We talk a lot about the meaning of life. I want to talk for a bit about the meaning of death.
In the most straightforward literal sense, when you don’t believe in God or an afterlife, there is no meaning of death. Not in any external, objective sense. In the godless universe, death just happens. It doesn’t serve a purpose — there is no purpose. There’s no intention behind its When and How and Why; no designer picking people off according to some mysterious master plan. Death happens because of the laws of cause and effect in the physical universe, the laws of biology and chemistry and physics. It happens because it happens.
And along with many atheists and other godless folk, I don’t find this idea depressing or nihilistic. This may come as a surprise to many religious believers, but it’s true. It’s taken me a while to get there, but I actually find this idea rather comforting.
See, the cool thing about godlessness is that you get to create your own meaning. Contrary to popular opinion, a godless life isn’t a life without meaning. It’s a life in which we create our own meaning. Our meaning of life, of course — but also our meaning of death.
So that’s what I want to talk about. Not, “What purpose does death serve for the non-existent designer?” But instead, “What meaning can death have for us? How can death shape our understanding and experience of life? What meaning of death can we create?”
And one of the things that works best for me is to see death — permanent, designerless, physical cause-and-effect death — as something that intimately connects us with the universe.
My mother died of cancer at the age of 45, when I was 17, two months after I started college. I don’t talk about it much. It was terrible. It was traumatic. It was unbelievably shitty timing, mostly for her but for me as well. It was unfair.
Except that it wasn’t unfair. Any more than a star going nova is unfair, or a cliff collapsing into the sea.
When you don’t believe that all death happens by design — the grand cosmic design of an All Powerful, All Knowing, All Good God who theoretically loves you — then you don’t have to torture yourself wondering what you did wrong. You don’t have to twist yourself into contortions trying to figure out why you’re being punished, what lesson you’re supposed to learn. When people die young, when people die in terrible pain, when people die freakishly for no apparent reason, you don’t have to pile onto your pain and grief any extra guilt about being punished… or any extra guilt because you’re trying to see a reason for it and can’t.
Instead, you can see death as part of the way the world works. We are an animal species in the physical world, and animal species in the physical world get sick, or get in accidents, or get birth defects, or die in natural disasters. Sometimes good people, sometimes too young. And if it happens to you, or someone you love, it’s not because you/ they did something wrong. You can accept it, and grieve over it, and move on.
And when it comes to contemplating your own death, you can see it in much the same way. Death is the thing that will ultimately separate you from the universe… and yet, paradoxically, it connects you with it as well.
Death sucks, and premature death sucks worse. But it’s part of the package deal of getting to be alive. It happens because you, and all the people around you, are part of the world: the physical, natural world, with all of its wonders and horrors. It’s a world that doesn’t really care whether you live or die, whether you suffer or rejoice, and to some people that can seem bleak and cold. But it’s a world of which we are a part, a world which we are intimately connected to down to our very molecules — not a world that stands apart from us and punishes us for reasons we can never fathom.
And without a God, you don’t have to figure out what purpose your death is serving. You don’t have to torture yourself trying to figure out the motivations of the physical universe. It doesn’t have any. So you can accept its inevitability, and get on with your life.
This should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: This little blog post isn’t intended to answer this question for everyone on the planet once and for all. Hence the “Part One of Many” in the title. I’ve written before about death — Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do With God was the first piece of overtly godless writing I ever did — and I know I’ll be writing about it more in the future. And lots of other godless writers are wrestling with it as well.
On that topic: I actually started forming these ideas and putting them into words in a discussion on Ebon Muse’s Daylight Atheism blog, a discussion in which Ebon and many other people had thoughtful and insightful things to say on the subject. Parts of this piece were poached from my comments there. Other parts were poached from my piece on this blog, “Give her an out”: Prayer and Terminal Illness… which in turn was inspired by the Bless the Child? piece on Sid Schwab’s Surgeonsblog. So big shout-outs to Ebon and Sid on this one.