Recently I heard an interview on Fresh Air with David Rieff, son of Susan Sontag, that explored his memoir about her death from cancer. Susan Sontag was an atheist, and this was a point of some discussion during the interview. Mr. Rieff was asked if his mother had considered, as she was dying, embracing some sort of faith. At the end of life, so many people are comforted by their faith, the interviewer, Terry Gross, noted.
Mr. Rieff replied that his mother was not agnostic, she was an atheist. She truly didn’t believe in any continuation. She took religion way too seriously, he said, to think that she could embrace it at the last minute to get a sense of relief. When she was told that the experimental procedure she’d had to treat her cancer hadn’t worked, she screamed inconsolably until her doctor thought of something else to try. For her, death was truly the end, and she loved living.
I was extremely touched. I’m neither an atheist nor a converter of atheists, but my reaction was not about agreeing or disagreeing with Sontag’s beliefs. It was a sense of appreciation for the depth of her feeling and the authenticity with which she faced what must have been a psychologically (and physically) torturous end. In this sense, ironically, Sontag’s atheism seemed to me as incredibly spiritual a thing as I have ever encountered.