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Mar 05 2014

How, as an Atheist, I Deal with Death? To Be Honest, I Don’t.

A bit of warning: this post contains some frank discussions about fear of death, and also some detailed description of violence. If you feel you might be disturbed, please don’t read.

One of the claims that theists make, that is not rational at all is that religion helps people cope with death. Which means that atheists must have a difficult time coping death. This argument is not rational, because that doesn’t put any forward any evidence that religion is true. It might provide evidence that religion is good, but I don’t think it does that as well, as I don’t think a culture that relies on duping people with wish-fulfillment and values comfort over truth and facing the truth no matter how bitter is good. I think deception is unethical, whether you deceive others or yourself is immaterial. However, that is not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about dealing with death, accepting it, living with its shadow looming over waking moments. And I can’t do that, and I am not OK or comfortable with the fact that I’m going to die, and I’m far less comfortable with the fact that others are going to die.

When I was a child, I jumped into a pool with no logical reason whatsoever. Later, when my parents were away and had trusted me to care into people who clearly weren’t deserving of the trust, I jumped into the pool again. I was a morbidly curious child, and I wanted to experiment with danger, to see what drowning feels like. I remember my feelings at the time and I am perplexed at my own lack of self-preservation. I didn’t know what death was, I was attracted to it because I’m attracted to what I don’t know. I’m still like that.

But now I know what death is. Death is not unknown, because there is nothing to know or not to know. Death is nothingness. To know nothing. To feel nothing. To see nothing. To hear nothing. To think nothing.

You see, I’m not afraid of death. I just hate it. I hate the fact that it has to happen. I’m afraid of grief. I’m afraid of loss. Because now I know what loss is, too intimately.

About years ago, the father of one of my closest friends died. I loved the man himself. I was close to him. His death made me mourn, seeing my friend mourn his father made me mourn him even more. Then, one of my closest and most intimate friends, whom I knew since high school, died. They said he died in a car accident but I think he committed suicide. A week later his father also died. Then, my aunt died. I loved my aunt. Then, another close friend committed suicide. And all this in a span of less than three months.

Death to me is the death of the others. Death is the creepy equilibrium you feel when you’re not consciously aware of the loss, yet you know that the normalcy in the world about you is fake, there’s something missing. Death is the fact that you realize that there is phantom limb, the fact that you think of telling something to a friend and then suddenly realize they’re not there to hear it, and the emotional limb you didn’t realize you had until it was amputated. Death is watching the finale of Breaking Bad knowing you will never discuss it with your friend, death is doing something you do every year and then feeling the absence that is so omnipresence. There is always someone who is not there.

And no, time doesn’t heal the wounds. Let your guard down and scratch the wound distractedly and then be unpleasantly surprised that it bleeds again.

And then, I also dreamed of the violent deaths I have seen. When I was 12 or 13, I saw a motorist crash straight into the back of a bus, I saw his casket crushed backwards into his face because of the impact, I saw the splash of blood on the back of the car. At the very same spot I saw a classmate of mine falling down the stairs of a footbridge and dying. In high school, I saw the video of two Taliban soldiers beheading a man, out of pure curiosity again. And recently, in 2009, I was crossing Vanak Square in Tehran during the post-election protests, I saw a man get shot in the throat, bleeding into his death as people tried to save him and the police beat them and dispersed them with batons.

Now my dreams are either flashbacks to these violent deaths or flashforwards to the death of my parents, my friends, my loved ones. I try not to sleep, so that I don’t dream of death. (On the flip side, I’ve got much writing done in the meantime). I am weary of making new friends. I look at beautiful people thinking they will die. I have almost shielded myself from the opposite sex thinking what if I fall in love with her and then she dies.

I don’t mean to say that my life is paralyzed or something. 99% of people who know me in person would be shocked to read this, especially since I have never even cried for these people. I sometimes cry after very bad dreams. But most of my friends think I don’t give a flying fuck to death at all, because of my apathetic way of arguing about it or dealing with it outwardly. I’m fine, I will survive. Until I die. Then I won’t survive.

I don’t want to die. I want to read all the novels. I want to watch all the movies. I want to listen to all albums. I want to see if Iran will become democratic in 200 years or not. I want to see if my predictions are correct or not. I want to live. I want to write. I so much fucking want to live.

But I don’t want to live with a lie. The thought of afterlife might have consoled me through all this, even the pathetic secular ones such as “you will live through your works” or “you will live through the memory of your loved ones”. Truth is, switching from religion to atheism must be unpleasant for many people, for many reasons. The prospect of death is unpleasant. If you are an atheist who has reconciled with the idea of death, good for you. But it’s still unpleasant, it’s still a sad and tragic truth.

I do not advertise my atheism by pretending that everything about it is pleasant and happy. But it is more worthy to live with some suffering and yet not be lowered into the disgrace of self-deception. That’s how I advertise my atheism. And as long as I have life, I will live it.

12 comments

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  1. 1
    Marcus Ranum

    Death is nothing to us; for that which has been dissolved into its elements experiences no sensations, and that which has no sensation is nothing to us.

    – Epicurus

  2. 2
    mig06

    If you haven’t already done so, you should read “The denial of death” by Ernest Becker. I’ve not been quite the same since I read it.

  3. 3
    playonwords

    I used to be terrified of death – but that was when I classified myself religious or deist or agnostic. Then I realised that the “I” that was so frightened had been unaware before birth and my awareness, by ceasing, meant there could be no suffering or fear after that great punctuation mark.

    What we fear is the process of dying and the chance that, in addition to our corporeal pain (if any), will we know that our awareness is ceasing. There may also be the idea that we will become reminded of all the slights we have done to others and of all the business left undone but we do that anyway so death will be just a cessation of that but we are just as likely to recall the joyous moments prior to the unconsciousness that will precede brain death.

    Those who believe in an afterlife are just exposing their childlike fear of sleep, the terror of the nightmare and a despair that the bogyman will steal them away to an eternity of slavery or torture or boredom. Instead I now glory in the idea that I have all the time in the world that is available to me and that I should maximise the joy whilst minimising the regrets.

  4. 4
  5. 5
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    Speaking personally I get drunk.

    I know death will hurt others who I care about a lot more than it will hurt me.
    (Or at least I hope so depending how I die I guess.) I hope they’ll remember me well and find I made their lives better but when I’m dead I almost certainly won’t know if that’s so or be able to do anything about it if not.

    It’ll be the same, most likely, for me as the aeons before I was born. I just won’t be there just like unconsciousness under an anaesethic but eternally longer.

    Probably although I don’t really know. And if death is what I expect I won’t be able to know it.

    I would wish to be reincarnated if I could be – as a pampered housecat for my next life or find myself awake in my idea of heaven – an endless library with cups of tea and beers available at the mere wish and the ability pilot a starship to any star and it system of planets any part of spacetime instantaneously and so much more..but I very much doubt Ill get those wishes and what can I do about it?

    Nothing.

    So I live and try my best to make my life a good one and make my own contribution to the world being better not worse for having me in it.

    I’m not perfect at that. Won’t claim to be. But I do try.

    Meanwhile, I enjoy life, express my views, work and play and read and think and relax and do what I do and hope and imagine and laugh and try not to cry. Because, whats the better alternative?

    I don’t know. Yeah, I don’t really deal with death either.

  6. 6
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    Can’t deal with death.

    I’ll settle for dealing with life or at least trying to.

  7. 7
    Al

    Ha, posting Philip Larkin. Hilarious.

  8. 8
    Infidel753

    Most religious concepts of the afterlife don’t actually make death any easier to cope with, since the afterlife is usually depicted as a reward or punishment. Death is frightening, but eternity in Hell even more so. And usually the only way to escape Hell is to submit to the taboos and dictates of the religion. It’s another method of control.

    Have you explored the concepts of transhumanism and radical life extension, such as the work of Aubrey de Grey? You might find them interesting.

    1. 8.1
      Zhana

      “Death is frightening, but eternity in Hell even more so.”

      THIS. I actually became less afraid of death when I embraced atheism. Don’t get me wrong, I still don’t want to die, and I hope I don’t die in any time soon or in a particularly painful way, but knowing that this life is all I have encourages me to make the most of it without the fear of offending some petulant god who will torture me for all eternity if I swear or lie or don’t always obey my parents or or or. I live my life trying to be a good person- to do right by others, not because of some threat of eternal torment hanging over my head, but because I understand that humans make our own existence wonderful or horrible through our actions toward eachother.

  9. 9
    Allan Frost

    In addition to what Infidel753 has said above, why not check out cryonics, if you’re in a position to do so? I was surprised at how inexpensive it is: ~$28,000 through Cryonics Institute. It may seem like an absurd long-shot, but a long-shot is a hell of a lot better than no shot at all.

  10. 10
  11. 11
    grendelsfather

    I never thought about my own death as child or teenager, as it seemed like something remote that only happened to people who were much older. The only time I feared death was when my children were young and depended on me. Even then, I was not afraid for myself, just for how difficult my sudden absence could make their lives. Now that they are both grown with children of their own, I no longer have any fear at all.

    This was confirmed for me last week as I went into to a hospital for major abdominal surgery. The actual risk of death was low, but I had a dialog with myself and found that if I did not wake up from the operation, I would be OK with that. I have lived a good life, made a few discoveries that might outlive me, and got my genes into the next generation (and beyond!). I think my family would miss me, but they now are in good, stable situations (partly thanks to my efforts), and my passing would not really be much of anything for anyone, certainly not me, to worry about.

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