This piece was originally published in Free Inquiry magazine.
“Sure, atheism may have better arguments and evidence. But religion is always to going to win on the death question. A secular philosophy of death will never comfort people the way religion does.”
I’ve heard this idea more times than I can count. And here’s the weird thing: It’s not just from religious believers. I hear it from atheists, too. It shocks me how easily non-believers concede the ground of death. Many of us assume that of course it would be lovely to believe in an eternal afterlife… if only that were plausible. And largely because of this assumption, we often shy away from the topic of death. We happily talk about science, sex, reality, other advantages the secular life has to offer… but we stay away from death, and concede the ground before we even fight it.
I think this is a huge mistake. I agree that the fear of death is one of the main reasons people cling to religion. But I don’t agree, even in the slightest, that religious philosophies of death are inherently more comforting than secular ones. And if we want to make atheism a safe place to land when people let go of their faith, we need to get these secular philosophies into the public square, and let the world know what we think about death.
Here’s the thing you have to remember about religious beliefs in an afterlife: They’re only comforting if you don’t examine them.
Heaven is the most obvious example. The idea of a perfect, blissful afterlife where you and everyone you love will live forever… think about it for a moment. All your conflicts with the people you care about — do those just disappear? If they don’t… how will Heaven be perfectly blissful? And if they do disappear… how will you be you? Conflicts arise because people are individuals, with real differences between us. In Heaven, either those conflicts will still be raging, or our differences — the individuality that makes us who we are — will be eradicated.
Then ask yourself this: In Heaven, would we have the ability to do harm, or to make bad decisions? Again — if we do, it won’t be perfect or blissful. But if we don’t, we’ve lost one of the essential things that makes us who we are. Religious believers are always going on about how free will makes us special, how it’s a unique gift God gave to humanity, how God had to make us free to do evil so we could choose to do good. Yet when we’re in Heaven, when we’re in the perfect place that God created for us to be our most perfect selves… this unique gift, the gift that’s the sole reason for suffering and evil, somehow vanishes into thin air?
And when you’re in Heaven, will you remember the people who didn’t make it? Will you be aware of your loved ones — or anyone, for that matter — screaming and begging for mercy in the eternal agony of Hell? Again: If you are aware of this torture, there is no way for Heaven to be blissful, even for a microsecond. But if you’re not — if you’re so blissed-out by God’s presence that your awareness of Hell is obliterated, like morphine obliterating your awareness of pain — how could you be you? Isn’t our love and compassion for others one of the best, most central parts of who we are? How could we possibly be who we are, and not care about the suffering of the people we love?
This is not abstract philosophizing. This question of how Heaven will be Heaven if our loved ones are burning in Hell… it’s a question many Christians struggle with terribly. My wife’s fundamentalist grandparents were tormented because their children and grandchildren had all left the church, and they knew they were all going to burn. It created deep strife in her family, and caused her grandparents great unhappiness in their old age. In fact, this monstrous notion of being so blissed-out in Heaven you won’t notice your loved ones shrieking for mercy in Hell… this is put forward by many Christian theologians, including the supposedly respectable William Lane Craig, in response to direct questions from believers who find this whole “not knowing or caring if our loved ones are in agony” thing hard to swallow.
And I haven’t even gotten to the monotony of Heaven. I haven’t even started on how people need change, challenges, growth, to be happy, and how an eternity of any one thing would eventually become tedious to the point of madness. Unless, again, our personalities changed so much we’d be unrecognizable.
I’m with Christopher Hitchens on this one. Heaven sounds like North Korea: an eternity of mindless conformity spent singing the praises of a powerful tyrant. In order for it to actually be perfect and blissful, our natures would have to change so radically, we wouldn’t be who we are. The idea is only comforting if you think about it for a moment — “Oo, eternal bliss and seeing everyone I love forever!” — and immediately start thinking about something else.
The same is true for every other afterlife I’ve heard of. Reincarnation, for instance. If dying and being reborn obliterates the memories of our past lives… then without those memories, how would we be ourselves? And it’s true of our souls being dissolved into the soup of a larger World-Soul: nice idea, maybe, but how is it immortality if our unique identity is gone? I have never heard of any imagined afterlife that could withstand more than a few minutes of careful examination without sounding like a nightmare.
This is conspicuously not true with secular philosophies of death.
Secular philosophies of death can withstand scrutiny. The idea that we didn’t exist for billions of years before we were born, and that wasn’t painful or bad, and death will be the same? The idea that our genes and/or ideas will live on after we die? The idea that each of us was astronomically lucky to have been born at all? The idea that death is a deadline, something that helps us focus our lives and treasure the experiences we have? The idea that loss, including death, is necessary for life and change to be possible? The idea that things don’t have to be permanent to be meaningful? The idea that your life, your slice of the timeline, will always have existed even though you die? The idea that death is a natural, physical process that connects us intimately with nature and the universe? These secular philosophies of death, and others, can withstand scrutiny — because they’re based in reality. (Most of them, anyway. There are secular notions of death that I think are self-deluded… but they’re the exception, not the rule.)
And for many atheists, this is a profound comfort.
When I was a spiritual believer, thinking about death meant being propelled into cognitive dissonance. I’d think, “Oh, my mom’s not really dead, my friend Rob isn’t really dead, I’m not really going to die”… and then I’d get uncomfortable, and anxious, and I’d have to think about something else right away. On some level, I knew that my spiritual beliefs didn’t make sense, that they weren’t supported by good evidence, that they were mostly founded on wishful thinking, that I was making them up as I went along. I was comforted by them only to the degree that I didn’t think about them.
And that’s not a happy way to live.
When I finally let go of my wishful thinking, I went through a traumatic time. I had to accept that I was never going to see my mother again, or my friend Rob, and that when I died I would really be gone forever. That was hard. But once I started building a new, secular foundation for dealing with death, I found it far more consoling. I wasn’t constantly juggling a flock of inconsistent, incoherent ideas… or shoving them onto the back burner. When I was grieving the death of someone I loved, or when I was frightened by my own eventual death, I could actually, you know, think about my ideas. I could actually feel my feelings. I could actually experience my grief, and my fear… because my understanding of death was based on reality, and could withstand as much exploration as I cared to give it.
And I’m not the only one. I’ve talked with lots of non-believers about this, and I’ve lost count of the number who’ve said something like, “Yeah, eternity seems like a good idea, but once I started thinking about it, I realized it would kind of suck. Dealing with death as an atheist seems like it’d be harsh… but actually, I find it easier.”
This is a subjective question, of course. If you, personally, don’t find secular philosophies of death comforting or appealing, then you don’t. But… well, actually, that’s my point. It’s absurd to say that religious ideas about death are inherently more appealing than secular ones. For a lot of us, they aren’t. For a lot of us, the exact opposite is true.
So let’s stop treating death as if it belongs to religion.
We don’t have to be afraid of this topic. We can talk about it. And we should talk about it. There are many believers who feel the way I used to: they’re having questions, they’re having doubts, but they’re scared to let go. They’re scared to imagine a life where death is real, and final. If we can get our ideas and feelings about death out into the world, these people will find it easier to let go… knowing they’ll have a safe place to land when they do.
We don’t have to say, “Sure, religion is a comforting lie — but it’s still a lie.” The lie is not actually very comforting. And the fact that it is a lie undercuts its comfort.
We do not have to concede this ground.
(Tip of the hat to Adam Lee for his excellent piece, Those Old Pearly Gates, which greatly shaped my thinking on this question.)