From the Archives: Lydia’s Cancer, and Atheist Philosophies of Death

Today’s piece from the archives, for obvious reasons:

Lydia’s Cancer, and Atheist Philosophies of Death.

Summary: It’s often assumed — by both religious believers and many atheists — that death is religion’s big trump card, and the comfort offered by religion in the face of death and grief will always be more powerful, useful and appealing than any non-religious philosophy. In this post, I put the lie to this idea, and talk about how an atheist and naturalist philosophy can actually make death and grief easier to manage — among other things, because it doesn’t involve denial and self-deception.

Pull quote:

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.

I hope this helps some of you.

From the Archives: Lydia’s Cancer, and Atheist Philosophies of Death

7 thoughts on “From the Archives: Lydia’s Cancer, and Atheist Philosophies of Death

  1. 1

    I’m very sorry to hear the news about Violet. At such moments it’s difficult to decide what to say. So let me just say this: what attracted me initially to your blog were the essays you wrote about death and dying. I found your blog by coincidence, trying to google out something sensible about dying from an atheist point of view. As you perhaps can imagine I found a lot of haughty gibberish. But my impression was (and still is) that your essays didn’t belong to that category. I had a feeling that it’s really something you live with, that even when I disagree with you, the disagreement reflects something on a personal level. And it’s so rare – it’s so much easier to be evasive, to present the “I’m not concerned” story, to pretend objectivity and detachment.

    Even if I’m not fully able to share your humanistic philosophy, I sincerely hope it will help you and your readers. I’m really sorry for your loss.

  2. 2

    To Greta and Ingrid, I offer sincere condolences on the loss of Lydia. Regardless of the attitudes of many, “pets” are family members and their loss can be just as profound as losing any other member of the family. Cherish her memory with the knowledge that her life was all the better for being with you both.

    In terms of the atheist experience of death. Last Monday, my 84 year old mother passed away. While I’m not entirely sure of all of the emotional spectrum that I’m experiencing, I do know that being an atheist has allowed me to accept the process as something natural, and to accept it for what it is. The inevitable progress of life. Part of the natural entropy of the universe.

    The strange thing is, I haven’t gone through all of the traditional stages of grief. I have felt no denial or anger, I have certainly felt the loss, but also acceptance that my mother has gone and I won’t see her again. Strangely, I don’t find discomfort in that. instead I cherish my memory of her and I think the lack of delusion, stemming from my atheism, has made the experience all the more real.

    Like most mothers, she was perfect, but not without her flaws and I will miss her.

  3. 4

    It is interesting that without mentioning it you have demonstrated a secular coping mechanism for dealing with grief. That is the act of sitting down and writing about the loved one (either human or fellow creature). I recently lost a cat who had gone from a cat from hell that nobody would adopt to a love bundle. I had expected that we would be companions for years but Foo became unexpectedly ill and died within a few weeks. One thing that helped was to write about her and my feelings at her passing. The act of writing seemed to be able to draw much of the sadness out of me. Once externalized memories tend to lose their power to hurt. That and planting a rose over her grave allowed me to say goodbye and took most of the pain of remembering her away.

  4. 5

    It’s actually the death of my grandparents that lead me to a strong skepticism of the afterlife. My paternal grandmother was a whirling mess of paranoia and conflict. I can’t imagine her in a state of grace, she’d be unrecognizable. But the thought of her spending eternity with those traits is even worse. My maternal grandfather was a great man, but which parts of him go to the afterlife? He had his own dark times, and died mourning not only his wife, but his own declining intellect.

    The only afterlife that makes sense to me is that these things, this “karma” remains. And that sounds like a terrible thing to hope for, because I’m not so vain as to believe I’m a pure soul.

  5. 6

    The following passage is from Michael Moore’s recent autobiography and it refers to Kurt Vonnegut: “He [Vonnegut] told me that he had stopped contemplating the ‘meaning of life’ because his son, Mark, had finally figured it out for him: ‘We’re here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.’ And that’s what he was doing for me. Vonnegut had, in his final years, turned to writing nonfiction. ‘This has been my greatest challenge,’ he told me, ‘because the current reality now seems so unreal, it’s hard to make nonfiction seem believable. But you, my friend, are able to do that.'”

    Vonnegut’s meaning reminds me of those lines in George Harrison’s “What Is Life” song: “If it’s not love that you need. Then I’ll try my best to make everything succeed.” Which to me points to Jeremy Bentham (author of utilitarianism, “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”).

    To me, death will be a surrender of all tension and ambition…perfect relaxation. If there is more to death, I hope that I will be pleasantly surprised and that we will be privy to a few secrets of the universe that could benefit us by our knowing.

    If there is any judgment involved after death, the overwhelming majority of us will likely be seriously ill equipped, though there is a small comfort knowing that the Creator very likely thinks like a Scientist and would look askance at humanity’s plundering of the planet.

  6. 7

    Well, everyone has their own approach to this, personally I think Epicurus hit it on the head when he pointed out that it did not hurt him that he was not alive 100 years ago and so why would it hurt him that he would not be alive 100 years in the future? And why does one’s finitude in time seem more hurtful than one’s finitude in space? Don’t these limitations, both of space and of time, define who we are? Does it make any more sense to think a human could extend infinitely in time than that he/she could extend infinitely in space?

    As I grow older I find myself more and more drawn to Epicurus and to Lucretius, who wrote:

    Sic igitur magni quoque circum
    moeriia mundi expugnata dabunt
    labem putresque ruinas.

    Somewhat colorfully translated as:
    No single thing abides; but all things flow. Fragment to
    fragment clings–the things thus grow until we know and name them. By degrees they melt, and are no more the things we know.

    Bill Quinn

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