Atheist Thinks of Her Life on the Brink of Death February 6, 2009

Atheist Thinks of Her Life on the Brink of Death

Rose experienced something truly frightening the other day.

I had a wreck yesterday on the way home from work. I hit a patch of ice and lost control of the car and as it slid toward the guard rail, I yelled loudly, “Fuck!” and thought of all the things I haven’t done.

Her thoughts didn’t turn to God or religion — she didn’t recant and accept Jesus into her life or anything — she thought of her life and everything she’s made of it.

My first thought was of my husband, will he be ok? Then, it was of my book, which I am still revising. Then I had a few more fleeting thoughts about unfinished work and my lifelong companion Bunny, who would be at home as I slammed into the railing.

I suppose times like these are when religious people suddenly thank their maker and make promises to attend services and be kinder to others and give to charity etc etc. Instead I went home and hugged my husband, and emailed my parents and my job and then went about life as usual. Until I fell asleep.

I’m fortunate to have never gone through something like that myself.

Rose wonders (and I do, too) if her thinking is similar to other atheists who face death, even if just for a moment.

If you’ve been in that situation, what do you think of?

Does the thought ever cross your mind that you could have been wrong about God and now is as good a time as any to believe?

Do theists think about God first in a situation like this? Or do they think of their family and loved ones?

When we all experience the most universal part of life, do we all think the same thing or are our thoughts shaped by our religious outlook?

(via A Cleverer Version of Myself)

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  • This is my 1st post, and I adore this site so much.
    I almost died in childbirth 5 years ago, and not once did god come to mind. The only thing I was thinking about was the health of my baby. I didn’t pray to god to save us; I put my faith and trust in the doctors where it belonged. And in the end, science saved us both.

  • I’ve been in situations of a similar nature. Even when I was of a more… mystical mindset, they always boiled down to: “Oh shit, I fucked up…”

    That’s all that ever runs through my mind when facing imminent doom.

  • Brett

    I had a similar incident where I fell asleep at the wheel going 55 mph on a winding country road.

    I was shaken awake when my right side wheels hit the loose dirt and then proceeded to drive off the road bank. (like a slight ramp before a small 8 foot high cliff) My first thoughts were to regain control of the car. But with less than a second between when my eyes opened and hitting the tree directly in front of me, correcting the car’s course wasn’t possible.

    In the brief moment between realizing that I was going to hit a tree head-on very fast and the actual collision; My only thought was, “I hope this doesn’t hurt.” I squinted my eyes, braced my arms, clenched the steering wheel tight, and pushed myself back into the seat.

    Thankfully, when hitting a 12-inch diameter pine tree dead center, my 2000 Hyundai Tiburon crumpled very well. The seat belt and airbag worked without flaw, the passenger compartment had no intrusions, and the door opened with the same ease as if the car didn’t crumple. The only safety hazard was that gasoline was leaking from somewhere under the car.

    I never lost consciousness. My hand ended up punching the dashboard causing some soreness, but not even a bruise, somehow I had a sore knee for a couple of days, but again, no bruise. The only visual injury I sustained was a rug burn/scrape on my thigh where the seat belt dug in.

    I did not praise god, I did not devote my life to the almighty, I sent a letter to the engineers at Hyundai; thanking them for designing such a safe car.

    As a public service, I would recommend to everyone else that pulling your seatbelt tight into your waist can prevent the rug burn issue. And don’t drive drowsy – it’s more dangerous than driving drunk.

  • Jason Sexton

    I’ve been through a number of situations like that both in and out of the Military. My first thoughts were always, I’m OK (stupid for doing what I did) but OK. Next was to make sure those around me were OK. Then I’d think about home/family etc. and if we were still in working shape, go on with what we were doing. Never once have I ever thought about the bearded ju-ju man in the sky.

  • i had a brain injury and was “unconscious” and “close to death” for 8 days, during which time i “dreamed” an opera

  • Ramon C.

    I have been in those situations and as strange as it seems the world appears to “halt” or the time to slow down and even if I am screaming with my body, my mind starts to think for possible solutions and then one second later the whole situation lies in my mind like it was too much time ago that it happened.
    And then, also, I had a dream where I died, I died because a volcano erupted and I found my self “drowning” in lava, my body went into shock because I could not feel anything, nothing at all, not even my body itself, and then I started thinking and said “How am I thinking if I don’t have a brain, that is not normal, I see nothing because I don’t have eyes, maybe my brain hasn’t died yet, that is the only explanation, so, I guess in a few moments there is going to be nothing” ….and then I woke up.
    Funny, isn’t?
    (For the record: English is not my first language)

  • Well, since you asked, as the Suburban was tumbling off the road into a ravine (rolled 3 times), I was aware that I had come up short in life and was going to face God in judgment . . .

  • Lindsey

    About 5 years ago (When I was still Mormon even, though not for much longer), my friends and I were on the freeway at night and it was freaking POURING rain. We ended up in a hyroplane of near-death and all I remember thinking was “oh fuck. We’re going to die.”

  • I wrote about this a while back on my blog, I’ve pasted the appropriate portion here.

    I was working for a federal facility, and the facility management was interested in building a radio tower in a location near an archaeological site. One of the other archaeologists, an engineer, and I headed out to take a look at the location.

    The location was on a small knoll overlooking a beach, and this area was frequently used as a cattle pasture. We stood on the knoll, trying to figure out whether the site was here or not, when we heard a rumbling. We looked up just in time to see a herd of cattle running at full speed in our direction.

    We didn’t have time to move, the cattle were moving quickly enough that we couldn’t have gotten out of their way in time. I believed that I was about to die – I was later told by the other two that I had an “enigmatic” look on my face.

    Talking about it later, we discovered that the engineer had begun praying, the other archaeologist had begun panicking, and I had a sense of amusement as the following go through my head:

    “Huh? So, I get killed by a cattle stampede. I never saw this coming.”

    So, apparently, I react to certain death by being mildly amused.

    At the last minute, the cattle turned and went around us, and in less than a minute, they were past us, and still running.

    The rest of the post is here

  • Brian

    5 years ago just outside my home in South Philadelphia I was robbed at gunpoint by two local youths wearing ‘Scream’ masks. As the gunbarrel was pressed into the back of my neck I thought, “man, what a stupid way to die!” and that my family would be pretty upset…and that was pretty much it. The kids got away with 72 cents.

  • Sarah

    I sure hope I don’t waste my last minutes thinking about Zeus or Thor or any other fictional characters.

  • Nessa

    When I first got my driver’s license, I took some friends down the road, and ended up hitting a tree and rolling the car into a ditch. As it was happening, I thought, “Oh man, did I just fuck up!” Once the car was stopped, I wanted to make sure everyone was ok. After that, I started thinking up excuses. It was my sisters brand new car, that I had just totaled. I was just a teenager then, and still considered myself agnostic, but not once did God enter my mind.

  • Richard Wade

    38 years ago, snow on the windshield, an unexpected swerve, headlights going round and round, confusion, a sudden crash, silence. Where are we? On the side of the mountain road. Are my friends ok? They say yes. Am I ok? Nothing hurts. Well, we missed the ravine, so that’s good. Then ensued a long, cold, wet night of problem solving. How to get myself and my friends home without freezing to death. There was no time for assessing my life or thinking about all that god stuff; the crash was too quick and the problems were too immediate. I was alive and I had a responsibility to protect my friends, and I had to do it with numb fingers and toes.

    If I’m alive, I have problems to solve. If I’m dead, no problem.

  • I’ve never been that close to death, but I have been in a situation where I wasn’t sure if my mother was going to last the night. Praying to god, or even the concept of god, did not enter my mind much the same way I wasn’t thinking about baseball. I had rather a lot on my mind to bother with mythology. I remember thinking “I don’t want her to die, please let the doctors make her better”. I wasn’t “asking” anyone in particular, I was just hoping fervently.
    I dunno, but I think that for many of us religion is just so alien, so not a part of our lives, that in stressful moments we don’t think about it at all because only the important stuff comes up during those moments, and god just isn’t an important concept to an atheist.

  • Dutch

    In my Christian church, we members know we are already dead. When one of our pastors goes to a hospital to visit a mom and her newborn, He will say “welcome to hell kid.”(hell and grave, according to scripture, are the same.) Like the atheist responses here, death is nothing to be feared – for me it really is a crossover.

    Just a Christian’s perspective.

  • One of the things that really solidified my atheism (as opposed to agnosticism) was watching my father die from terminal cancer and knowing that he never even considered turning to religion. Family friends would ask if we wanted them to send their pastor/priest/whatever over, but my father emphatically did not want that.

  • Morgan55

    Not my own experience, but from the amazing true story film Touching the Void. A climber, injured, alone, stranded inches from certain death in a truly hope-crushing situation. After the fact, he seems almost puzzled by the very idea that he might even think of God (“not once”), let alone beg for help. His experience is an incredible testiment to human will, and gives credit where credit is due.

  • AG

    I had much the same experience, Mouse. Dad ended up on friendly terms with my uncle’s preacher, but they bonded over Dad’s tractor collection, not imaginary friends. (My relatives were dismayed, but then again they never did quite understand Dad.)

    I spun out on any icy two-lane highway directly in front of a semi about 13 years ago. My thoughts were, quite clearly, “Well, this was a fucking stupid idea. I should have stayed home.” The semi missed, and the driver got on the CB to warn others on the road, the next one of which pulled over to check on me (I’d planted the car firmly in the ditch at this point) and got in touch with the State Patrol on my behalf. I was thankful to everyone who helped, but again, imaginary friends never entered into it.

  • weaves

    The few potentially death-inducing situations I have been in, my thoughts generally focussed around what I was experiencing, what to do (in the case of some car situations) and a vague thought about the important people in my life.

    A religious significance, higher power or a god has never even flittered across my thouhts.

    although, it probably would now. Something like “haha, those people on friendly atheist would laugh to know the only reason i’m thinking about god is in an objective view to this post”

    kind of as amusement.

  • CybrgnX

    I had an incident where on the highway I did a 720deg spin recovered and did it again (black ice patches).
    All I thought about was how to recover and get the situation under control.
    I always thought the ‘live flashing by’ thing is nothing more than surrender to ‘fate’. I’ve always been trying to survive those situations so never had time for the other kinds of ‘thoughts’ or ‘dreams’. Whent he condition is ended I’m always to busy getting on in life to think about it.

  • Dutch

    I would suggest a “google” search on “atheist near death experiences.” I found it interesting, and interestingly enough the wikipedia article has a disclaimer “the neutrality of this article is disputed.” Disputed by who?

  • I’m surprised at how many people above had encounters in cars. I had my own too.

    I had two encounters with death, I suffered injury when I was young (before atheism) and was very close to death, during the time I was in pain and very afraid of going to hell which made my experience a lot worst.

    My second encounter was more recent, I was hit by a drunk driver while a passenger in a car, I wasn’t injured, but the experience was frightening. This time, it was without the mental torment over a fictional hell.

  • Sarah


    When one of our pastors goes to a hospital to visit a mom and her newborn, He will say “welcome to hell kid.”(hell and grave, according to scripture, are the same.)

    Why would you say welcome to hell to a mom and newborn? That sounds nuts. Are you mocking Christians or are you for real?

  • Just to be different I’ll offer my own experience which was not in a car. This was about 8 years ago.

    Imagine a tiny enclosed laundry room in a small apartment building. Just enough room for a washer, dryer and hot water tank.

    Imagine a crashing sound as the hot water tank inexplicably collapsed.

    Imagine the overwhelming smell of rotten eggs as natural gas filled the tiny room.

    Imagine my jaw dropping and lit cigarette falling to the floor. And yes, incidents like this happen in slow motion, just like in the movies!

    There was no time to think, just to act. A foot on the cigarette as it lands… shutting off the gas valve… throwing open the window.

  • Karen

    My husband had a heart attack in April and ended up having triple bypass surgery the next day. We are both atheists. He, myself and the rest of our family were in shock, as he is only 37, skinny and with no family history of heart problems. While signing consent forms, my husband, who was sedated and on morphine, still had the presence of mind to tell the nurse he was an atheist so please don’t send any clergy of any kind to his room after surgery. Before they wheeled him to surgery, the nurse said say your “see you laters” and “prayers” now. My husband and I both reiterated that we don’t say prayers. Neither of us ever thought of a god or prayer at this time. I was just concerned with the credentials of his surgeon and the survival rate and science behind the procedure. I questioned his surgeon and watched a video on the procedure and read some literature the night before, because I couldn’t sleep. I just kept thinking of all the practical information that I needed to understand the surgery. His surgeon and Science saved his life.

  • Dutch


    I know it sounds nuts, but the mother understands – call it an inside joke.

  • Sock

    Not a personal experience, but.

    The only atheist I’ve known who’s changed his opinion about religion… it happened in jail. And then he went to a non-religious stance, but high faith “I believe in God, and I am molding Him to fit my views!”.

  • charfles

    As a lifelong New Englander I experience that every winter. Usually I’m more concerned about my car.

  • I was in a car wreck on Tuesday; somebody ran a stop sign and hit me. I came out okay, the car is undriveable. Anyway, there was a second where I thought it might be over. And all I could think about was my husband. That’s it. No god, no Jesus, nothing but the person who is a true partner in my life.

  • Tory Phoenix

    Warning – Another Car Incident.

    I was heading to the bank and was sitting in the turn lane about 9pm. I was finishing preparations to make a trip the following day. About 5 Minutes earlier a car had been stolen from some moron that left the keys in it to go inside and collect his kids from the babysitter. The Tard left the keys in it and the engine running. A Vet no less.

    A few gang bangers walking by decided that was too easy to pass up. The hopped in and took off, the guys brother in law pulled up just as they were pealing out and the guy was running out after his now receding car. As both were Illegal Immigrants, they gave chase rather then calling the police. The Irony is that I was getting ready to leave the house and heard the beginnings of the chase go past.

    So there I am, sitting at the light when I hear screeching tires, I look and the guy is screaming around the corner and time did slow down. I had the time mentally to see his path, which was pointed directly at my door. According to the police he was doing 80+ and trying to make a turn onto a 4 lane city street with a turn lane from the same, but he was starting the turn from inside lane. It just ain’t going to happen no matter how good you or the car is. Not at those speeds.

    As I drove a stick at the time, I always sat at a light with the clutch in and the car in gear. I saw what was coming, dumped the clutch and punched that gas, Killed the engine, but also threw the car forward 4 feet, not enough to get clear, but he only clipped the bumper and rear tire rather then probably killing me.

    During the Adrenaline rush and fall off and shakes, or talking to the cops, or hearing them tell me that he’d have probably killed me had I not done exactly what I did. I had a few moments from my prospective to calculate and react to the situation. If I’d have taken any time to think about GOD. I most likely wouldn’t be writing this. And after the fact, I was thankful not for God, but that I had insurance since the Thieves got away on foot and the Tard and his Brother in law had no insurance and were too busy being deported for me to even consider going after. I’ve been advised that had they been US citizens, I could have sued them for criminal negligence. Both for leaving the car running and for pursuing the thieves rather then calling the police.

  • I had the exact same thing happen to me, except if I’d gone through the rail I’d have ended up in the Ohio River… and I said SHIT! instead. All I could think of was I was the only one going to be working at the library that day and I was supposed to open. How else were the college students going to get books?

    Smashed a corner of my car, drive the rest of the way to work, opened and called my dad about an hour later after finishing my opening stuff. He really freaked out when I told him I’d just been an a car crash on the bridge to work.

  • Jon

    About two months ago, I spun off the highway into the grassy median. I was pretty sure the car was going to roll but but I didn’t have a single religious thought, unless you count “god fucking damn” as a prayer.
    I was able to avert the roll, and get right back on the highway. I was probably ten miles down the road before I even considered that it had been the type of situation where people have religious moments and whatnot. I was thinking about the lyrics to “Dead Man’s Curve” instead.

  • stephanie

    Well, I’ve been in several frightening accidents and incidents in my life (call me lucky or foolhardy), I’ve sat with relatives dying in hospital and a friend where it could go either way. I don’t think of a god in those situations. I think of the experts, doctors and firemen, or even just the job at hand if I’m the one stuck doing it.

    I think my most amusing personal experience was on my motorcycle in a horrible lightning storm near Kearney, NE. Rather than haggling with some god I just gritted my teeth and swore I wasn’t going to die near a place called Keer-nee because I had too much left to do. So I went on through, screaming in my helmet when the strikes landed too close. I remember that part distinctly because when I finally made it to the town and found a hotel with a lot that I could make it into through the flooding, I found out the place was pronounced ‘Carney’. If there was any sense of fate or irony to the world, it would have gotten me for that one.

  • RNB

    Not just me. Famous people too …

    Joe Simpson was the climber who shattered his legs when he was dropped down a crevasse descending a peak in the Peruvian Andes, the subject of the film Touching the Void. It was a miracle that he survived the fall, a miracle that he dragged himself out of the ravine, a miracle that he crawled all the way down the mountain. On the BBC recently, the interviewer grilled him about those times when he was very close to fading out, when he genuinely thought he was about to die – did he ever think of God or a possible afterlife at those times? No, he replied. Never. Even faced with imminent death, the idea of such a crazy Thing did not even cross his mind.

    From here.

  • QuestionMark

    Not exactly the same…

    But, it was when I was undergoing chemo that I started to reflect on my beliefs. That’s when I realized I didn’t believe in any kind of god and never really did.

    I was thankful for the doctors, nurses and researchers, chemists, etc. who were directly responsible for my recovery.

  • Been in a couple of near disasters, in vehicles. If it was me driving it was a matter of oddly detached frantic steering-into-the-spin, or scattering off the road with the rest of the traffic before the roof of the truck ahead landed on top of us, and being impressed by how neatly I was carrying out these emergency procedures I’d only ever seen on TV years before.

    When I was a passenger in a car hydroplaning across 4 lanes of traffic towards the rear of a stopped semi-trailer, it was paralysed “oh, ************** ” at least until the fourth person in the care noticed what was happened and yelled “Hit the brakes!!” and the rest of us stopped looked aghast, and started looking annoyed, as we all thought “Yes, we have, idiot”

    Fortunately we slowed to a halt with the bonnet of the car *underneath* the bumper of the truck. We all got out and stood around shaking for a while, along with the semi-driver who’d narrowly avoided the same thing minutes before.

    No god.

  • Sherilyn

    Back in my mid-20’s when I was not really very Catholic any more, but not fully at grips with my non-believer status, I was in a car accident where I “knew” for a few memorable seconds that I would die. As I spun around doing a 540 in the passenger seat of a tiny, tiny car on a wide, dark highway, I saw, in my mind’s eye, lights from an ambulance and my parents sobbing. Then we stopped spinning and saw the headlights of oncoming traffic part around us. We sat in shock for a few seconds. There might have been cursing. I honestly don’t remember. We were both stunned to be alive and unharmed. Becky backed up and turned around and we drove off. The Ryder truck that had nicked us and sent us spinning was long gone.

    The irony of it all was that we were driving home from seeing Becky’s uncle star as Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar on stage. Her uncle is Ted Neeley. So yes, I had a near death experience with Jesus’ niece…

  • Anon

    I don’t comment on blogs too often, thought I could add a non-car perspective. Incoming rocket fire is one of those times when parts of you tend to clinch up fairly tightly. I distinctly remember a couple of reactions: I was in the office one late evening when we had a couple fall pretty close (broke windows in the building next door, a building that had windows) and all I was thinking was that I had too much work to be spending time on this shit; and I was sitting in the chow hall when one hit just outside, I covered my food to keep the falling dust out of it – you have to prioritize at times like these. Never thought about magic people or my ‘soul.’

    Apparently there are in fact atheists in foxholes…

  • After reading all these comments I’m sort of embarrassed to relate another car crash story with no gods. I was a passenger in a Range Rover driving through France when a Peugeot hit us side on at a crossing. No thoughts at all went through my head except the rather embarrassing “Wee, we’re going in circles” as the Rover spun round in the road. After we stopped it was a matter of getting the others out of the truck and making sure no-one was injured. Then the other driver.

    After that I was more concerned with my limited French than anything to do with the supernatural. In fact it is only today, some 20 years later that I’ve even put God and car crash in the same thought.

    I read some time ago that 9/11 survivors were much more concerned with survival that divine aid but I can’t remember where I read it. I figure that God would have emptied the building or stopped the planes if he was interested or, you know, existed.

    Another point raised was that of dying relatives. When my mother was dying in a hospice there was a vicar who offered support, talked, played cards or board games and generally offered emotional support. I am very grateful for the time that he took to talk about the process of death and for keeping his religion out of the conversation. his religion was there if my mother needed it but it was inappropriate to put pressure on someone so ill.

  • garrick

    When in near-death situations, God does come to mind… in the form of lots of swearing.

  • Wendy

    I’ve been literally on the brink of death more times than I care to count, but I’ve never, not ONCE, turned my thoughts towards “god”. It’s always my family, friends, things I wish I had done, things I might’ve done differently, how painful this death might be, or how the hell I got into this near-death situation in the first place. To me, “god” is just a waste of time.

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