Getting Atheists to Talk About Death

This piece was originally published in Free Inquiry magazine.

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So I’m a public speaker. One of the many topics I speak about is death — atheist philosophies of death, and how atheists can find comfort and meaning in the face of our own mortality and the death of people we love. My talks about death are among my most popular: the questions and comments during the Q&A are always compelling and heartfelt, and the conversations afterwards are always intense and greatly appreciated.

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.

gravestone RIP Greta Christina
It’s also a hugely important subject. It’s especially important for atheists. When people are questioning their religion, or when they’re in the process of leaving it, the fear of death is often one of the most difficult things they have to face. Accepting the reality that death is truly final, when you’ve believed for most of your life that it’s just a temporary interruption of service — that’s rough. Helping to make this a little less rough, helping to ease that transition and show some possible ways through it, is one of the best things we can do to make atheism look like a viable, welcoming option.

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.

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Coming Out Atheist
Bending
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Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

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16 thoughts on “Getting Atheists to Talk About Death

  1. 1

    A lifelong friend of Cuttlespouse is dying. Two weeks ago, no clue; now, 4-6 months, up to a year with aggressive treatment. So we’ve been talking death a bit.

    Cuttlespouse is, frankly, annoyed at the Facebook comments on her friend’s account. Everybody is praying for her friend, and C-spouse just want to say…. something. Anything, really. It seems painfully clear that the comments are utterly useless, but are what is said in these situations. And atheists don’t have much in the way of “what is said in these situations”, especially when the people we are talking to are not atheists.

    We are (I speak from experience) expected to be grateful for religious condolences for our loved ones’ deaths, even when we find them insulting (not all are, of course, but some are horrendous). Having “what is said in these situations” at hand might make it easier for us to be true to ourselves while not forcing others to our view (hell, it’s a tough enough time already).

    Ok, I dunno if I have an actual point, I just want to agree, this is a conversation I personally want us to have.

  2. 2

    Cuttlefish @ #1: I’m so sorry about your spouse’s friend. That’s so hard — especially when it’s unexpected like that. And that’s a hard enough situation as it is without “condolences” that don’t actually help. My sincerest sympathies.

    I have actually written a piece on “What Do You Say to Grieving Non Believers?” I hope this helps.

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2012/04/02/what-do-you-say-to-grieving-non-believers/

    If there’s anything else I can do to help, please let me know.

  3. 3

    I don’t fear death anymore. There’s nothing you can do about it, so you might as well not worry about it. I felt the fear of death in the past, but that’s just evolution messing with you. No need to pay attention to that, no need at all.

  4. 4

    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.

    Many religions offer various afterlifes that are not that appealing when closely examined. The Christian afterlife consists of being in a huge crowd singing praise at a megalomaniac or alternatively being tortured forever. The Islamic afterlife is for men only and is based on the fantasies of adolescent male virgins. The Nordic afterlife is a brawl and steakhouse with a big battle at the end. The Jewish afterlife is a little mirky but many Hasidic sects believe it consists of religious discussion, primarily debate over obscure Talmudic tracts. I’d be happier going into non-existence when I die rather than face one of these afterlifes.

    Perhaps we should take a lesson from The Saga of Biorn.

  5. 5

    As a conversation starter I have used, on a couple of occasions, the quote from Richard Dawkins: “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. There are millions of people who are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The possible people who could have been born in my place outnumber the sand grains of Sahara.”
    Followed up by the observation that being dead will be just like it was prior to being born kind of takes the sting out of it. It is sad and unfortunate, but nothing to be feared.
    The change of perspective can be eye opening.

  6. 6

    The platitudes of most religions serve mainly as feeling-blockers and grief diversion tactics. Sad that you will never see your loved one again? Block that sadness! You WILL see them again! Wishing your loved one could be here now? It’s fine… that person IS here now, looking down on us from heaven! Basically, any actual feelings are blocked by elaborate schemes to pretend that the person isn’t actually dead. I think that is pathological and detrimental to a healthy grief process. It’s also convenient for those who feel uncomfortable using actual empathy and who insist that everyone be full of happy, happy, joy, joy at all times. They are in paradise! It was god’s will! We’ll all have a reunion on Jesus’ lap! If I stop smiling, I may have to feel something real!

  7. 7

    I was about to dive in, but just realized that I’ve already said most of what I have to say on the subject here.

    The only thing I have to add is something I came across from Penn Jilette, of all people. I did a bit of searching to try and find the original source to get his original wording, but my Google-fu is too weak to find it.

    It was something like this:

    “When my mother died, it was devastating. You may not realize it, but I’m a complete mama’s boy. So when she died, it was the worst thing that ever could have happened. When religious people would try and tell me that we’d be reunited after death, I just wanted to shake them. Because they were trying to make out like it wasn’t the worst thing ever. But it was. And it should be! And that’s what I like about my friends who were atheists, they were the ones who could just look at me and agree that it was the worst fucking thing ever. And that was what was comforting to me.”

    He would have used different words, and I may have misremembered some of the context and the general gist. But I came across a sentiment such as that from Penn at some point, and I agree with it completely. Or at least, I agree with my half-remembered version of it.

  8. 8

    This is an important subject to me, because we are dealing with the impending death of a family member. We do feel that religious ideas are really messing with our heads right now… but probably not for the reason everyone might think.

    This person was diagnosed NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder) and I have to say – we had always wondered why this person was completely impossible to get along with. Now we know… In any event, we have really mixed feelings about this. (By “we” I mean myself and the Partner.) This family member has very sanely and happily abused us and others for their entire life and continues to do so through the very last moment. It’s incredibly difficult to miss someone who has spent their entire life being as nasty as they thought they could get away with to others; doubly so to regret their passing. Yet, that’s what is expected of us. We can’t even talk about this with others. We keep getting this feedback that we have to feel sorry for this person, or that we should be sad and will miss them. No. To all of that. But we can’t **say** that, because it is SO against the idea that Society in general has.

    I think this has to do with Religion. Religious ideas are that Life is precious, all are important, we should keep people alive as long as possible, it’s up to god and not us when people die and we should all treasure our family members no matter how much abuse they dished out to us in life. Don’t speak ill of the dead. You have to forgive. Let me say that right… You HAVE to forgive. No matter what.

    Wow, Society, but I think you are wrong. You do NOT have to forgive. When that person shows no regret and keeps doing it and actually thinks it is fun and the right thing to do, why should you? And if the victim makes a reasonable decision to cut off contact with the abuser, Society tells you that you are wrong again!! You’re not allowed to stay away from family! You just can’t win.

    Probably not what you meant, but it’s been on my mind a lot. Sorry for the derail. If I could put some kittens here I would.

  9. 9

    I think the problem is that death is so horrific a tragedy that it’s genuinely beyond comprehension. Death in the specific is awful enough without going near the idea that almost every living, thinking, growing individual there has ever been is now gone. Not passed, not moved on, but gone. Dissolved into the void.

    Atheists have no more or less chance of approaching the horror of that idea than the religious, but we lack the comfort of not needing to.

    The best I can offer is that death is the counterpoint to life, and life is something we can talk about, perhaps with more authority than those who preach that this world is a sort of cosmic waiting room.

  10. 10

    Here is a very recent story from my country.

    There was a man who was out of job. One day, after learning that he is about to lose the unemployment benefits, he took an axe and went to the employment agency, planning to take revenge for his misfortunes. But – as he said later – there were too many people inside. On the street he saw a 10 year old girl, entering a bookshop with her parents, so he hit her with an axe. After a couple of hours the girl died.

    She just wanted to visit a bookshop with her parents. That’s all.

    I read about it on the net. There were many comments, but I remember one in particular. Someone wrote: “There are no words for this. The only hope is God.”

    And I thought: “No, you are wrong, there is no god. There is also no hope.” But I didn’t write it. Since I had no idea what else to write, I didn’t write anything.

    The next day one of our tabloids published – on the first page – a huge photograph of the dying girl. One hyena took the picture, other hyenas published it.

    That much for hope.

  11. 12

    Thank you, Greta; I remember reading that piece before and loving it.

    The situation here is a bit different. Here, the dying friend and most of his family and friends are all believers; it’s the Cuttlefamily that are at a bit of a loss to find something to say that respects both their view and our own. It is easy enough to say the words they expect (and maybe need), but they leave us hollow saying them. It would be easy enough to say meaningful words we believe, but I fear that he and his family and friends would hear them as needlessly confrontative.

    So we mostly end up saying less than we want to, and different things than we want to, because it is about them, not about us. And it feels like complaining over something trivial (like “in god we trust” on money), and maybe it is, but it would be nice if even the trivial things weren’t problematic.

  12. 13

    Something that I think is certainly worth mentioning and hasn’t gotten much attention in the atheist blogosphere: there is an online course from Yale, Death with Shelly Kagan.

    There are 26 youtube videos, roughly 45 minutes each, although as I recall the first one is mainly about the syllabus and so forth, without delving into substantive matters (so skip that and call it 25, if that helps). Still a lot there, not something to binge-watch, but Kagan makes it surprisingly non-depressing and really quite interesting. He talks about the existence of souls, afterlives and immortality (rather their nonexistence and their unhelpfulness even if they did exist), as well as personal identity, euthanasia, suicide and various other issues related to the ethics, politics, epistemology and metaphysics of death (even doing a lot of ground-clearing for things like medical ethics and abortion, but those are more peripheral and only discussed briefly). He makes it very explicit throughout that he’s a physicalist and atheist philosopher, painting a fairly standard picture of what the world looks like according to us, but he’s also very patient and reasonable about addressing a wide variety of theistic viewpoints and showing clearly how they’re unsatisfactory in so many ways. Even though it goes deep into the thickets with a lot of messy philosophical subjects, he’s extremely good at breaking things down into the most basic terms, so that any college undergrad can see how the reasoning works (whatever kind of view you have) and where the problems are. So, I think theists and atheists alike would get a lot out of it, if they spent the time, maybe over a couple of weeks, watching at least the bits that interest them the most. (The video titles are helpful in seeing how the course is structured ahead of time, if somehow you manage not to get sucked in to watch the whole thing eventually.)

    Having been an atheist for my entire adult life and having studied a lot of these topics to some extent (not to mention dealing with the deaths of many people close to me), it was already obvious there’s so much to think and talk about when it comes to death, and it’s hard to know where to begin sometimes. But especially after seeing it all presented in the course (in a relatively distilled form, compared to a lifetime of experiences), it’s striking how many strange assumptions people bring to the table with them. Knowing how to respond clearly and factually is still pretty difficult, even when I know what it is I think about it. And now I’m even more inclined to think a single article, a pithy quote, a soundbite, a brief discussion or something like that, would never be able to cover all of the necessary ground, to get most theists to at least understand (if not appreciate) our positions. Most people, as Kagan points out a few times, actively try to avoid thinking and talking about death in any serious way. They typically just give a few (highly dubious) pieces of received wisdom or close off the discussion before it even begins in earnest, generally because they’re encouraged to do that in our society.

    But if and when we get over that hurdle, it doesn’t seem quite so intractable as I guess it did before, because the foundational ideas we need to grasp aren’t too difficult, and when presented carefully enough there’s not even much room for them to be controversial to anyone. That is, all of the places where it appears as if there could be genuine (and very heated) substantive disagreement just seem to fall apart, and perhaps the way we tend to talk about it in such vague and abstract terms obscures the more basic points that could really help to move the dialogue forward and make it more constructive.

    I mean, we say things like this and it’s often accepted very uncritically:

    I think the problem is that death is so horrific a tragedy that it’s genuinely beyond comprehension. Death in the specific is awful enough without going near the idea that almost every living, thinking, growing individual there has ever been is now gone. Not passed, not moved on, but gone. Dissolved into the void.

    Atheists have no more or less chance of approaching the horror of that idea than the religious, but we lack the comfort of not needing to.

    (Not to pick on you Ian King; this is a very common sentiment, which happens to be completely wrongheaded.)

    Try to imagine what not-dying would be. I don’t think any of us actually wants immortality once we stop and think carefully about what that actually means. Even if you think it doesn’t exist, you might still think there’s some reason to prefer that to death, but that’s not a tenable idea either. Go through it step by step, simply to ask yourself why you’re assuming that’s the case and how you could possibly justify such claims. So what’s left? What you want is a good life that lasts as long as you want it to last, to do everything you want to do in it, no more or less than that. That isn’t, in fact, how most people die. But death can be a good thing, it can be a release from a life which clearly isn’t everything good and wonderful as it’s often advertised to be, and in fact there are numerous things (including people) that I would gladly die for. So, it makes no sense to say death itself that is any kind of horrific tragedy — what’s a problem (which maybe we can’t do much about) is dying too soon and dying in ways that make your life (and the lives of others who survive you) worse rather than better. I think we can comprehend that, and insisting that it’s beyond comprehension or refusing to comprehend it is only giving fuel to light theist fires, because atheists (or theists who don’t appeal to supernatural ideas like souls, afterlives, immortality, etc.) genuinely can give a coherent account of what’s actually going on when you die and what actually matters to people about death (and about life, or what we actually care about in the most general terms). I say atheists as a group can do that (while theists can’t), if we’re willing to slog through this stuff with each other, but I don’t mean every one of us automatically has the right sorts of views or talks about them in the most thoughtful and least misleading ways. That’s a project we need to take seriously for ourselves, if we expect to get anywhere — not just getting somewhere in an argument but in learning how to live better lives with each other.

  13. 14

    “It’s the same with men as with horses and dogs; nothing wants to die” Tom Waits

    I feel like I have to leave behind me when I go some idea, some past actions, some seed that enables someone in the future to use what I have left in a fashion I would consider positive. Newton’s (borrowed from Bernard of Chartres) statement “If I have seen a little further than others, it is because I have stood upon the shoulders of giants” means to me that it is only by standing on the work of past generations does mankind advance. The only purpose to life is what we assign to it, and the only comfort I would find in death is the knowledge that I contributed something useful to the sum of mankind’s efforts to advance.

  14. 15

    I am a guy who has, inadvertently, ended up spending 1/2 his adult life as a primary caregiver for both my parents (at different times) in their final years (still doing it right now for my father. who I just enrolled in “hospice” two days ago. so the death discussion for me is very real right now). Thanks for the “Death Cafe” idea — I had never heard about them before. I definitely will check one out soon! (btw, perhaps you might consider advertising/announcing some local Bay Area Death Cafes on your website for your readers? I am a Bay Area local too and think I would feel much more comfortable attending one if I was somewhat assured that there might be a kind of secular presence at it (especially if its being held at a church — which seems to me, unfortunately, one of the venues they use.) I will look into “meetups” for this idea too through the local freethought groups.

    For me, there are really three “death” discussions secular people need to have:

    (1) the several discussion(s) in our lives of sharing our personal experiences regarding the death of others in our lives. This mainly helps with grieving and other emotional traumas caused by these losses.

    (2) a practical nuts-and-bolts end-of-life discussion (or at least personal period of reflection) about what exactly each of us, as individuals, desire in regards to our own end of life decisions. Perhaps as important too, is also having several “meta-discussions” throughout one’s life with different people about this topic itself — so we can discover new things things that perhaps we never considered in our own discussions re: end-of-life. Where do we want to die (hospital, home, in the Montana’s wilderness outback?), hospice? euthanasia? How do you want your remains handled? Who do you want to be notified? Who do you want around at your moment of dying? How are certain things going to be financed to ensure your wishes are honored? There are so many things to decide about our own end-of-life, people don’t even know what kinds of things they really need to make decisions about — let alone actually addressing the things the DO know about. DNR/Advanced directives are finally being discussed widely, but that is really is just the beginning to this whole branch of the discussion. I am always blown away that people spend so much more time planning, say, their kid’s first birthday party than planning out their own end-of-life plans. Most importantly, we also need to begin keeping an on-going journal of our end-of-life decisions, and let the people you implicitly trust to advocate for us and our well-laid-out plans at the appropriate time know where this journal is kept.

    (3) the philosophical contemplation about the process of dying itself, so we can hopefully waylay most of the anxieties and fears that too often dominate many people’s thoughts as the moment of their own death actually approaches. This last one might also include some practical experience too, by simply talking with, helping out, and/or being around people close to death. Take some time to volunteer at a nursing home. People really need to, at the very least, get to the point where they aren’t “creeped out” when spending time at, say, a nursing home or funeral home. Old people actually are very interesting people to hang out with (even dementia patients). Interacting with them on some level is a very natural and intuitive (even if its non-verbal) way to gain a lot of insights into dying, and will go a long way to settling your own anxieties, fears, and taboos around the topic (as well as get you used to a nursing home environment).

    (I suppose there is a (4) re: “non-religious afterlife” concepts for some secular people, but I am not one of those kinds of people)

  15. 16

    I am 85 years old, am an atheist, and live in an old folks home. My fellow residents are somewhat diverse but establishment WASP’s are over-represented. We have been discussing Atul Gewande’s book “Being Mortal.” The group is mixed, with a couple more atheists, several Catholics, and various mainstream Protestants. I think we have had realistic discussions about death, generally free of afterlife fantasies. I have stated my expectation that at some point in the not too distant future my consciousness will stop and never resume. I have found that frequently there is much less denial about death in very old people than in younger people. The fear declines and the reality is inescapable.

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