Because I am an atheist: PZ Myers


Today’s contribution comes from fellow FTBorg PZ Myers, who blogs at Pharyngula. By order of the blood-signed contract wherein I pledged my unwavering fealty to a biology professor from Minnesota (I am not a clever man), I am obligated to not only post this, but to tell you it’s the greatest thing ever and also the iron-clad proscriptive truth that must be followed without question.

Because I am an atheist…

Identifying the consequences of my atheism is a difficult thing for me, because I’ve really been an atheist all my life. Yes, there was a period in my childhood when I went to church every week, but I can’t say that I ever really believed, and my slow awakening as I grew up involved an increasing awareness that because my mind worked in a particular way, I was therefore an atheist. Because I liked science, I was led to material explanations of the world; because religious explanations were so shallow and useless, I turned away from them. I was an atheist long before I realized it, so the arrow of causality always pointed to and not from atheism. Atheism is a consequence not a cause for me.

And also, I have to be honest about this: many of my principles are not at all incompatible with theism. I am politically liberal and progressive, I support labor unions and the peace movement, I oppose inequity of all forms, I value education highly and want everyone to benefit from it, I feel my greatest accomplishment in life is to have built a strong family of good people I can love and trust without question. There is nothing in that that I can say is a necessary consequence of a disbelief in gods, since those values are shared with many Christians and Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus, and also I know far too many atheists who do not share them. There are deep, strong motivations driving my positions on these kinds of issues, and I simply can’t say that my intellectual stance on the existence of a deity is the wellspring. There isn’t much where I think, “Well, I’m an atheist, so I should adopt position X.”

But I discovered one thing.

My father died when he was 57. It’s lousy genetics; my entire paternal side of the family seems to kick the bucket from heart disease at a relatively early age, while the maternal side just keeps going and going until pneumonia takes them away in their 90s. It was always a tossup which side I was going to take after, until a few years ago when the tests showed that yes, I was my father’s son. I’m doing what I can now, with diet and exercise, to outlive my father, but I know I’m not ever going to be a nonagerian.

I’m 56.

I have an acute awareness of my own mortality. I’m not obsessed with it, I’m definitely not in either panic or despair, but in moments like this one, I can sit and relax in my comfortable chair, looking out the window at the trees in leaf, hearing the cicadas and savoring the calm, and I’m conscious that this is good, but it too shall pass. And probably sooner than I’d like. But I am untroubled by my fate, and I only worry about the pain I’ll cause my family when I go.

So, because I am an atheist, I’ve learned that I have no fear at all of death.

It surprises me a little bit. I had one experience in the hospital in which I honestly thought I was about to die. My heart faltered and began to fail, exhausted and oxygen-starved, and I felt all the strength drain from me, and this strange sensation deep in my guts that everything was trembling on the brink of collapse, and I slumped down and thought that this was it…I was done. I saw death and I stared it down, cold and black and empty with no consolation and nothing to anticipate but cessation, and I felt…

I felt in expectation that I would soon feel no more…

I felt no regrets. I had no desire to paper over oblivion with false hope, with delusions of a magical afterlife. I did not try to rationalize away what would happen. I did not bargain — I did not start gibbering for rescue by an omniscient being who might hear my thoughts in the face of the void. I’d lived a good life, and this was the end — not a transition, not a change, not a tunnel into the light — a final, complete, and irrevocable dissolution. So I looked death square in its bleak empty eye, and did not flinch in the slightest.

And then I looked at my wife — a much prettier sight — and felt my heart wheeze back into a steady thump, and surrender gave way to a restored resolve, and I wobbled back into the land of the living. Living really is a heck of a lot better than dying. But death is only a conclusion.

There isn’t a lot I derive from just my atheism, but that one grand thing.

No fear. No lies. An unhesitating acceptance of reality. That’s enough.

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Comments

  1. mynameischeese says

    I think I relate to this one the most. I’ve been an atheist all my life, never managed to believe as a child despite attempted indoctrination and remained an athiest even in the foxhole of a near-death experience.

  2. says

    Umm, maybe you haven’t heard: there are no atheists in foxholes. Our best assertionologists have confirmed it. Please kindly cease existing.

  3. mynameischeese says

    Oh yeah, shit. Sometimes I forget that I don’t exist. Carry on, assertionologists.

  4. says

    I don’t think “retreating with fear” or “puppy dog” are particularly accurate descriptions. People heap a lot of derision on PZ because they see him as having capitulated to a doctrine of feminism rather than being ‘appropriately’ evolution/atheism-only. Because he has a large readership, he has become a bogeyman in the dramatic opera that is the mindset of those who see the inclusion of social justice as the ruining of a civil rights movement.

    He’s not a puppy dog either, though. He’s a fairly friendly guy, but he doesn’t pull punches or mince words when expressing his opinion. Sometimes this means he arrives at positions without seeming to take opposing arguments into account, which gives him this reputation as an uncompromising fire-breather (for good or for ill). I’d imagine that most people’s opinions of him lie in direct relation to the level to which they agree with him. If he’s on your side, he’s a fair and impartial (and cuddly) polemicist; if he’s not, he’s a dogmatic and bombastic general of an army of shrill harpies. Neither view is accurate – he’s a biology professor from Minnesota who has a popular blog and doesn’t bother to take the time to suffer arguments and positions he finds foolish.

  5. Patrik Roslund says

    I have been an atheist my entire life as well, but i must admit that i do fear death. Not the emptiness or the thought of not being anymore, but the feeling of dying, the pain, the anxiety as your body fights that last unwinnable battle. I wish everyone could go smoothly and whit out pain.

  6. kurt1 says

    Best account for a near death experience yet. I am deeply moved, perhaps because I think of death a lot lately. I expect one of my grandfathers to die soon, he is over 80 and suffering from heart disease.
    I encounter the argument regularly, that religion takes away the fear of death, because of the afterlife promised, therefore it is good because it gives comfort to those who are about to die and those left behind. There is some difficulty refuting that except, that it is an illusion. But this brilliant piece by PZ puts this feeling into words, the one truth about life is that it ends and there is no need to feel afraid because of it. Thanks!

  7. Beauzeaux says

    Most deaths are not like that at all. I’m a hospice volunteer and people dying of cancer or congestive heart failure, do go “smoothly” or perhaps quietly is a better word and pain is mostly controllable. As the body shuts down, the brain adjusts also. It’s hard to describe, but there is very little anxiety or “fight” at the end.

    If the pain can’t be controlled or the loss of agency is more than you wish to endure, the states of Washington and Oregon allow you to get a prescription for barbiturates to end your life and keep the pills until YOU decide to use them. If you’re not in Washington or Oregon, there are videos on the Internet on how to make your very own nembutol.

    Now, violent death for which you’re unprepared (by definition) is probably a different thing. If your body is still healthy, it will fight and I’m sure I would be very anxious and desperate to keep breathing.

    I too have been an atheist my entire adult life and I used to fear death, too. But as I’ve gotten older and nearer to it, I fear it less and less. Part of that is no doubt my hospice experience but another part is having my nearest and dearest dying off right and left.

    Christopher Hitchens described talking to a woman in Rwanda after the massacres there, who was the lone survivor of her village. There was no one left in the world who knew her. No schoolmates. No relatives. No one. No one who knew her childish adventures, no boys she’d been interested in, no girlfriends with which she’d laughed and gossiped. It sounded so terribly lonely.
    But there’s a bit of that in living to old age. Everyone who knew you when you were young is gone. Everyone YOU knew when you were young is also gone.

  8. says

    It was a knock at this audacious display of sentimentality that has now risked destroying the myth of PZ being made of pure brimstone and smelling like months-old Easter eggs. But meeting him in person will do that, too. Except perhaps if you’re a Creationist or any other confounded ass hat.

  9. Thorne says

    My dad died in hospice, from cancer, and they were able to keep his pain under control until his body and mind stopped. He was ready to go, not frightened, not pleading, not looking for calming rituals. He had his children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren around him and he slipped away peacefully. Just as he wanted.

    Knowing that I’ll never see him again, never hear his voice, or beat him at cribbage, is painful. But knowing that he went under his own terms, and more or less in his own time, eases my mind. And knowing that he discarded the toxic Catholicism of his childhood and feared no punishments or rewards in a non-existent afterlife helps to strengthen my own atheism.

  10. christophburschka says

    FTBorg

    We are FTBorg.
    Resistance is futile.
    Lower your shields and prepare to be FTBullied.

  11. GregPeterson says

    I don’t fear being dead, but I confess fear to the process of dying. My fear is that it will not be on my terms. If I knew for a fact that my death would come while watching a Monty Python movie, snacking on a big old bowl of barbs, washing’em down with Johnny Walker Black, I don’t think it would bother me very much.

    Not that I’m eager to die–I want as much life as I can get. Rather fond of life. It’s just, I fear losing my life less than I do prolonged suffering in the transition from somethingness to nothingness.

    But one of ancient philosopher–I forget which one–said that minor pains are mostly bearable, and intense pain is mostly fleeting, so I’ll try not to allow anxiety over hypothetical misery in the future rob me of joy in the present.

  12. Antoinette says

    Eh, no amount of rationalization works for me. I am terrified of death. The whole experience, the thought of nothingness…aack! I would like to think there is a happy land that we all go to, but I can’t. I have many regrets, but life is a one-way street. Maybe, since my life has not been that fulfilling, is why I am so afraid of death.

  13. says

    This is actually a very common view. Not everyone can be quite so Zen about the prospect of their non-existence (no matter how many times someone says “imagine what it was like before you were born”). At some point you’ll have to figure out some way of living with or dealing with that anxiety, but you’ll have to do so on your terms. I’m sorry it’s so disturbing to you.

  14. christophburschka says

    I felt no regrets. I had no desire to paper over oblivion with false hope, with delusions of a magical afterlife. I did not try to rationalize away what would happen. I did not bargain — I did not start gibbering for rescue by an omniscient being who might hear my thoughts in the face of the void. I’d lived a good life, and this was the end — not a transition, not a change, not a tunnel into the light — a final, complete, and irrevocable dissolution. So I looked death square in its bleak empty eye, and did not flinch in the slightest.

    Inspiring and awesome. I hope that whenever my time comes I will feel the same way.

  15. Robert (SeraphymC) says

    Are you young? Have you spent a couple of years (at least) thinking about it? The human mind takes time to come to terms with any emotionally significant event, but it almost always does so.

  16. sumdum says

    Gotta say I feel very similar. The one lucky thing is I’m still young, 32. I hope to still gain some happy memory.

  17. VolcanoMan says

    I dunno; when I was experimenting with Christianity, like, ten years ago, about, I had a friend and mentor who viewed the difficulty of imagining “total nothingness” from the point of the living, as almost a proof that something existed beyond life. I’ve thought a lot about nothingness since I heard him pitch that argument, even after I decided that atheism was a far more reasonable conclusion to draw from the evidence I had, and I find that I cannot worry about my inevitable descent into oblivion. When I first accepted a monistic, deterministic perspective on life (not a consequence of my atheism, but a cause), I also studied and accepted all of the necessary correlates to that position, including accepting just how meaningless and insignificant my existence was in the grand scheme of things. Nothingness truly is the default state in this universe for all of the life that is lucky enough to exist for a short time, and all of the potential life that never came to be (at least not in THIS universe). As a consequence of these realisations, I can see the true value of being alive; the price that all living things ultimately pay for the privilege of living is insignificant compared to the price paid by those who could have been but didn’t win the prize of being granted a spot in the ultimate reality show. How can I fear the state in which I was almost certainly doomed to spend all eternity without getting a shot at life?

  18. Quatguy says

    I don’t fear death itself, but do not want to die as a result of blunt force impact, burning or being eaten by a wild animal. Old age death surrounded by friends and family after a life well lived is the best we can all hope for. A big fat doobie and a gin and tonic would not hurt either.

  19. ericatkinson says

    Die in a fire PZ Myers!
    And take the rest of your FFT Blogs piss ants with you.
    Or some such shit.

  20. truthspeaker says

    I’m pretty sure I’ll lie there regretting all the things I do. That’s just my personality, though.

  21. says

    I’ve been reading PZ’s blog for years now, since just before the “cracker incident”, and I feel I’ve gotten a sense of him through his writing. He is a warm-hearted, kindly man, not at all mean-spirited, and that’s why he’s sometimes compared to a teddy bear. He is strong in his convictions, and (sometimes!) won’t suffer fools to waste his time, thus the fire-breathing side of his reputation. He is, perhaps most importantly, an honest man, true to himself and to his beliefs, but only because he has examined them and found them to be true; and that, I think, is why I admire him and enjoy spending my morning coffee-time on his blog.

    Okay, I wrote it! Now will you release my cat from your damnable octopus tank, you fiend?

  22. satanaugustine says

    This:

    And then I looked at my wife — a much prettier sight — and felt my heart wheeze back into a steady thump, and surrender gave way to a restored resolve, and I wobbled back into the land of the living.

    made me cry…in a good way.

  23. carlie says

    I don’t fear death, but I do fear pain.
    And I have a deep, aching desire to see my children live for as long as possible; I don’t want to die without seeing them grow up.

  24. says

    I don’t fear death as such, there’s drugs for that. But when it comes it will annoy me and be inconvenient, because I don’t get to follow the news anymore, won’t know who wins the World Cup, and don’t get to see what becomes of my offspring. And that will piss me off more than anything else. So that’s what I’m afraid of.

  25. jackiepaper says

    Death doesn’t scare me. It can’t. It’s like rain or crows feet. It just is. It happens. You can’t avoid it. You can’t out fight or outsmart it. Sometimes I have to walk in a lightening storm (like today). Sometimes I find myself in dodgy situations. Sometimes I get false positives in cancer screenings. (With full knowledge and acceptance that they won’t always be false.) Not being able to pay my medical bills without bankrupting my family does. It scares the ever loving shit out of me. The worst thing about imagining my death is the impact on my surviving family and I can think of nothing worse than my kids losing their home in an attempt to save my life. Sounds bleak, but motherless is better than homeless and motherless. I’d far rather skip the so called fight and just exit. I’m not much of a gambler with other people’s money or emotions. The fact that being poor in the US means I may have to pay my cosmic debt sooner rather than a bit later is miff worthy, but getting miffed doesn’t change much. I’m not saying I’d smoke a deep-fried cigarette or anything. I’m just saying, “Meh”. I know alot of good people who’ve died. All the cool kids do it…so do the less cool kids. We’re all on our way out. I don’t know why, but it just does not bother me. My only NDE came with one very real reason to fight to live. It was the thought of how stupid dying that way would be and knowing my acquaintences would eventually joke about how I was the sort of ass who would die “that way”. Seems vain, but I was young and being the butt of a joke seemed awful. Now, I’m less inclined to give a fuck. I just need to do what I can, while I can and love my family as long as I can.(And see the next episode of Sherlock) So: frustrated by the idea that my time is limited? Absofrickinlutely. Frightened? Nah. Pain is scary. (I still cry when I stub my toe.) Decrepitude is scary. Death..not so much. Nobody wants to leave the party early, but isn’t getting to be at the party in the first place enough? I mean, it isn’t even that great a party for most people. At least I have had running, clean water and flushing toilets as long as I’ve been here. That’s pretty fabulous, if you ask me. How many humans on the planet now, much less throughout history can say that? W00t!

  26. jackiepaper says

    Just in case tonights the night, have that gin and doob now. You can never be too careful.

  27. Mr Hedgehog says

    I had my first heart attack about 7 or 8 months ago. You get an overwhelming (or at least I did) feeling of dread – it’s not like anything I can describe. Trust me, you are more afraid than you have ever been. It’s visceral.

    My wife went out into the street to signal to the ambulance where we were, and in that 10 mins I was alone, as I was sure that I was dying, I thought about stuff. All I wanted was my wife to be with me, to hold my hand. I was scared of dying alone.

    The odd thing was, I was not scared of death, and that suprised me. I was scared of leaving my wife and family alone. I was angry that all I had planned was not going to happen – I’m 39 years old, and I’m not ready to die. And I wanted her to be with me, as the thought of never seeing her again was just too hard to comprehend.

    But I was lucky, and medical science fixed my heart. And now, with some luck, I get to spend many more years with my wife.

    Don’t be afraid of death – it will be like before you were born – you won’t know. Just let your loved ones know that you love them.

  28. says

    This is why I oppose giving guns to foxes.

    Also I was being sarcastic about the “no atheists in foxholes” thing. It’s an absurd lie that is readily debunked by thousands such as yourself.

  29. Tigger_the_Wing says

    Mr Hedgehog,

    I was the same age as you and had the same feeling of dread when I had my first heart attack fifteen years ago. But I was alone, driving my minibus-taxi home through remote countryside at 3am. I had no reception on my mobile phone and, since my route home went within a couple of miles of a hospital I decided to keep driving. Yes, I know; it seems that one of the symptoms of lack of oxygen to my brain is a loss of rational thought.

    I’ve done similarly stupid things since (e.g. continuing to deliver mail for over 4 hours with a fibrillating heart, until I was temporarily blind from lack of oxygen), but I’ve survived so many that I no longer get the feelings of dread. Just peace. Really. The only thing that keeps me fighting back is, like PZ, my spouse. I don’t want to leave him yet.

    I’m not afraid of dying. Religious people who believe in an afterlife get really upset when I say that there is nothing after this one. I think that what scares people about that idea is that they seem to think that there will still be something self-aware, a ‘me’, that will have absolutely nothing to do for eternity. Now, I have to say that once I actually thought about it, I realised that eternal awareness actually is terrifying, with or without any kind of ‘heaven’. But it seems very difficult to persuade people that, once I am dead. there will no longer be a ‘me’ to experience anything.

    Anyway, I’m having heart surgery in September which will, I hope, not just put off the inevitable for a few years but enable me to get more active again for a while. Even, possibly, make me able to travel again so I can go home and see the grandchildren, including those I haven’t yet met!

    Yay for science and modern medicine! Plus IT of course; the surgery I’m having wouldn’t be possible without modern computers (3D imaging in real time, for instance).

  30. =8)-DX says

    Oh! *bows down in reverence before the words of the great PeeZee.
    Well written and inspirational, I get a really odd feeling this not being on pharyngula though – almost feels like a different person writing it =)..

  31. says

    I don’t fear death, just the timing and act of dying. Also I’m not done living yet. May daughters still need me, my gal will always need me, my parents may need me. I’ve places to go, things to try, thoughts to write. Life is hard sometimes but I’m not ready to let it end without a fight.

  32. sosw says

    IIRC there are studies that have shown that religious people are more fearful of death. Anecdotally, very few religious people seem to be genuinely accepting of death despite their beliefs related to it.

    Personally, while I was neither an atheist or a believer at the time (more like assuming there was “something” supernatural which I didn’t know about specifically), I’ve gone through a phase as a teenager where I feared death to the point of hypochondria, but the two decades since then…no anxiety over the idea of death (which is eventually inevitable in any case), although obviously I do get anxious in actively dangerous situations, but that’s just a healthy self-preservation reaction.

  33. sosw says

    While the analogy of it being the same as before you were born is a nice insight (and has been said by at least Schopenhauer and Mark Twain), dreamless sleep is a fairly common experience, especially if you’re really tired you can just suddenly “lose time”.

    When I’m tired enough and e.g. reading blog comments, sometimes I just suddenly notice that I’ve scrolled all the way to the bottom without noticing, because I briefly fell asleep leaning on the down key (back in the day, this happened with usenet newsgroups and the space bar, the first time I distinctly remember this is after getting to work at 6am after not having slept the entire night).

    During that period, my mind does nothing that I have a recollection of. I might as well not have existed as a “mind-thing” at the time, although my physical presence was obvious.

    It’s not scary, although it does feel weird.

  34. Mike Check says

    My five year-old son dropped the death bomb on me a year ago:

    son: dad, will you die?
    dad: yep
    son: when?
    dad: probably a long time from now, maybe I have 60 more years
    son: oh. okay. will I die?
    dad: yep, but you probably have another 95+ years, maybe even 100+.
    son: oh. okay.

    No fairy tales, no afterlife nonsense, and he’s fine, happy, has fun, does his homework.

  35. patterson says

    As an RN I’ve seen a few deaths, and without a doubt the worst was that of a Catholic woman who was so terrified to die, that she refused all pain control or sedation. It was easily the most awful thing I’ve ever seen.

  36. GregPeterson says

    Thanks! Gun to my head, that’s what I would have guessed. I suppose I could have Googled around, but since I was writing on company time, I figured I’d just rely on the goodness of strangers–and you came through. Much appreciated. That Epicurus sure wrote some cool shtuff.

  37. patterson says

    “imagine what it was like before you were born”

    I hate that idea, I realize it’s utility as an argument against life after death. And I don’t fear nonexistence, but for some reason it just frigging irks me.

  38. patterson says

    “At least I have had running, clean water and flushing toilets as long as I’ve been here. That’s pretty fabulous, if you ask me.”

    Reminds me of a friend of mine who was very sick with Aids. I saw him once at the sink running some water over his hand, he said “you have no idea how amazing this is”.

  39. David Marjanović says

    Dude, have you seen his banhammer? And have you seen him angry?

    Now imagine the combination. Or, rather, don’t, for you shall turn mad from the revelation, mwahah.

  40. Jack Lewis says

    How can one claim with certainty that they were an atheist all their lives? I don’t remember anything from when I was 1 or 2. If I was an atheist then I probably had no reasons for it. Atheism to me at least should be the logical conclusion by seeing and understanding the world as it is vs the ridiculous claims of religion. Until you know a good bit about both, being an atheist seems a bit of a whim and of little worth.

  41. patterson says

    For me the single greatest thing about atheism is giving up the ‘life after death’ crap. I’ve never believed in god, so acknowledging that has never been a big deal, but I find the idea of no afterlife incredibly liberating. Always makes me just stop and look around. Of course when I look around I’m seeing fields and forests, and sunflowers and stone walls. The sensation might be different at work when I’m surrounded by stacks of paperwork, ugly tacked up memos, grumpy nurses and a grumpier ward clerk.

  42. oolon says

    On a similar theme I cannot read this thread without welling up a bit – damn those FTBullies!

    Anyway diverting from what I hope is some sort of joke…

    The husband of a friend from my tennis club died a couple of days ago. I don’t know either of them that well but it really makes you feel shitty – as PZ says for the family left behind. It seems utterly ridiculous to feel bad for the deceased – mainly because he had a reasonably long life (In his 50’s so not that great) and being released from cancer it was probably not that bad an end result compared with continued suffering.

  43. oolon says

    I was in a graveyard with my three year old and it is hard to explain why there are dead people under the gravestones. I tried to explain that for there to be new the old needs to make way. Plants die each year but new ones with fresh flowers come along the next. She was a bit sad for the dead people and fortunately her and my mortality never came up!

    She has no concept of a time before she existed – although she doesn’t get quite so upset that we didn’t take her to our wedding or some old holiday as she used to so maybe it is coming. I hope she takes it as well as your son – I’ll try the same no-nonsense approach.

  44. hieropants says

    I remember once, when I was out sketching a church, I was approached by two teenagers and a somewhat older man and subjected to a thinly-veiled missionary pitch in the form of a “survey” about whether you consider yourself a good person and have you heard of a simple way to tell if you are it’s called the Ten Commandments etc. Anyway, they asked what I thought would happen to me after I died and since I was trying to disengage so I could get back to drawing I responded with “I don’t know, I’ve never died before”. The older man laughed a little, but then asked me “Doesn’t that scare you?” and when I replied “No, not really” he looked… shocked. And I realized that this man is deeply terrified about death, so terrified that the fear spills out into every waking moment of his life, and he has to hold on to his Rules so that he can feel like maybe it’s going to be okay because he knows he can’t stay alive forever.

    I feel sorry for him. It must be terrible to live with that kind of fear.

  45. mynameischeese says

    Well, I disagree. I doubt that a two year old would understand the concept of god well enough to be a theist. So if your earliest memories of religious indoctrination include doubt and if the indoctrination never took hold after that, then you can pretty much say you were an atheist your entire life.

    I have a five year old now. We didn’t explicitely raise him to be an atheist, we just neglected to mention ideas like god or religion to him. Now he gets told about those things in school and (not yet feeling the social pressure to conform) says to his teacher’s face, “But that’s silly.”

    It takes a lot of consistant and firm indoctrination to turn a child into a theist.

  46. mynameischeese says

    “Atheism to me at least should be the logical conclusion”

    Also, I should add that I completely disagree with this. Atheism is simply the natural, default state of the human mind. It’s on the logical conclusion of anything if indoctrination needs to be scrubbed away.

  47. says

    Atheism is simply the natural, default state of the human mind.

    I call bullshit. Human beings have terrible brains that invent gods and forces and intentions in inanimate objects. It has ever been thus. Let’s not pretend that the default state of the brain is a good thing. Our brains suck, but we can (counterintuitively) use them to make themselves better.

  48. says

    Sleep analogies are probably better than the “imagine what you were before you were born” concept. Through sleep, we have an actual experience which shows varying levels of consciousness — including none at all. I contend that people who genuinely fear death ought to be afraid to go to sleep at night, since they have no real guarantee that they’ll wake up in the morning. Statistically, this is ever more true the older you get.

    There’s another way to approach this, though. We can attack the false concept of an unchanging and fully consistent self. The fact of the matter is that no one is even the same person they were ten years ago, let alone longer time frames. In a very real sense, ‘you’ have already died. The continuity you feel with your past selves is an illusion produced by incomplete memory, a kind of confirmation bias that stores the similarities and rejects the differences.

    Interestingly, the same facts can be used to show that people who seek immortality are being foolish. Given sufficient time, an “immortal” person will become so unrecognizably different from the starting self that to call them in any way the same would be an exercise in absurdity. At that time, it is more than reasonable to say the original is dead, and as such the very principle of immortality is fundamentally flawed.

  49. mynameischeese says

    Well, Crommunist, human brains might invent gods, but there’s no way that two brains, on their own, without interacting with each other, would both invent the exact same god. And they certainly wouldn’t invent the exact same religion and the exact same complicated rituals.

    Plus, there are plenty of people who are born atheist and never become religious. There are entire tribes of people who remain deity-less. So for plenty of people, myself included, atheism is the default.

  50. says

    This is great stuff. I’ve been thinking about my own mortality more lately–I’m only 44, but it’s around this time you start to realize your life is about half done, IF all goes well. And hey, I could get hit by a bus on my way home tomorrow.

    Long ago I decided that “For me there is nothing to fear in death itself, but only in how it’s encountered.” I’ve always thought of that as sort of a catch phrase of mine, and the thought of ceasing to exist really doesn’t bother me–“imagine what it was like before you were born” resonates with me.

    Still, I have found one complication: I don’t want death to come before I’ve wrapped up some loose ends. I’m raising two small children and (hopefully) giving them a good start on life, so that’s one thing. But I’ve also thought back to stuff I really enjoyed in my past, especially in my childhood.

    So I’ve been spending time lately, preserving what I can. I’ve been scanning old family albums before the photos all fade, and scanning some old books I read as a kid (anyone remember the Mushroom Planet Series?) and making them into PDFs. I’m creating tribute pages online to some of these old books, and little web pages about places I/we have traveled. It would be immodest to call this “my legacy”, but it’s something I think is important to put out there for other people to enjoy before I go.

  51. NoxiousNan says

    This is my camp right here, and I’ll add that I’ve always said I expect my primary emotion in my dying moment to be one of profound embarrassment. Most people look at me like I’m crazy, but I just think I’m going to be blushing my way out of this world.

  52. says

    I know he’ll hate this, but what the hell.

    I actually see PZ as a lot like my cat. Big and lovey and friendly, but if you’re an ass he’ll bite you just hard enough to get you to stop. Not because he’s mean, but because he wants to get along with you and can’t get along with asses.

  53. Beauzeaux says

    Agreed. When I was 35, I was not happy to think about my non-existence. Too scary an idea. I didn’t understand — even a little — when old people said they were “ready to go.”

    Well, I’m not ready, I thought. How could you even think such a thing?

    But, strangely enough, now that I’ve passed 70, I am fairly sanguine about not existing. Today I went to see my doctor to find the results of an intravenous pyelogram (CAT scan with injected contrast dye to examine a kidney) that was done a week ago. The conclusion is that I’m fine, but I was prepared for a less happy verdict. If a growth had been found, I would not have been light hearted but my concern would have been for the potential disruption of my everyday life. Not for the speeding up of my exit from it. I don’t know when this change occurred — it sort of sneaked up on me.

    I’m still not ready to go, but the idea of going is no longer scary.

  54. Beauzeaux says

    Excellent idea. If you are unsure how to proceed, here is the distinguished historian, Pierre Berton, demonstrating how to roll a joint.

  55. NoxiousNan says

    Excising that notion was such a great gift for me as well. My mother was pretty woo, but I had a mostly non-relgious childhood. But I had always assumed a god that religions just got wrong. Oh how I clung to an after-life, my tenuous grip to it was for a long time the only thing that kept me from being an atheist. I finally compromised by saying that any god worth its salt would never interfere with humans to such an extent that non-existence would be the best belief for a human to hold whether or not it was true. That eased me into atheism and surprise surprise the wonders of no miracles and no after-life. And I am ever grateful.

  56. Beauzeaux says

    “Still, I have found one complication: I don’t want death to come before I’ve wrapped up some loose ends.”

    I understand that. Everyone with not-completely-grown children still has lots of loose ends. Also, as long as you wake up in the morning wondering what the day might hold, you’re not even close to “letting go.”

    I still have curiousity. I am *perhaps* not as curious as I was was but I still have enough to get me out of bed in the morning.

    I have one child and she’s past 50, so I have a pretty good idea of how she’ll turn out. (Very nicely, thank you.)

  57. says

    I’m not especially frightened of death. The dying part is more of a worry, sounds like it could be painful.

    I’m 50 and have done some pretty cool things in my life. There’s more that I want to do, but there’s something to be said for motorcycling across Bhutan and around Turkey, and singing on stage in the Sydney Opera House, and having had sex with 50 sailors. Oh wait, that last bit was from a cartoon I once read, not me. Heh, something to aim for :)

  58. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    IIRC there are studies that have shown that religious people are more fearful of death. Anecdotally, very few religious people seem to be genuinely accepting of death despite their beliefs related to it.

    Logically, that’s not too surprising. “I will cease to exist someday. Now what?” has quite a bit of closure to it. If you’re starting from the premise that this unbelievable fairy tale is the only thing to stake your hope on, there’s no such closure. There’s always the uncertainty, even without getting into how vindictive and manipulative afterlife myths themselves can be…

  59. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    I had a friend and mentor who viewed the difficulty of imagining “total nothingness” from the point of the living, as almost a proof that something existed beyond life.

    Is it that much more difficult than imagining “a particle AND a wave?”

  60. strange gods before me ॐ says

    The Pirahã clearly have deities. From your link: “Xigagaí, one of the beings that lives above the clouds, was standing on a beach yelling at us, telling us that he would kill us if we go into the jungle.”

    More on that, from Steve Farmer:

    «But a closer look at the evidence suggests a more complex and quite melancholic story: among the few artifacts noted in Everett’s works are Pirahã necklaces made “from seeds, homespun cotton string, teeth, feathers, beads, beer-can pull-tabs, and/or other objects,” whose functions “are decorative only secondarily, their primary purpose being to ward off the evil spirits that they see almost daily” (Everett 2005). As this passage suggests, the claimed reluctance of the Pirahã to tell myths may itself testify to the fearful hold gods and spirits have over their daily life. The inclusion among Pirahã spirit-deflectors of “beer-can pull-tabs” also hints that the impoverishment of this rapidly dying culture may involve recent disruptions to old ways of life. The result as one severe Everett critic notes may be a “creolized, stripped-down remnant” of older values tied to the Pirahã’s earlier links to tribes known to have once possessed a rich mythology (Levinson 2005).

    Everett’s testimony in asides also suggests that the Pirahã are much more prone to myth telling than he tells the press. Thus despite his public claims that none of the Pirahã is bilingual, in his technical papers he speaks repeatedly of tribesmen freely relating stories in Portuguese as well as their native language (e.g., Everett 2005). Much comparative evidence demonstrates that myth telling is not as common in some premodern societies as others, but — and here the Pirahã must stand for the rest — no one has ever turned up evidence of a single early society that failed to picture major segments of reality in anthropomorphic terms.»

  61. mynameischeese says

    Spirits =/= deities. Whether people believe in ghosts, faeries, gods, spirits, horoscopes, or witches is cultural.

    You can’t just use words like “spirit” or “ghost” interchangably with “god” because they’re all different concepts (even the word “god” has a few different meanings). And none of these specific supersitions is universal among all cultures, not even the idea of ghosts.

    The human brain might be wired to invent superstitions, but it takes cultural influence for these superstitions to last. Thus why a four year-old might be afraid of a monster under his bed at night, but not during the day, and thus why his belief in the monster will eventually disappear.

    And lastly, even though the human brain might be wired to invent superstition, it still starts out as a blank slate. Unless you’re going to argue that babies are born already believing in the monster under the bed?

  62. says

    I don’t know where you’re getting this “blank slate” stuff from, but it’s not true. Yes, babies are born without specific god constructs, but the brain reads personality and intentionality into natural forces, and that’s not something we necessarily “grow out of”. There are adults who sincerely believe in things like “luck” and “fate” and “destiny” that are not tied up in a religious expression. Those are intention-based forces that are occasionally anthropomorphized as gods.

    As far as the necessity of culture to preserve these things, I am similarly doubtful. Things like the Fundamental Attribution Error and what we know about people with extrinsic locus of control suggest to me that it is a very human thing to personalize things we cannot control, and see intention where there isn’t one. This isn’t a cultural thing, it’s a human one. Add to that a sprinkle of neuroticism and a soupçon of magical thinking, and voila! Gods. Inculcation is needed only for filling in the specific details.

  63. mynameischeese says

    You’re still not addressing the point. Humans may be prone to superstitions, but they’re not specifically prone to specific superstitions. And superstitions are not necessarily stable over time. Plenty of people *do* grow out of believing that there is a specific monster hiding under their bed. They might believe in luck sometimes and then not believe in at other times. Psychoanalysts have been discussing this for years.

    Furthermore, if we go back to original point, that atheism should be the “logical conclusion” of anything, that’s still just Romantic BS and I mean Romantic with a capital R. Atheism doesn’t have to be the logical conclusion of anything. Some people just never latch onto the god superstition (which is all that has to happen to technically be considered an atheist, no matter what other superstitions they hold). How they arrived at their atheism, logically or illogically, doesn’t make one iota of difference to the fact they are an atheist.

    People are also hardwired to speak languages, but they’re not hardwired to speak a specific language. Thus why babies, though hard wired to learn or create languages, are blank slates in the way that I mean black slate. They don’t pop out of the womb speaking perfect English or French. The input they get from the outside world determines which specific language they speak.

  64. strange gods before me ॐ says

    “[O]ne of the beings that lives above the clouds” is clearly a deity. Xigagaí is not an ancestor spirit. There is no other distinction here. We’re talking about a god.

    I recommend you read Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer; it’ll help you understand why gods, specifically, are consistently invented.

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