A man dies, and I don’t know how to react

Earlier this week, Duane T. Gish died at the age of 92. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, he was a vocal Young Earth Creationist whose distinctive rapidfire debating style inspired the coining of the term “Gish Gallop“.

Duane GishHe was an old man, and he’s dead. That saddens me, just as any death would, but apart from that, I don’t know how to feel. I’m not someone who takes pleasure in people dying – I was the sort of wet liberal hanky-squeezer who felt uncomfortable at the celebrations when Osama bin Laden was killed. But for all that, I feel a bit odd about this.

There’s a strong temptation to simply say nice things about people when they die, but while that’s polite and respectful, it can also tend towards humbug and flannel. A classic example is the way politicians can go from angrily attacking each other’s intelligence and honesty to speaking movingly about what good people they were. It may be polite, but it’s also a little insulting to everyone’s intelligence.

For most of us, it’s easiest just to follow the advice of Thumper’s parents in Bambi – “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say nothing at all.” But there are some people who are more or less expected to say something, because of their connection to the deceased. Michael Shermer, who has debated with Gish in the past, found a neat approach:

I like the solution of distinguishing his views from his personal nature, and Shermer’s in a much better place than me to know whether he was a good man. But Gish’s fame and his entire career were based on being an enemy of knowledge and understanding, and employing a deliberately dishonest and obstructive debating technique.

Gish may be a very nice man in private, but his fame, and the reason why his death is noteworthy, is entirely down to his public persona. So why should his private behaviour or personal niceness be dragged into it, except to find a way of saying something pleasant and positive about him? And is that a good enough reason?

Through all this, the emotional, sympathetic part of my brain is saying that it doesn’t hurt anyone to be generous to the dead, while the logical, rational part insists that’s no excuse for going out of your way to say things that are untrue or irrelevant. Meanwhile, the rest of my brain’s sitting in a corner, looking bored, asking why I need to get involved at all.

Death is sad, it isn’t the time to stick the boot in, and I’m happy to either emphasise the positives as much as I can or simply remain silent, but I’m uncomfortable with that straying into dishonesty, even by omission. That means there’s always going to be an uncomfortable tension in my thoughts and opinions, but I suppose I’m used to living with that.

Image courtesy of Ashcraft, used under Creative Commons Attribution License 3.0


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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

6 responses to “A man dies, and I don’t know how to react”

  1. jonnyscaramanga says :

    Thoughtful post. I was much more callous, posting to my facebook wall, “First Donald Howard, now this guy. At this rate there’ll be no one left to blog about by next month.” Even I thought twice about it.

    It’s even more difficult for me in the case of Donald Howard (founder of Accelerated Christian Education), because he was involved in a scandal back in the day, and I’ve been debating blogging about it for ages. Now he’s dead, I’m much less likely to get sued, and much more likely to look callous.

    Actually, that’s the truth for me – and this probably makes me a bad person – I couldn’t care less that either of these men has died. I know it’s sad for their families and friends, but I don’t know them. They’re men whose work I opposed fervently while they were alive, and now I find myself in the bizarre position of wondering how long to leave as a sign of respect.

    • Neil Rickert says :

      Actually, that’s the truth for me – and this probably makes me a bad person – I couldn’t care less that either of these men has died.

      No, that does not make you a bad person. It makes you a normal person.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I think reactions are different in different contexts, for good reasons. Some places where I hang out online are the kind of places where someone will post that slightly transgressive comment/joke, and I sort of like that, but there are other places where there would be a lot more care and respect, and I like that as well. I think what it comes down to is that I don’t mind a certain amount of respect for the dead, but I don’t think anyone has the right to tell me how much I should have, or how long it should last.

  2. Neil Rickert says :

    I’m neutral about Gish. I have never met him, so there’s no basis for a particular reaction. For sure, I have debated creationists, and Gish is partly responsible for the creationism. But we cannot blame such a movement on one person. So I bear no enmity toward him. I have no pleasure in his passing.

    On the other hand, I have no sadness either. Death is a natural part of life. Given that he lived to an age of 92, I don’t think we have need for regrets. Given my own age, I need to be realistic about the fact that we all die. The school children gunned down at Sandy Hook school warrant far more sadness.

    Some people have applauded the end of the Gish Gallop. However, the gallop will surely live on.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I see what you’re saying about his age, and that crossed my mind as well, but I don’t think there’s a finite amount of compassion or respect that has to be rationed around. There’s always a degree of sadness when someone dies, and it’s probably not a good time to trash them either.

      The Gallop will live on – the RationalWiki page has many other examples of it – but I gather Gish was an absolute master of it, so it may be a while before anyone reaches his level.

  3. theaspirationalagnostic says :

    Crikey, you’re right. Reading the first sentence of your post gave me pause for thought, as I hadn’t realised he had died. I suppose I’m sad because he would have been loved by those around him, and for that I am sorry.

    However he was an absolute tool, and I’d be glad if his ideas died with him.


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