PZ Myers on Death, Evolution, and “Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God”

If we’re thinking about mortality and death with no belief in an afterlife — how does evolution play into it?

PZ Myers has written a really nice, thoughtful review of my new book, Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God. But it’s more than a review. He uses the book as a jumping-off point to talk about death and mortality from the perspective of evolutionary biology. Here’s what he says about the book:

I finally got around to finishing Greta Christina’s Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God. It’s good! This book is the sort of thing atheism needs more of: an acknowledgment that the phenomena most important to human beings can be addressed effectively without imagining fantastic supernatural creatures. Atheists have this reputation of being nerds all wrapped up in abstract concepts and making arguments against the superstitious props that people claim to find useful in day-to-day life, and it’s good that some of us make the effort to show that no, we do deal with real-world concerns, and no, your myth is actually a terribly ineffective way of handling that problem.

He then goes on to talk about how he views death as an evolutionary biologist — and why, exactly, we die. The whole piece is well worth reading: the tl;dr is that dying is, quite literally, a necessary and inevitable consequence of being alive and multi-cellular. If you want to not die, and you want the people in your life to not die, the only option is for us to not be born. I really wish I’d read this before I wrote the book: if I ever do a revised and expanded edition, I’ll definitely be citing this piece and using some of the ideas in it.

Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 200 JPG
The ebook is available at Kindle/Amazon (that’s the link for Amazon US — it’s available in other regions as well), Nook/Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords. The audiobook is available at Audible, Amazon, and iTunes. All ebook and audiobook editions are just $2.99. And yes, I did the recording for the audiobook. (Plans for a print edition are in the works, but there’s currently no publication date scheduled.)

Here is the description of the book:


If you don’t believe in God or an afterlife — how do you cope with death?

Accepting death is never easy. But we don’t need religion to find peace, comfort, and solace in the face of death. In this mini-book collection of essays, prominent atheist author Greta Christina offers secular ways to handle your own mortality and the death of those you love.

Blending intensely personal experience with compassionate, down-to-earth wisdom, Christina (“Coming Out Atheist” and “Why Are You Atheists So Angry?”) explores a variety of natural philosophies of death. She shows how reality can be more comforting than illusion, shatters the myth that there are no atheists in foxholes — and tells how humanism got her through one of the grimmest times of her life.

“In this book Greta Christina tackles the subject of death with the insight of a philosopher and the relaxed candor of a friend — that really cool, intelligent friend who understands and cares.”
-David Niose, author of Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason

“This is a book about the philosophy of death that actually confronts the practical reality of it, and helps you come to practical terms with it… The best book on the atheist philosophy of death you are likely ever to read.”
-Richard Carrier, author of On the Historicity of Jesus and Sense and Goodness without God

“When I was very young, I lost someone close to me in a car accident. Almost more painful than the loss was the way by which those around me attempted to find meaning in the senseless death of a young person. This is the book that seven-year-old me needed instead of the endless religious tracts that assured me that everything happens for a reason.”
-Heina Dadabhoy, Heinous Dealings blog

“The question of god is a nattering bit of trivia compared to Death. For mortals who look their mortality in the eye, it’s Death that deserves the capital. Greta Christina brings depth and intelligence to the consideration of this biggest reality of all, and she does it with honesty and care. I’m still not giddy about the fact that we die, and neither is she. But there are ways to feel better about the terminal hand we’ve been dealt, and Greta shares them all in this remarkable book.”
-Dale McGowan, author of In Faith and In Doubt, Parenting Beyond Belief, and Atheism For Dummies

“Reading this book felt like one of those moments, standing in a dark and silent room, when glass powder strikes red phosphorous and turns a little of it into white phosphorous, which causes a match to light up in a warming flame. I want to show it (the book, not the match) to all my friends who are dealing with death, which is of course all of my friends. Thank you for writing it!”
-Greg M. Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University

“Cheeky, smart, unflinchingly honest, and deeply personal (as always) — Greta Christina is a perfect guide for nontheists who are looking for clear-eyed conversation about death and grief. The comforts she offers are powerful because they require no denial or self-delusion and instead are rooted in gratitude and wonder at the gift of life — and the precious opportunities made all the more acute by their transience.”
-Valerie Tarico, Ph.D., psychologist, author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light

“Bravo, Greta Christina. Your book is a feat of logic, wisdom, compassion, insight, humor, and lived experience presented in the most accessible way. Your ideas are compelling and I wish your words could be made available in hotel rooms everywhere, tucked into the drawer of the nightstand, in addition to hospital waiting rooms, train and bus stations, airports and classrooms. Death is certainly a Big Deal but humanism and non-belief have plenty of comfort to offer, as you so eloquently have put forth. In short, ‘What she said.'”
-Nina Hartley, author of Nina Hartley’s Guide to Total Sex

“Greta Christina’s book is blunt, honest and doesn’t shy away from hard truths. Yet it is also gentle, compassionate and reassuring. It is as much a guide to how to face death as it is a guide to finding meaning in life. In it, she makes the argument that atheists and other non-believers are more prepared to understand and accept the practical realities and emotions that come with death than their religious counterparts, and she makes it convincingly. And they almost certainly will be even more prepared after reading this book.”
-Kayley Whalen, Digital Strategies and Social Media Manager, National LGBTQ Task Force.

“Required reading for anyone alive. Greta Christina’s clear, bold, gentle and endlessly thought-provoking writing style constantly reminds me why I love her. She provides elegant proof that the even the hardest truths can be as beautiful, wonderful and uplifting as any other facet of our existence.”
-David Fitzgerald, author of Nailed and The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion

“Greta Christina continues to provide unique advice and information to the growing community of seculars. We all need to consider our mortality and learn positive and productive ways to deal with our inevitable deadline. Thanks for this little book of wisdom. Christina has written a handbook we can all use. But it should be in the hands of every hospital and military chaplain, every hospice care giver,even ministers, etc. No secular person should be subjected to supernatural ideas and wishful thinking when they are dealing with death, dying and grief.”
-Darrel Ray, founder, Recovering from Religion

“Greta Christina’s new book transcends merely ‘enjoyable.’ Joy, tranquility, truth — I feel these while reading it.”
-Brianne Bilyeu, Biodork

“It’s not often that two of my favorite subjects — atheism and death — get written about in one book. Greta’s done a fantastic job of combining them. Death happens folks. It behooves us to ponder the matter and Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God is a great way to do that.”
-Simon Davis, “Post Mortem” columnist, VICE Magazine

“Atheism frees us to craft our own meaning for life, but we must still confront the specter of death. In this brief-yet-essential volume, Greta Christina presents an array of humanist perspectives that provide very real comfort and meaning in the face of death.”
-Neil Wehneman, Development Director, Secular Student Alliance

PZ Myers on Death, Evolution, and “Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God”
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8 thoughts on “PZ Myers on Death, Evolution, and “Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God”

  1. 3

    Re #2: Jesper Both Pedersen, unsurprisingly, has been banned.

    I would just like to point out that he chose to troll/ harass a post about death, grief, and mortality, and how atheists can cope with it. Nice.

  2. 4

    PZ Myers’ post is absolutely terrible where comforting thoughts are concerned. It couldn’t have been more terrible if he spontaneously converted to Evangelical Christianity in the middle of writing it. Behind the scientific explanation of death (which might be appreciated in a different context), his post is a giant is-ought fallacy. And it’s awful. It can be used to justify anything. Ebola? Shut up you whiners, this is how the disease spreads, this is how it kills people, everything is okay, nothing sad here. Hurricanes? This is how they arise, this is how the human body reacts to blunt trauma, nothing sad here. Terrorism? This is how guns work, this is the result of ballistic trauma, nothing sad here.
    My friend was killed by a drunk driver in June ’14. I didn’t attend the funeral, because I thought I couldn’t handle the Christian rhetoric (people — friends! — were seriously discussing online when exactly his soul is expected to stop being tortured and ascend to heaven). Two weeks before, he had helped me to win my first 400 km cycling marathon. I went on to become the #1 female marathonner in the country (perhaps in the world, too — worldwide data isn’t available). At the award ceremony, I overheard another winner talking to a spectator,
    “No, everyone is a believer. You know, it’s like in foxholes. We’re burying, like, five people per year. When you face death, you can’t help but fear for your soul.” (Which is a lie, because at least one prominent club member is an outspoken atheist.)
    “But everyone’s a Christian, right? Or are there, ew… Muslims?” the lady said.
    “Uh… Muslims too, yes. Everyone, really. We’ve got Orthodoxes, Muslims, Catholics, Buddhists…”
    I couldn’t hear what she said next, but I could make a guess after I heard the reply,
    “No, we can’t ban them, not really. We’re open for everyone.”
    I wish they were. A harasser told me he’ll veto my membership application if I don’t apologize to him like a good Christian (apologize for being harassed, that is), and the VP (who’s awesome) will be in trouble if anyone outs me as a lesbian.
    So I had to grieve in private. I excused myself from work, loaded up on phenobarbiturates, had a good day’s sleep, put on the awesome gloves my friend had gifted me at the finish line, and won another marathon.
    I’ll try to do even better this year.
    Too TL;DR? Let’s put it in PZ Myers’ terms:
    Vehicular homicide? Bicycle dynamics, internal combustion, effects of alcohol on reaction time, blunt trauma. It’s natural, nothing to be sad about, shut up.

  3. 5

    dying is, quite literally, a necessary and inevitable consequence of being alive and multi-cellular. If you want to not die, and you want the people in your life to not die, the only option is for us to not be born.

    This brings to mind a phrase I thought of in a slightly different context when contemplating the fact that dead trees support more life than live ones, and the fundamental role of dead matter in sustaining healthy ecosystems “death is life, and life is death”. A good motto, but perhaps not for a political party

  4. 6

    PZ Myers’ post is absolutely terrible where comforting thoughts are concerned. [snip] Let’s put it in PZ Myers’ terms:
    Vehicular homicide? Bicycle dynamics, internal combustion, effects of alcohol on reaction time, blunt trauma. It’s natural, nothing to be sad about, shut up.

    ethereal @ #4: First, and most importantly: I am so sorry for your loss. And I’m so sorry that you had such a horrible experience with how the people around you handled that death and your grief.

    If I’ve learned anything from what grieving people say about their grief, it’s that different people have very different reactions to different ideas about death, and to different forms of comfort in the face of it. That’s obviously true when it comes to believers and atheists — but it’s also true for different atheists.

    For instance: Many atheists take great comfort in the idea that being dead will be the same as not having been born yet — and not having been born yet wasn’t anything to fear or be upset about. For me, this is entirely non-comforting. I’m not afraid of the state of being dead — I just really like being alive, and I really want the dead people I loved to be back in my life. I do talk about this idea in my book, because so many atheists find it helpful and consoling. But it does nothing at all to touch my own fears about mortality.

    For me, however, the idea that death is a natural and inevitable consequence of being alive is very comforting. I tend to see death as unfair, as somehow robbing me or ripping me off. It’s irrational, but it’s now I emotionally react. Understanding that death is an inevitable package deal with life helps me accept it.

    It is true that this idea doesn’t offer comfort in the face of all deaths. If someone died much too young, or if they died unnecessarily because of human brutality or carelessness or selfishness, then the idea that mortality is a package deal with life probably isn’t going to help. And if there’s a particular kind of death that can be prevented or delayed — Ebola, drunk driving accidents, leukemia, murder — then of course we should not just accept it. Of course we should work to stop it, as much as we can. There’s a difference between saying, “Death is inevitable,” and saying “This particular death is inevitable,” or, “This particular form of death is inevitable.”

    For me, though, this idea — the idea that death is an inevitable and necessary consequence of being alive — does help me cope with some deaths. It helps me cope with my father’s death of natural causes at age 79, and it helps me cope with my own mortality and eventual death (hopefully of natural causes, hopefully at a pretty old age). Different ideas don’t just help different people — they help in the face of different deaths.

    Finally: Saying that an idea about death offers comfort , or that it’s a strategy for coping, is not the same as saying “nothing to be sad about, shut up.” It’s not even the slightest bit the same. That’s not what I mean by “comfort,” and I doubt highly that it’s what PZ means. To quote myself from the book:

    When I say that some particular view of death offers comfort, I don’t mean that it completely eradicates any pain or grief associated with death. Of course it doesn’t. Nothing does that — not even religion. (More on that in a moment.) When I say, “This view of death offers some comfort,” I’m not saying, “If you look at death this way, it will no longer trouble you. With this philosophy, you can view death blithely, even cheerfully. The death of the ones you love, and your own eventual death, will no longer suck even in the slightest.”
    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 or fear go away — but it can lighten the load.”

    I am absolutely not telling you to shut up and not be sad, and I doubt highly that PZ is. It is completely appropriate to be sad when the people we love die — and it’s completely appropriate to say so.

  5. 7

    I remember Isaac Asimov making a similar sort of point about death some decades back, though I don’t recall much about it. Something about clearing away the, er, deadwood. There are several theories about aging and death, why we don’t stay in a young state all our lives. One is that there is not much selection pressure for staying in good shape after one has produced enough offspring to replace oneself and one’s partner(s). Another is getting oneself out of the way so that one does not compete with one’s offspring. That reminds me of Colorado Governor Richard Lamm stating about 30 years ago that “We’ve got a duty to die and get out of the way with all of our machines and artificial hearts and everything else like that and let the other society, our kids, build a reasonable life.”
    But there’s an interesting curiosity that I recall IA or someone else writing about long ago — the billion-heartbeat limit. I’ve found this paper on it: Similarity in the number of lifespan heartbeats among non-hibernating homeothermic animals. – PubMed – NCBI “Homeothermic” — maintaining having a fixed body temperature, being warm-blooded. Mammals live about a billion heartbeats, birds about 3 1/4 billion. The authors were careful to state that they used measurements on “resting adult non-anesthesized homeothermic mammals and birds in a state of thermal neutrality.” For our species, that rate is about 70 beats per minute, making a billion heartbeats 27 years. A lifespan of 80 years thus translates into 3 billion heartbeats.

  6. 8

    This reminds me of something extremely weird that I’ve come across: Projects – euthanasia-coaster – Julijonas Urbonas — a very tall one, with its highest hill about 500 m / 1600 ft up. It has 6 loops in it, for giving an acceleration of 10 g’s for a minute or so. A downward acceleration pulls blood out of the brain, making one feel lightheaded and pleasant. Enough of it will cause unconsciousness, and eventually, death.
    I thought about that and I considered a rocket sled. Hard to find a rocket that delivers 10 g’s for over a minute. I then considered how pilots and astronauts are trained for high g’s, in a centrifuge. A Centrifuge of Death? Like Carousel from Logan’s Run? Except in the movie, one floats up to the ceiling and gets blown up.
    In the book and the movie of Logan’s Run, one gets a nice life, but one must turn oneself in to get killed at a certain age. It’s 18 in the book, 30 in the movie. In the movie, at least, it was described as for “renewing”, but that was a fraud, and some people tried to escape the city to avoid getting “renewed”.

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