This piece was originally published in Free Inquiry magazine.
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.
But death is a subject that atheists often concede, without needing to. I’ve written about this before, in this very magazine (“Do We Concede the Ground of Death Too Easily?”). Many of us assume, without really questioning it, that religion is always to going to win on the death question, and that secular views of death can’t possibly comfort people the way religion does.
I think this is a mistake. It’s a mistake in the sense of just being… well, mistaken. I think when it comes to death, religion is only comforting if you don’t think about it very carefully — which ultimately makes it not very comforting. And it’s a mistake in the sense of being bad strategy. Death isn’t going anywhere: it’s not like people are going to forget about it if we discreetly don’t bring it up. It might be nice if everyone considered the question of whether religion is true based purely on whether there’s good evidence for it — but that’s not the reality we live in. Plenty of people stay in religion for reasons other than whether it’s true or not — and showing people that atheists can cope with Life’s Big Questions is a great way to help them open up to the possibility that God doesn’t exist.
So I’d like to see atheists talk about death more. I’d like to see us do it in the public eye: in talks, at conferences, in workshops, in blogs and social media. And I’d like us to do it in more private settings as well. Talking with each other about death will make our own views on it clearer and stronger — and it’ll give us more and better ways to talk about it with the believers in our lives.
But it seems like this isn’t going to happen on its own. Once we start talking about death, it’s like opening the floodgates — the topic is so important, and yet so taboo, and once that gate gets opened and the conversation starts, the sense of relief can be palpable. But getting the floodgate opened in the first place can be tricky. How can we get help make it happen?
I don’t have any big answers. I’m thinking this one through myself. But the main I’m thinking is that, since it’s clearly hard for these conversations to start on their own, we need to set up some structures to get them going.
If you’re in a local atheist group, you could organize a discussion group about it. If you’re in an online atheist forum, you could propose it as a question: “As an atheist, how do you cope with your own mortality and the death of people you love? Here are some of my thoughts…” If your city has a Death Cafe (look it up!), you could show up and share your atheist/ humanist/ skeptical views of death. If you just have a Facebook page with a lot of atheist friends, you could post your own ideas and views about death without God or an afterlife, and ask people to share theirs. If you have other ideas, I’d love to hear them.
Death is difficult enough, and frightening enough, on its own. Let’s not make it more difficult, and more frightening, by staying silent about it and keeping it taboo. Let’s start some conversations.