Dennis and Nancy present the following summary of the second episode of Richard Dawkins' Sex, Death and the Meaning of Life. You can view this series online.

Today’s video was part of a series by Richard Dawkins, which, by the way, is available on YouTube. This episode was called “What Science Can Tell Us About Death,” and began with several interviews with people who were either dying or had close relatives who died. His aim was to find out how religion played into their fears and/or feelings. In nearly every case, people talked of “meeting the loved ones in the next life” and this obviously was a consolation to them.

Dawkins explored the Hindu tradition of cremation and ash scattering on the Ganges, and we saw there that this rather gory process has turned itself into what he called “an industry of death.” These people treated their relatives’ remains quite differently, more insensitively, than Western peoples do, which obviously reflected their feelings that the “soul” had left already.

He found that religion gave everyone he spoke to the strength to face death, and this brought him to the question: How does someone with no theistic type religion face death? Why all these rituals and trappings which surround death? It is the relatives who continue these, feeling they have done this for the deceased, not for themselves. This seems questionable, since Dawkins echoed feelings many of us have, which is that since we won’t be around to experience our own death rituals, why not just put us into a garbage bag and carry on? Answer: These rituals are for those left behind, to get closure and make sense of their loss. Dawkins did admit to a feeling himself of wanting to buried in a seemly manner by the seaside (also admitting that it went against all his teachings!)

Dawkins talked about the relationship between aging and death, considering our bodies’ main purpose is to pass on genes and continue the species. We begin to age, he said, when our main purpose, procreation, is over. Dawkins did, however, discover a few exceptions who reached great ages, many of whom had few or no children.

Dawkins had his own genome sequenced – the first person in Britain to publicly do this. Here he would learn about his predispositions to certain diseases and therefore get a hint to his ultimate age, how and when he might die. He concluded this episode by reminding us that genes are the real drivers in life, how genes are passed on from ancestor to recipient in a long line from the beginning of life, and concluded that the one thing that really is immortal about us is our genes. He has explored this theory more fully in his book “The Selfish Gene.”

Our discussion afterwards ranged from questioning what the soul is, to how it relates to our brain, what is consciousness and awareness, musings on Plato’s teachings, beliefs of primitive tribes (who are not religious as we recognize it) about the soul, to mutations which occur in the passing on of our genes. Many in our group felt Dawkins seemed mellower than usual in this episode, considerate of the way people in trouble felt. Perhaps he, too, is evolving!

Conrad Hadland has offered to make a copy of this talk off the internet if anyone would like. Just see him on any Sunday or drop him an email.


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