Today, I’m giving a (very brief) talk at our interfaith society’s meeting about atheists and death. This is a semi-outline of my points and suchlike. Criticism is accepted and encouraged. A good deal of the highlights are cribbed from this piece: Why Atheism Inspires Me to Seek Social Justice.
Hi, everyone. I’m Kate. Junior, Psychology and Psych. Services double major, president of the Secular Student Alliance, atheist blogger, maker of rambling and self-descriptive lists.
I’m to talk about atheism and how the non-theistic community handles death. The questions that the others on the panel have addressed: their faiths rituals for the death of member, the prayers, the burial rites, aren’t ones I can answer.
Atheism isn’t defined by shared rituals, by prayers, by faith. I can’t tell you what is done by the atheist family of a deceased atheist because there is no script. At its simplest, most defined-by-dictionaries, atheism is a lack of belief in a god or gods. There isn’t a guidebook or a standard or an “ought to” or “should”.
I can’t tell you that atheism makes facing death or bereavement easier, though I’ve heard grieving atheists say it’s true. I can’t say that because I haven’t faced loss as an atheist, and if there’s one thing death does, it’s reminding us of our own humility and frailty.
This is a roundabout way of saying I can’t answer a lot of your questions, I suppose. Here’s what I can say: I can tell you why I face my own mortality and that of my friends more comfortably.
I’ve but this one life to live, and that motivates me more than anything. That means when I see homophobia, when I see sexism or littering or injustice in the world, I must act. I must act because all I have is this very moment. But most importantly, I must act because the person who is suffering, like me, only has this moment for themselves. There isn’t any other happy alternate life for them either.
In religion, heaven (and hell for some), is some kind of equalizer. Die horribly, or unexpectedly, or after a long illness? Heaven means you’re in a better place. It’s a solace for those you’ve left behind. Hell lets us feel more okay about those we find evil, or that guy who cuts us off in traffic. Without that egalitarian afterlife, you can only improve this one. Without ‘just rewards’ and ‘just desserts’, you just have to make this one place and one moment better.