My 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 views of death are somehow false, simply rationalizations of the inescapable fact that death is inconsolably terrible. I was going to write a reply, and then realized I’d already written one. Hence, this reprint of an older piece.
And how should atheists be talking about death with believers?
As regular readers know, I’ve been doing a project on Facebook: the Atheist Meme of the Day, in which I write pithy, Facebook-ready memes explaining one aspect of atheism or exploding one myth about it, and asking people to pass the memes on if they like. (Update: No, I haven’t been doing the Atheist Memes of the Day lately. If there’s a huge groundswell of support for the idea, maybe I’ll start them up again.)
Some of my Memes of the Day have generated disagreement from some atheists. Which is fine, of course. I don’t expect or want all atheists to agree about everything. Quite the contrary: one of the great things about atheism is that we have no central dogma that we all have to agree on, and no central authority that we all have to obey.
But the memes that have generated the most vocal and vigorous pushback have surprised me. They have consistently been the ones about death: the ones trying to show that a godless view of death can offer some degree of solace and meaning; the ones that begin, “Atheism does have comfort to offer in the face of death.” Whenever I write one of these, I can almost guarantee that within a few hours — usually within a few minutes — someone will be complaining that the comforting philosophy I’m presenting isn’t comforting at all. Or even that atheism can’t possibly present a philosophy of death that could compete with the comfort offered by religion… with the apparent implication that it’s either deceptive or deluded to pretend that this is possible, and that we shouldn’t even try.
I’m a bit puzzled by this. So I want to explain in a little more detail what I mean by these memes. And I want to try to find out why there’s resistance to the very idea of presenting an atheist philosophy of death that provides meaning, hope, and comfort.
I think part of the problem here may lie with that word “comfort” — and with some people’s expectations of it. So I’ll try to make my meaning a little more explicit.
That’s not what I mean by “comfort.”
When I say, “This atheist philosophy of death offers comfort,” I mean, “This atheist philosophy can, to some extent, alleviate the suffering and grief caused by death. It can make the suffering and grief feel less overwhelming, less unbearable. It doesn’t make the pain disappear — but it can put the experience into a context that gives it some sort of meaning, and it can offer the hope that with time, the pain will diminish. It can give us a sense that there’s a bridge over the chasm: a feeling of trust that, when the worst of the grief passes, we’ll have a solid foundation to return to. It doesn’t make the grief go away — but it can make it better.”
That’s what I mean by “comfort.” It would be nice if an atheist philosophy of death could do more; but given how monumentally frightening and upsetting death is, the fact that atheism can provide even this degree of comfort is not trivial.
And maybe more to the point: Religion doesn’t do any better.
But does an atheist philosophy of death offer less comfort than a religious one? Honestly — I think that depends. For one thing, I think it depends on the atheist philosophy. A philosophy of (for instance) “Yes, I’m going to die, but my ideas and the effect I had on the world will live on for a while ” will probably be more comforting than a philosophy of, “Yeah, death totally sucks, but that’s reality, reality bites, whaddya gonna do.”
And whether atheism or religion offers more comfort in the face of death depends an awful lot on the person. When I believed in an afterlife, I always had a nagging, uncomfortable feeling in the back of my mind that my beliefs weren’t based on anything substantial, that they weren’t sincere beliefs so much as wishful thinking. Compared to my current conclusions — that when we die, our consciousness will almost certainly disappear entirely — I suppose those beliefs were more comforting. Or they would have been, if it hadn’t been for my uneasy suspicion that they were bullshit.
Which brings me back to my point:
Yes, I care about reality. Any regular reader of my writing knows that I care about reality to an almost obsessive degree. I am not a fan of pretty lies that make people feel better*, and the argument that “it doesn’t matter whether religion is really true” fills me with sputtering rage. I think reality is far more important than anything we could make up about it… pretty much by definition.
But it is not a denial of reality to offer comforting thoughts about death that have nothing to do with God.
It bugs me when atheists with a more bleak view of death than mine present that bleakness as a logical consequence of atheism, the inherent and natural result of not believing in God or an afterlife. It bugs me partly because I disagree. Obviously. But it also bugs me because it treats a question of personal opinion and philosophy and perspective as if it were a question of fact.
Look. Questions like, “Is there a god?” “Is there a soul?” “Is there an afterlife?” — these are questions of fact, questions we can and should be debating the evidence for. But questions like, “Is it comforting to view death as a natural process, something that connects us with the great chain of cause and effect in the universe?” or, “Is it comforting to view death as a deadline, something we need to inspire us to accomplish anything?” — those are questions of opinion, personal perspective. We can discuss and debate them… but ultimately, they are questions that can be legitimately answered with, “If it’s true for me, then it’s true for me.”
And it bugs me when atheists argue that these forms of comfort are somehow delusional… because it treats a personal perspective on life as if it were a simple question of fact.
But we can find ways to frame reality — including the reality of death — that make it easier to deal with. We can find ways to frame reality that do not ignore or deny it and that still give us comfort and solace, meaning and hope. And we can offer these ways of framing reality to people who are considering atheism but have been taught to see it as inevitably frightening, empty, and hopeless.
And I’m genuinely puzzled by atheists who are trying to undercut that.
Of course it’s valid to discuss and even debate personal philosophies and opinions and perspectives. I’m not trying to squelch dissension and debate; if I post a Meme of the Day or anything else that other atheists don’t agree with, I’m curious to hear about it. And especially when it comes to death, I understand that some people see certain perspectives on it as comforting, while others see those same perspectives as unsettling. (I, for one, am baffled by people who say that death will be a relief from the burden of life.) And I’m interested in hearing about those differences.
But I think there’s a difference between saying, “Gee, that isn’t my experience, I don’t find that comforting at all” — and saying, “But death still sucks even when you look at it that way — therefore, that view isn’t comforting at all!” And I think there’s an enormous difference between saying, “Gee, that isn’t my experience, I don’t find that comforting at all” — and saying, “There is no way atheism can ever offer a philosophy of death that will be more comforting than religion. That’s just a simple fact. We shouldn’t even try.”
And I am genuinely puzzled by people who so vehemently insist on the latter responses.
There are a lot of things I’m trying to do with these memes. (All the memes — not just the ones about death.) I’m trying to dispel myths and misconceptions and bigotries about atheism. I’m trying to disseminate methods of critical thinking, about religion specifically and reality generally. I’m trying to get people to view religion as just another hypothesis about the world, with no more right to special treatment than any other hypothesis.
I’m trying to help ease that transition. I’m trying to show that an atheist life can be a good and happy and joyful life, and that, while losing religion will often mean losing some forms of comfort and meaning, there will be new forms of comfort and meaning to replace them. Including new ways of dealing with death. (And it’s not like I’m not pulling these memes out of my ass. Every meme I’ve written about death has been a view that some atheists find comforting: if not myself, then people I’ve spoken to or read.) The world is increasingly full of people who are falling out of religion, or who are close to falling out of it. I’m trying to help create a safety net, to make that landing softer.
And I’m genuinely puzzled when it seems like other atheists are trying to cut the ropes.
For more on my atheist philosophies of death:
Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God
The Meaning of Death: Part One of Many
The Meaning of Death, Part 2 of Many: Motivation and Mid-Life Crises
The Meaning of Death, Part 3 of Many: Fear, Grief, and Actually Experiencing Your Emotions
*(With the obvious exception of certain social situations. There are some lies, such as “I liked your poem,” that I will almost always happily tell.)
61 thoughts on “Atheism, Death, and the Difference between Pessimism and Realism”
I’ll be dead. I’ll return to the earth as my atoms and molecules which will spread far and wide, and I smile now at the thought that some of those atoms and molecules will show up in my great grandchildren’s tomatoes and bacon and lettuce in their luncheon BLT’s. And 24 hours after that, some of my atoms and molecules will be shit again. I dunno what kind of immortality would be better.
Atheism allows me to have no fear at all of my own death as I will be non-existent. As for the deaths of loved ones, I’ll miss them but I’ll also know they’re “ok” as they won’t exist either.
I can almost guarantee that within a few hours — usually within a few minutes — someone will be complaining that the comforting philosophy I’m presenting isn’t comforting at all.
Are you sure those complainers are really atheists? Christians use fear of death to silence debate and win converts, and one of their most persistent talking-points is that even the most “rabid” atheists repent and call out to God when confronted with their own mortality. So, when atheists make real and credible efforts to refute that stereotype — as you’ve been doing quite eloquently here — it’s very reasonable to suppose some Christians would pose as atheists and do their best to reinforce and prop up the stereotype their script demands.
Besides, I’m really not sure an actual atheist would make such complaints in public; and they almost certainly would not be trolling about looking for posts to pounce on as soon as they’re posted. If your philosophy of death didn’t work for them, they’d most likely just avoid this place and seek out people who give them more comfort. The people most likely to consistently pounce on commentary like yours are (IMO at least) Christians, not atheists.
Seriously, I don’t fear death now as an atheist nearly as much as when I did when I had a nominal belief in the supernatural. I was a vague deist-agnostic in my teens. And a lot of my angst during that time was about death.
Since I’ve crossed over to the rational side, I view death as something that is a natural part of the universe. I have Twain’s view on what it will be like — exactly the same experience as before I was alive and sentient.
So, the process of dying — I’m not looking forward to. Unless you’re a serial killer strapped to a gurney, it’s gonna suck.
But the after-death? Not something I think anyone should fear. And that gives me solace. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the ride.
By contrast, the religious are terrified of living because any mistake they make could result in a horrific after-death. What solace is that? Don’t look at a pretty woman lest god charge you with adultery and send you to the pit? Don’t tell your co-worker a fib about her dress looking fine lest you be charged with the mortal sin of lying and sent to the pit? Don’t do anything that even resembles pleasure — or the pit?
Meh. That’s not comfort. That’s terrorism.
Although, I do have to say that one can be the most awful sonofabitch who ever lived and the preacher at the funeral is still going to send you to heaven — or at least stake the claim for it. Cognitive disconnect is a wonderful thing.
Thanks so much. I just happened to be reading about the Epicureans lately, who also said that getting rid of myths about life after death would make us more content and happy. And I was trying to figure out how.
I know that it certainly makes us more moral, because we know we only have one life, and the people we impact only have this one life, and atheism makes murder and killing much much more serious crimes than they are if we live eternally. But translating that into happiness and contentment was harder.
I will be commenting really on just one issue, summarized in this phrase of yours:
So … no personal reflections on death this time 🙂 Let’s move in this direction!
In other words, Greta, you are engaged in a political enterprise. You want to attract people who are considering atheism, you want a safety net for them, you want to present to them a “happy atheist” meme. Fine. Understood.
Now to alleviate a bit some of your puzzlement: please take into consideration that not all of us are political activists. For many of us threads with titles like “Atheism and death” do not look like an invitation to a political campaign, building safety nets, opposing religion. We treat it rather as an invitation to speak freely about our own perspectives, about who we are, about our lives and deaths, without touting, without selling anything.
And yes, while doing this, people will sometimes objectify their experience. They will confuse their subjective feelings with an objective truth, you are absolutely right. But frankly, it’s a very common mistake and I’m genuinely puzzled by your puzzlement.
In effect perhaps atheism will not look that safe as you want it to be presented. Yes, that’s quite possible. But first, creating a safety net is not everybody’s aim here; and second … in my personal opinion, such an approach is simply more honest: “Dear atheist in spe, have a look at us! Here are our comforts, how do you like them? Oh … it seems that we are not exactly sure whether we like them ourselves? Yeah, right … mind helping us to decide? Anyway, join the club!”
[meta: evidently, my efforts here are in vain, since Raging Bee #3 discovered the conspiracy: all these “subversive atheists” are just fundamentalist undercover agents! I’m often very amused by that sort of comments, but somehow not now. I have no idea why. Too tired maybe. Or perhaps my East European origin shows itself at last– in my life I saw too much of such crap.]
Ariel @ #6: I’m not puzzled/ bugged when atheists say things like, “I, personally, don’t take any comfort in any of these comforting philosophies of death.” I am puzzled/ bugged when they say, “I don’t take any comfort in any of these comforting philosophies of death — and neither should anyone else. They are rationalizations, falsehoods. Anyone who engages in them is deceiving themselves and being a bad skeptic.”
Raging Bee @ #3: About as sure as I can be about someone else’s mental state. They say they are atheists; they express their objections from an atheist perspective; many of them are regular commenters who have discussed their atheism elsewhere.
So here’s a question. It’s one I know the answer to, for myself, but I really don’t see it discussed on FTB as much as I once thought I might.
Is looking for comfort and acceptance with respect to death the right choice?
On the surface, sure, I think it is. I think ways to cope with harsh reality are a good thing, of course.
But… I don’t think coping has to imply acceptance. I don’t think it should imply acceptance. We cope with the suffering brought by certain diseases, but we do so while fundamentally rejecting the idea that the suffering is inevitable – instead of just saying, “oh well, childhood measles is a fact of life,” we vaccinate against it.
While I don’t advocate the kind of starry-eyed, Kurzweilian optimism about the future that handwaves all the hard problems that are definitely there, I think that it *is* reasonable to shift our thinking toward beginning to reject the paradigm. If we can start framing the first question as “how do we keep this from happening” rather than “how do we deal with it happening” (again, the second still obviously being necessary)… what can we do from there? Worst case, the mindset shift still could very well yield advances that lengthen and/or improve quality of life.
This is why I’m in science, to be able to ask the what-if questions, but even here, we’re more hidebound than we should be.
As someone who was raised Catholic, complete with the concept that pretty much everyone who wasn’t a good Catholic, who followed every one of the church’s teachings to the letter, was destined for an eternity of torment and suffering in Hell, I find the concept of *nothing* after death to be infinitely more comforting than anything the Catholic Church ever had to offer me.
IMO, the belief in an afterlife and the actions showing that you don’t believe in it as much as you claim show that you are hypocritical *and* human. My sister in law wailing like a banshee, being peeled away from her mother’s casket, after tell us how wonderful heaven was and how great God is, is pure hypocrisy.
Death is the natural result of change, Death is allowing room on this planet for one more person to enjoy life. Death of an animal allows me to enjoy life since I eat them. Death is human.
I find all religious conceptions of death deeply disturbing and the atheist/naturalist conceptions (simply ceasing to exist) much more comforting. Part of that might be that I view the world as a random, cruel place from which death finally offers an eventual escape. This isn’t to say that I don’t think being alive is nice or that one or even me, specifically, cannot derive joy from life, but I also don’t think it’s nearly as great as many people seem to, and I certainly don’t think that continued existence is always and for everyone the most important consideration. It bugs me when this is assumed as a universal value. I think the quality of life is much more important than the mere fact of life. I really don’t understand why people find the prospect of their own death upsetting – once you’re dead, you don’t exist any more to care about being dead, and while you’re capable of caring, you are by definition alive. Logically, the concept of personal mortality shouldn’t bother anyone (though I realize emotional responses frequently are not rational, and sometimes are not reasonable). That said, I can certainly understand why people mourn the death of OTHERS. Not having someone in one’s life about whom one cares sucks, but that’s also the case in the religious view (and can continue to be the case in conceptions of the afterlife, as you point out in referring to e.g. Christians who are tormented by the idea that they will be in Heaven while loved ones will be in hell).
However lacking in comfort one’s view of atheism may be, it cannot be as disturbing as the Christian who told my brother, at the funeral of his 2-year old who died painfully from cancer, that the lord’s plans are made for all of us.
I read your article last night in Free Inquiry (magazine) and then enjoyed a restful sleep. I think I was rested because I realized what I already knew: I don’t need to worry about where I and the people I love will go when we die; I already know: nowhere. There’s nothing to worry about, and that’s comforting.
It depends on what you mean when you say ‘acceptance’.
When I use the word ‘acceptance’ in the context of grief over a loved one, I mean moving beyond the rawness of the grief to a place where you can put it down, and just accept that your life is no longer as it was. You’ll still pull the grief out from time to time, you’ll always miss the person. But it isn’t overwhelming anymore, and doesn’t impact on the rest of your life: You can still work, life, love, and have moments of genuine happiness and contentment again.
If you instead interpret ‘acceptance’ as fatalism or complacency in the face of death, then yes, I can see how that would be a problem. But in my experience that isn’t a common usage of the word when it is applied in the context of death and grief. The common usage is acceptance of grief so it can stop dominating your existence, not acceptance of death so we can be complacent or fatalistic.
Does that fit with what you’re saying, or am I totally off base?
I do not accept death, nor do I tolerate the acceptance of it in others. The eradication of this black horror is, to me, the purpose of all human industry and science. I do not have the distressingly common Kurzweilian optimism; I expect it to take thousands of years. There is always a chance, though.
I take comfort in knowing that we will one day simply cease to exist; it drives me to be a better person because I know that this is the only life I get, and if I want to live on it will have to be in the memories of those I touch while I’m here.
It is my goal in this life to pass on to my children my love of humanity, the strength that I found during my struggles and my de-conversion, my love of nature, and my want to help others driven by nothing other than creating a better world for tomorrow than we have today.
I feel that if I can do even just a few of these things, I will have made a difference and my life will have meaning… that’s all I need.
I’ve been told many times that my good works don’t count because I don’t do them for god, but when I see the smile on the face of someone I’ve helped, I know it matters to them… that’s all that matters to me.
When I was living to get into heaven I wasn’t really living, I was just going through the motions, I was depressed, I did good things then, as I do now, but it wasn’t just for the sake of doing good and making a difference, it was so I would be rewarded. Looking back now, I was very selfish. I was miserable, I hated living on earth and just wanted to get into heaven and get my mansion and my gold and never again know pain.
@Daniel #14 –
That does fit with what I’m saying, yes. I agree that in the context of grieving and moving past a loss, acceptance is obviously necessary (and the right term to use). I probably should have drawn a clearer distinction regarding what I was talking about, because I think I was starting a conversation that is related to, but not directly part of the one Greta Christina started.
Here are the major cases of what I’m talking about:
– Atheists expressing comfort/peace with the idea that they will simply cease to exist when they die. (I consider this to be the mildest manifestation, because I don’t think it so much presupposes a fatalistic attitude as it just fails to combat such a thing directly.)
– Anyone making the argument that it’s good that death happens, because they wouldn’t want to live forever. (Would be a perfectly reasonable sentiment if they actually believe this, but when one’s reaction to the concept in abstract so starkly differs from their reaction to concrete manifestations of it – i.e. people they know dying – it’s hard for me to see this as anything but an attempted and mostly-failed rationalization.)
– Religious folks pulling out the “s/he’s in a better place,” or “I’m ready to meet my Savior” or any variation thereof, which not only fundamentally accepts the paradigm of death, but actively embraces it.
These manifestations range, in descending order, from simply unproductive to actively counterproductive toward improving the human condition, from my viewpoint.
This article really touched me, Greta, because a lot of what you said was similar to my own thoughts and views on death.
When I was still an agnostic and I still believed that perhaps some being could ‘pluck me’ from eternal death, the thought was never really comforting. Mostly because, as you say, I just could not really believe it. There seemed so much unexplainable about eternal life, so I could not take the idea seriously even while ‘believing’ in it to an extent.
After I became an atheist, a lot of my concerns regarding death fell away. It was mostly just because of how it seemed more ‘real’ that we got the time we got and that was that. Accepting that death will eventually occur has made it easier to focus on living my life in a meaningful way while I have it because it is important.
Many people used to challenge my apparent calmness about death and said that I would despair if I lost someone close to me. But two years ago I did; I lost my dad very early in his life in a year long struggle with cancer.
I am the only atheist in my family, and yet in many ways my siblings who do believe that my dad is ‘still around’ somewhere have all gone through intense grief for him, in the case of one of my brothers he has even had a break-down of sorts. For me, however, I do miss my dad and his death was very hard, especially because of its untimeliness and unpleasantness, but it just seems so foreign to even hope for something as obscure as an afterlife just for his sake, or so I can see him again. I simply am unable to conceive of it, so the thought offers no comfort to me. In many ways, I feel that the acceptance of his death has provided more comfort then anything and allowed me to focus on things like my memories of him and my gratitude for what he did in my life.
Oh, there definitely could be someone. There is a faint chance that it might be me. And I assure you that such eternal life would be explainable by anybody with a good education for that enlightened future age in nanotechnology and genetic engineering.
This must not remain foreign, for science and the Human Power are domestic strengths.
Why, it’s possible that no properly embalmed person is even truly dead.
I cringe a bit when a theist says at a funeral, “He/she is in a better place,” but, you know, extinction seems a better place than continuing at this stinking, treacherous game called life.
If mom is “still around,” both she AND Jesus are watching you masturbate.
I don’t accept the assumption that death is frightening. The suffering before is. But no single evening, when I go to sleep, I am afraid that I won’t wake up next morning. It’s rather the other way round – sometimes I regret waking up.
“Why not try to be positive?”
I’d like to answer the opposite question: why try to be positive? Well, as psychology has pointed out, it increases the chances of being happy. As a utilitarist that’s the most important goal in my life.
In my opinion it’s an existential choice if you want to see death as your enemy. I refuse so.
Death doesn’t suck. I wouldn’t know why. It’s just that, when doing a benefit-cost analysis, I prefer to live on for now.
Death is definite, irreversible. Life is temporary. As long it’s worth it I better go on before passing the point of no return.
Of course all this is completely personal. As such it is way more important to me than the question if religion is really true. I have several strong emotional objections against religions and their weird views on death is one of them.
Greta, two quotes have given me, as a non-believer in the supernatural, some comfort in the prospect of death;
“Now Besso has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion” Albert Einstein in a letter to a friend’s son and sister in 1955 a month before his own death.
And the epitaph of the brilliant 19 century mathematician William Clifford
I was not, and was conceived:
I loved and did a little work.
I am not, and grieve not.
My mother told of her experience as a young girl holding the hand of her dying father; every now and then she felt a reassuring squeeze that he was still alive, until at length the squeezing stopped and he wasn’t. Being alive, she said, means you can feel, and respond to, a gentle touch: enjoy this gift while you can.
We shared that parting touch yesterday as her own body shut down, and suddenly, she was no longer alive. As she would have wished, I remain unburdened by the worry or fear or guilt that organised religions offer, and just admire a life well-lived.
I don’t get that either. A similar oddity is the way some atheists attack you for using the word “soul”. When I say, “I feel x in my soul”, I’m not making a statement about my consciousness existing beyond death, I’m just referring to my emotional center. But some atheists are allergic to the very word “soul”, regardless of how it is actually used. I feel like the tendency to attack any comforting thoughts about death might be similar, like a misguided attempt to attack any possible vestige of religion, that only results in an inability to communicate or empathize.
I think some of us atheists find words like “god,” “holy,” “sacred,” “soul, “spirit,” etc. to be meaningless. They’ve been around so long, however, that we use them almost reflexively, without thinking of our disdain for them. So, when I blurt out, “Bless you,” after yon sneeze, I think, “Well, that’s dumb,” but so? Similarly, I love my wife with all my heart, although I know my heart is a meaty blood pump and nothing more.
I think the problem is that soul can be a secret signal or something. Like, people react to it different ways.
My question is how an immortal people would regard this comment thread.
It’s not death I fear. It’s dying.
It’s not death I fear. It’s dying.
Seems like a distinction without a difference to me, but OK.
It’s a meaningful distinction.
The idea is that once you’re dead, you are not. You won’t be around to experience oblivion or darkness or an eternal sleep. You will no longer be – and as such, you are beyond pleasure, pain, hope and fear. So being dead isn’t any more frightening than not being born yet.
But actually dying is the last thing that happens while you’re still alive, and has the potential to be a very painful and frightening exit from the stage. As such it is worth it to resist the urge to conflate the two – because while it is reasonable to fear dying, separating out death itself can take away a lot of its sting.
Of course, that’s just one view of death. There are plenty that disagree.
Depending on the atheist, I think this could be a fair criticism.
I think that the fear of death is a deep cause of a lot of psychological distress that manifests itself in various unhelpful ways throughout our lives. So obviously I think that managing this fear in a way that allows us to function more healthfully and engage with life more fully while we’re here is a good thing.
I expect you probably do too – I’m just trying to make the distinction clear. ^_^
As indicated above, I agree that fatalism or complacency in the face of death is a bad manifestation of how to manage these fears.
We should not unlearn our love of life so as to free ourselves from the fear of death – because once we’ve done that, what’s the point of anything?
I know you’re coming at it from a practical angle of melioration towards longer lifespans, I get it and that’s valid. But I think there are also other reasons to reject fatalism in the face of death that remain valid even if melioration of human lifespan was impossible (which it isn’t).
Regarding extending human lifespan… The only counter-argument I would suggest is the distinction between quality and quantity. I’m in favour of euthanasia in the cases where the person requesting it deems that their life has moved into a state that is not worth living, and are also in a fit mental state as to make that decision. To satisfactorily meliorate human lifespan, we would need to also do something about ageing.
That’s one I can get behind.
It might be possible that living forever would turn out to be unbearable.
But if I had the option, I’d be willing to give it a go and find out for myself.
Particularly given that I could effectively check out of the hotel at pretty much any time in the future if eternity does become too much to bear after all.
It’s a side issue to what you’re discussing, but this runs parallel to another of my personal criticisms of religious methods of dealing with death.
The notion that the person you loved is still alive keeps a griever locked into the denial stage of grief management longer than they have to be – perhaps extending over years. It can be observed any time a believer gets upset or shaken when an atheist casually mentioned that we don’t believe in heaven: “But if there’s no heaven, that means I’ll never see my daughter again,” that sort of thing. The extra pain and suffering brought on by failure to move through grief and into acceptance is real and significant and utterly unfair. Religion, with it’s focus on supernatural afterlives and eternal souls, is uniquely able to enable death-denial as a long-term method of grief management in a way that non-religious ideologies and worldviews are not. Religion poisons everything.
But you make a very good point: In parallel to the negative impact on grievers that can come about from death denial, it also brings about complacency on the part of the living. I’m reminded of Hitchen’s critique of Mother Teresa, where all her order ever seemed to do was to take the poor off the streets to watch them die. Nothing was actually done to combat or rectify the position of the poor and dying in these communities because, after all, they were moving on to a better place.
It’s wrong twice (at least).
Oh, it’s NOT impossible! It is just very, very difficult.
My view on the whole ‘not existing’ thing is that if you don’t exist, you do not lose anything by continuing to not exist. But if you exist, and then stop existing, you loose your whole lifetime.
Daniel Schealler #31
Nice rant, but just a rant nevertheless, unless you are able to provide some answers.
I’m not a psychologist, but from what I saw, Kübler-Ross model has been severely criticized in scientific literature. Seems like empirical findings do not confirm this theory; it is perhaps little more than idealistic thinking of some psychologists. If so, you are building on sand here. But perhaps you are a specialist (I am not) and you know more about this?
Hmmm. Let’s see. Acceptance for you is
How do you know that the belief in supernatural afterlives stops one from working, living, loving and having moments of genuine happiness and contentment? How do you know that it stop you from “accepting that your life is no longer as it was”? Are you able to cite any research confirming that specifically for the believers grief remains overwhelming and impacts the rest of their lives?
Or maybe all of the above is just your wishful thinking?
[Sorry but that’s what skeptics are for, aren’t they? :-)]
Look, if the model of grief management that I’ve been taught, and has been deployed to useful effect for me in the past, has been criticized in the literature – then yeah, that’s actually fine. I’m wrong about that kind of thing a lot. It doesn’t bug me.
So why didn’t you just point out that my understanding of grief management is flawed and cite something that I can follow up to repair my education on the matter? Why open with painting my response at #31 as a rant? Don’t get me wrong, I’m partial to and fond of the occasional good rant, so I know what how a rant feels and reads. And that just wasn’t a rant. It’s what I genuinely think about the subject and I was pretty well calm all the way through writing it.
The topic has been on my mind a lot recently as a result of a conversation elsewhere on this blog. The comment that brought it into my mind was by Rich Scott, and can be found here. My response, which is when the thought most recently occurred to me, can be found here.
I can’t claim knowledge, obviously.
And to clarify, I don’t think that religion forces people to remain stuck in denial, locked in grief, unable to move into acceptance, or however else you would prefer me to describe the concept. If I must be precise, my claim is that religion uniquely enables some people to respond to grief in this way in a way that other ideologies cannot.
The background for this is obviously going to be anecdotal in my personal case, so if that is sufficient grounds for you to dismiss me then so be it.
However, I feel that it’s a very natural interpretation at which to arrive when you consider Rich’s account and take it seriously:
I don’t think that an exchange such as this is controversial in nature. It seems like a pretty normal thing for a religious person to say in response to an atheist’s assertion that there’s no afterlife at all.
I think that this is sometimes a problem. I think that if you can become shaken at the thought that a loved one that has died isn’t in heaven after all, that this is a sign that you haven’t really come to accept the loss properly.
I have dead loved ones too. My mother was diagnosed with cancer last year. Fortunately she made a full recovery, but it was a brush with the reality of death that I won’t soon forget, particularly given that in the best of all possible worlds I am going to outlive my mother and will have to deal with that loss sooner or later – but preferably later, much later.
So just for myself, I can understand how I – and by extension, anyone else like me – could be tempted into wishful thinking, that our loved ones who are gone are still around, that they’re not really gone. I can understand it because it would postpone the worst of the grief… But I also reject it as harmful because it can be undermined at a moment’s notice the moment someone challenges the idea of an afterlife.
The spin-loaded-terminology I used in the previous paragraph – that it would postpone the worst of the grief – was used intentionally, because that’s exactly my problem with this method of grief avoidance (another loaded term). I don’t view it as a healthy way of dealing with it. Better to embrace the grief and move though it to a better place, handling it responsibly, than it would be to shunt the grief away into fueling a pretty delusion about heaven and angels.
Again, to be clear: I don’t think that every religious believer is going to be stuck in this, and I also understand that not everyone’s experience is like my own, so using myself as a yardstick isn’t exactly a reliable double-blind study on the phenomena. So if that’s all you need to dismiss me without engaging any of the topics I’m attempting to discuss, then feel free to just get it over with already.
On the other hand, if you think that this is a topic worth discussing a bit more deeply, then I invite you to that as well.
For a bit more background, I recently came across some new videos by TheraminTrees that express the situation far more deeply and reflectively than I could hope to match.
TheraminTrees – Death – Part One
TheraminTrees – Death – Part Two
No actual atheists, only Christians, would ignore direct evidence when it challenges their preconceptions. Oh, wait …
You should consider the possibility that you’re misjudging people’s motives … no as badly as Raging Bee, but similarly.
And yet others have argued that there is no negative to being dead because there is no self to which costs and benefits apply, just as it would be meaningless to apply a cost-benefit analysis to “someone” who hasn’t even been conceived yet. That sort of analysis, based on a category error, leads to such fallacies as the ontological proofs of God.
I think that rational, honest atheists should accept that this “benefit-cost analysis” justification for preferring to live is bogus, and that the real reason for that preference is biological, a consequence of our evolution, as much so as why silverfish scurry toward corners when they detect movement (as long as I’ve got an infestation, I might as well study it). For humans the mechanisms are cognitive and so far more contextual, but they are still a result of mechanism … if you’re rational, honest, and informed.
Puzzling or not, I’m no more able to believe otherwise in order to provide people with a soft landing or any other goal than I am able to choose to believe in Pascal’s God.
Argh, I wish I’d noticed this article when it was posted. So probably no one will read this three days later, but if you do good on you!
I think I was probably one of the worst offenders in the comments to the last article, in terms of (a) atheists refusing to accept that atheist philosophies of death can offer comfort, and (b) I think I even referred to people who said they were comforted as being disingenuous. OK, I can see that that’s out of line (and not just because it’s dismissive and rude, but also because it’s false ).
Let me put it this way. I think Greta’s essentially right, especially with the added caveats that an atheist philosophy of death can’t make it all better. We all face dissolution, and I just cannot see any way that doesn’t suck. (Just to reiterate what I said in the last set of comments – I don’t fear death per se , or even dying, or being dead. I fear no longer being alive , because being alive is really frigging awesome and I can’t see ever wanting it to stop.)
The nice thing about the standard religious answers to the problem of death is that, in essence, you don’t stop existing. So you still have “death”, and dying, but you’re still around in one sense or another, in the wonderful land beyond the sea or whatever. Clearly, there are people who genuinely believe this. And I don’t think there’s any way that an atheist philosophy of death could ever offer the kind of comfort that these people feel. So in that respect, I think a genuine religious believer who isn’t filled with doubts could only be better off than atheists like myself, at least in terms of the relative calmness with which they view death. But of course you have to weigh that against a lot of other crap that comes along with such beliefs, not the least of which is that they are bullshit and we shouldn’t believe bullshit even if it is comfortable.
Furthermore, I can’t say for sure, never having been a believer, but I would assume that Greta’s right, and most believers don’t have that kind of unadulterated belief in their fairy tales. So they don’t even get the benefit of a calm approach to death, and they still have all the other problems associated with religious belief (again, the big one being that it’s a fairy tale). So I’m definitely not arguing that the religious approach to death is an overall good, or anything like that.
Finally, given that death sucks and we can’t do anything about it, at least we can face this fact honestly, and perhaps think about it in particular ways that can at least make the short time we have more worthwhile. This limited goal is, I guess, exactly what Greta’s proposing, and provided the limits are stated up front, I can only agree.
Sorry for the long-windedness yet again, people who have stopped reading these comments days ago!
Suppose you were in immense pain, or had ALS and had lost all motor control and were “shut in”. Or you lost all your senses and had only your own mind to keep you company. Or suppose being perfectly healthy but held in a cell where all you could hear 24 hours/day were screams of agony from torture victims? I can think of many other reasons to want to die — because I have read of such reasons given by people who wanted to die.
And aside from all of that, how is the fact that being alive is frigging awesome a reason to fear not being alive? Of course not being alive won’t be frigging awesome … because it won’t be anything … we and our desires and preferences will no longer exist.
I believe that we cling to life because evolution built us to do so, and so we tend to invent intellectual rationalizations for it. An even tougher step than abandoning belief in the supernatural is abandoning the Lockian notion of the mind as a tabula rasa and the attendant belief that our minds are or can be purely intellectual.
“There is no way atheism can ever offer a philosophy of death that will be more comforting than religion.”
I think that there’s no way atheism or religion can offer comfort about death. Death is being robbed of the one thing I think of as most my own — my “me”-ness.
My observation of religious people is that religion does not offer much comfort about death either, they are still afraid, they still mourn.
“Your death is still the kernel of your dawn sweats” as Marilyn Hacker wrote.
@30 Daniel Schealler – Indeed. But even if the last moments are easy and gentle and not painful at all, the simple knowledge that at that very moment my life is over would be unbearable. Maybe when I’m older I’ll think otherwise, but at the moment I cannot leave this world with a satisfied mind.
Greta, this is a really good piece of work – thanks for writing it. Stuff like this is why I read your blog.
As someone coming out of religion, giving up on the idea of heaven and hell (particularly the latter) is what gives me the greatest comfort. I like to tell people from my old church who know I’m an atheist that my outlook is literally infinitely better than theirs – because in my view, there’s no eternal conscious torture for anyone.
Daniel Schealler #34
Oh, I guess that sometimes I take the classical advice “start with an earthquake” a bit too seriously. Sorry about that.
See here. It’s a popular article, but the research it mentions is easy to find. (As I said earlier, I’m not a specialist – judge for yourself.)
The problem with such a claim is that its first part is so extremely weak, that the second part becomes extremely implausible. The first part is about “uniquely enabling some people to respond to grief in this way”. Some people!!!?? Would one person be enough to verify such a claim? On the usual reading of the existential quantifier, it definitely would. (But I will not quarrel – let’s make it two :-)) And I think that indeed you could find a person for whom religion “uniquely” (whatever it means) would play exactly the role you want. However, applying – as we only should – the same (extremely weak) measure to the second part, I think it’s very plausible that (contrary to what you say) for a practically arbitrary ideology you can find a person in whose life this ideology was at least similarly destructive. What does it tell us about religion and these other ideologies? My answer: nothing.
In fact I think that such weak versions are very uninformative and if you want to say anything substantial, you should formulate a more general claim. Which of course generates different dangers, as we probably both know.
So you are trying to claim that the believer’s acceptance is untypically unstable. And you admit at the same time that such a view is just your intuition, based on a personal perspective. Fine.
My personal perspective then: I don’t share this intuition. I would rather suppose that a degree of harm would depend on factors like personality traits and stability of one’s religious beliefs. And weather perhaps. Is such a conversation a minor inconvenience, easily forgotten? Or will it trigger the period of depression and self-torment? My intuitions are silent. They also don’t tell me anything about how stable atheists are in their acceptance of the loss. How do they feel when reminded that they will never – never again – see the beloved one? Using myself as a yardstick … oh, better not. You see, I’m not actually a paragon of stability.
All in all: you seem to take for granted that atheists’ acceptance is somehow more final, permanent and stable. Sorry, but I’m simply not ready to buy it just like that.
tm – Sure, I can understand the motivation for euthanasia. So, “other than excruciating pain of some kind, I can see no reason to want to die.”
OK, I’ve probably mis-phrased myself, but I don’t fear not being alive, I like being alive and I don’t want it to stop. Ever. (With the above caveat.) I understand that I’m not going to feel anything – and that’s precisely the problem . I like feeling stuff. I want to keep feeling stuff forever, or at least for many, many millions of years.
I suspect I’ll suicide, either to avoid pain or having my kids wipe my bottom. I fear dying, particularly if it’s painful and I have no control.
What we fear about death is, I suspect,what Job says in that wonderful verse practically encapsulating all of human life:
14 Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble.
2 He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not.
Ah, he continueth not!! There’s the rub, eh? No morning coffee, no “scenting the morning’s air,” no back rubs, no lamb curry, no sitting with a favorite dog or cat.
Well, that was the subject. By giving up that, you’ve mooted what has gone before.
No, you don’t understand. There will be no “you”; thus, it’s semantically incoherent to talk about you feeling or not feeling anything. Being dead is not like being alive but not feeling anything.
I see no problem.
You will feel stuff for an infinity of moments, in fact the entirety of your existence.
I really don’t think that you have thought this through … a bit like people having trouble with evolution producing observed diversity because they don’t really comprehend how long it took.
Regardless, you’re engaging in the fallacy of treating nonexistence of a thing as a state of that thing or predicate about that thing, but it’s not.
We didn’t have any of those things before we were born. This complaint comes of imagining ourselves as existing but being without those things, but it is an erroneous conception.
As long as there is a you, you feel stuff … so, you always feel stuff. When you die, you don’t stop feeling, you stop existing. There is no coherent comparison between existing and feeling stuff and not existing; there is no coherent way to say which is preferable … to compare them is to commit a category mistake.
There is no rational basis to fear non-existence, yet we fear it anyway … that’s because evolution constructed us with a tendency to prolong our existence.
That is nonsense. The entirety of my existence is almost certainly going to be 75 years, plus or minus a couple of decades. That’s finite. That’s the rub.
I really think you’re missing the point. Again, it’s not what happens (or doesn’t happen) after death that bothers me – it’s the finitude of life.
No, it really isn’t. It’s not that people are worried about themselves existing but not being able to feel these things. It’s that those feelings (indeed, all feelings) are going to stop. There won’t be any more. After a few more decades, none of us will feel anything, ever again.
I’m not comparing feeling to non-feeling, I’m saying I like feeling, and I want more of it. Period. The non-feeling side doesn’t even enter into the equation.
Greta said it was too pessimistic to say:
“There is no way atheism can ever offer a philosophy of death that will be more comforting than religion. That’s just a simple fact. We shouldn’t even try.”
Well, I believe this is realistic. Religious people are willing to say or believe just about anything that gives them comfort. Sometimes to the point of explicitly saying that they do not really care if what they believe is true or not.
When someone offers eternal life, 80000 servants, 72 virgins and an pearls, ruby and aquamarine-domed palace in afterlife, how could truth possible compete with such an extravagant lie? There is simply no way someone who cares about truth, reason and common sense can compete with that. It is like trying to play chess according to the rules while your opponents move the pieces anyway he likes or like trying to outperform someone who can simply lie about his performance.
Lies and wishful thinking will always be more comfortable than the truth. Truth’s only real competetive quality is that it, well, true. In my opinion that is what the atheist movement should focus on.
Not only do I suspect that your idea here is a lonsing strategy, I think it is downright counter-productive because it undermines atheisms most basic argument: you should believe what is true, not what is comfortable -truth matters.
Sensemaker @ #50: And what is your response to the numerous people — myself included — who have said, in these very threads, that they feel better and more at peace with death now that they’ve left their religion?
[email protected] “And what is your response to the numerous people — myself included — who have said, in these very threads, that they feel better and more at peace with death now that they’ve left their religion?”
I am one of those people too, you know.
There are many reasons for why people say they are more comfortable with the idea of death post-religion and I currently do not have the time and energy to enumerate them all. I shall just state the most obvious one:
They never really, in their hearts, believed so fully in the “pie in the sky when you die” that it made them stop worrying. Self-deception can cause us to believe very silly things but only a small minority of humans have such a talent for it that they can completely silence internal, gnawing doubt. Unfortunately religion avoids blame for this lack of true comfort by saying doubt is bad and entirely the fault of the doubting individual and encourage people to have more blind faith.
But wouldn’t hope of afterlife be better than no hope at all? It might seem so, but that is not how the human mind works. Hope that you deep down know is unrealistic can be more cruel than grief or even despair. For comparison, quite a few people report relief when a missing relative’s dead body is found.
Sensemaker, your post at #52 seems a direct contradiction of your post at #50. At any rate, given that there is a truth about death, an unpleasant one, shouldn’t we try and develop the best strategies we can for living and dealing with that unpleasant truth? We can’t wave it away – the cat’s out of the bag now – but we can try to limit the unpleasantness.
Enkidum @53: In what sense do you think my post @52 contradicts my post @50?
Yes, atheists need to face the reality of death. I do not think it is particularly useful to device some sort of a common method for this. It is a deeply personal problem. If some atheists can find counsel and support among one another it is good for those people -but I am highly skeptical to the idea of reaching some sort of method that works for most people since it is such a personal thing.
Also no matter how good a method we would devise, it cannot compete with the cheap, empty promises of religion. The religious false promise of “they are not really dead you can see them again” is so seductive. In reality it will not provide much true comfort (few people have such a talent for self-deception that they can completely silence the voice of doubt) and might actually make things worse for the grieving person, but it will always seem much easier and more rewarding. The only thing we really have going for us is the truth.
I get your point and have responded to it. I’m sure you don’t get mine, but I’ve done what I can and won’t further belabor it.
That appears to support Greta’s position, that atheism can offer a philosophy of death that is more comforting than religion.
tm, I agree with Christina that the comfort of faith doesn’t work. It is essentially denial, refusing to acknowledge that some is truly dead and gone. That’s might possibly give temporary relief in acute grief, but it is definitely not healthy in the long run. It is a “quick fix” that seems to work but usually doesn’t and often makes things worse. However, it will always seem like a wonderful and simple solution -particularly to a person in acute grief who is desperate for immediate comfort and probably not thinking very clearly. We cannot outbid a liar (unless we also start lying), but we can, and should, gently point out that the other bid is a lie.
The fear of the state of “being dead” is an absolute non sequitur. Ancient philosophers such as Lucretius and Epicurius realized this millennia ago. Ask yourself, what it “was like” being dead for billions of years before you were born?
Not only is death per se not a thing to fear, but it provides the only context that can possibly give life meaning. The knowledge that our time to act is so very short, provides a weight and an urgency to find a way to be as creative, productive, and kind as possible before our chance is over.
The only thing about death that is perhaps, truly irredeemably awful is the loss of our family and friends and the grim certainty that either we or they will be forced to experience portions of our life without each other. However, as horrible as this wretched fact is, it makes it all the more urgent to pour our love and kindness on our family and friends and to keep petty squabbles, grudges, and conflicts to a minimum.
Hey man, speak for yourself! When I do what I value and enjoy, I’m not thinking about my future death, I’m thinking about that day and what I’m going to do with it.
[…] “When I say, “This atheist philosophy of death offers comfort,” I mean, “This atheist philosophy can, to some extent, alleviate the suffering and grief caused by death. It can make the suffering and grief feel less overwhelming, less unbearable. It doesn’t make the pain disappear — but it can put the experience into a context that gives it some sort of meaning, and it can offer the hope that with time, the pain will diminish. It can give us a sense that there’s a bridge over the chasm: a feeling of trust that, when the worst of the grief passes, we’ll have a solid foundation to return to. It doesn’t make the grief go away — but it can make it better.”” Atheism, Death, and the Difference between Pessimism and Realism – Greta Christina’s Blo… […]
I liked this point especially: “It bugs me when atheists with a more bleak view of death than mine present that bleakness as a logical consequence of atheism, the inherent and natural result of not believing in God or an afterlife.”
I personally have a pretty bleak view of death . . . I grew up Mormon and always believed in some pretty amazing promises after this life, and I believed them fervently. Now, instead of being the product of creation by a loving God who has sent my spirit into the world at THIS time for a REASON . . . I’m just another homosapien and I’ll likely be forgotten within two or three generations. Completely.
That’s OK with me, and I’ve always been a somber person . . . so serious thoughts like this don’t depress me, really, they help me gain perspective. Believing that life is short and [basically] pointless (in that there is no purpose given to me by someone else) helps me focus on the things that really make me happy, on making good relationships HERE AND NOW, and not living my life for anyone else or by anyone else’s rulebook – but live according to my own conscience and the meaning I find for myself.
Anyway . . . I AM typically pretty morbid and somber and I’m not shy in saying I’ll be quickly forgotten by this world. That’s OK. I’d rather be remembered by my loved ones and live through them via the impact I made in their lives than have them delude themselves by thinking they’ll see me again.
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