This piece was originally published in Free Inquiry magazine.
“Sure, atheism may have better arguments and evidence. But religion is always to going to win on the death question. A secular philosophy of death will never comfort people the way religion does.”
I’ve heard this idea more times than I can count. And here’s the weird thing: It’s not just from religious believers. I hear it from atheists, too. It shocks me how easily non-believers concede the ground of death. Many of us assume that of course it would be lovely to believe in an eternal afterlife… if only that were plausible. And largely because of this assumption, we often shy away from the topic of death. We happily talk about science, sex, reality, other advantages the secular life has to offer… but we stay away from death, and concede the ground before we even fight it.
I think this is a huge mistake. I agree that the fear of death is one of the main reasons people cling to religion. But I don’t agree, even in the slightest, that religious philosophies of death are inherently more comforting than secular ones. And if we want to make atheism a safe place to land when people let go of their faith, we need to get these secular philosophies into the public square, and let the world know what we think about death.
Here’s the thing you have to remember about religious beliefs in an afterlife: They’re only comforting if you don’t examine them.
Then ask yourself this: In Heaven, would we have the ability to do harm, or to make bad decisions? Again — if we do, it won’t be perfect or blissful. But if we don’t, we’ve lost one of the essential things that makes us who we are. Religious believers are always going on about how free will makes us special, how it’s a unique gift God gave to humanity, how God had to make us free to do evil so we could choose to do good. Yet when we’re in Heaven, when we’re in the perfect place that God created for us to be our most perfect selves… this unique gift, the gift that’s the sole reason for suffering and evil, somehow vanishes into thin air?
And when you’re in Heaven, will you remember the people who didn’t make it? Will you be aware of your loved ones — or anyone, for that matter — screaming and begging for mercy in the eternal agony of Hell? Again: If you are aware of this torture, there is no way for Heaven to be blissful, even for a microsecond. But if you’re not — if you’re so blissed-out by God’s presence that your awareness of Hell is obliterated, like morphine obliterating your awareness of pain — how could you be you? Isn’t our love and compassion for others one of the best, most central parts of who we are? How could we possibly be who we are, and not care about the suffering of the people we love?
And I haven’t even gotten to the monotony of Heaven. I haven’t even started on how people need change, challenges, growth, to be happy, and how an eternity of any one thing would eventually become tedious to the point of madness. Unless, again, our personalities changed so much we’d be unrecognizable.
I’m with Christopher Hitchens on this one. Heaven sounds like North Korea: an eternity of mindless conformity spent singing the praises of a powerful tyrant. In order for it to actually be perfect and blissful, our natures would have to change so radically, we wouldn’t be who we are. The idea is only comforting if you think about it for a moment — “Oo, eternal bliss and seeing everyone I love forever!” — and immediately start thinking about something else.
The same is true for every other afterlife I’ve heard of. Reincarnation, for instance. If dying and being reborn obliterates the memories of our past lives… then without those memories, how would we be ourselves? And it’s true of our souls being dissolved into the soup of a larger World-Soul: nice idea, maybe, but how is it immortality if our unique identity is gone? I have never heard of any imagined afterlife that could withstand more than a few minutes of careful examination without sounding like a nightmare.
This is conspicuously not true with secular philosophies of death.
And for many atheists, this is a profound comfort.
When I was a spiritual believer, thinking about death meant being propelled into cognitive dissonance. I’d think, “Oh, my mom’s not really dead, my friend Rob isn’t really dead, I’m not really going to die”… and then I’d get uncomfortable, and anxious, and I’d have to think about something else right away. On some level, I knew that my spiritual beliefs didn’t make sense, that they weren’t supported by good evidence, that they were mostly founded on wishful thinking, that I was making them up as I went along. I was comforted by them only to the degree that I didn’t think about them.
And that’s not a happy way to live.
When I finally let go of my wishful thinking, I went through a traumatic time. I had to accept that I was never going to see my mother again, or my friend Rob, and that when I died I would really be gone forever. That was hard. But once I started building a new, secular foundation for dealing with death, I found it far more consoling. I wasn’t constantly juggling a flock of inconsistent, incoherent ideas… or shoving them onto the back burner. When I was grieving the death of someone I loved, or when I was frightened by my own eventual death, I could actually, you know, think about my ideas. I could actually feel my feelings. I could actually experience my grief, and my fear… because my understanding of death was based on reality, and could withstand as much exploration as I cared to give it.
And I’m not the only one. I’ve talked with lots of non-believers about this, and I’ve lost count of the number who’ve said something like, “Yeah, eternity seems like a good idea, but once I started thinking about it, I realized it would kind of suck. Dealing with death as an atheist seems like it’d be harsh… but actually, I find it easier.”
This is a subjective question, of course. If you, personally, don’t find secular philosophies of death comforting or appealing, then you don’t. But… well, actually, that’s my point. It’s absurd to say that religious ideas about death are inherently more appealing than secular ones. For a lot of us, they aren’t. For a lot of us, the exact opposite is true.
So let’s stop treating death as if it belongs to religion.
We don’t have to be afraid of this topic. We can talk about it. And we should talk about it. There are many believers who feel the way I used to: they’re having questions, they’re having doubts, but they’re scared to let go. They’re scared to imagine a life where death is real, and final. If we can get our ideas and feelings about death out into the world, these people will find it easier to let go… knowing they’ll have a safe place to land when they do.
We don’t have to say, “Sure, religion is a comforting lie — but it’s still a lie.” The lie is not actually very comforting. And the fact that it is a lie undercuts its comfort.
We do not have to concede this ground.
(Tip of the hat to Adam Lee for his excellent piece, Those Old Pearly Gates, which greatly shaped my thinking on this question.)
85 thoughts on “Do We Concede the Ground of Death Too Easily?”
I personally never found bullshit comforting, and being asked to swallow lies while in a state of bereavement is terribly insulting to me.
I don’t think people think too much about the specifics of what Heaven would be like.
What they do think about, is that it’s a place where they will see the people they’ve loved and lost again.
That’s the hardest thing to accept about the death of a loved one: I will never see you again.
Also, re the “monotony” of Heaven: I always pictured it as a place where one could be lost in some blissful moment, or few moments, forever.
It’s Heaven. Obviously time is different there, and there’s no need to project our real life need for change and challenge into it.
Sorry to be arguing for the “other side” as it were, but as somebody who was orphaned by age 15 I don’t think there’s any point in minimizing the suffering of loss or people’s need for comfort in the face of it.
Better, I think, to accept that the reality of death is fucking painful. Full stop. And to understand the need for the comfort of fantasy, while facing the fact that that’s all it is: fantasy.
Talking Heads got it right. Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.
I’m with Mark Twain. My experiences over the billions of years before being born were not that traumatic.
I’m not sure there’s /nothing/ after death, but I do know that no individual, religion, or philosophy has provided enough evidence to make me believe their version. Death is an utter discontinuity from life, so we might as well just work on the here and now or at least parts we can and do know about rather than trust people or ideas without proof or even with disproof to their position.
When I was christian I was terrified of death, while at the same time anxiously waiting to die.
Becoming an atheist removed the terror from death. There is nothing my religion ever offered me that is more comforting than reality.
Having seen loved ones die I take comfort in knowing that their suffering is over, that they exist only in the loving memories of those of us who miss them.
A celestial petting zoo seems cheap and tawdry in comparisson.
I’ve never been worried about what happens after death, because obviously the answer is “nothing”. But I’m frigging terrified of stopping existing. I really like being alive, and I can’t ever see myself changing my mind. All thing considered, I’d rather be immortal, and if I can’t have true immortality I’m happy to settle for a few extra millennia.
So I can totally understand the impetus for this kind of religious belief. And I do see atheism as not having a solution to offer here, because the truth is that there is no solution – you are going to stop existing. Some people seem to have no problem with that, or at least they say they don’t. I cannot fathom this. And frankly, I suspect many of them are lying to themselves (although if they aren’t, I really respect this).
Again, it’s not what happens after death that bothers me, it’s that the stuff before death comes to a permanent end. And for the time being, perhaps for all time, there’s nothing we can do about it. This sucks. So I have a fair bit of sympathy for the religious distaste for the atheist position here, and frankly I see most of the positions Greta’s given as evading this issue. Yeah, perhaps death focusses our attention nicely on this life. Perhaps in some sense it’s necessary in order to give meaning to life. But if a miracle life-extending technology came along, wouldn’t 99% of people grab on to it if they could? Would their lives thereby become meaningless, or unfocussed? If not, then the arguments don’t seem to hold water.
Ray Kurzweil and his followers are, imho, completely stuck up their own ass, but again, I can totally understand their motivation. Life is good. Life stopping is not, in most circumstances, good.
So, if any of you have a miracle life-extending technology (that allows me to drink as much as I want and play video games all night as well), please let me know.
Devil’s advocate: two points.
1) Maybe the resolution to your paradoxes about paradise is that theists are wrong to suppose that heaven is perfect. Maybe it’s merely really great.
2) There are atheistic interpretations of death which do not entail oblivion. This is pretty out there, but quantum immortality is the concept that there is always some universe in the infinite multitude of universes where you live on, however improbably, and that this constitutes immortality. In extreme cases where death seems inevitable, you could reform from random quantum fluctuations as a Boltzmann brain.
It’s not very comforting because you still experience the deaths of everybody you know and love, and they still experience yours. You just appear to yourself to be immortal.
I imagine a common argument against this would be “But I still die, that other me in another universe is not me.”
Believing that this constitutes immortality means recognising as I do that our concepts of personal identity may be a little flawed.
On the whole hell-heaven afterlife deal, Humanist Isaac Asimov (best known for his SF but wrote a lot of great non-fiction too about just about every topic under the Sun) wrote this :
Personally, I consider these to be some of the sanest and truest words I’ve read & I totally agree.
Myself I’ve got only a couple of things to add :
Perhaps for Hitler being saved by the prayers of forgiving Jewish victims would in itself be a form of hell?
And if “hell is other people” then for the [email protected] here (incl. myself) there’s also the thought that perhaps “heaven can be other people” too? 😉
There are days when the only thing that makes life bearable is the knowledge that human stupidity and evil will eventually come to an end.
And I used to be such a nich guy 🙁
My grandmother died on Monday and her funeral is tomorrow, so I’m expecting to spend several hours smiling and nodding at people who tell me she’s in a better place. She was certainly a believer in the Eternal Family Reunion version of Heaven, and I think that’s part of what pushed me into atheism at a young age, even before I’d reasoned the whole thing out. I loved my grandmother, but I can’t imagine hanging out with her for eternity.
Having seen all four of my grandparents live to an age where they were completely fed up with life and wanted to die, I have no trouble imagining that I could get to that point some day. Sure, part of their motivation was that they were all seriously ill (and in two cases suffering from dementia) but they also seemed to feel that their time had passed. Their children and grandchildren had grown up, and the world had changed, and they let it go. Some of them believed that they were going on to something else, and some didn’t, but they all seemed ready.
I find the idea that death is the end of my existence much much more acceptable than some idiot god judging who is worthy of what sounds like a horrible place, all constant praising of it and nothing of me left. Indeed, the common Christian “heaven” sounds more like what they want their hell to be.
The claim that there is some worth in the cherry picked, madeup nonsense of religious afterlife, all of which underlines that there is no “truth” in it, is ridiculous. Even Christians can’t agree on what their afterlife is. Most of them can’t even accept their bible *doesn’t* say “Aunt Mary is right up with God in heaven as soon as she expired” prefering the much more fuzzy-wuzzy version to the “you’re in your grave until the “end times” come” myth. Add that to the pathetically sadistic revenge fantasies of their “hell” and it is revealed as such childish nonsense.
Personally, I don’t actually believe in an afterlife. I also don’t mind too much: A nice car crash at 100mph with a few seconds sliding sideways along the road gave me a great opportunity to figure out what life means to me, and the subsequent 2 hour knee surgery was a nice example of “so this must be how it is to not exist for 2 hours”. 🙂
But really, I don’t quite see why not believing in god would completely rule out some sort of afterlife, eternal existence in some non-bodily form or whatever. If someone likes to believe that there is something in living beings that leaves their body and goes on in some other form when they die, I’m happy for them to find comfort in that.
We’ll all find out when we die anyway. No point in getting worked up over it before that. 😉
Agreed, I notice the same phenomenon. And Greta’s diagnosis (as I understand it) consists in observing that even among the atheists there is a widespread conviction that (*) “A secular philosophy of death will never comfort people the way religion does”. Then Greta adds of course: this conviction is wrong. Her point is, in her own words, that
I’m not sure what “inherently more appealing” can mean. Perhaps it doesn’t mean anything (and that’s exactly why it’s absurd to say such a thing). Be that as it may, here is my doubt. Given Greta’s assumption that (*) is popular even among the atheists, doesn’t it suggest that secular philosophies of death are not particularly effective on a large scale? In other words: if those secular philosophies are so “based on reality”, if they can “withstand scrutiny”, if they give in effect a “profound comfort” to so many atheists, then how do you explain your own assumption, i.e. popularity of (*)? My own guess (I have nothing more than guesses here) would be: (*) is popular because for many of us (1) death sucks, all the secular philosophies notwithstanding (see e.g. #2 or #6 here in this thread); (2) we can think of no effective (for us) way of making it acceptable … apart from denying it, i.e. going religious (with this option being inaccessible to us for other reasons).
But I understand that you don’t like this explanation. Can you produce another one?
One last remark. A quote first – a classical advice of how to deal with death.
Just to be sure: no, it’s not from any new atheists’ propaganda leaflet 🙂 It’s much, much older. And I’m tempted to think of it as the best piece of advice ever produced. We follow it in good times (when only we can afford to “stay away from death”, we just do it); and it’s movingly ineffective when we despair (see the next verses in the poem). That’s quite a lot – a lot more than you can say about many modern “consolations”.*
*Cf. e.g. Greta’s “The idea that our genes will live on after we die”. In Greta’s opinion this secular consolation can “withstand scrutiny”; on the other hand, conceptions of reincarnation do not “withstand scrutiny”, because “even though nice idea, maybe, but how is it immortality if our unique identity is gone?” Just try to combine these two insights. Any results?
Yes, eternal bliss may not be all that great or even logically possible. So the only reason life after death would be interesting to me would be if I could watch worlds form, life evolve, galaxies collide, etc. Excluding the likelihood that, as you say, the real me as I exist now would probably get bored (after all, any life after death is a fantasy), when you have an eternity, what’s a billion years?
Well, I’ll disagree slightly with the contention that atheists cede death to the god-botherers. I certainly don’t.
I try to explain to them the concept of eternity.
The oldest human alive is about 100 years old — that’s a long time. Humans have been around the planet for 100,000 years; our earliest ape ancestors, probably 2 million years.
Our solar system is about 25 times that age — about 5 billion years old.
In another 5 billion years, the sun will go red giant, consuming all of the inner planets. Of course, it will have made Earth uninhabitable long before that. I hope our descendants can establish a colony on Europa before it’s too late.
In a few trillion years, all of the matter in the entire universe will have devolved into undifferentiated photons. No light, no heat, no mass, no matter, no nothing — just an ever-expanding nothing (at least that’s the best model we have today).
And that’s still just the knife’s edge of eternity.
Does that make sense? How is it coherent that the entire universe will fade away and yet you and Uncle Henry are joking it up somewhere, while Aunt June (who was something of a slut) is undergoing yet another round of torture?
It’s not rational to believe in an eternal consciousness. Blissed out or not.
Gah. Math fail. 2500 times. 2 billion x 2500 = 5 billion.
That’s a shitload of a long time.
OK, going for coffee now. 2 MILLION x 2500 = 5 Billion.
Ahhh greta, didn’t you know that heaven is so great and gods glory so blinding that you will will be in a state of awe at his majesty for all eternity.
Yes that is the whole point of my fucking life, sorrow, joy, pain, love, friendship, pursuing knowledge the whole journey is so that I can stroke the big guys dick. He must have major confidence issues.
Then I’m spewed the dead end crap every xtian comes out with when they know their rationalising is shit….. “how can the human mind understand heaven!”
This free will thing is a tricky business, if heavens so blissful and all ( think Anna in V, where she blisses everyone out with her aura, in other words we are all doped up on gods love” what the fuck happened lucifer, heaven obviously isn’t such a rockin place if lucifer exercised his free will (free will in heaven) to tell the big dick he wasn’t suckin it anymore.
So what’s this free will for, to choose to be blissed out? But I thought the presence of god was so powerful that you couldn’t choose but be blissed out. Do we get to choose whether we eat mana or meat? Who cleans out heavens toilets then? Is it a minimum wage job, cause if it is im calling the union and we’re going to strike your omnipotent ass. Is that a sin? In heaven?
But hey those are all just silly question, my real question is what the fuck is heaven for?
Do we in heaven get to choose whether it’s the place for us, lucifer obviously did. God can’t be all that great if people don’t want to hang out with him for the rest of eternity, just how long is that anyway?
Actually, I think the best (theist) rebuttal to this is to concede that the Free Will Defense to the Argument from Evil is and always has been bullshit; there is in fact no contradiction between free will and paradise. Conceivably yes, in Heaven we have the ability to do harm and to make bad decisions… but it just so happens that we don’t. We’re smart enough or unfettered enough by unfortunate circumstances or whatever that the evils (and innocent mistakes, etc.) that we’re theoretically capable of just don’t, in fact, happen.
There isn’t actually a logical contradiction in there, because the capacity to do wrong does not actually force the outcome that wrong will be done. Not when there’s an omnipotent and omniscient being setting the whole system up, anyway. In Genesis terms, Adam and Eve could have been created (1) capable of eating The Fruit but (2) smart/obedient/insightful enough to see that it was a really bad idea, and therefore they simply wouldn’t eat it, no matter what some dumbass serpent said. The fact that (2) isn’t part of the Genesis story can only be blamed on whoever created these people; (1) does not logically force not-(2).
I have my doubts that too many theists would be willing to admit the baselessness of a widely popular response to the Problem of Evil in order to shore up the Heaven story, but I do think they’d be on solid logical grounds doing so.
Wasn’t it Tony Danza that recently went nuts at a funeral because the priest never mentioned the person in the casket? That’s how most funerals are, though. It’s not about you. It’s all about Jesus. People are ripe for picking at funerals. So there’s that.
Not to mention the fact that religion poisons the mind into thinking there’s a hell that one might go to. It reminds me of the tribesman and the missionary…
How evil is that? Even if you don’t believe in hell, there’s still a chance your brain will think of it when you are dying, simply because of the idea of it.
I have always felt that the idea of non-existence was quite comforting. If nothing in this life has any meaning and we are all going to die then concepts like jealousy and regret lose their teeth. If the universe eventually comes to an end and every single atom is obliterated in the big rip then what I do here and now only serves to increase my pleasure in the here and now. There is no point in unproductive emotions like envy, anger, and regret. We are all headed for oblivion lets eat some chocolate while we can!
Mark Twain wrote a lot about how the concept of heaven doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. Both “Captain Stormfield’s visit to heaven” and “Letters from the Earth” make a lot of the same points you do.
Wow, you’ve just said exactly what I’ve been saying lately. There’s this scenario out there among atheists. Do you comfort a dying person with lies about going to heaven, or are you going to be an asshole and tell them you don’t believe?
This begs the premise that believing in an afterlife is ALWAYS comforting. I raise my hand in dissent. I know exactly how belief in an afterlife affected me, and it was not positive. I spent my childhood with an awful lot of anxiety that I would not “make it” into heaven and instead be sent to the flames of the Lake of Fire. We cannot automatically assume that any given dying person is such a child that if we lie to them they will be comforted.
I’ve been told that it’s kinder to lie and pretend in order to not rock the boat. I personally feel that people in out lives deserve respect for the human beings they are, regardless of their beliefs. Why are we asked to disrespect them by humoring them?
I completely agree, Greta. I was a fundamentalist christian for most of my early adulthood and I got very little joy from the idea of an afterlife. I spent so much time fretting about whether I was going to hell and whether people I loved were going to hell that I didn’t have time to enjoy the present. I was always monitoring myself to make sure I didn’t do anything that would make god unhappy. The idea of heaven offered little comfort because (1) it sounded boring and (2) I didn’t see how I could enjoy it if people I loved were burning in hell.
Letting go of god and the afterlife was a tremendous relief. I am at peace with the idea that, when we die, it will be just like it was before we were born. I won’t suffer my non-existence.
It seems like people shy away from the death question because, on the surface, atheism appears to comfort the bereaved less than religion. “Your loved one is dead, and that’s that!” is certainly less appealing than “They live on and you will be reunited!”, in a superficial way.
When my father passed, though, I would not have taken a religious view of it for anything. He died right around the time that Rom Houben was said to have been “trapped in his body”; a claim easily and utterly debunked. His mother insisted that he was conscious, though, due to “a glimmer in his eyes”. My father passed away suddenly due to a traumatic injury, which meant he was a reasonable candidate for organ donation, which meant his cardiopulmonary functions were medically prolonged- essentially, he was kept in a comatose state. When I saw his body in the hospital bed, I would have sworn I saw the “glimmer” of which Mrs. Houben spoke. Had I believed, even for a second, that his “soul” was somehow trapped in a brain too damaged to ever function again, I don’t think I would ever have gotten over it. Knowing that my father essentially was his brain made it possible for me to make peace with his death.
Immediately before the funeral, the pastor of the church my father had faithfully attended for decades pulled me aside. We sat down in his office, and he proceeded to talk to me about how this church wasn’t one of those crazy, right-winger nuthouses; it was a moderate, tolerant church, which just preached a vaguely hand-waving “good will to all men” kind of lesson that would have sat nicely among the rolling hills of the British countryside, free from natural predators. The church had recently had some problems because it refused to hire a gay man to be the youth pastor, and I think he was trying to make me feel better about his church so that he could feel better about his church. Given the event that had drawn us together that day, and the (nominal) main duty of his office, it might have been nice if he had actually been trying to counsel me, or make the grief easier to bear, or something along those lines. We could even have just sat around talking about my father- the pastor knew him well, so I wouldn’t have had to awkwardly remind him of the name, age, or gender of the deceased or anything like that. Instead, he felt his pastoral duties were, first and foremost, to defend the reputation of his church to someone who hadn’t attended in over a decade, and who had a few other concerns that weighed more heavily on the mind.
So the next time someone sidesteps or backs away from the death question, please remind them that atheism is not the stark, scary principle it is made out to be. I got to know my father well over the course of my life, and will always remember him. I can even imagine the kinds of things he might advise in various situations. People can be gone but not forgotten, and I’ll take the comforts of atheism over the uncertain upward glances (or unnecessarily defensive assertions) of believers any day.
I have often been asked about this by religious friends. I don’t usually talk too much about how silly the notion of Heaven is and how evil the notion of Hell is. But I do, when asked, talk about why the idea of death doesn’t particularly bother me. Naturally I don’t like the idea that my existence will end. I don’t like it at all. I like my life, for the most part (though I could wish for a little less arthritis). I also don’t like many other facts. But they are facts. I didn’t like losing my best friend to cancer, a cancer that should have been treatable but in his case wasn’t, at 42. I don’t like how much I miss him. But I find the fact that my dad is not really my dad anymore much more upsetting than the fact that he is unlikely to live another 5 years. I miss him, too.
It is natural and necessary that we die. I accept this. Having done so, I find I can look at my pending death with only a modicum of trepidation (not the death itself, but the dying part), and the knowledge that since “everyone is doing it” I will too, leaving behind some genes and the effect I have had on the people around me. That is enough for me. Personally, I find the idea that the atoms that are currently busy being me will, in a few years or (possibly) decades, wander off and do something else, and then something else, and then something else, is as much immortality as I need.
That people actually possess a fear of death is something that has always puzzled me, since as far as I can remember I have never had it.
Let me ask such people this: are you afraid to go to sleep at night? If not, why not? Perhaps you respond that you know you will wake up in the morning.
Do you really know that? Isn’t that a mere assumption, and an increasingly less accurate one the older you get (and/or the sicker)?
What people seem to fear is not so much death itself, but the unknown. However, nearly everything in your life is influenced by unknown factors if you actually look around and analyze it. To be consistent, you ought to be in a state of continual fear — perpetual paralysis. Yet apparently that is not the case. So it seems that people can overcome their fear of the unknown in nearly every other circumstance. Why not death?
Here’s another way to look at this subject: you have already died. How absurd, you say. Right here, I am. Who are you, though? Is the person before me the same person they were ten years ago? Twenty? Thirty? All of the cells in your body are completed replaced by copies over the course of five to ten years. In a literal sense, the “you” that you once so strongly believed in already gone from this world. Surely if you look through your own thoughts, memories, and beliefs you will discover how they have changed in irrevocable ways over time. Thus, there’s something truly odd about believing that death is somehow different from aging. Death is merely faster, more punctuated. There is no justification for fearing such a difference in mere degree.
With this we strike at two of the key illusions that underlie the issue: (1) that a person is a fully continuous existence, and (2) that a person is genuinely the same entity over the course of their life.
Count me among those who would really appreciate an afterlife for certain reasons (There are so many things I would still like to learn, or know, or find out, that I will never be able to, and that annoys me greatly), but to whom the idea appears so implausible that I haven’t even wasted time phantasizing about it, ever.
But that being said, if there were an afterlife, or even a christian type personal god, it would increadibly cheapen the universe for me. The universe without god is a grand and magnificient place. If there is a personal god, it is reduced to a mad man’s hobby room. That fact alone would leave me strangely disappointed if after death, I found myself in an theistic afterlife.
Best reason to become atheist, ever 😀
Agreed, but my suspicion is that atheism as used in the new atheist (TM) context by default includes materialism, and thus with such near certainty the absence of an afterlife, that it is almost automatically implicit.
I’ not. Not at all! There can be something very sad about a person living their actual life with what I see as a delusion, and such an existential one! It will always be a reason to accept a bad status quo more easily in the actual life. There is the extreme case that someone’s life is so hopelessly messed up, cruel or painful, that there is no conceivable way for said person to ever find their peace with it. Can one argue that in such a case, it is better to go out with a delusion of better things to come than to face reality? Maybe? Hard question.
Two weeks ago I spent a couple of days in the hospital; it started with chest pain at night and I now have stents and lots of new drugs. Several times I was in severe pain. That’s as close to dying as I’ve ever been, and I can truthfully say that I was never afraid of being dead or not existing. I was afraid of becoming so disabled that I wouldn’t be able to do anything productive, and I was worried about my responsibilities to a few other people, but not about dying.
I think Greta has it right and that to me a view of death as the end is more comforting and more rational than any afterlife could possibly be. Being alive is worthwhile only while life is satisfying.
A few weeks ago I clicked one of those religious advertisements on FtB and asked the question: why should I prefer christian heaven to buddhist nirvana? My reason was that nirvana comes pretty close to my image of afterlife. The only answer, amongst a lot of irrelevant stuff, was “I cannot think of anything more exciting than being united with JC”.
Yeah, great. So either this christian expects to become a zombie-like being, eternally stuck in ecstacy. Or that feeling of excitement is temporary and eternal boredom will begin.
For instance: heaven is thought to be perfect. Now I happen to love playing chess, especially winning. Winning always means that the opponent loses. Losing in chess is caused by imperfection. So there won’t be chess in heaven. That sucks. Obviously chess = imperfection can be used as a metaphor; conclusion heaven is unattractive.
The closest experience to death we humans have is sleeping. When sleeping we are hardly aware of what happens around us; when we wake up we hardly remember what as happened the few hours before. I don’t know about you all, but I like sleeping. There is nothing scary about sleeping forever.
Speaking for myself, while there are still many enjoyable things left in my life – plus a couple of duties – I notice that I slowly grow tired of our world. This is similar to the fatigue Tolkien’s elves suffer from. Probably I will welcome death after another 20 years or so.
Then I suspect that many people don’t know the difference between being dead itself and the suffering before death. I fear the latter greatly, but why the first? As a teenager I already asked myself if I would mind it to fall asleep, die and never wake up again. Well, no.
Finally people sometimes speak about something called existential fear. Know what? Before I was born I did not suffer from it for almost 15 billion years. Why would I suffer after the time span I roam on this Earth is over?
These thoughts are not meant to sooth anything, they express deeply how I feel. This was shown after my father was murdered a few years ago. I still miss him badly, but within a few hours I was able to accept that I would never see and speak him again. The same for my son, who just two years before also had become an atheist.
So I totally agree and think this an excellent post, like I asked for recently.
Is the fear of death not a result of evolution? Wouldn’t individuals who feared death work harder to preserve it and in turn live long enough to pass that fear on to the next generation? It seems to me that a fear of death is “natural”. However, to avoid using the “appeal to nature” fallacy I would think that we can acknowledge that the fear of death is an important part of what we are but at the same time try, through reason, just as Greta has done nicely, to remind ourselves of how lucky were are to have lived with some fear rather than to have not lived at all.
I agree with Twain, in that i don’t remember a thing about what it was like before i was born, probably won’t be cognizant of what’s going on after I’m dead.
I do hope though, that when I’m really old, that I won’t be ‘sick of living”. I hope I can find something to fascinate me. So in that, while I can say I don’t ‘fear” Death, I hope it’s an event I can postpone for many, many years.
I agree with #6. The number one question believers ask me is ‘What do you think happens we die?’. This is an area the atheist movement is typically weak.
Philosophical nitpicking about the nonsensical concept of heaven is fine. Its necessary to have refutations ready for nonsense.
But what they are really asking is how we feel about it, and came to personally accept it. They are asking for the types of answers found in the ‘Because I am an atheist’ series. I find when I give them personal accounts of how the religious account failed for me, and how much stronger I am without it as well the intensity and solemnity of what finality means to me – they understand better.
“death is a natural, physical process that connects us intimately with nature and the universe” is a terrible way to look at death. You could say the same thing about cancer or AIDS. Both aging and death should be looked at as horrible diseases that should be overcome, and there’s no scientific reason to think that we can’t do so.
As others have said, I don’t fear being dead, but I do fear the process of getting sick and dying. Personally, what gives me comfort is knowing that biotechnology is progressing very fast, and there’s a chance that many of us alive today won’t have to die. At least not until we really want to.
Being signed up with a cryonics company also gives me comfort that, in the pretty likely event that I do die at some point, I at least have a slim chance of waking up again in the future. I realize that both of these are slim chances, but they are real chances, unlike the religious options.
Atheists shouldn’t be trying to find a comforting way to look at death. That’s rationalizing just as much as the religious do with heaven. We should use fear of death to generate interest in getting rid of it!
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Good point, I do so hate the fetishization of fatalism that comes with religion and bad hollywood movies(*).
To quote a farourite bit from “The Two Cultures”,
But nearly all of [the scientists] – and this is where the colour of hope genuinely comes in – would see no reason why, just because the individual condition is tragic, so must the social condition be. Each of us is solitary; each of us dies alone: all right, that’s a fate against which we can’t struggle – but there is plenty in our condition which is not fate, and against which we are less than human unless we do struggle.
You of course are going further than that concerning death (but this is a different century after all), and in the age of the Internet I would not accept the separation of the two cultures as such a given any more, but the general sentiment expressed in these paragraphs rings very true to me.
(*) How many times have I yelled at the TV when people were dragged away from resuscitation efforts after 5 or 10 seconds with the words “(s)He’s gone. There’s nothing you can do”, and I was like “Noo, noo you asshole, that’s not how resuscitation works. You just want her to die to get your stupid drama going!” Oh how I hate fatalism fetish.
Sorry, but I’m not buying this. At least not altogether. The problems with the Christian Heaven I agree with. But the wonderful comfort of non-existence…no.
For one thing, I DO have problems with the thought that the universe existed for billions of years without me. I wish I could have seen the dinosaurs. I wonder what the Renaissance was really like, what the true story of the Trojan war was, how the Mayans reacted when they realized that their overfarming was destroying their way of life (or if they ever realized), etc.
And I want to see the future even more. I want to know what dark energy really is and how non-terrestrial life (if it exists) transmits its genes through multiple generations and whether Greta’s next post will be something I want to comment on. I don’t find the idea of dying and NOT learning that or any of the other wild, unexpected things that humanity will learn in the future comforting.
In one Stanislaw Lem story, his character is faced with someone claiming to have made an afterlife for a soul (which he is carrying around as a brick in his pocket…it makes sense in context-sort of). The main character is forced to conclude that “we don’t want heaven-we want life”. I think he’s right: I don’t think people can really even conceptualize heaven properly. But I like life and want to continue to live. And don’t find any comfort in death, whether as the gateway to heaven or the end of existence.
I’m with Dianne on this one. Maybe the prospect of non-existence would be a comfort to me one day. But it isn’t today, and it almost certainly be tomorrow, and I’m prepared to risk the possibility that it won’t be for at least several million years.
(In my third sentence above I meant to say, “and it almost certainly won’t be tomorrow”).
Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, from “Good Omens”: How long and horrible Heaven would be.
Hi Greta — I’ve blogged a commentary on your post here:
Yeah, a lot of people haven’t even heard of secular ideas of death beyond “there’s no heaven.”
i think there can be comfort in death with out fooling yourself into thinking you’re going to some paradise. possibly my favorite line about death ever comes from walt whitman :
“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.”
this sums it all up for me. we should be put in the ground (sans all the chemicals they like to inject into dead people) so our life force can be given back to the earth. we can become food for the earth that has sheltered and fed us, how much better a thought on death can there really be?
You are a cretinous, ugly, buck toothed lesbian. Why would anyone listen to you?
Note from GC: This comment has been left up, as an example of this kind of thinking. I have, however, banned the commenter.
Dianne said it much more eloquently than I did above. I like life and want to continue to live. The fact that I can’t strikes me as monumentally unfair, and the fact that the religious “solutions” to this problem are fraudulent doesn’t mean that the problem goes away. We can learn acceptance, but that’s about it for now.
A thought: if Heaven exists, and everyone goes there after death that’s potentially a momentary comfort. But if it doesn’t… On the 1/1×10^10 chance that Heaven doesn’t exist, that nothing exists… How would you get back that time you spent waiting for a promise of something better instead of making your LIFE something better?
I read a poster on a bus today that called life a “momentary affliction” and Heaven an “eternity of glory”. But if there’s no eternity and glory? You were treating the most precious thing you had like a papercut- something that bothers you, but will eventually go away, and then you can get on with important things. How trivializing to life! Life is spectacular! Life is brief! Life is rare! Life is precious! Why waste it yearning for the promise of death? The promise of Heaven cheapens the glory of life.
You shouldn’t feel okay about dying. You shouldn’t be comfortable with it. You should be fucking pissed off that you live in a universe constrained by entropy, where things fall apart. Because being angry at things falling apart gives you the impetus to treasure them before they disintegrate. I’m fucking furious that I my someday have to let go of the man that I love. I am furious that he may have to suffer letting me go. That anger makes me love him more, every moment. Every cuddle, every kiss, every intimate moment we share is precious. When I think of death, I don’t just smile and say “Oh, I’ll get all the cuddles I want when we’re both angels!” I’m like “FUCK! These cuddles are in short supply! They are a valuable commodity! Today and today only, for free, for me! BUY BUY BUY!” The thought that I’ve lived a full life in spite of death being terrible and imminent and inescapable is a million times more comforting than the thought that this life is a waste of time.
[…] Comment from Snardiff, in the discussion on the post Do We Concede the Ground of Death Too Easily?: “You are a cretinous, ugly, buck toothed lesbian. Why would anyone listen to you?” […]
[…] Greta on secular philosophies of death and why religious philosophies of death are not inherently comforting. I’m inclined to agree with her with one added caveat: the reality is that death can really suck. […]
Heaven (and by fiat, Hell) never really made sense to me. How could I look forward to an eternity of nothing…conscious nothing. No one ever thinks this through that really believes – it’s as if to think about it will break the charm. The believers trust that what is ahead of them will make them happy and who cares about the nature of that happiness or its impetus.
I figure Heaven and Hell are HERE. Separately, together and with purgalimbotory for the overcast days…
The sad part is that for some, their won’t be much heaven…
@36 How exactly is feeling OK with death a rationalization? As I explained I don’t want to get rid of it.
I pity those who think that death sucks. They long for something they never will possess.
@40 Enkidum: write for yourself. I never had to learn acceptance of death, just like I never had to learn to accept that I can’t win a gold medal at the Olympics.
I do not accept death, for it will like all evils end when Humankind and Science are wed.
oops, clicked button too soon. I personally hope to end death for everyone — even if they do not want it. People are so brainwashed by culture and biology, that on this very most critical matter they cannot make their own decision.
@mnbo Rationalization of death: Feeling ok with being dead is perfectly logical. Feeling ok with dying is not. Growing old, getting sick, and dying is a horrible process. It’s likely to be painful and it’s natural to fear and avoid painful things. Religious people rationalize death by believing it’s not real…there’s an afterlife. Atheists rationalize death by talking about how you won’t know you’re dead, it’s natural, etc., and ignoring the dying process.
I am an atheist, and I do not rationalize. I wish to exist, and not to lose. And if science progresses fast enough, then there may be those of us who will not taste of death before human power makes mortals like the gods.
“My goal is to live forever. So far, so good.”
I guess if there could be an afterlife, there’s something to be said for some version of Elysium, an eternity of learning and reading and discovery. One lifetime isn’t enough to get all the reading done I’d like to.
Evolution built us to want to avoid death (at least as long as we’re capable of producing offspring). It also built us with a powerful ability to rationalize, so as not to be immobilized when faced by undesirable outcomes. One effective way to rationalize death is to accept a vague notion of an afterlife and never ever think about it enough to undermine it. When that method isn’t accessible, there are less effective ways, such as those you and some of your commenters have come up with. There’s no point in trying to make the latter rationalizations as appealing as just not thinking very deeply about afterlife stories. Rather, just undermine religion itself in all (y)our usual ways, belief will go by the wayside, and former believers will adopt the various rationalizations offered up here or come up with novel ones.
Supposing that is at all plausible is a mighty big rationalization. Even if science were able eliminate all death from disease, where would we put all the people? Supposing that science will get you to another planet is also a rationalization … and you would be too afraid to go, because … folks like you would wall themselves off in safe spaces to avoid any chance of getting smashed by a truck or in an earthquake, and certainly wouldn’t enter a space vehicle.
When carefully examined, your eternity doesn’t work any better than any of those religious ones. Face reality: you will die.
It was atheism that freed me of the fear of death. (Now all that’s left to fear is prolonged and extreme pain. In life.)
Of my grandmothers the religious one feared death more than the secular one.
[…] 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 […]
@59. doktorzoom :
^ This exactly! Tht’as what I wish for albeit am realistic enough to know probably ain’t the case.
For the reincarnation one (as I believed in reincarnation after I left christianity), I believed that you would remember all the lifetimes when you were between lifetimes. That your soul could choose to rest for a while before continuing and that was the truest ‘you’.
A pretty thought. It’s amazing the sorts of rationalisations one can make to avoid the fear of death. Pity it still didn’t work.
Rationalization usually means justifying something for rational *sounding*, but invalid reasons. It can also mean specifying *actual* rational reasons for something. I think you’re confusing the two.
It is not only plausible, but likely, that humans will eliminate death from disease. And it could even happen in some of our lifetimes. Life, and disease, are nothing more than complex chemically driven molecular machinery that we’re well on our way to understanding.
The problems that long life generates, like overpopulation, are comparatively simple; and they will be a problem eventually whether or not people die. At some point population growth will have to stop, hopefully by a conscious decision by society, but there’s a big universe out there to expand into, and science has already gotten us to other planets.
There’s a big difference between someone who fears death, and uses that fear to accomplish goals, and someone who “would wall themselves off in safe spaces”. I haven’t noticed anyone here who admits that they don’t want to die saying they would hide away from any danger. What most would do is find ways to eliminate the danger.
Yes, we all will die, but that’s not a reason to accept sickness, disease, and short lives; and rationalize them as natural and inevitable.
I guess Diane helped me remember something about death: we shouldn’t automatically think that feeling bad about something is inherently bad. Not every bad feeling should be stopped. Maybe we SHOULD feel bad about some things. I think the whole “positive thinking” movement has really infected all of us. Ultimately it is thought-stoppage. (Barbara Ehrenreich just came out with a great book about this is and how she dealt with her Cancer–“Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America.”)
Of course we should. I remember a friend, lamenting her divorce, saying “It hurts so much.” I said, “It SHOULD hurt.”
It should hurt when we lose someone we love. It hurts me (a little, anyway) every time I hear of a death. Life is precious. It should hurt that it is not permanent.
My mother and I have this discussion all the time. She’s afraid that when I experience loss (like when she or my dad die) I won’t be able to cope because I don’t believe in heaven. I suspect she doesn’t believe in heaven either but is afraid not to.
That’s fair enough, as far as it goes, but what you’re asking is essentially immortality, and retroactive immortality at that, on Earth, and that’s something no religion or philosophy is prepared to promise you. Even the ones that promise you eternal afterlife make it sound like you’re not going to concern yourself about the material world after you die/transcend. So let’s stick to comparing the atheist take on death to actually existing claims about the afterlife, rather than to some pipe dream about being part of the Q Continuum.
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No honest thought process would lead you to that conclusion. And your post is an attack on a strawman, not my actual more complex post, which was a reply to someone who was talking about immortality, not just science being able to eliminate death from disease. And on that score, the materialism of the causes of disease are not in dispute but that in no way implies that science can eliminate disease, certainly not in our lifetimes … that’s a radical misjudgment of the difficulty of the task, much as people have misjudged how hard it is to produce thinking machines, or how people like Freeman Dyson suppose that we can deal with global warming through geoengineering.
She didn’t ask for any such thing, she merely expressed why she’s uncomfortable with death. That something cannot be had does not imply that it is not desired.
I used to believe very firmly in reincarnation, although not reincarnation for any ultimate purpose like reaching Nirvana. Now that I’m fully on the atheist/secular side, I’ve inspected that belief, and it really stems from my fascination with being alive – the processes of the body, the physics of the universe, evolution and the chemical reactions that make it possible. This is a really strange and incredible place to be, animal to be born as, and universe to live in. I’m grateful – to nothing in particular – that I get to see it, and I wish I could have seen all of it, and that I would get to continue to see it forever. Reincarnation would sort of allow me to do that, although I wouldn’t get to *accumulate* knowledge and take it into my next life, so what’s really the point?
I actually remembered another reason, which is not really death but dying. But I’m much less afraid of dying now than when I was a theist. Mainly because, if you posit an intelligent being that intercedes in events, then no matter what I do or how much preparation I make, that being can always intercede and cause my death.
People can try to say all they want about God’s character, but the truth is they don’t really know, and throughout history the churches have taught different things.
But without that intelligence out there, then I can prepare for emergencies like any insurance company does: by looking at the odds and being prepared, and I can have reasonable fears based on likelihoods of events.
I remember when I consciously “accepted” my atheism I was on a plane, and suddenly for the first time I was not afraid of flying.
I did say “I think”. I re-read your post (#61/#66) and I still think you’re misusing rationalization.
In any case, what I’m trying to point out is that there are no scientific or physical reasons that eliminating death and disease isn’t possible. There might be culture ones, like some religious group gets it banned, but saying it’s not possible, because it’s hard, is an argument from incredulity. And, as far as the time frame, I hope that it happens in our lifetimes…that’s hope, not rationalization.
Excellently put! I’ve long felt that, but not found such a neat way of expressing it.
Entropy implies that eliminating death is not possible. Eliminating aging and disease may be possible – although I would think very unlikely in the lifetime of anyone now living, but not death.
[…] “Here’s the thing you have to remember about religious beliefs in an afterlife: They’re only comforting if you don’t examine them.” Do We Concede the Ground of Death Too Easily? – Greta Christina’s Blog […]
Epicurus had an answer to the fear of death 2300 years ago. It’s one of the consolations offered by his philosophy.
[…] The June/July issue of Free Inquiry contains a thought provoking article by Greta Christina, “Do We Concede the Ground of Death Too Easily?” The article is not available online, but Christina has posted the text of the article on her blog. […]
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I think believing that they still exist someplace and you will see them again is definitely comforting/easier. But I don’t believe that- I’ve lost some of the most important people to me, my father, grandfather, grandmother. Its been 18 years and it’s still agonizing; time doesn’t make it any easier- it makes it slightly harder i think. There are times i wish that I could believe in a religion, with a heaven, so that my grief for them would be easier, and so that I wouldn’t be so terrified of my mother dying, my wife dying, my best friend dying, and even dying myself. But I simply cannot believe in mythologies… not out of willful stubbornness, but just because it so obviously illogical to me. How do others cope with the grief / fear?
ETA: part of my problem i think is my perception… i don’t have depth perception so the world looks 2-D to me. Time also is like this to me… my memories are so vivid and they feel like they are all recent/today. At the same time I maybe remember the people I loved, the way I perceive things automatically makes me try to place them since I know they weren’t today. This leads me into all kinds of questions eg: how did the universe begin? How are we conscious? Why am I who I am and not someone else, someplace else, or some other time way in the past or future? It is terrifying and amazing at the same time (I wonder if that feeling is like what some people experience believing in god) and in this terrifying/amazing/gigantic “thing” we exist, my loved ones existed, in the end life/existance seems random, illusionary, hopeless/futile… 🙁
ETA: forgot to mention, I was linked here the Grief beyond Belief group on facebook ( http://www.facebook.com/faithfreegriefsupport )
[…] So instead of that, I point you towards Greta Christina, who says most of what I wanted to say much more eloquently than I could say it, HERE, HERE and HERE. […]
[…] 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 […]
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