Swine Flu (H1N1): Children, Atheism, Transcendence, and Near Death Experiences

I’ve noticed, since having kids (they are three and five), that I’ve been unusually anxious about flu seasons (something that, when I was single and kidless, I barely thought about). And this season, with swine flu (H1N1) out there without a ready vaccine, I find myself even more anxious.

And I was thinking about my religious beliefs (I’m agnostic), and how they affect me as a parent, and it occurred to me that one of the reasons that God belief persists in the world is precisely because it is an adaptation for a future-looking species. We are the only animal that tries to survive and reproduce in the face of the foreknowledge of our own death. To make heart-vulnerable commitments to spouse and children, most of us need to feel that, should anyone in the family die, they go on somewhere else and we will be reunited someday. All other animals live as atheists, almost entirely in the present and for themselves. They do not worry themselves about God or transcendence. They do not fret for the morrow. But we do. We must. It is a unique component of our very nature to fret over our mortal vulnerabilities before choices of love, commitment, and children.

Which is why so many of us turn to transcendence as a psychological valve for decompressing this anxiety. It’s adaptive.

Let me be blunt. Atheists and agnostics (like myself) are products of advanced civilization. I don’t mean this as a compliment. I mean that we are poorly adapted to deal with death, and if contemporary methods of hygiene, surgery, and medicine were not available to us, drastically reducing mortality, I think we would find it extraordinarily difficult to cope with all the death around us, especially of children and spouses, without a belief in transcendence. I myself feel deeply that my life would be over at the death of one of my children. I might well commit suicide, or absent this, fiercely cling to a belief in transcendence for them (and me) just to hold it together through the years of emotional storm such a trauma would bring. Contemporary technological civilization, with its low child mortality and cultural deemphasis upon family, sublimates for those of us who are atheists and agnostics our vulnerability before the fierce Dionysian reality.

Which may be part of the reason I find myself moved by near death experiencer testimonies at YouTube and the theological reflections of Reinhold Niebuhr. Both reflect the optimism that, as an agnostic, I lack, but wish I didn’t.

Here’s a quote from Niebuhr:

Human vitality has two primary sources, animal impulse and confidence in the meaningfulness of human existence. The more human consciousness arises to full self-consciousness and to a complete recognition of the total forces of the universe in which it finds itself, the more it requires not only animal vitality but confidence in the meaningfulness of its world to maintain a healthy will-to-live. This confidence in the meaningfulness of life is not something which results from a sophisticated analysis of the forces and factors which surround the human enterprise. It is something which is assumed in every healthy life. It is primary religion. Men may be quite unable to define the meaning of life, and yet live by a simple trust that it has meaning. This primary religion is the basic optimism of all vital and wholesome human life.

And here’s a person recounting a near death experience at YouTube:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to Swine Flu (H1N1): Children, Atheism, Transcendence, and Near Death Experiences

  1. Toby Lee says:

    Regarding Swine Flu there is substantial data suggesting that keeping your vitamin D levels up will protect you from H1N1 (Swine Flu) and colds and flu in general.
    Take a look at these two articles:

    August 2009-Vitamin D3 deficiency and its role in influenza

    Sept 2009-More on Vitamin D3 and influenza

    If the links don’t work, go to http://www.vitaminD3world.com and look under “In the News” This site offers a good newsletter on Vitamin D updates and recently launched a new micropill formulation of Vitamin D.

  2. santitafarella says:


    Those are great links. Thanks for the information. I’ll give the supplements to my daughters. But people still need to get their flu shots too, don’t you agree?


  3. LGosbee says:

    I believe they are not giving the swine flu injections to children under 10 but all the adults should get it to keep it away from the kids.

  4. santitafarella says:


    I got my kids their traditional flu shots. I assumed the swine flu shot (when available) would be for them also. I’ll check with my doctor.


  5. SJS says:

    Just a comment on “Atheists and agnostics . . . would find it extraordinarily difficult to cope with all the death around us, especially of children and spouses, without a belief in transcendence”.

    I am agnostic like you but I disagree. Of course it is difficult, very difficult, numbing, life-shattering (choose your own words) experience to lose a loved one. I am almost sixty and have experienced it more than once already but I don’t find my ‘religious’ beliefs (or lack of them) causing me more trauma than the rest of my family (a generation on either side included) and every one of them is a staunch life long believer.

    It’s as tough on them as it is on me.

    What one needs to be able to withstand the harrowing experiences of life’s tragedies is not a blind faith in ‘religion’ (the way religion is understood around the world) but the inner strength to be able to accept the trauma and move on. The acceptance of all that befalls us (good and bad) need not be part of one’s formal religion. It can come from a strong internal belief that this is the way things are; this is the way of nature; this is life. Now this too can be called a kind of religion, a kind of spirituality, but it does not need any mumbo-jumbo or fairy tales or ‘questionable’ beliefs which your intellect rebels against (if you allow it the freedom to be inquisitive) and it does not require the existence of a God.

    AND it provides me the strength to cope with life much better than those of my family who have spent life times trying to use ‘religion’ as their crutch – and scapegoat.

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