admit.
He misses the point altogether. The point is about respecting the decision of someone whose suffering is so intolerable, in that person’s opinion, that they want help to bring their lives to an end. Ignoring that request is not compassion; it is simple arrogance. John Counsell simply misses the point. Most religious people do. They simply know. That’s what religious expertise does to you. It atrophies the brain. And then he goes on to insult those who support assisted dying:
Quality hospice care is rarely promoted as the logical and moral alternative to euthanasia, but then again hospice care requires real ongoing compassion that is administered by compassionate people who are too often in short supply.
This is simply a slander. Hospice and palliative care are end-of-life options that supporters of assisted dying fully support, and where assisted dying is legal, palliative care has a tendency to improve, precisely because caring people want people to have a reasonably suffering free life. But it is not the be all and end of all of end-of-life care and decision making, where a person’s decision to bring life to an end should be respected. As usual, though, there is a red herring to follow:
What is a more “dignified” way to die? Suffering, but continually surrounded with compassionate, professional care, easing one’s physical and emotional pain with proper treatment and strong support? Or a quick, guiltless injection, game over, nice and tidy, no ongoing compassion required.
The most dignified way to die is according to the decision of the person concerned. The only person that Counsell leaves out is the person who is asking to die. Is it to live with dignity to have this request denied? No, it’s not. And I have known both people who have died with dignity with the best that care can provide. I have also seen too few people die this way. And I watched my wife Elizabeth die with the help of Dignitas in Switzerland. She departed this life because suffering was becoming intolerable, and would soon be completely intolerable, and she did it of her own choice and by her own hand. She died with dignity, still the wonderfully alive person she was, in control of her life as she had always been. Counsell would force her to die his way, so that he could show compassion. Fuck his compassion!
Notice that I have not considered the question “Does God want us to suffer?” Since there isn’t one — a god, that is — the question is an empty one, without significance. And of course the religious will say that God doesn’t want us to suffer, but Jesus would consign some to hell, and the Muslim god fairly delights in describing the torments of those consigned to the flames. This question is surely a trick one, and no one even commented on the trick aspect of it, which simply goes to show that the religious will avoid the real issue as assiduously as they tell lies.