Monday, 18 February 2013

The science and religion of death

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Death is a terrible and tragic thing, so terrible and tragic that we will go to any lengths to avoid that most unavoidable of things.

Smoking. Drinking. Obesity. They’re an axis of evil that gives rise to countless government initiatives, public health warnings and thousands of blogs and opinion pieces on how we can reduce the damage they cause.

Fair enough too, there are genuine and serious health risks associated with all three issues. Public information campaigns and government regulations will undoubtedly reduce the rates of early death they cause.

They will not however, prevent death – we all die eventually.

The fascinating thing about the axis of evil is the sense that people who indulge in these behaviours are not just doing something that is physically hazardous; they are committing a crime against morality. Longevity has become a quasi-religious goal and it’s almost an act of heresy to do anything that might, in any way, reduce one’s life expectancy.

Smoking is an easy example because the evidence that smoking is harmful is so incontrovertible. Comments sections (yes I know, but still, they are a reflection of public responses) on any tobacco related article are filled with furious zealots, thundering away about how all smokers are about to drop dead of cancer and don’t they just deserve it! Smokers angrily counter with arguments about how alcohol and obesity kill just as many people as smoking, so get off my lawn.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS): “In 2004-05, 18% of people with malignant neoplasms (cancer) were current daily smokers, 15% drank alcohol at risky or high levels, 76% did little or no exercise and 53% were either overweight or obese.”

Clearly there is some cross-over happening here, and past smokers were not included in the breakdown, but the evidence certainly suggest that there is some basis to the argument that alcohol and obesity are, at the very least, equally as dangerous as smoking. 

Smoking, of course, has causes other forms of damage beyond cancer, heart disease, stroke, emphysema etc: “Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in Victoria. On average out of every 1000 deaths in Victoria:

  • 119 are caused by smoking
  • 24 are caused by alcohol (including road deaths caused by drinking)
  • 12 are caused by road deaths (including road deaths caused by drinking)
  • 3 are caused by other drugs, including heroin.

842 deaths out of 1,000 however, were not attributable to smoking, alcohol, car accidents or drugs.

Life expectancy in Australia has been steadily increasing over the last 100 years.

11.16 Life Expectancy at Birth—1985–2010

According to the ABS: “High life expectancy at birth generally indicates low levels of infant mortality, a safe environment in which to live, a good health care system, sufficient food and the adoption of preventative health measures.” 

Here in our safe, gentle, modern civilization, death has been removed from our lives in ways that have never before been possible. We have no wars on our home soil and we have the lowest childhood mortality rate in human history (as long as we're not indigenous). When we are so injured or sick that we are at serious risk of death, we are rushed of to hospital, where the mess and trauma of imminent death is sanitized and, to a large extent, hidden, by kindly and efficient medical staff.

Almost 70% of Australians say they would prefer to die at home is they were suffering from an incurable illness. But the faith in medical science and the belief that death is something we must hand over to professionals, means that actually, about 70% of us will die in acute care hospitals, where drugs, nursing staff and medical intervention protect us from the harsher realities of death. The carers involved with the lucky few who can die at home have far different stories to tell. 

And so death has become less common and more distant, and seems to be all the more frightening for it.

The concept that fear of death led to mankind creating religion is not new.  The basic idea is that religion means I do not need to fear death because I/beloved person will not just end, I/beloved person exist as more than just highly complex chemical interactions and therefore I/beloved person will continue to have some connection with life, even after death.

Religion was a solace for the grievous, incomprehensible injury of losing all those future possibilities that death takes from us.

Then science came along and messed with religion. No one, even those folk who try so hard to ignore the reality of science, can rationally hold on to the belief that, after we die, we all end up sitting on a cloud, playing harps with Jesus/Allah/Jehovah/other deity of your choice. Science explained what clouds are made of, proved that heaven didn’t exist in the sky because the universe is infinite and generally made it harder for people living in western civilisation to see heaven. So, because humans are always hilarious, we turn from religion to science to ease our fear of death.

Medical science can stand between us and death, we can find immortality, we just need to take all the pills, have all the test, do all the scan and follow the instructions of medical professionals and then we’ll never ever die!

Science has proved, beyond any doubt, that smoking will reduce life expectancy, so the anti-smoking zealots have done a backwards post hoc ergo proptor hoc and convinced themselves that because they don’t smoke, they don’t need to fear death. The corollary being that those people who do smoke are not just ignoring facts about a hazardous activity, they are committing heresy against the tropes we hold close in the hope we’ll live forever. The underlying tenets (or in this case, facts) are lost in the face of zealotry. Plus ça change.

It’s senseless behaviour of course. We’re all going to die and very few of us are going to die peacefully in our beds, surrounded by dozens of perfectly formed, gently weeping great-great-grandchildren.

Non smokers/drinkers/obese folk also die of cancer, heart disease and stroke, the difference is that they will do so about 7 to 15 years later than smokers/drinkers/obese folk - depending on which study you look at. 

No sensible person could object to public dissemination of facts about hazardous behaviour. The tobacco companies’ lies (of omission and commission) about the dangers of tobacco were iniquitous. The combination of addictive nature of nicotine, sugar and alcohol, the vulnerability of people most likely to suffer addiction and the profits that the supply of these substances provides, requires some level of government intervention. The damage that smoking, in particular, can do to innocent bystanders also demands a regulatory response that will protect people who are unable to protect themselves. None of these things, however, are in any way supported by gleefully sanctimonious judgement of the people who don’t know, don’t understand or worse, do know but are helpless to change, dangerous habits. The subsequent rejection of the addict as morally bereft may give the occupiers of the high moral ground a temporary buzz, but it’s not actually going to change their lives or longevity.

All it’s going to do is irritate the rest of us to death.

Jane Gilmore

Jane Gilmore is the editor of The King's Tribune.

Follow Jane on Twitter: @JaneTribune

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