The normal jolt most of us get when we run into someone well-known was accentuated for me when I turned to see Christopher Hitchens standing a few feet away from me at a party on the night of the recent UK election. On top of “Wow, there is someone famous” was a more intense, visceral response: “Wow, that man looks really sick”. He was being his usual animated, talking, smoking, drinking, larger than life self, but his pallor suggested underlying physical disquiet. I don’t know if he had been diagnosed with cancer by then, but I was not surprised to hear the sad news not long afterwards.
Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic has a revealing interview with Mr. Hitchens on line, in which among other things they discuss Hitchens’ atheism. I suspect many religious people who hated Hitchens’ book about atheism are praying that he will have a conversion in the face of his serious illness (esophageal cancer). The more hard-hearted will wish that as an atheist he will pass from this life in fear and trembling because he has no hope of heaven. The likelihood of either of these of things happening are as close to nothing as makes no odds.
For about eight years, I was a hospice volunteer, and had the honor to attend many people throughout their dying process. One of the most reliable rules was that people died as they had lived. Happy people were happy at the end, crabby people were crabby, anxious people were anxious. The story of human personality development is largely one of continuity. Temperamental differences measured within an hour of birth predict temperament 20 years later, and people who win million dollar lotto prizes tend, within a year, to return to being precisely as happy or unhappy as they were before their big win.
During my time with hospice, I saw only two cases of religious transformation just before death, and those were both in Hollywood movies I watched, not in any of my patients. Many people had an uptick of interest in religion after getting a terminal diagnosis, but it was the religion they had been nominally or actively a part of in prior times of their life, rather than being a new revelation. The best bet therefore for an atheist is that s/he will die an atheist, just as Baptists, Hindus, Jews and Mormons tend to face death with the same religious views they have always had.
Neither do atheists have a particular fear of death (sorry, Hitchens-haters). Indeed, thanatological research shows that someone like Hitchens who is sure that death is the end will be less fearful than people who aren’t quite sure what they believe, and, people who believe in final judgment but are unsure if the decision will go their way. As in so many other areas of human psychology, specific outcomes seem to bother us less than does uncertainty about which one will obtain in the end.