Atheism, Death, and the Difference between Pessimism and Realism


Gravestones What is an appropriate atheist philosophy of death?

And how should atheists be talking about death with believers?

As regular readers know, I’ve been doing a project on Facebook: the Atheist Meme of the Day, in which I write pithy, Facebook-ready memes explaining one aspect of atheism or exploding one myth about it, and asking people to pass the memes on if they like. (BTW, if you’re on Facebook, friend me!)

Some of my Memes of the Day have generated disagreement from some atheists. Which is fine, of course. I don’t expect or want all atheists to agree about everything. Quite the contrary: one of the great things about atheism is that we have no central dogma that we all have to agree on, and no central authority that we all have to obey.

But the memes that have generated the most vocal and vigorous pushback have surprised me. They have consistently been the ones about death: the ones trying to show that a godless view of death can offer some degree of solace and meaning; the ones that begin, “Atheism does have comfort to offer in the face of death.” Whenever I write one of these, I can almost guarantee that within a few hours — usually within a few minutes — someone will be complaining that the comforting philosophy I’m presenting isn’t comforting at all. Or even that atheism can’t possibly present a philosophy of death that could compete with the comfort offered by religion… with the apparent implication that it’s either deceptive or deluded to pretend that this is possible, and that we shouldn’t even try.

I’m a bit puzzled by this. So I want to explain in a little more detail what I mean by these memes. And I want to try to find out why there’s resistance to the very idea of presenting an atheist philosophy of death that provides meaning, hope, and comfort.

*

I think part of the problem here may lie with that word “comfort” — and with some people’s expectations of it. So I’ll try to make my meaning a little more explicit.

Sad_face When I say that some particular view of death offers comfort, I don’t mean that it completely eradicates any pain or grief associated with death. Of course it doesn’t. Nothing does that — not even religion. (More on that in a moment.) When I say, “This view of death offers some comfort,” I’m not saying, “If you look at death this way, it will no longer trouble you. With this philosophy, you can view death blithely, even cheerfully. The death of the ones you love, and your own eventual death, will no longer suck even in the slightest.”

That’s not what I mean by “comfort.”

When I say, “This atheist philosophy of death offers comfort,” I mean, “This atheist philosophy can, to some extent, alleviate the suffering and grief caused by death. It can make the suffering and grief feel less overwhelming, less unbearable. It doesn’t make the pain disappear — but it can put the experience into a context that gives it some sort of meaning, and it can offer the hope that with time, the pain will diminish. It can give us a sense that there’s a bridge over the chasm: a feeling of trust that, when the worst of the grief passes, we’ll have a solid foundation to return to. It doesn’t make the grief go away — but it can make it better.”

That’s what I mean by “comfort.” It would be nice if an atheist philosophy of death could do more; but given how monumentally frightening and upsetting death is, the fact that atheism can provide even this degree of comfort is not trivial.

And maybe more to the point: Religion doesn’t do any better.

Stone_angel Ever since I became an atheist, I’ve been struck by the fact that, even when people believe that death is no more than a temporary separation, they still grieve deeply and desperately for the people they love, as if they were never going to see those people again. Belief in an afterlife doesn’t keep people from mourning in terrible anguish when their loved ones die. It doesn’t keep people from missing the loved ones they’ve lost, for years, for the rest of their lives. And it doesn’t keep people from fearing their own death, and putting it off as long as they can. (And for the record: No, I don’t think this makes them hypocrites. I think it makes them human.) The comfort of religion doesn’t eradicate grief, any more than the comfort of atheism does. It simply alleviates it to some extent.

But does an atheist philosophy of death offer less comfort than a religious one? Honestly — I think that depends. For one thing, I think it depends on the atheist philosophy. A philosophy of (for instance) “Yes, I’m going to die, but my ideas and the effect I had on the world will live on for a while ” will probably be more comforting than a philosophy of, “Yeah, death totally sucks, but that’s reality, reality bites, whaddya gonna do.”

Hellfire Plus, obviously, it depends on the religion as well. Many true believers in a blissful afterlife aren’t actually very comforted by this belief. It’s common for believers to be tormented by the thought that, even if they’re going to Heaven, the apostates in their family are going to burn in Hell… and how can Heaven be Heaven if their loved ones are burning in Hell? And many religious beliefs about death fill their believers, not with comfort, but with terror and guilt… and many atheists who once held those beliefs say that letting go of them was a profound relief. They would much rather believe in no afterlife at all than an afterlife determined by the vengeful, nitpicky, capricious, psychopathically sadistic god they were brought up to believe in.

And whether atheism or religion offers more comfort in the face of death depends an awful lot on the person. When I believed in an afterlife, I always had a nagging, uncomfortable feeling in the back of my mind that my beliefs weren’t based on anything substantial, that they weren’t sincere beliefs so much as wishful thinking. Compared to my current conclusions — that when we die, our consciousness will almost certainly disappear entirely — I suppose those beliefs were more comforting. Or they would have been, if it hadn’t been for my uneasy suspicion that they were bullshit.

See-no-evil But… well, that’s my point. My current ways of coping with death offer a major source of comfort that my old beliefs couldn’t give, a source of comfort that more than compensates for the pleasant belief in the false hope of immortality. And that’s a strong degree of confidence that I’m not deluding myself. As Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote: “The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism.” Having no cognitive dissonance in my philosophy of death is a considerable comfort. This might not be the case for everybody; some people seem better able to live with cognitive dissonance than others. But it certainly is for me. And it seems to be for many other people.

Which brings me back to my point:

Yes, I care about reality. Any regular reader of my writing knows that I care about reality to an almost obsessive degree. I am not a fan of pretty lies that make people feel better*, and the argument that “it doesn’t matter whether religion is really true” fills me with sputtering rage. I think reality is far more important than anything we could make up about it… pretty much by definition.

But it is not a denial of reality to offer comforting thoughts about death that have nothing to do with God.

It bugs me when atheists with a more bleak view of death than mine present that bleakness as a logical consequence of atheism, the inherent and natural result of not believing in God or an afterlife. It bugs me partly because I disagree. Obviously. But it also bugs me because it treats a question of personal opinion and philosophy and perspective as if it were a question of fact.

Look. Questions like, “Is there a god?” “Is there a soul?” “Is there an afterlife?” — these are questions of fact, questions we can and should be debating the evidence for. But questions like, “Is it comforting to view death as a natural process, something that connects us with the great chain of cause and effect in the universe?” or, “Is it comforting to view death as a deadline, something we need to inspire us to accomplish anything?” — those are questions of opinion, personal perspective. We can discuss and debate them… but ultimately, they are questions that can be legitimately answered with, “If it’s true for me, then it’s true for me.”

And it bugs me when atheists argue that these forms of comfort are somehow delusional… because it treats a personal perspective on life as if it were a simple question of fact.

Beautiful_frame Besides, when it comes to questions of perspective and opinion and personal philosophy… why not try to be positive? Why not try to frame our experience in ways that are hopeful and meaningful and comforting? And why not share those ways of framing experience with people who are considering atheism but are scared to pieces about it? Of course our philosophies should be consistent with reality… but if we have a choice in different ways of dealing with that reality, why not choose the ones that minimize suffering and maximize joy?

Greta_gravestone I’m not trying to pretend that death doesn’t suck. I’m not even trying to pretend that the finality of death with no afterlife doesn’t suck. Death sucks — and it should. Life is precious, and we should treasure it, and mourn its loss. If we care about the people we love, it is reasonable and right to grieve when they die; if we care about our own selves and our own lives, it is reasonable and right to grieve in advance for their eventual end.

But we can find ways to frame reality — including the reality of death — that make it easier to deal with. We can find ways to frame reality that do not ignore or deny it and that still give us comfort and solace, meaning and hope. And we can offer these ways of framing reality to people who are considering atheism but have been taught to see it as inevitably frightening, empty, and hopeless.

And I’m genuinely puzzled by atheists who are trying to undercut that.

Of course it’s valid to discuss and even debate personal philosophies and opinions and perspectives. I’m not trying to squelch dissension and debate; if I post a Meme of the Day or anything else that other atheists don’t agree with, I’m curious to hear about it. And especially when it comes to death, I understand that some people see certain perspectives on it as comforting, while others see those same perspectives as unsettling. (I, for one, am baffled by people who say that death will be a relief from the burden of life.) And I’m interested in hearing about those differences.

But I think there’s a difference between saying, “Gee, that isn’t my experience, I don’t find that comforting at all” — and saying, “But death still sucks even when you look at it that way — therefore, that view isn’t comforting at all!” And I think there’s an enormous difference between saying, “Gee, that isn’t my experience, I don’t find that comforting at all” — and saying, “There is no way atheism can ever offer a philosophy of death that will be more comforting than religion. That’s just a simple fact. We shouldn’t even try.”

And I am genuinely puzzled by people who so vehemently insist on the latter responses.

There are a lot of things I’m trying to do with these memes. (All the memes — not just the ones about death.) I’m trying to dispel myths and misconceptions and bigotries about atheism. I’m trying to disseminate methods of critical thinking, about religion specifically and reality generally. I’m trying to get people to view religion as just another hypothesis about the world, with no more right to special treatment than any other hypothesis.

Clasped hand But one of the biggest things I’m trying to do with these memes is to help make atheism a safe place to land. I’m trying to make the world a safer place to be an atheist: not just safer from the bigotry and hostility of others, but safer emotionally and psychologically for the people who are considering it. The journey out of religion and into atheism can be a frightening and traumatic one, even under the best of circumstances. And the fear of the permanence of death is often one of the most frightening and traumatic parts of the transition.

I’m trying to help ease that transition. I’m trying to show that an atheist life can be a good and happy and joyful life, and that, while losing religion will often mean losing some forms of comfort and meaning, there will be new forms of comfort and meaning to replace them. Including new ways of dealing with death. (And it’s not like I’m not pulling these memes out of my ass. Every meme I’ve written about death has been a view that some atheists find comforting: if not myself, then people I’ve spoken to or read.) The world is increasingly full of people who are falling out of religion, or who are close to falling out of it. I’m trying to help create a safety net, to make that landing softer.

And I’m genuinely puzzled when it seems like other atheists are trying to cut the ropes.

For more on my atheist philosophies of death:

Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God
The Meaning of Death: Part One of Many
The Meaning of Death, Part 2 of Many: Motivation and Mid-Life Crises
The Meaning of Death, Part 3 of Many: Fear, Grief, and Actually Experiencing Your Emotions

*(With the obvious exception of certain social situations. There are some lies, such as “I liked your poem,” that I will almost always happily tell.)

Comments

  1. vel says

    excellent post as always. I will have to say that I do think that theists trying to preserve their lives, grieiving over loved ones, does make them hypocrites *and* human. If they really did believe, I can’t imagine feeling any grief or being afraid if one *really* thought some omnipowerful benevolent being was taking care of them. I am afraid of losing people, of ending myself but not afraid of death persay. Per physics, it seems that it is necessary for life. No way around it, no matter how sucky it is. But at least I no longer am afraid of some magical afterlife or such a sadist to wish that on others. That’s why I find atheism a much more decent and humane answer for the fear of death.

  2. Ephemeriis says

    I never found any religious view of death to be comforting. The idea that I was going to either burn for eternity, or spend eternity singing the praises of a homicidal maniac, filled me with dread. No thank you.
    On the other hand, I’m completely OK with simply not existing. As Mark Twain said, I’ve got plenty of experience not existing. Millions of years of it. Didn’t bother me at all.
    Yes, it sucks to lose a loved one. But at least I know they’re not suffering anymore. They aren’t sick, they aren’t in pain, they aren’t struggling to pay the bills, etc.
    Sure, I could look on the dark side… They’ll also never kiss again, or sit in the sun, or read a good book, or whatever… But why would I torment myself like that?
    Death sucks – why make it any more unpleasant by intentionally torturing yourself?

  3. cuntageous says

    Since humans are social creatures the death of loved onese will be experienced as a loss. Also, It’s natural to be afraid of death — the survival instinct is built into organisms. But honestly, the idea of immortality (whether it be physical or as a disembodied ‘spiritual entity’ is far more horrifying.

  4. Daniel Schealler says

    On the grounds of comfort in the face of death, I’ve always thought that there was something… odd in the idea that it would be good not to grieve in the face of death.
    Think about it. Eventually, my mother is going to die, and probably before I do. That’s going to suck. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that I came across some view of reality that meant that I could be chipper and upbeat and generally unfazed by the event of my mother’s death. Don’t just read the words: Actually picture it in your head. A young man at his mother’s funeral, with a happy smile, pleased to see everyone.
    Doesn’t that seem somehow… wrong. Perhaps ‘wrong’ in’t a wise choice of word, it smacks of moral judgement. Jarring does better. Yes. It seems jarring to think of someone not grieving at their own mother’s funeral.
    And if you’re like me, you’d feel a bit cheated to have something that completely takes your grief away.
    I can see a definite benefit to someone whittling back your grief to the point that it is downgraded from life-endingly-unbearable to just-within-tolerance-levels. But anything more than that: No! Hell no!
    I love my loved ones, and I demand the right to grieve for them when they pass.
    Which is why I find the rhetoric of the promises of religion that attempt to provide comfort in the face of death, to be a bit oily. Sod off to comfort! When my loved ones die, it will suck. Looking ahead, I don’t think I’ll be looking for the kind of comfort that dispels grief. I’ll be looking to grieve my guts out.
    If I look for any kind of comfort at all, it will be something to make managing and expressing my grief easier. Something to make it less overwhelming, but not remove an ounce of its potency. Because I wouldn’t sell an inch of the grief itself, not even if the answer came in a pretty pink pill for a buck fifty.
    The depth of the grief is proportional to the love for those lost. Grief is important, and valuable.
    Fortunately, I haven’t had to apply my atheism in the face of grief just yet. But I can see the shape of it. Atheism will give me an adult, respectful context to manage grief and fear in the face of death.
    The sugary promises of religion strike me as more than a bit sickening by comparison.
    I can see how some people like things all sugary sweet… But it strikes me as an insult to those who pass to resort to that kind of gimcrackery.

  5. Rieux says

    Strongly concur with vel’s comment. This is another fantastic post (I hate how this blog makes me feel like a total kiss-ass, but what can I do? Greta is reliably terrific). And like vel, it seems to me that there is too hypocrisy in (1) believing that Grandma has gone to be with God and yet (2) being horribly sad that she’s no longer here. Human? Absolutely. But hypocritical, too.

  6. says

    Chiming in on the religious people mourning death thing –
    This certainly doesn’t reveal that believers don’t believe after all, but it damn well reveals that they have doubts. And, sure, many of the more moderate faithful will admit to doubts and crises of faith. But on the other hand, you also have people who claim to be regularly filled with the Holy Spirit, talk to God regularly, know they’re saved, all that, and they fear and mourn death too. Cognitive dissonance much?

  7. JulietEcho says

    I haven’t followed all the comments on the memes, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that people are confusing “It’s possible, as an atheist, to approach the idea of death with some comfort,” and “Atheism offers comfort in the face of death.” Atheism doesn’t offer anything, it’s just a lack of belief, blah, blah, etc. etc.
    Anyway, I agree with what you’ve written, and I’d like to add a theory. Even if you present atheism as a “safe place to land” theoretically, it’s hard to know whether you’ll be able to find comfort through atheistic philosophies until a test comes. If your religious beliefs offer you some comfort, and you’re not sure if you’ll be able to handle dealing with death without them – if you’re not sure that atheistic ideas could ever comfort you in that situation – it’s not going to make it any less scary.

  8. says

    I’m also puzzled by the atheists who scorn the idea of finding comfort in the face of death in a humanist philosophy. It may be that they’ve discovered the power of thinking for themselves, the intellectual joy it gives them to tear down taboos – and using this new tool gives them such a rush of freedom, they wield it indiscriminately, brandishing it against anything that even reminds them of the religious superstitions they’ve left behind.
    Since religion promises people comfort, but religion is false, anything else that offers people comfort must be foolishness as well! – or so goes the thinking, anyway. I think for most people, this is a passing phase. Once you’ve torn down, you can’t live in the rubble forever. Sooner or later, you’ve got to build something of your own!

  9. says

    For a while, I was worried that I was one of the ones you were talking about, but then you qualified at the end. I’m one of the people who commented on that meme post saying that the particular philosophy on death was not comforting at all to me, but I understand why it was comforting to other people. I don’t want to take away from other people’s comfort – comfort itself is very subjective, which is why I wanted to chime in and share my own subjective feelings on the subject, acknowledging that while the philosophy can be comforting, it may not always be comforting to every atheist. That was my main motivation to putting in my own two cents.

  10. Lyndi says

    A few years back, I suddenly lost a beloved friend of the family, who I’d known since the day he was born, 18 years prior. Atheism gave me comfort in not having to question why a loving god would allow such a thing. It’s comforting to me to know that while bad things happen to good people, bad things also happen to bad people, good things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. There’s no question of “why?,” it just is.

  11. says

    When theists grieve about lost loved ones, it’s a different kind of grief — they are sad because:
    1) They will not see these people again or hear from them for a long, long time.
    2) If a loved one died young, they are sad that he didn’t manage to experience this or that, to live this life. They believe in an afterlife, but they believe it to be very different from this life, and one doesn’t replace another.
    I’m speaking from experience here — I absolutely believed in an afterlife for my whole life (even now, when I know that this belief is almost certainly bullshit, I prefer to desperately cling to it, waving away the congnitive dissonance). And I met other religious people who felt exactly the same way — they were sad when a loved one died (for the reasons I mentioned), but were also happy for them and hopeful to meet again some day.
    I remember my own feelings at a funeral. Mixed feelings — sadness and serenity and happiness — in imagining how this person is happy now, talking to the people he lost long ago. So, to all the people who say there is hypocrisy here — no, there is not. What you see as grief — this is believers grieving WITH the comfort that religion offers. Now imagine how would they look at the same funeral WITHOUT it, and you begin to understand why it is so hard to let go…
    Great essay, thank you! I didn’t comment on your meme, but if I would, I’d be in the camp of people that you target here. Of course, comfort is a matter of opinion… but you know, sometimes other people’s opinions are so baffling, that you simply feel the need to ask — “You really find this comforting? Really?” despite that you know the question is meaningless. So, yes, I accept that I should phrase my opinions this way: Unfortunately, I find no comfort at the face of death, no matter where I look. But if other people do — more power to ‘em!

  12. says

    Atheism gave me comfort in not having to question why a loving god would allow such a thing… There’s no question of “why?,” it just is.
    Lyndi, I think this really sums it up for me. Believing all events are a god’s decision means a god is constantly deciding to kill people you didn’t want dead. Not believing in any such deity means you have to come to terms with the simple facts of life and death in the universe in which we live.

  13. says

    Considering I picked up “The Canon” at your recommendation, I’m surprised you didn’t quote it here… there’s a great passage in there about the author talking to her daughter, explaining that no matter what, our atoms will continue to be reused by the universe, over and over and over, forever, and that that’s how some part of us goes on after death… with her daughter then going “I hope some part of me comes back as a kitty cat.” Brought tears to my eyes, that, because I had finally, for the first time since I gave up on the afterlife (an incredibly hard thing– I think I clung to some semblance of belief for a long time because my mother died when I was 13 and accepting that I would never see her again was agonizing) found something comforting and even kind of cosmically cool about death. Forget “We are dust, and to dust we shall return…” We’re stars, man, and someday we’ll all be stars again.

  14. Zarathustra says

    The problem with talking about death is that we’re all ameteurs……….. No one alive knows anything about it & when we’re dead it’s too late. Everything is mere speculation. So Keep imagining whatever you need to be comforted.

  15. Paul says

    Once you’ve torn down, you can’t live in the rubble forever. Sooner or later, you’ve got to build something of your own!

    Are you ever not cheery and optimistic, Ebonmuse? I’ll admit it’s one of the things that I like about you, but it seems out of place sometime. One wouldn’t need to live in the rubble forever, only until they meet their end. It’s quite possible. Us mortals don’t need to worry about forever, only our four score and seven (or so).

    But honestly, the idea of immortality (whether it be physical or as a disembodied ‘spiritual entity’ is far more horrifying.

    What is horrifying about immortality? I mean, I understand if you mean the type where someone asks a literal genie to live forever but forgets to request a side of never aging, bur it’s trivial to think of immortality without that sort of horror. And I see no reason to find it horrifying, unless there’s a lack of imagination and one is easily bored.
    Great essay, Greta. It will be handy to link others to.

  16. DSimon says

    Zarathustra, we do know a fair bit about death. For example, we know that all the mechanisms in a person’s brain that are very closely tied with experiencing the world stop working when they die.
    Because of this, it’s not mere speculation to conclude that physical death is the end of consciousness; it’s the conclusion best supported by the evidence.
    Paul, the scary thing about immortality is that there’s no escape. What if, after many trillions of years, you not unreasonably decided that there was nothing left to do but stuff you’d already done many times over? What if you accidentally got launched out of the solar system and became permanently separated you from rest of humanity? What if you lost your sanity irrecoverably? Or, what if you were the last one left sane? It would be truly horrifying to be in such a situation without even the most basic means of escape.

  17. Paul says

    Paul, the scary thing about immortality is that there’s no escape.

    You say this right after you talk about the evidence that there is no consciousness without brain activity!

    What if, after many trillions of years, you not unreasonably decided that there was nothing left to do but stuff you’d already done many times over?

    I don’t think it’s a likely scenario, given finite brain capacity. You’d have forgotten the stuff far enough in the past. If you get tired of immortality, and are at the point where your imagination can no longer come up with new things to do, stick your head in a volcano. Your brain matter will be inert rather swiftly.

    What if you accidentally got launched out of the solar system and became permanently separated you from rest of humanity?

    No different from death, which holds no horror.

    What if you lost your sanity irrecoverably?

    Then I wouldn’t know it, anyway. No worse than losing consciousness through death.

    Or, what if you were the last one left sane?

    Then I could play the fiddle while Rome burns. But this is just as likely to happen during my mortal lifetime as it would if I were immortal, barring futuristic Firefly style government drugging of the planet.
    I suppose I’ll agree with immortality being horrifying in a disembodied spirit sense, which was part of the original comment…but it also mentioned physical immortality, which is the part I found silly. One of the great things about being alive is the capacity to think and learn new things, and for one sufficiently adventurous I do not really think there is an end to the things one could reasonably learn. And hell, even if there’s a practical limit, I’m sure once you learned too many new things by the time you’re bored with them you’ll have forgotten old things you used to know, opening up a place where you can once again learn something new (that you just happened to know once upon a time prior)! But now I’m just rambling.
    Sorry for the derail! I don’t get to talk with people often.

  18. Nurse Ingrid says

    For anyone who wants to understand what is scary about immortality, I suggest you read “Life, the Universe, and Everything” by Douglas Adams. Near the beginning is a chapter about a guy named Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged, a mortal being who accidentally became immortal. He’s not insane, just very very very bored and lonely and bitter.

  19. Paul says

    He’s not insane, just very very very bored and lonely and bitter.

    If I find a bored, lonely, bitter atheist, does that make atheism horrifying? This view is similar to the view that keeps Christians from being able to comprehend atheists. They lack the imagination to think of how existence could possibly be fulfilling without God, and thus are horrified by the prospect of life without God. That doesn’t mean life without God is horrifying in and of itself, even though some people think of it that way.
    That said, I am an Adams fan and have of course read the book in question. But I don’t think Wowbagger is an argument for immortality being a negative any more than the sentient puddle is an argument for intelligent design.

  20. says

    As one of those individuals who criticized your last meme on death I’d just like to point out that its not the fact that you’re trying to find a way to find comfort in the face of death that’s problematic (at least for me). It’s the fact that you based that comfort on what seem to be rather dubious propositions.
    Personally, I’m comforted by the fact that, though I will die, future generations will go on. Maybe even, eventually, into a future more amazing than the wildest dreams of the science fiction writers.

  21. says


    A philosophy of (for instance) “Yes, I’m going to die, but my ideas and the effect I had on the world will live on for a while ” will probably be more comforting than a philosophy of, “Yeah, death totally sucks, but that’s reality, reality bites, whaddya gonna do.”

    Actually, I don’t see those two as mutually exclusive. Both, in fact, describe my views about death—as would a great many other statements that one might make. Death DOES totally suck AND my actions will have influenced others after I’m gone AND future generations will carry on into a future that may be more surprising and, from my 21st century perspective, magical than my century would look to someone living in the 12th century.
    And a whole lot of other things besides.

  22. says

    @ Zarathustra

    The problem with talking about death is that we’re all ameteurs……….. No one alive knows anything about it & when we’re dead it’s too late. Everything is mere speculation. So Keep imagining whatever you need to be comforted.

    I disagree. As Ephemeriis pointed out with the Mark Twain quote, everyone has experience of what it will be like to be dead. It will be exactly like before you were born.
    There is one key difference, though. As Greta pointed out, I think of the afterlife in a materialistic way. While we are alive we interact and affect those around us, but especially those who we are close to. When our brains cease to function, others will (hopefully) remember and learn from our example in a positive way.
    Basically, forget God. Everyone else is watching and learning from you, so be good for goodness’ sake.

  23. says

    Speaking for myself, I have found your writings on death comforting (though by the time you wrote them I had largely come to terms with death).
    I have recommended them repeatedly to new deconverts who were struggling with death.

  24. Joshua Zucker says

    I think Douglas Hofstadter’s _I am a Strange Loop_ is one of the best books on how to think about death as an atheist. It’s also a fun read on philosophy of consciousness, if perhaps a bit repetitive.

  25. vel says

    as to lyndi’s post, I find that a character from Babylon 5 says it best ““Wouldn’t it be much worse if life were fair and all the terrible things that happen to us, come because actually deserve them? So now I take comfort in the general hostility and unfairness of the Universe” – Marcus Cole
    And Ola, yes there is a hypocrisy in Christians grieving over people who they supposed “know” will go to heaven. I find your excuses weak. They claim that heaven is *better* than this life on earth. They claim that *everything* on earth is “dirty rags”. Why should they be sad if the dead person missed some of these “rags”. And you equate grief over loss to missing someone. I don’t grieve if I won’t see someone for a while. I will miss them but it isn’t the same emotion. I saw my husband’s very pious sister throw herself in hysterics on her mother’s casket. Just who does this when the loved one is only “going away”?

  26. Eclectic says

    Who was it who said something like “I’m not afraid of being dead; it’s the messy transition that worries me”?
    It’s kind of like a fear of falling is irrational; what you should be afraid of is the sudden stop at the bottom…

  27. DSimon says

    Paul, I thought you were using a definition of immortality that made it impossible to commit suicide. If I were immortal with the exception that it would be possible for me to die if I wanted to, then my objections disappear.
    Also, I don’t understand what you mean when you said this:

    You say this right after you talk about the evidence that there is no consciousness without brain activity!

    What’s so weird about discussing the horror of a scenario where one is unable to die right after discussing the physical origin of consciousness?

  28. says

    @vel: Yes, missing someone very badly is different from losing them forever — that is what I meant when I said it’s a different emotion. I don’t know many Christians (I said I was a believer in immortality, but I was never a Christian) — actually, the only seriously religious Christian girl I knew was indeed not grieving when her grandmother died — all her family were sincerely happy that grandma went to heaven… And I’ve never met any religious person (Christian or not) who considered this life just “dirty rags” — although I certainly believe you that such people exist. And… would I be absolutely *hysterical* if I couldn’t see my boyfriend again for the next 50 years? Even believing in an afterlife? You betcha!
    But you know what? I agree that some religious people who grieve at funerals are indeed inconsistent — but definitely not all of them are.

  29. Paul says

    Paul, I thought you were using a definition of immortality that made it impossible to commit suicide.

    I suppose what I had in mind was a sort of “vampire immortality” — nullification of normal causes of old age/death, but with the capability to die (e.g. through violence).

    What’s so weird about discussing the horror of a scenario where one is unable to die right after discussing the physical origin of consciousness?

    Because from a materialistic point of view, accepting the physical origin of consciousness, stating a human is “unable to die” is a concept that makes no sense at all. Our consciousness is a result of interaction between grey matter in our skulls, and disordering or completely breaking down said grey matter would destroy said consciousness/life.
    I could have been clearer, but it seemed to me those concepts would be assumed in a discussion from a materialistic perspective. Apologies for being vague.

  30. Liz says

    The whole heaven/hell afterlife thing was actually a big part of why I rejected Christianity. It just rang so false, and was topped with too many people I knew to be good going to hell for their religion. I was young when I rejected the notion of heaven and hell. Too young to really get the philosophy you’re talking about. I got the notion of bodies decaying, but for years my answer to “what happens to our consciousness” was “I don’t know.” But I knew that scientists had lots of things about how the world works that they didn’t know, and I knew that people were working on finding out.
    When I did finally have a general overview of theories as to how the brain and consciousness (and therefore the lack thereof) works I was able to say “ah yes, that matches the rest of our understanding of the world around us. All the ritual is there to help give comfort to the living.” And the ritual is important. It gives you a safe place to begin the grieving process. When I die, I would like to think my friends and family will have some kind of funeral and wake, because it’s easier to grieve in a safe communal setting. But the various notions of my continuance after my body dies? They feel even more trite and empty now. So hollow that I’m left wondering how others manage to believe.
    Yes, I’m aware I have unusual views on death and grieving.

  31. Paul says

    It just rang so false, and was topped with too many people I knew to be good going to hell for their religion.

    Strangely, that did not bother me during my time as a believer. God is mysterious, you know, and we can’t really know his ways. What really got me was reading The Inferno, and associated information about the author. And I realized Hell is just a tool of social control (in fact, I think Greta has a post along those lineS) and its conception a way to give “Take that!”s to anyone the speaker dislikes.
    As for your views on death and grieving, I don’t find them unusual. I agree in general — although I don’t really take comfort in a large communal setting, it has been my experience that many people do.

  32. Jim H says

    Several people have brought up immortality, and how horrible it would be. There is a recurring theme in fiction (where else does one find immortality?) of loneliness.
    There is another character from Babylon 5, an immortal, who says (paraphrasing from memory): “Only those whose lives are brief can imagine that love is eternal. You should embrace this wonderful illusion–it may be the greatest gift you have received.”
    And, as others here have said, reading Greta’s posts can make one feel like a kiss-ass; another great essay.

  33. Ariel says

    I agree with the main thought – despair and emptiness is not a consequence of atheism; it’s something more personal (well, it’s quite possible to be an atheist and just … not worry, because of your psychic construction and the lack of any stomach problems :)). However, I’m indeed suspecting something delusional about the attitude of the sort “Atheism gives me comfort in the face of death, because now at last I don’t have any cognitive dissonance”. The delusion – if any – lies in thinking that this makes you an independent, critical person, with the values which govern your life reasonably distributed by your own sovereign decision and choice. My comment is: such an emphasis on the lack of cognitive dissonance is probably an effect of your fight against religion – this is what happens to Soldiers of the Cause, whose attempts to get rid of religion are so engaging and time consuming, that values like “Truth” or “the lack of cognitive dissonance”, not so central for ordinary folk, somewhat artificially move to the forefront. In short: I take the expressions of this attitude as an artificial byproduct of modern fight against religion. Normally, in everyday situations, the values like Truth (holy and the only one, of course :) ) is treated more instrumentally. I want to know the truth about what my wife was doing last night not because I value Truth so much, or because I don’t tolerate “cognitive dissonances”, but because … well, guess for yourself why. And that’s how we normally function. It becomes different once you take a role of a Soldier of the Cause – then Truth is your weapon, you start arguing in the name of the Holy Truth … and so on.
    Oh, btw: I’m also an atheist. I’m just not fighting any wars. And as it happens, all this talk about “getting comfort by eliminating cognitive dissonance” – if taken seriously – sounds to me very dry and academic. I admit that it’s good for “killing” an opponent in a discussion, but that’s not how it works normally in human life.

  34. Jeffrey Soreff says

    Excellent point that different people can take comfort from different personal perspectives on death.

    You wrote that “I, for one, am baffled by people who say that death will be a relief from the burden of life.” Perhaps I can suggest one class of circumstances under which people with personalities like mine can find that a comfort. We all make trade-off between near-term and long-term goals, desires, and concerns. As you wrote in Living Each Day As If It Were Your Last this involves deferred gratification. And, to me, this is indeed a kind of burden.

    To the extent that we can predict roughly when we will die, whether from a known illness or from simple aging, it bounds just how long term our concerns need to be. It bounds how much struggle they warrant. If I were to find out that I had a year to live – I would lose out on the pleasures that I might have had after that year, but every single concern or task that I had that extends past that date would become either moot, or “someone else’s problem”.

    In a sense, this is just the flip side of viewing death as a deadline as a spur to sharpen work towards an accomplishment. An impossible deadline takes a task off one’s to-do list. To an extent, this is freeing.

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