Why Atheists Are Better Prepared for Death Than Believers

I write a lot about atheist philosophies of death.

I’ve written about how loss, including death, is necessary for life and change to be possible. I’ve written about death as a natural, physical process, one that connects us intimately with nature and the universe. I’ve written about the idea of death as a deadline, something that helps us focus our lives and treasure the people and experiences we have now. I’ve written about the idea that our life, our slice of the timeline, will always have existed even though we die. I’ve written about how things don’t have to be permanent to be meaningful.

In the last few months, I’ve been dealing with some of death’s harsher realities.

So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how atheism, and humanism, can help us deal with death — and with life. Not just in an abstract philosophical sense; not just in a “creating a meaningful frame for our lives” sense. I’ve been thinking about how we can apply atheist philosophies in a practical way. I’ve been thinking, not just about how these philosophies can help us face death, but about how they can improve the way we live our life.


Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Why Atheists Are Better Prepared for Death Than Believers. To find out more about how atheist philosophies of death can be applied in practical ways, to help us make better decisions about death and life, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Why Atheists Are Better Prepared for Death Than Believers

14 thoughts on “Why Atheists Are Better Prepared for Death Than Believers

  1. 1

    That’s a great article.
    I became a humanist because of death. I am the son of a funeral director and grew up with it. I helped with many funerals and visitations. I was in a number of churches and saw how different churches practiced their beliefs and saw that Christianity is not a monolithic entity.
    Thanks for your wonderful piece. And hugs for cat issues, it’s tough.

  2. 2

    “our slice of the timeline, will always have existed even though we die.” This is beautiful and profound Greta. As a fellow cat lover (we have four), I related completely to the saga about your Lydia. Thank you so much.

  3. 3

    A strange thing happened during the transition from believer to atheist in my slightly younger years…I grew increasingly less fearful of death. Now, the process of dying is not so comfy but no longer being afraid of that ol’ eternal hell thingy is a bit liberating. Having only one life to worry about certainly encourages one to make the most of it!

  4. 5

    Hi Greta, long time lurker etc…
    Funny this should come up in such close proximity to my favourite Uncle dying of complications arising from oesophegal cancer. I am incredibly grateful to have had him in my life. His quality of life at the end was dreadful (for wont of a better word, hellish, even) and I have the impression he was hanging on purely out of concern for his wife. It was shocking and guilt inducing to realise that I was glad he was gone. Not to a better (or worse) place, just gone, the pain was over. My atheism, I think helped me (surprisingly rapidly) come to terms with that guilt. Life is beautiful and precious but those are not values inherent in simply being alive. For those to be true, there needs to be a minimum quality of life. Constant agony, loss of dignity and the other things that went with his cancer put existence on a baseline far below that. I’m not happy he’s no longer around, but I’m happy there is no more pain. The ending of the suffering of someone I love is far more important than my (and everyone else’s)unhappiness at his passing. I’m amazed and saddened by the paradox of those with the belief they have the least to lose hanging on with the greatest tenacity

  5. 6

    I’m mostly a lurker but I had to say thank you for this post.
    I’m hoping to go to vet school, so this summer I did some volunteer work at a small animal clinic. It was there that I saw my first euthanasia. The dog had been coming in for a teeth cleaning, but the vet discovered a tumor on the roof of her mouth that had eaten away at her bones. The owner elected to put her down.
    I watched the whole thing and started crying. I didn’t really know the dog, but I was still so sad. Somehow I made it through the day and one of the first things I did when I got home was read all your death pieces, like “Comforting Thoughts” and the “Meaning of Death” series.
    They really helped and the next time I saw a dog euthanized, I was sad but not as sad as before.
    So, I say Thank You and good luck with Lydia.

  6. vel

    very cool article as usual. I have wondered if Christians are so desperate to avoid death because they have wrapped up so much of their belief in that they will be around when “Jesus Returns”. They are so certain that they are so special to the big spook in the sky that *of course* it wouldn’t allow them to die like every other human, they must be special.

  7. 8

    Here is some Scientific backed research on Near Death Experiences from http://www.near-death.com/experiences/research08.html If you keep an open mind you will realize there very well could be Life After Death. As the great Dr.Jerry Jampolsky say’s : Because Love is Eternal, Death need not be viewed as Fearful. We begin to let go of our fear of death when we truly believe that what is real never changes and Love is always present, A reality based on the Physical senses can acknowledge only the story the body tells.
    Scientific Discoveries Resulting From NDEs
    NDEs are proven to be real events
    Gravitational forces exerted upon fighter pilots in a centrifuge has revolutionized the field of consciousness studies by providing experimental proof that NDEs are real events because they can be replicated in the laboratory. (Dr. Jim Whinnery)
    A NDE cured cancer
    Dr. Ken Ring documented the case of Ralph Duncan who died of leukemia and had a NDE. During his NDE, Jesus cured him and told him he no longer had leukemia. Duncan returned from death cancer-free. (Howard Mikel)
    A NDE cured congenital blindness
    A blind and mute 67 year-old diabetic woman with severe heart problems was about to undergo open-heart surgery when a Being of Light appeared and healed her of all her illnesses. The cardiologists could offer no explanation for her cure. (Dr. Ken Ring)
    A NDE healed abdominal sickness
    Five days after abdominal surgery, an English patient had complications and died. During his NDE, a Being of Light healed him. The patient returned from death healed. (Margot Grey)
    A NDE advanced biological and medical research
    After his NDE, Mellen-Thomas Benedict brought back a great deal of scientific information concerning biophotonics, cellular communication, quantum biology, and DNA research. Mellen-Thomas Benedict currently holds six U.S. patents. (Dr. Ken Ring)
    A NDE supports astrophysical research
    Mellen-Thomas Benedict’s NDE supports a number of scientific theories such as: an infinite number of Big Bangs, the reality of zero-point space, a better understanding of black holes. Mellen-Thomas Benedict believes in the future science will be able to quantify spirit. (Dr. Ken Ring)
    A NDE advanced molecular chemistry
    Olaf Swenson had a NDE from a botched tonsillectomy at the age of 14 for which he experienced a timeless spaceless dimension which physicists call the “Omega Point”. Because of the information gained from his NDE, he later went on to develop over 100 patents in molecular chemistry. (Dr. Melvin Morse)
    NDEs support Einstein’s theory of time travel
    Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity allows for the possibility of time travel. During a NDE, some people have reported traveling back in time and some have reported traveling into the future.
    I see myself in the midst of a huge crowd. It’s not a modern crowd. They are dressed in the clothes of Bible times …. I watch in horror as Jesus is nailed to the cross. (Don Brubaker)
    I explored the Roman Empire, Babylon, the times of Noah and Abraham. Any era you can name, I went there. (Dr. George Rodonaia)
    The light replied, “Let us goback in time, as far back as possible, and tell me how far back we should go”. I was thinking for some time. Eventually I blurted out, “Stone Age?” I did not have much time to think about all this, because, all of a sudden, I saw human beings back on Earth. I was looking down on a group of people, men and women, who were dressed in furs, sitting around acampfire. (Guenter Wagner)
    The box opened to reveal what appeared to be a tiny television picture of a world event that was yet to happen. As I watched, I felt myself drawn right into the picture, where I was able to live the event. This happened twelve times, and twelve times I stood in the midst of many events that would shake the world in the future. (Dannion Brinkley)
    a NDE supports a theory of consciousness
    One particular theory of consciousness is supported by NDE research an involves consciousness expansion after death. Stanislav Grof explains this theory:
    My first idea was that it [consciousness] has to be hard-wired in the brain. I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how something like that is possible.Today, I came to the conclusion that it is not coming from the brain. In that sense, it supports what Aldous Huxley believed after he had some powerful psychedelic experiences and was trying to link them to the brain. He came to the conclusion that maybe the brain acts as a kind of reducing valve that actually protects us from too much cosmic input … I don’t think you can locate the source of consciousness. I am quite sure it is not in the brain not inside of the skull … It actually, according to my experience, would lie beyond time and space, so it is not localizable. You actually come to the source of consciousness when you dissolve any categories that imply separation, individuality, time, space and so on. You just experience it as a presence. (Stanislav Grof)
    The expansion of consciousness reported during NDEs accounts supports a theory of consciousness.
    The following NDE descriptions of consciousness expansion supports the theory of consciousness described above by Stanislav Grof. It theorizes that the brain acts as a reducing valve of cosmic input to produce consciousness. At death, this reducing-valve function ceases and consciousness is then free to expand. The following NDEs support this:
    I realized that, as the stream was expanding, my own consciousness was also expanding to take in everything in the Universe! (Mellen-Thomas Benedict)
    My mind felt like a sponge, growing and expanding in size with each addition … I could feel my mind expanding and absorbing and each new piece of information somehow seemed to belong. (Virginia Rivers)
    In your life review you’ll be the universe. (Thomas Sawyer)
    This white light began to infiltrate my consciousness. It came into me. It seemed I went out into it. I expanded into it as it came into my field of consciousness. (Jayne Smith)
    My presence fills the room. And now I feel my presence in every room in the hospital. Even the tiniest space in the hospital is filled with this presence that is me. I sense myself beyond the hospital, above the city, even encompassing Earth. I am melting into the universe. I am everywhere at once. (Josiane Antonette)
    (f )
    I felt myself expanding and expanding until I thought, “I’m going to burst!” The moment I thought, “I’m going to burst!”, I suddenly found myself alone, back where this being had met me, and he had gone. (Margaret Tweddell)
    Susan had an out-of-body experience where she left her body and grew very big, as big as a planet at first, and then she filled thesolar system and finally she became as large as the universe. (Susan Blackmore)

  8. 10

    Dear Greta, I read your article Why Near Death Experiences Are a Terrible Argument for the Soul, I do find your posts informative but I must say I am thoroughly unimpressed about your arguments against a Non-Material Soul. Don’t get me wrong I don’t mean to disrespect you. Using the gold standard of evidence, methods specifically designed to filter out biases and known cognitive errors as much as is humanly possible: rigorously- gathered, carefully- tested, thoroughly cross-checked, double-blinded, placebo- controlled, replicated, peer-reviewed research of 500 referenced data shows us that memory is not localized in specific parts of the brain but rather spread through-out the brain much as a holographic plate will have the image spread through-out it. This explains why many people can still remember things if a portion of the brain is damaged. I agree with those two guy’s that responded to you, I am sorry you do come across as cynical when you downplay NDE’s.
    None of the experts of NDE think that it is merely a brain even. I will summarize it by a rigorous research finding of Dr. Long :
    1. The level of consciousness and alertness during NDEs is usually greater than they experience during their everyday life even though NDEs generally occur while unconscious or clinically dead. The elements in NDEs generally follow a consistent and logical and order.
    2. What NDErs see and hear in the out of body state during their NDEs is generally realistic, and often verified later by the NDErs or others as real.
    3. ormal or super-normal vision occurs in NDEs among those with significantly impaired vision or even legal blindness. Several NDErs who were blind from birth have reported highly visual NDEs.
    4.Typical NDEs occur under general anesthesia at a time when conscious experience should be impossible.
    5.Life reviews in NDEs include real events that took place in the NDErs lives, even if the events had been forgotten.
    6.When NDErs encounter beings they knew from their earthly life, they are virtually always deceased, and usually deceased relatives.
    7. The NDEs of children, including very young children, are strikingly similar to the NDEs of older children and adults.
    8. NDEs appear strikingly consistent around the world. Many NDEs from non-Western countries are very similar to typical Western NDEs.
    9. Changes in the lives of NDErs after their experiences, the NDE aftereffects, are common. Aftereffects are often powerful, lasting, and the changes follow a consistent pattern.

  9. 11

    Dwayne: If you want to debate NDEs and whether they support a hypothesis of an immaterial soul that exists separate from the brain, I’d appreciate it if you’d do it in the comment thread on the NDE post, and not in this one where it’s off-topic.
    And if you’re going to cite purported research backing up your claim, you need to provide links. You have neglected to do so here, making it impossible for anyone to look at the research you’re citing and evaluate its validity. Thank you.

  10. 12

    I don’t know how much this applies or how coherent I’ll be, but…
    I’ve been much less suicidal since being thrust into atheism. before, there was this idea of a glorious everlasting afterlife (compared to which this life now is but a moment). Given that, life’s meaning was diminished… because it can’t compare to the afterlife. Now, now I know life is everything, is very, very important.
    I am dying as are we all. I have some ideas of how I’d rather not live. None of my family, though religious, disagree with me in it.
    Life is precious. Life will end. Talk about prolonging life makes me think of taffy or of rubber. When you stretch it out, it’ll not only be longer but also be thinner. I figure it’s an individual choice whether live and die thick and solid or to stretch out life to whatever degree. Life is precious, yes; quality of life is precious, too.

  11. 13

    Dear Atheists, You don’t have to accept the depressing believe that Death is the end. Trust me, Love is Eternal, Death is just leaving one frequency of existence and entering another more beautiful frequency where you will meet all your loved ones again.
    Life is just a ride, don’t worry, you will meet your loved ones again. Watch this my dear friends and may it bring you comfort:

  12. 14

    So when religious people are faced with the harsh realities of death […] they’re often not prepared.

    One question that’s often addressed to atheists is: “If someone’s dying, and their religion gives them comfort, would you tell them that their idea of a blissful afterlife is wrong?” My usual reply is that religion is a crutch, and no, you don’t go around kicking people’s crutches out from under them.
    The problem, if I may stretch the metaphor, is that religion teaches children that they need crutches (or a walker, or training wheels, or pick your metaphor) and never teaches them to walk by themselves. As you say, it allows people to put off thinking about tough decisions until the very end, so they’re making life-and-death decisions at crunch time, without having thought about them through when the crisis isn’t looming.
    A few years ago, I started contemplating my own mortality, and it scared the caca out of me. But among other things, I’ve come to realize that what scares me is the prospect of a painful death, and not any fear of an afterlife.
    I’m not saying that everyone will, or should, come to the same conclusion I did. But I do think that thinking about these issues, scary as they may be, has helped me figure out what kind of end-of-life care I want.

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