This piece was originally published in Free Inquiry magazine.
So I’m a public speaker. One of the many topics I speak about is death — atheist philosophies of death, and how atheists can find comfort and meaning in the face of our own mortality and the death of people we love. My talks about death are among my most popular: the questions and comments during the Q&A are always compelling and heartfelt, and the conversations afterwards are always intense and greatly appreciated.
They’re among my most popular talks — when I get a chance to give them, that is.
My talks about death are also among my least requested. In the five years that I’ve been a public speaker, I’ve been asked to speak about sex, about anger, about coming out as an atheist, more times than I can count. I’ve been asked to speak about death maybe half a dozen times. It seems that once the conversation gets started, atheists love to talk about death — but it’s really hard to get that conversation started.
This isn’t about my public speaking career. I am now done talking about my public speaking career. This is about a larger question: How can we get atheists to talk about death?
I mean, of course I get it. Death is a weird, hard subject. (To put it mildly.) Of course I get that when people are casting about for a conversation-starter, the first place we go is not usually, “Hey, we’re all mortal and doomed, and the people we loved who are dead are really gone forever and we’ll never see them again!” It’s not exactly light cocktail-party banter.
It’s also a hugely important subject. It’s especially important for atheists. When people are questioning their religion, or when they’re in the process of leaving it, the fear of death is often one of the most difficult things they have to face. Accepting the reality that death is truly final, when you’ve believed for most of your life that it’s just a temporary interruption of service — that’s rough. Helping to make this a little less rough, helping to ease that transition and show some possible ways through it, is one of the best things we can do to make atheism look like a viable, welcoming option.
But death is a subject that atheists often concede, without needing to. [Read more…]