Monday 25 May 2009

Alzheimer's and atheism

There was a very affecting piece in Friday's Guardian about a woman in her early 60s with dementia, and the experience of her husband and other carers. The article traced the progress of the condition, starting with an early premonition:

One night, shortly after Carla White had a blackout at work, she sat bolt upright in bed. 'She woke up and said to me, "I'm losing my brain"', says David, her husband. 'I think Carla knew straightaway. I almost find it eerie.'

After some years of caring for Carla at home, David now resorts to leaving his wife for long periods in a residential care home:

'The first time I visited she said something about coming home but now she never mentions it. I can sit there for half an hour and hold her hand. When I leave, there is no scene. I say, "See you next time." There's no point in saying "tomorrow" because she no longer understands what it means'.

The fear of dementia has almost overtaken that of cancer among people of a certain age. What could be worse than losing not only a lifetime's memories, but your very ability to remember, and with it your sense of who you are and have been as a person? (There's a poignant moment in John Bayley's memoir of his wife Iris Murdoch's descent into dementia when she asks him, 'Did I used to be some kind of writer?')  Would it even be 'you' who lived on? And if not, would there be any point in remaining alive? 

In my evangelical Christian youth, one of the most popular books passed around the prayer groups was Richard Wurmbrand's Tortured for Christ, a Romanian pastor's account of his sufferings under communism. The author confesses that the only time he experienced religious doubt was after periods of unconsciousness following torture. Where was his soul, he wondered, when he blacked out? Reading accounts of people with dementia has always prompted similar thoughts in me. If everything that makes a person an individual, an 'I', can disappear so completely, then how is it possible to believe in a soul that survives death?

Doesn't Alzheimer's confirm that our unique selfhood is a product of biological and psychological processes in a social world, coming into being when we are born, developing in richness and complexity through life, but ending inevitably with the death of the physical body?
Believers might argue that, even when the brain dies, a certain 'something' of us survives, but doesn't the experience of dementia sufferers suggest that this 'something', even if it could live on, would be far removed from any of our ideas of personhood? What do religious people think will survive of Carla White after she dies? Will it be the person who exists now - without reason, will or memory of who she is or has been - or will God somehow reconstruct the personality that disease has slowly crumbled away? Isn't it more logical to believe that the person who was Carla White has already in a sense 'died' and can never be brought back (which isn't to deny that she continues to be a unique and valued person to those who love her)?

In debates about evolution and faith, the impact of Darwin's theory on ideas of the soul is rarely discussed. Believers who attempt to reconcile science and religion tend to concentrate on demonstrating that faith in a creator God is compatible with belief in an evolving universe. But even if we accept that belief in an ultimate Being who kicked off the whole process is at least rational, surely all religions also depend on the notion that human beings, rather than being an accidental by-product of that process, are a unique and special part of it? And isn't this notion completely undermined by the whole idea of evolution?

At the heart of Christianity, Judaism and Islam is the belief that the purpose of life is some kind of relationship with God, and crucially that it's possible for this to continue after death. But the capacity for this relationship, and its survival, surely relies on some notion of a 'soul' that transcends and outlives the body. If we accept that human beings evolved over millenia from 'lesser' creatures, who presumably were not fortunate enough to have this capacity for relationship with God, then at what point did 'soul' enter in? Do we have to resort to some deus ex machina notion of the Creator intervening in the process and 'ensouling' some of his creatures at a certain point in evolution? I suppose if you believe in an all-powerful God, then you have to believe that this is possible, but knowing what we do about the way the world works, is it likely? And at what precise point did the transformation from finite, soulless mammal to 'ensouled' and potentially eternal human being take place? Was there a generation of almost-human hominids that had no capacity for knowing God and didn't get a shot at eternal life, but their offspring - now fully human - did?

It's not that what we know about evolution, or dementia, makes religious faith impossible, but surely it makes its claims seem less likely? And it puts the onus on religious spokespeople, instead of banging on about 'militant atheists' and 'aggressive secularism', to respond intelligently to some of these questions, and rather than retreating into a defensive ghetto, try to present a vision of faith that makes sense to thoughtful, twenty-first century seekers after truth.

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