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The Meaning of Death: Part One of Many

1_gravestoneWe talk a lot about the meaning of life. I want to talk for a bit about the meaning of death.

In the most straightforward literal sense, when you don’t believe in God or an afterlife, there is no meaning of death. Not in any external, objective sense. In the godless universe, death just happens. It doesn’t serve a purpose — there is no purpose. There’s no intention behind its When and How and Why; no designer picking people off according to some mysterious master plan. Death happens because of the laws of cause and effect in the physical universe, the laws of biology and chemistry and physics. It happens because it happens.

Peace_sign_painted_on_rock_1And along with many atheists and other godless folk, I don’t find this idea depressing or nihilistic. This may come as a surprise to many religious believers, but it’s true. It’s taken me a while to get there, but I actually find this idea rather comforting.

3_potterySee, the cool thing about godlessness is that you get to create your own meaning. Contrary to popular opinion, a godless life isn’t a life without meaning. It’s a life in which we create our own meaning. Our meaning of life, of course — but also our meaning of death.

So that’s what I want to talk about. Not, “What purpose does death serve for the non-existent designer?” But instead, “What meaning can death have for us? How can death shape our understanding and experience of life? What meaning of death can we create?”

And one of the things that works best for me is to see death — permanent, designerless, physical cause-and-effect death — as something that intimately connects us with the universe.

My mother died of cancer at the age of 45, when I was 17, two months after I started college. I don’t talk about it much. It was terrible. It was traumatic. It was unbelievably shitty timing, mostly for her but for me as well. It was unfair.

4_scotland_skye_cliffsExcept that it wasn’t unfair. Any more than a star going nova is unfair, or a cliff collapsing into the sea.

5_god_sistineWhen you don’t believe that all death happens by design — the grand cosmic design of an All Powerful, All Knowing, All Good God who theoretically loves you — then you don’t have to torture yourself wondering what you did wrong. You don’t have to twist yourself into contortions trying to figure out why you’re being punished, what lesson you’re supposed to learn. When people die young, when people die in terrible pain, when people die freakishly for no apparent reason, you don’t have to pile onto your pain and grief any extra guilt about being punished… or any extra guilt because you’re trying to see a reason for it and can’t.

6_dead_treeInstead, you can see death as part of the way the world works. We are an animal species in the physical world, and animal species in the physical world get sick, or get in accidents, or get birth defects, or die in natural disasters. Sometimes good people, sometimes too young. And if it happens to you, or someone you love, it’s not because you/ they did something wrong. You can accept it, and grieve over it, and move on.

And when it comes to contemplating your own death, you can see it in much the same way. Death is the thing that will ultimately separate you from the universe… and yet, paradoxically, it connects you with it as well.

8_aerial_gardenferns_on_a_tree_2Death sucks, and premature death sucks worse. But it’s part of the package deal of getting to be alive. It happens because you, and all the people around you, are part of the world: the physical, natural world, with all of its wonders and horrors. It’s a world that doesn’t really care whether you live or die, whether you suffer or rejoice, and to some people that can seem bleak and cold. But it’s a world of which we are a part, a world which we are intimately connected to down to our very molecules — not a world that stands apart from us and punishes us for reasons we can never fathom.

GalaxyAnd without a God, you don’t have to figure out what purpose your death is serving. You don’t have to torture yourself trying to figure out the motivations of the physical universe. It doesn’t have any. So you can accept its inevitability, and get on with your life.

This should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: This little blog post isn’t intended to answer this question for everyone on the planet once and for all. Hence the “Part One of Many” in the title. I’ve written before about death — Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do With God was the first piece of overtly godless writing I ever did — and I know I’ll be writing about it more in the future. And lots of other godless writers are wrestling with it as well.

On that topic: I actually started forming these ideas and putting them into words in a discussion on Ebon Muse’s Daylight Atheism blog, a discussion in which Ebon and many other people had thoughtful and insightful things to say on the subject. Parts of this piece were poached from my comments there. Other parts were poached from my piece on this blog, “Give her an out”: Prayer and Terminal Illness… which in turn was inspired by the Bless the Child? piece on Sid Schwab’s Surgeonsblog. So big shout-outs to Ebon and Sid on this one.

Comments

  1. says

    Wonderful, Greta! But I see a meaning in death, one you didn’t count: the matter – or energy – that’s is retained in this body that I call “mine” is released to form other lives. That’s why I don’t want my body to be burned, as such a procedure will worsen greenhouse effect and global heating. If “my” body is buried, it can feed other forms of life and become part of the miracle of life cycles in this planet.
    Loving Kisses for you and Ingrid,

  2. Louis Doench says

    Wonderful Greta. I’ve moved your blog to a the top of my Google HP Atheists page so I won’t miss a delicious word. (oh, and congrats on getting published in a real grown up newspaper)
    re: Alexis, I’ve thought a lot about what to do with my mortal remains and I’ve been inspired by the great John Prine, who sings
    “Please don’t bury me, down in that cold cold ground. I’d rather have them cut me up, and pass me all around. Throw my brain in a hurricane, the blind can have my eyes. And the Deaf can take both of my ears of they don’t mind the size.”
    So I’ll be donating my body to science.
    Actually, I’d like to donate my body to MAD science.
    Then I can terrorize villagers.

  3. r says

    Well, it seems to me death cannot be separated from life; the one is impossible without the other.
    Without death, life could not have developed; imagime the horror of a society where no one dies! It would grind to a halt; not enough space for new life.

  4. says

    Thanks for your links! To echo the comment above; if there weren’t death, there’d be no reproduction, no having children…
    When I was very young, talking to my mom about death, the concept of being dead forever and ever, for trillions of years, with no end, scared me. It wasn’t until I realized many years later that it’s be just like it was for the gazillion years before I was born — and that seemed OK — that it became understandable.
    There’s no doubt in my mind that cognizance and fear of death are the central reasons for religion; and that the need to deal with the dissonance is why even very intelligent and rational people — in other aspects of their lives — cling unquestioningly to the self-contradictory and absurd tenets of their religion. To me, it’s a much higher morality to live a life of respect for others, of caring, when one has no religions, than to do so mainly for fear of punishment or promise of reward after death… And I look forward to the rest of your thoughts. All people need to deal with the knowing of death; I’m not much interested in the easy and thoughtless answers of the religious.

  5. db says

    A godless view of death has the same advantage as a godless view of disease. We can admit that death and disease is bad, and do something about it. Not everyone wants to reproduce and die and would like to have the choice to live as long as we wish. (In the long run, we can easily get enough resources both to live and reproduce if we don’t reproduce exponentially: at most one child per parent.)

  6. says

    Alexis: I don’t think there’s any long-term ecological difference between burning and decay. It’s not as if being burned into CO2 and H2O removes you from the ecosystem! Plants will draw you back down. And compared to being buried in concrete, or even treated wood, you enter the ecosystem a lot faster… Heat from the burning is insignificant against your life’s energy usage, and isn’t unique to cremation anyway: decay produces heat, as the energy in the organic matter is “burned” slowly by the bacteria doing the decay. And your carbon will probably hit atmosphere eventually either way — not that it matters for global warming, because you’re biological carbon, passing from air to plant to soil to air many times.
    Now, if they use fossil fuels to get the body burning properly, that would contribute to global warming. Then again, they probably used fossil fuels to create and transport a coffin.
    Not to convince you about burial or cremation, either way, but don’t avoid cremation because of a mistaken belief that it removes you from the cycle of life.

  7. says

    I’m interested in the concept of fairness as you hit on it. It seems to be a primal human response, but it does presume a higher order. If it is not an innate reaction to hardship, when was it learned? Or is it a version of competitiveness that prompts survival?
    Good post. Thank you.

  8. Angie says

    Deb, you wouldn’t be in a lighthouse in Ohio would you?
    I was thinking about fairness, too. It seems like the concept of fair starts when we’re young. If you’re supposed to share an apple with someone and you give them one bite and you eat the rest – that’s not fair. But when it comes to things like death or illness it seems like we start to take it personally. There’s the ‘I don’t like it, it’s not the way i wanted it to be’ aspect and there’s the ‘jI have no control over this and it’s permanent’ aspect.
    I guess it’s about whether or not something is under our control. Dad can make your sister give you half the apple, but he can’t bring you pet rabbit back to life.
    Ursula K. Le Guin’s version of Chapter 16 of the Tao Te Ching describes death as ‘returning to the root’ and emphasizes ‘understanding what must be and knowing what endures.’ She says ‘to know what endures is to be open hearted, magnanimous, regal, blessed’ and that undertanding that this is way things are ‘the body comes to its ending, but there is nothing to fear.’
    I find that inspiring and comforting.

  9. says

    Deb, I think that’s a hard question to answer. But my understanding from what I’ve read of evolutionary biology is that our sense of and desire for fairness is wired into us as a social species. It’s a big part of what drives out ability to co-operate successfully.
    And I think Angie has a very good and interesting point. Our instinct for fairness slops over from human beings divvying up the food and resources equitably, where it makes sense, into a feeling that the larger natural/ physical world is or should be fair… where it really, really doesn’t make sense.

  10. says

    Good one.
    When I was a kid I wanted to be able to live forever. Now I’m old (well, relatively), that thought seems horrific.
    Life is too short.
    Struggling to make it a bit longer (and even more importantly, of higher quality, however long we get), like much else we struggle to achieve, is a fine goal.
    Life is precious. We need to live it while we can, because it’s all we get.
    An existence stretching on forever? Forever is a really, really long time. Everything could be done “tomorrow”. And none of it would mean much, because anything you did could be surpassed later, assuming you could be bothered to get out of bed.
    These days, death doesn’t just seem natural to me, but, ultimately, necessary.

  11. Rebecca says

    It’s interesting to read others’ thoughts on this. I’ve always felt like an alien because my own death doesn’t scare me. Others’ deaths? Yep, been there and I hate it, and my experience of it has never been softened by a belief that I will “see them all again someday.” But my own death has nothing after it for me, and I’m good with that, mostly because I won’t be around to care.
    Plus, it doesn’t bother me that I can’t live forever, either on earth or in some sort of cloud-ridden fairyland. Living forever sounds irritating.
    As for my body after death? Wrap me in something biodegradable, stick me in the ground and plant something edible. I’m thinking a blackberry bramble, since they’re tough and prickly and sweet.

  12. says

    Fairness: making sure you don’t get less than anyone else.
    Some people may realize that no one else wants less either, and jump straight to the fair split, rather than fighting over it.
    Anyway, a sense of fairness seems to be in monkeys; google ‘fairness’ with ‘monkeys’ to see a slew of articles.

  13. trailrider says

    Great article and comments. Becoming/being an Atheist is soooo liberating, and cheaper too.

  14. Jeffrey Soreff says

    To enlarge on:

    There’s no intention behind its When and How and Why; no designer picking people off according to some mysterious master plan.

    That, in and of itself, is a comfort:
    The degree of pain felt at an injury is perceived as higher
    when the pain is intentional, and as less when it is not intentional:
    Gray, K., & Wegner, D. M. (2008). The sting of intentional pain. Psychological Science, 19(12), 1260-1262.
    Reference stolen from this discussion

    (of course, this doesn’t apply if the death is
    intentional, in the case of a murder, for instance)

  15. Maya says

    Hello,

    I want to react to that part of your article (which is by the way very well written):

    “When you don’t believe that all death happens by design — the grand cosmic design of an All Powerful, All Knowing, All Good God who theoretically loves you — then you don’t have to torture yourself wondering what you did wrong. You don’t have to twist yourself into contortions trying to figure out why you’re being punished, what lesson you’re supposed to learn. When people die young, when people die in terrible pain, when people die freakishly for no apparent reason, you don’t have to pile onto your pain and grief any extra guilt about being punished… or any extra guilt because you’re trying to see a reason for it and can’t.
    Instead, you can see death as part of the way the world works.”

    These are your words. The conception of God as you’re mentionning it in this very particular paragraph is very much linked to Christianity, or at least, to the Christian interpretation of life, death, suffering and God Himself. But this conception is not true for all religions, so I guess using it as a generality to oppose your own meaning of death “as part of the way the world works”, is a little biased when it comes to the very idea of God. How? Because you’d find somebody else, belonging to another religious background whose meaning of death is similar to yours, without “godlessness” being the reason behind that similarity.

    Here too “But it’s a world of which we are a part, a world which we are intimately connected to down to our very molecules — not a world that stands apart from us and punishes us for reasons we can never fathom.” It is again linked to the Christian conception of God. And this is not even true for all the monotheist abrahmic religions.

    Let’s take the example of Islam. The Quran (muslims’ holy book but I bet you know it) states that God creates death and life. Among His attributes is that He gives life and He gives death. Okay. The Quran states also that all that is disappears and that only remains He (God).
    On the one hand we have that there is this God who creates both death and life, and on the other hand we have that idea that death and life are part of the natural order since all that exists disappears. To use your words it’s the way the world works, it’s the way it simply is. In fact, the Quran makes parables for that using the ongoing process of night and day (something ends, something begings, etc), the dead “soil” that flourishes after rain falls, etc, and these parables are stated to be “signs” for those who think. So yes you thought, and you told us that you see that life and death are everywhere in nature, so it’s not a punishment for us humans and it does not happen for unknown reasons. It is bright! But this looks bright and fresh and awesome when opposed to the christian conception of God and suffering, not of Islam’s. When compared to the Islamic view of God and suffering, it just seems that you came up to the same conclusion that the Quran claims to be a departure to meditating on God’s existence: that death is just part of the way things work. With a slight difference though, you see it godlessly whereas the Quran states that it is actually God who has made it such that death and life are part of the way the world works.Slight difference, but actually a big one since it is this very particular difference which makes the words “believer” and “atheist”. And that’s a matter of choice which I’m not discussing here.

    (And if death has any meaning to have in Islam besides that it is part of the way the world works (which is actually not a meaning but what makes it what it is), it is that death (and ending) is a reminder that everything comes to an end except He who gives life and death).

    I know your article is not meant to hold a universal truth, you’re speaking about your own view, your own meaning of death. And I’m not trying to prove you wrong or to tell you “Islamic God is better” or whatsoever. I’m trying to show you the limits of your own ideas, regardless of what I think or believe. It seems that the whole meaning you’re giving to death makes sense only by opposition to the idea of (christian) God, as you described it (kills our relatives to punish us, punishes us for things we don’t fathom and that He’s separated from us).

    My point? The meaning of death with respect to religion(s) has nothing to do with whether God exists or not, but on how we think God is (what the very idea of God means). And so far in this article, I see a conception of God which only makes sense in christianity. So, maybe, it would be interesting to wonder who God is and then oppose views on the idea of His existence, rather than label Him with the labels that a specific religion has given Him and stay trapped in one narrow view of Him. Because you see, here you have a very good article, but all the beauty in it, all the strength we can feel is put in your meaning of death sound great when you oppose your view to christianity, but it looks unfinished and superficial when opposed to Islam.

    It lets the reader believe, that it is the way Christianity has defined God which makes you atheist (in reality I think you have your reasons, but I’m saying that on the basis of this particular article, I don’t allow myself judging your belief it is the way it seems).

    Your ideas would only sound stronger if you free yourself from the christian view of God/life/death/suffering, because what you expose as a natural consequence of believing in God is only true of a bunch of believers from a specific background, not all of the believers from all backgrounds, thus it can’t be used as an argument to “God does not exist” or to oppose that “believing in God is foolish/irrational/etc.”.

    Good work though, I like your use of the pen, fluid and deep.

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