My recent piece, Do We Concede the Ground of Death Too Easily?, touched off some interesting dissension and debate, from people who think that comforting atheist views of death are somehow false, simply rationalizations of the inescapable fact that death is inconsolably terrible. I was going to write a reply, and then realized I’d already written one. Hence, this reprint of an older piece.
And how should atheists be talking about death with believers?
As regular readers know, I’ve been doing a project on Facebook: the Atheist Meme of the Day, in which I write pithy, Facebook-ready memes explaining one aspect of atheism or exploding one myth about it, and asking people to pass the memes on if they like. (Update: No, I haven’t been doing the Atheist Memes of the Day lately. If there’s a huge groundswell of support for the idea, maybe I’ll start them up again.)
Some of my Memes of the Day have generated disagreement from some atheists. Which is fine, of course. I don’t expect or want all atheists to agree about everything. Quite the contrary: one of the great things about atheism is that we have no central dogma that we all have to agree on, and no central authority that we all have to obey.
But the memes that have generated the most vocal and vigorous pushback have surprised me. They have consistently been the ones about death: the ones trying to show that a godless view of death can offer some degree of solace and meaning; the ones that begin, “Atheism does have comfort to offer in the face of death.” Whenever I write one of these, I can almost guarantee that within a few hours — usually within a few minutes — someone will be complaining that the comforting philosophy I’m presenting isn’t comforting at all. Or even that atheism can’t possibly present a philosophy of death that could compete with the comfort offered by religion… with the apparent implication that it’s either deceptive or deluded to pretend that this is possible, and that we shouldn’t even try.
I’m a bit puzzled by this. So I want to explain in a little more detail what I mean by these memes. And I want to try to find out why there’s resistance to the very idea of presenting an atheist philosophy of death that provides meaning, hope, and comfort.
I think part of the problem here may lie with that word “comfort” — and with some people’s expectations of it. So I’ll try to make my meaning a little more explicit.
That’s not what I mean by “comfort.”
When I say, “This atheist philosophy of death offers comfort,” I mean, “This atheist philosophy can, to some extent, alleviate the suffering and grief caused by death. It can make the suffering and grief feel less overwhelming, less unbearable. It doesn’t make the pain disappear — but it can put the experience into a context that gives it some sort of meaning, and it can offer the hope that with time, the pain will diminish. It can give us a sense that there’s a bridge over the chasm: a feeling of trust that, when the worst of the grief passes, we’ll have a solid foundation to return to. It doesn’t make the grief go away — but it can make it better.”
That’s what I mean by “comfort.” It would be nice if an atheist philosophy of death could do more; but given how monumentally frightening and upsetting death is, the fact that atheism can provide even this degree of comfort is not trivial.
And maybe more to the point: Religion doesn’t do any better.
But does an atheist philosophy of death offer less comfort than a religious one? Honestly — I think that depends. For one thing, I think it depends on the atheist philosophy. A philosophy of (for instance) “Yes, I’m going to die, but my ideas and the effect I had on the world will live on for a while ” will probably be more comforting than a philosophy of, “Yeah, death totally sucks, but that’s reality, reality bites, whaddya gonna do.”
And whether atheism or religion offers more comfort in the face of death depends an awful lot on the person. When I believed in an afterlife, I always had a nagging, uncomfortable feeling in the back of my mind that my beliefs weren’t based on anything substantial, that they weren’t sincere beliefs so much as wishful thinking. Compared to my current conclusions — that when we die, our consciousness will almost certainly disappear entirely — I suppose those beliefs were more comforting. Or they would have been, if it hadn’t been for my uneasy suspicion that they were bullshit.
Which brings me back to my point:
Yes, I care about reality. Any regular reader of my writing knows that I care about reality to an almost obsessive degree. I am not a fan of pretty lies that make people feel better*, and the argument that “it doesn’t matter whether religion is really true” fills me with sputtering rage. I think reality is far more important than anything we could make up about it… pretty much by definition.
But it is not a denial of reality to offer comforting thoughts about death that have nothing to do with God.
It bugs me when atheists with a more bleak view of death than mine present that bleakness as a logical consequence of atheism, the inherent and natural result of not believing in God or an afterlife. It bugs me partly because I disagree. Obviously. But it also bugs me because it treats a question of personal opinion and philosophy and perspective as if it were a question of fact.
Look. Questions like, “Is there a god?” “Is there a soul?” “Is there an afterlife?” — these are questions of fact, questions we can and should be debating the evidence for. But questions like, “Is it comforting to view death as a natural process, something that connects us with the great chain of cause and effect in the universe?” or, “Is it comforting to view death as a deadline, something we need to inspire us to accomplish anything?” — those are questions of opinion, personal perspective. We can discuss and debate them… but ultimately, they are questions that can be legitimately answered with, “If it’s true for me, then it’s true for me.”
And it bugs me when atheists argue that these forms of comfort are somehow delusional… because it treats a personal perspective on life as if it were a simple question of fact.
But we can find ways to frame reality — including the reality of death — that make it easier to deal with. We can find ways to frame reality that do not ignore or deny it and that still give us comfort and solace, meaning and hope. And we can offer these ways of framing reality to people who are considering atheism but have been taught to see it as inevitably frightening, empty, and hopeless.
And I’m genuinely puzzled by atheists who are trying to undercut that.
Of course it’s valid to discuss and even debate personal philosophies and opinions and perspectives. I’m not trying to squelch dissension and debate; if I post a Meme of the Day or anything else that other atheists don’t agree with, I’m curious to hear about it. And especially when it comes to death, I understand that some people see certain perspectives on it as comforting, while others see those same perspectives as unsettling. (I, for one, am baffled by people who say that death will be a relief from the burden of life.) And I’m interested in hearing about those differences.
But I think there’s a difference between saying, “Gee, that isn’t my experience, I don’t find that comforting at all” — and saying, “But death still sucks even when you look at it that way — therefore, that view isn’t comforting at all!” And I think there’s an enormous difference between saying, “Gee, that isn’t my experience, I don’t find that comforting at all” — and saying, “There is no way atheism can ever offer a philosophy of death that will be more comforting than religion. That’s just a simple fact. We shouldn’t even try.”
And I am genuinely puzzled by people who so vehemently insist on the latter responses.
There are a lot of things I’m trying to do with these memes. (All the memes — not just the ones about death.) I’m trying to dispel myths and misconceptions and bigotries about atheism. I’m trying to disseminate methods of critical thinking, about religion specifically and reality generally. I’m trying to get people to view religion as just another hypothesis about the world, with no more right to special treatment than any other hypothesis.
I’m trying to help ease that transition. I’m trying to show that an atheist life can be a good and happy and joyful life, and that, while losing religion will often mean losing some forms of comfort and meaning, there will be new forms of comfort and meaning to replace them. Including new ways of dealing with death. (And it’s not like I’m not pulling these memes out of my ass. Every meme I’ve written about death has been a view that some atheists find comforting: if not myself, then people I’ve spoken to or read.) The world is increasingly full of people who are falling out of religion, or who are close to falling out of it. I’m trying to help create a safety net, to make that landing softer.
And I’m genuinely puzzled when it seems like other atheists are trying to cut the ropes.
For more on my atheist philosophies of death:
Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God
The Meaning of Death: Part One of Many
The Meaning of Death, Part 2 of Many: Motivation and Mid-Life Crises
The Meaning of Death, Part 3 of Many: Fear, Grief, and Actually Experiencing Your Emotions
*(With the obvious exception of certain social situations. There are some lies, such as “I liked your poem,” that I will almost always happily tell.)