Ask Richard: Atheist Haunted by the Fear of Death August 23, 2010

Ask Richard: Atheist Haunted by the Fear of Death

Hey Richard,

I have been an Atheist for most if not all of my life. My little sister is one, my mother is probably one, and my father, if religious, has never said a word to me about religion. I grew up in a secular humanist Jewish community, too. The idea of a ‘god’ just never made sense to me and I don’t think I could believe even if I wanted to.

But here is my problem. I am afraid of dying. I am so afraid of dying that if I think about what it would mean, even for a second, I become fixated on the thought and have a panic attack where I reach the point of almost passing out. It only happens every once in a while, and I am a fully functioning person, but if I do think about it I can’t function.

Religion, I understand, is a fix for people with a similar fear. They do not have to fear death because death for them is not the end all be all. I try and calm myself by telling myself that if I make a difference in the world my contribution will outlast me, but then I think of the nothingness and my heart starts to beat a mile a minute. It is at those times that I wish I was not a realistic person, that I had grown up with a love for a god and a belief that I would live on in eternal happiness. Deep down I wish I could believe in a god, just to make the fear go away.

My question is this. My fear has never gotten in the way of living normally, but I hate it. I thought about therapy, but therapy would mean confronting it and I don’t think I could, because what’s the end result? Either I fool myself into thinking that there is paradise or another life waiting for me or I keep this knowledge hidden from myself, always waiting to reemerge as Ive been trying to do all of my life.

Am I alone in this fear? Should I seek help? What is a godless person who afraid of death and is incapable of believing in a god supposed to do? I know it’s a big question, and you certainly don’t have all the answers, but I just want the pain to go away. Not suicide of course. Don’t worry about that. That would be like having a crippling fear of dogs so you go out to buy a viscous dog. I’m afraid, not irrational.

Asking a lot,
Anxious Anne

Dear Anne,

Firstly, your letter is very courageous. Courage is not the absence of fear. It is doing what must be done in spite of your fear.

You’re right, I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t think there are any standard “atheist” ways of dealing with this, so please forgive me for drawing heavily upon my own personal experience.

The first time I deeply realized my own annihilation I was about 17 years old. The thought of the ending of my consciousness just popped up and really got my visceral attention. I felt like ice water was creeping up the back of my neck, my stomach felt upside down, and my heart was pounding. I sat back and took some deep, slow breaths, and I talked to myself. I reminded myself that I was young, healthy and not in danger. I also thought about how this is a natural instinct that helps all animals to survive. They run faster or fight harder. It’s just that humans know hypothetically ahead of time rather than just when predators are approaching. After a short time the sensations went away, but I remembered the experience.

The vague, maybe-I-guess-so beliefs in an afterlife I had at the time were not of any comfort, and I doubt that even a strong faith would have softened it much, because this was a very primal, very organic experience. It was a reflex, a built-in instinct, as automatic as blinking when someone pokes their fingers toward my eyes, and as independent of intellect as pulling my hand off the stove before the sensation of heat reaches my brain.

Time passed, and on rare occasions that triple sensation would bubble up, but I quickly distracted myself with some of the things you have probably done, such as thinking about something else or getting really busy. It was a strategy of evasion, but the feeling was becoming more familiar, and it was finding me more often.

Then when I was about 23, it came on me again in the middle of the night while I was lying in bed. I felt the same three sensations: Ice water up the back of my neck, my stomach upside down, and my heart pounding. There was nothing likely that would cause my death that night, but the conviction of imminent mortal threat was still very powerful. In a completely irrational way, I was convinced that if I did not somehow escape, I would die then and there.

But this time something in me changed. I was sick of running. I was sick of hiding. I thought okay, come on. Bring it on. Whatever this is, I’d rather get it over. I turned and faced it.

leopard and baboon

For the next few minutes those three sensations built and built, stronger than I had ever felt before, but I just lay there and felt them vividly. Then they crested and broke like a wave, and quickly faded away. I was still there, looking up at the dark ceiling.

I realized that it had been nothing more than those three sensations. Any more “meaning” to it was merely my own commentary, my labeling it with a scary significance. It no longer intimidated me, and it eventually stopped coming around.

Since then I have had four close calls where I actually would have died. A faulty wire nearly electrocuted me, a machine part flew just past my ear like a bullet, a speeding car missed me by six inches as I walked across the street, and if the 1994 Northridge earthquake had occurred just a few hours later, I would have been crushed in this building:

Northridge earthquake

Each of those has left me with a stronger sensation of windfall, of having an extra chance, and a stronger interest in staying positive. Life is just too short and too subject to randomness for me to waste even a moment on a crappy mood, or an attitude of resentment, or focusing on what I don’t have. Screw that. There are so many opportunities for me to enjoy giving, encouraging, celebrating, and loving, and I’m not going to pass up a single one. Each of those close calls has added to my attitude that my life now is all gravy, it’s all extra. I get to go around on the ride again for free.

And now I’ve been riding for 60 years. My body is beginning to show a little wear and tear, and statistically my time is shortening.


My legacy is already complete. My life is already filled with meaning. I’ve made a positive difference by being here, and I’m looking forward to making even more. In one of my careers I’ve had the amazing privilege of actually saving lives. If it’s over today, that’s fine, or another 60 years from now, as long as I can keep making some kind of positive difference, even little ones.

I’m not trying to portray myself as heroic. My healthy, natural fear of death keeps me interested in simple safety. I make sure that wires are unplugged when I handle them, and I look both ways when I cross the street. But that’s about as far as it goes. I concentrate on life.

Anne, you have described what would probably be called anxiety attacks or panic attacks. Any number of things can trigger them in people. Your trigger happens to be the thought of your mortality. Trying to always avoid the thought means you’re actually always thinking about it in the periphery of your mind.

I think your predicament can be readily helped by working with a competent secular counselor who will neither offer you religious hocus pocus, nor other futile ways to distract yourself. A good counselor will stay by your side as you walk all the way through your Valley of Shadow. He or she will teach you to breathe deeply and slowly, and help you to turn and face your fear, completely experience it, realize that you have survived it, and no longer be intimidated by it. You will have seen that it is nothing but a couple of thoughts and a few bodily sensations. Meh.

As you get older, I think that the positive differences that you make in the world by your contribution will become a much stronger compensation, comfort and satisfaction for you. Rather than hiding from death, you will be spending your days embracing life.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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  • Hitch

    It’s natural be scared of dying, but it’s not normal to get locked into it by just thinking about it.

    I think the advice for a good councelor is the right pointer.

    The problem with looking for religion for relief is that in fact it’s not clear at all what it does. Religious people too suffer from anxiety disorders. And in fact often religious notions, such as the notion of hell can exasperate the anxieties. (Not only can one fixate on the fear of death, but the fear of eternal torment after death).

    I would really suggest taking it for what it is: A serious anxiety problem for which one should try to find a competent councelor first for assessment and then ways to deal with it.

    If it’s right there is good anti-anxiety medication, some anxiety can be treated cognitive/behaviorally and so forth. The good news is that many people have anxiety problems and there is quite a bit that can be done.

  • Jenn

    Not sure if this helps, but you are definitely not alone in this fear! My high school bf used to call it a “mortality attack.” I really like to think about the quote from (I think) Mark Twain, “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

  • Steve

    I found that the book “Staring at the Sun” by Irvin Yalom dealt with this issue most effectively. It takes getting used to,and the AA catchphrase “Fake it ’til you make it” is definitely applicable with death anxiety.

  • JohnFrost

    I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain. ~Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear

    As silly as it is to quote a science fiction book, this Litany actually helped me quite a bit when I first deconverted and had to face my mortality.

    Later I discovered this is actually kind of the Buddhist way–you examine your emotions, rather than letting them carry you away. You stop and you think, “Where am I feeling this? A tightness in my chest? A coldness on my skin?” And you examine the physiological responses until you’ve picked your fear apart and you can deal with the pieces one at a time.

  • Shanti

    I agree with Richard, Anne. I had a dear friend who was gripped with fear when he had to leave his house. The best he could do was open his garage door and sit in a folding chair inside…watching without leaving. He had the same physical symptoms you describe, and again, it was anxiety/panic disorder. The trigger for this disorder can be anything…in your case, the fear of your own death.

    For me, reading Buddhist philosophy helped during the time that I first became concerned with my inevitable mortality. The concept of dying in each moment in order to fully live seems difficult to grasp, but really is a very gentle and powerful way to learn to appreciate to the fullest the sweetness/sadness in our lives.

    If I was having a particularly sad moment, I would sing “The Circle of Life”! Sometimes, just distracting yourself with an action can break the endless repetition of your thoughts. Good luck!

  • Josha

    I’m 24 and I’ve thought a lot about my mortality since becoming and atheist. I’ve had the same reaction where I am terrified about just not existing. I remind myself that the world turned, people lived, laughed, were born and died for thousands of years and I was, well, nothing at all. But still I am scared and I try to not think about it.

    But something happened just a few days ago where I was truly faced, for the first time in my life, with my own mortality. And later that day I was walking the city streets at night. Everything looked different. The tears fell as I watched a couple flirt, a man impatiently honk his horn, a car of men listening to loud music and everything seemed so amazing. I cried because I wanted to be there, with them, and experiencing life. And since then I’ve felt like I am lucky to be here, now, alive and I’ve had the sensation where I am going to make the most of my time here. Take risks and enjoy this moment because I have it and it is mine. And it has been a wonderful feeling!

  • Gauldar

    Always keep in mind that religion is not a balm. It will be a band-aid to cover up the issues at hand, but it will not heal them. You may feel a sense of security, but then you will be dependent on it if you use it as a defence mechanism, and will prevent you from fully enjoying your life. I too recommend one-on-one psycho therapy, and then onto group therapy if needed. Sure, religion can be the easy way out, but it’s not the better way.

  • Thegoodman

    I had never considered this fear before reading this. When I reached the point to accept my atheism, it was conversely an enormous relief and has made dealing with my mortality easier than when I was a skeptical episcopalian.

    Being an atheist and accepting that there is nothing beyond this life can be a huge relief when you think about it from a positive perspective. Knowing that there is no eternity makes my time here more valuable. It makes my actions here absolute. It makes my feelings here my own. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, so before I reach that end, I have to live my life the best way possible. I am the only one who determines my actions and my destiny is laid before me by my own hands.

    Mark Twain has a terrific quote on this subject.

    “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

  • I second the Mark Twain quote. It’s upsetting to reflect upon one’s own mortality, but the attitude that’s always helped me deal with it is: When I’m dead, I won’t know it.

    The idea of a cessation of consciousness isn’t a problem when you realize that you won’t be conscious to be worried about it. The idea of dying doesn’t really upset me any more than the idea of going to sleep.

  • exe

    When I think about death, and yes thoughts about any deity don’t work for me either, well, it helps me to think how proud I would be that my atoms are giving back to the universe. I also think of a poem by Pushkin, that goes something like:

    “At the grave’s portals, unrepining
    May young life play, and where I lie
    May heedless Nature go on shining
    With beauty that shall never die.”

  • I like that Twain quote and was going to mention it myself.

    I don’t have any particular advice but only to mention that it is possible to get to a mental state where your own inevitable death doesn’t pre-occupy you. I simply view death as natural, inevitable, and even necessary for the larger ecosystem. We all get a certain number of years (hopefully a lot of them) and then you must exit the stage so others can have their turn. That is kind of the way I look at things.

  • i don’t think anne’s fear is irrational, nor is it simply a matter of dismissing it as panic attacks.

    this is a real problem — we will, one day, cease to exist, and i’m puzzled as to how so many people, even non-believers, either never really think about it, or try to ignore it. certainly, very few people write or talk about it… it’s almost taboo.

    i experienced my first wave of terror at 14. it’s never left me. there are periods in my life where i, too, get hit by the horror at night. other times, i seem to be more successful at stifling that bit of me.

    the problem is this: we are conscious of our eventual demise. those of us who haven’t deluded ourselves with lies face a stark reality.

    i see no solution and the only comfort is the here and now.

  • I wrote this piece on my own blog a while ago on the subject. I thought it could be helpful to Anne, and others:

    I’ve always found Hofstadter’s views interesting, and ultimately very comforting, but I know they aren’t for everybody. Just another way of looking at things.

  • Rabid


    As silly as it is to quote a science fiction book…

    It’s not silly! Millions upon millions of theists find their comfort in a book everyday. As atheists we simply get to cherry pick the GOOD ones!

    Besides… Frank Herbert is a literary God. Here here for Herbertism!

  • Sara

    It’s weird, but I’ve never really felt afraid of death. Perhaps a near death experience might change my mind, but currently I’m pretty unconcerned with it. I figure when I am dead, I won’t know any better. The process of dying is a little scarier, and I hope death comes swiftly, after a well lived life.

    I don’t think normal religious people are really that comforted by their religion with regards to death. I’m sure they often do cling onto life just as much, if not more, than agnostics/atheists. I’m sure some are just as afraid as you feel right now.

  • I used ot have a very similar fear – even to the point of panic attacks. Over time, it mellowed, and I no longer had the severe panic, but I was still worried about death. Oddly, it was the secularization of a religious idea that changed the way that I look at death. This starts off odd, but hear me out:

    A friend was a member of a religious groupo that believed in reincarnation – but not of a single soul reincarnated in different bodies, but rather that our “souls” are broken up into components at death, and each one goes out to join with other soul components to make up a new soul.

    I, obviously, don’t believe in a soul. But, I do believe in physical decomposition at death, and as gross as it sounds, this is comforting. All that I am as a physical being – the matter that makes up my body and the electricity that keeps the parts running – will disperse as I decompose, and go on to form parts of other life: plants, animals, bacteria, etc. Some day, some of it may even make it’s way into other people. So, while I, as a corporate entity, will cease to be, the things that make me will never go (well, at least not until the end of the universe, but that won’t happen until the Daleks create their super-weapon, so we’re cool). What’s more, this process has been going on my entire life: cells die and slough off, and new ones are created. My death will simply be a change in an existing process.

    And, of course, by leaving behind work and people, I, as an entity, will continue to influence people even after I have gone.

    I find this very comforting, and since realizing that my death and decomposition will feed further life, I have not feared death.

  • Ron in Houston

    I think the fear comes from death being remote and unknown. I’ve never had a near death experience myself, but after experiencing other people dying it’s really lost its sting. In addition the people I watched die were suffering to varying degrees so death was actually a release.

    Actually, it’s interesting, how will we know we’re dead? If we’re not conscious when it comes will we even know?

    I do think Buddhism has a lot of good stuff on this issue since it talks about dealing with fearing something that ultimately is just part of life.

  • Phrosty

    Am I alone in this fear?

    Definitely not. This letter was literally a word-for-word manifestation of how I feel about death (right down to the random anxiety attacks), and I’m thrilled someone asked Richard about it. So, thanks Anne, and thanks Richard.

  • Hangnail

    I always imagined death to be like those lost hours when you are sleeping without dreams. You don’t remember those hours, they are just “gone” Not good, not bad, just not there. Then I ask myself how was I feeling in those millions of years before I was born. I guess for me, nothing is no thing to fear.

  • ATL-Apostate

    This is awesome. Thanks Richard! And thanks especially to Anne for being brave enough to talk about it.

    I haven’t had the anxiety that Anne describes, but I do have something else.

    Many Christians think that after they die, “all will be revealed.” When I was a believer, I took that to mean I would learn all the secrets of the universe, and could watch history unfold for the next several billions of years.

    By my estimation, I’ve got about 50 years left on this planet if I am lucky – ant THAT, pisses me off.

    When I think that I’ll never get to see millions of years into the future, it makes me angry. I want to see the sun become a red giant and engulf the earth. That would be cool (so long as I was a safe distance away!). Not having a promise (or even a hope) of everlasting life is the biggest thing I miss about being a Christian.

  • Viggo the Carpathian

    I am glad this piece got posted and I thank Richard for his response.

    As for myself, I have found that contemplating my own non-existence to be nearly impossible. The conscious mind has trouble wrapping itself around the idea of its own non-being. This is essentially the source of the anxiety for me, the nothingness that looks back when I stare into the abyss.

    However, I have found that the anxiety caused by not being able to comprehend to be far less that the bone chilling fear that religion exposed me to. I have been happier, more in the moment and more compassionate since I threw off the fear of hell and, in the case of my religious upbringing, the fear of loss of reward and being stuck on the lowest tier of heaven’s social ladder forever in humiliation. Nothingness is far better that that.

    I know it doesn’t help the anxiety attacks to tell you that but Anne, you are so not alone.

  • Kurt

    I had a few of these moments in my early 30s, waking up in the middle of the night sweating, thinking “what the heck am I supposed to be doing with my remaining time here?” These abated after I realized I don’t have to live up to some of the greater expectations I had for myself. It is enough to be a caring person, stay engaged with my family and friends, and leave humanity slightly better than I found it.

    I also take comfort in Roger Ebert’s quote: “I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state.” I want to stay alive pretty much as long as possible, but won’t be worrying about it when I’m not. Anne, I hope this helps.

  • Olive Oil

    As someone who has suffered from anxiety issues, what you’re describing sounds a whole lot like a deeper anxiety issue than a simple fear of one’s own mortality. A lot of comments are suggesting fantastic ways in which to view this from a healthy perspective, or ways to combat this fear. However, if you’re still suffering gripping panic attacks, I really think you should talk to a secular someone about it – the sooner you face an anxiety disorder head-on, the happier you’ll be. It’s amazing how much better life is when you can free yourself of unnecessarily debilitating worries.

    Other than that, as many have stated, I find that viewing life without an afterlife provides some comfort. I’m much less worried about my own mortality without fearing that I might spend eternity in hell. And it makes every second on this amazing earth more precious to know that this is all we get. I do my best to live life fully because I know there is no second chance. (Also, my anxiety issues frequently centered around God and obsessive prayer, so, if anxiety is a problem, simply believing in a god does not make panic attacks go away…. just changes the focus, really.) But, yeah – I was much more scared of death as a religious person. I’m not sure why.

  • So I had to weigh in on this one, since I was brought up as an atheist, and as I’ve probably commented on this blog in the past, I had to face this fear when I was about five years old. And it sucked. My parents didn’t sugar coat the answers.

    One of my friends who became an atheist told me that his Episcopalian priest said atheists have the most potential for spiritual enlightment, since they really do have to come to terms with death. So hey, there’s that to look forward to!

    I practiced Buddhism for a while. Since there’s no deity involved, it was a religion I could handle, and the meditation really worked for me. There are a bunch of different kinds of meditation (and Buddhism for that matter) but I think quieting the mind a bit every day is good for this fear and helps you focus on the moment and your purpose in life, and what’s good. Meditation without any religion probably helps the same way.

    Thing is, I’d gotten used to my own inevitable death and the impending deaths of everyone I know. Deaths didn’t surprise me like they did other people, because I had really come to terms with the idea.

    And then I became a parent, and the horrible thought of something happening to my kid now is a much worse thought than my own death. It’s the only possible death that I feel I could not survive. I actually cannot think about it, because it’s so awfully disturbing. Yet I know in a deep sense, from my Buddhist days, that as soon as he was born, my son began to die. Just the facts.

    And instead of worrying what death is going to be like for me, I just try to make sure there will be some amount of money around when I’m gone and that everyone will be able to find my important papers so they can get said money.

  • JJ

    Anxious Anne,

    Our experiences sound near identical: I, too, can name a few instances–beginning in high school–where I experienced terror due to the thought of my own death. It first hit me while I was watching a movie which contained a death-by-hanging scene and upon taking a moment to contemplate my own death and the death of my loved ones, the sensations overcame me in varying degrees for less than two weeks. Since high school, I’ve had probably two other episodes accompanied by a panic attack (both of which lasted less than 20 minutes) but have otherwise maintained a fully functional life. For this reason, I’m not jumping to conclusions about you experiencing panic attacks simply because my first episode was without and my last two were accompanied by panic attacks. Even when I was experiencing this terror during my first episode, even, I continued to go to school, to laugh, to hang out with friends. Nonetheless, I too have often wondered about how other non-religious people cope with their mortality.

    My thoughts on coping are two-fold.

    First, given that you seem to already possess the gift of reason, adopting a religion later on in life is only going to replace one anxiety with another. You may believe that the possibility of an afterlife can serve as a buffer and aid in terror management, but you will then become obsessed with living your life well enough so that you get into the paradise of your choosing. In this example, your fear of death (The End, nothingness, etc.) is merely replaced with the fear of a really bad, eternal afterlife based on your life’s works and obedience to an unseen entity who never communicates with you. If I had to choose between the two, The End is a much more comforting thought.

    Second, I don’t know how old you are but can say that in my experience, the terror which comes around every once in a while has changed my perspective on life tremendously and for the better. It makes us more accountable, more loving, more appreciative and more grateful simply because we know that a higher power is not going to swoop in and make things right for us. It is up to us. We create our own lives and have the power to shape ourselves however we choose. I think as you continue to experience this terror, you are (quite frankly) eventually just going to become sick of it and become desensitized to it. I like to compare this transition to a very phoenix-like series of stages. At first, you will feel terrible but once you’ve gone through the process you will come out with a beautiful new perspective on life.

    I’m not sure whether or not to comment on the therapy option, as I think fear of death is a very normal thing and there is no “normal” way of dealing with it. I’m not even sure if I would say that I have an anxiety disorder or if I just process my death-relevant thoughts in a more honest fashion than the average American. However, I definitely think that this terror and panic attacks/anxiety disorders can be mutually exclusive based on my experience. Still, if you were going to seek out a therapist, find someone who practices humanistic therapy or existentialist therapy.

    I don’t want to take up too much space on this thread, but if you’d like to talk more about your experience you can feel free to e-mail me at It may take me a few days to see your email, as this is just a random email I made for all my blog board usernames, but I will respond as this is a topic I think about quite a lot and have a lot of opinions on.

    Best of luck to you!

  • L. Vellenga

    i’m reminded of woody allen’s comment: “i’m not afraid of death; i just don’t want to be there when it happens.” i’m a christian and am being treated for an anxiety disorder that i’ve had since i was a kid. it has taken on many shapes and sizes over the years, and a what-seems-to-me-to-be-rational belief in an afterlife doesn’t help much. in my case, the problem is more biochemical than existential. a good therapist is a good recommendation. so is a good shrink.

  • JJ

    Oh, and I just wanted to add that it’s been 9 years since my first terror experience–so we’re talking maybe 40 minutes spent in terror management mode in the 9 years since it first happened.

    It is worst in the beginning but does get better.

  • stephanie

    To start with, I have one of those lives. I’ve had a lot of close scrapes. I’ve been a passenger in many car wrecks, I’ve high sided my own motorcycle. My father was a policeman and, despite his best attempts, sometimes his work tagged along home with him in the form of news reports or phone calls. So maybe because of stuff like that I find it pretty easy to contemplate my own mortality.

    I don’t like the idea of death because I’m selfish. I have a great life and I hate the idea of lose all the nifty stuff like friendships and a good husband. I don’t like the idea of it because I’m unselfish and I hate the fact that I will hurt the people who survive me. I hate the idea of death because I’m a coward and death requires dying which sounds painful or frightening at best. But death itself makes life that much more precious and sweet. Like fruit that’s only available for a brief time and then is gone, we should savor our time, perhaps preserve a bit of it by leaving a legacy, but we can’t hold the actual freshness beyond that brief span. So instead we celebrate when it is in season. My advice is to do the same. Embrace life. Make a difference somewhere in the lives of others. That is the true form of immortality if you ask me, and knowing I’ve made even the smallest positive impact by being alive helps me pull the covers over my shoulders at night and sleep comfortably. Instead of thinking it could all end tomorrow I know I can do my part to make an even better world if it doesn’t.

  • my life now is all gravy, it’s all extra

    Love this, Richard. Dawkins talks about how extraordinarily fortunate any of us is to be born at all, given all the possible combinations of DNA. Really, from the moment we’re born, life is all gravy. If we can keep that in mind as adults, I think it helps soothe the fear of death and encourages gratitude for the life we’ve been able to live.

  • i’m going to “jump in unread” and comment before reading the other comments, cause i want to say this with intellectual and personal purity.

    i have had, and continue to have, exactly the ‘opposite’ experience. which is to say: in moments of clarity, which aren’t frequent, i really, truly, and happily embrace the notion of “death is release from Pain, Worry and Suffering.” sure, it’s the end of “me” and my brain activity, but it’s also the end of me, and all my worries and fears and pains that make life hard sometimes. it’s also the end of joy and orgasm and all the other good things in life, but as far as trade offs go: i’d rather be mortal, yo. seriously, i can’t imagine living forever. even in “heaven.” how fucking bored would i be, after the first 100 years or whatever, of praising (fill in superstition of your choice). i’ve also always found the concept of “rebirth” a cruel torture. like i would i want to suffer another life as a pain-stricken, enfeebled and again mortal (anything/any being) 1,000,00000 times until the universe is destroyed and rebuilt, only to go thru it all again, another gazillion times? um, no. thanks. the prospect of 73 virgins serving me forever is equally repellant. etc. there is no religion i’ve ever encountered that can imagine an immortal afterlife that i would want, and i did my doctorate in comparative religions, so trust me when i say: i’ve looked.

    fear is healthy, and natural, and frankly, it sounds like the letter writer suffers from Panic Attacks, which are a medical and not “spiritual” condition. learn deep breathing technique. drink less coffee/caffeine. exercise more. eat better, less processed food. think about the positive things in your life more often, and what you’ve done/have/love/loves you. etc. but no atheist should suffer worry about the true end. because you won’t be able to worry! your brain won’t function! there will be no fear, no pain, no worry. just like a plant doesn’t fear or mourn the end of the season, human beings can realize, and embrace, that they have only so much time on this earth. the best we can hope for is some sort of sci-fi thingee where the molecules or whatever that made us up as dinosaurs a million years ago may be reassembled into a new being, who has some super-slim chance of “molecular memory” of that previous existence. and if that were actually the case, i suppose at least some of us would remember back when we were a T Rex, or something.

    carl sagan is more eloquent than i am: we are all made of Stars. and scientifically, it’s true. but to quote another great writer: i never saw a wild thing feel sorry for itself. they don’t stress and worry about the reality of death, neither should you. i don’t, and i welcome you to my “church of not giving a shit about death” if i can be snarky.

    now to see what you all have to say, i can’t wait. i love this blog.

  • Murdoc

    Personally I use different forms of philosophy about death. I usually have a cavalier “fuck it” attitude about death. For example, a favorite quote of mine is “Judge if you wish, we’re all going to die someday. I for one intend to deserve it.” I’m just naturally unafraid of death, not that I would relish it, but I’ve had many near-death experiences and I always brush them off within a few seconds, even when others are still gaping or warning me of the dangers of doing what I did. For example, I once fell off a rock wall (unharnessed) and barely grabbed another rock on the way down. I went back up as if nothing had happened. I know it sounds boastful, but the trick is to net as much fun and enjoyment out of life as you can, live every day as if you were dying. (which you actually are) Anyway, this little speech went on far longer than intended, so to finish up, I’d suggest following the Hedonist’s motto of “Wine, women and song”.
    Have fun.

    Sincerely, Murdoc

  • beckster

    The comment cnocerning fear of your children’s death being of bigger issue than your own death struck me. When I start to feel anxiety about death, I try to think about the things that I would happily die for. My children top the list, but there are other people, causes, etc that I would be willing to die for. This helps me put it into perspective and realize that although I think I am very important I really am not the most important thing, not even to myself. (if that makes sense at all)

  • Faith or belief in an after-life is the single-most cause of suffering and stupidity inflicted upon the human race, by the human race, and for several reasons:

    * It negates the immediacy and value of human life right here and right now.

    * It corrupts the collective unconscious of the species in such a way as to affect behavior. Believing in life-after-death and making the assumption people don’t really die, subconsciously legitimizes capital punishment and the death penalty, abortion, territorial wars, religious wars, turf wars, gang wars, terrorist attacks, ethnic cleansing, murder, suicide cults, political assassination, et al, since people aren’t really dying after all—they’re just continuing on in another stage of existence.

    * It allows people to postpone action in this life (whether humane or humanitarian) in favor of the life yet to come, allowing for political and religious boundaries, derision and division, separatism and succession. Hence there remains global hunger, border skirmishes, illiteracy, disease, poverty and pestilence, all because the problems of this world are deemed ultimately not as important when measured against the life yet to come. With the idea of an after-life always simmering in the back of people’s mind, they don’t try as hard to really instigate change in this world, strive for peace, alleviate suffering, fight for global changes. After all, eternal life starts at death so why should folks get all worked up over sixty or seventy years?

    * It offers people hope for a solution to their problems at some future time and enables them to not make a conscious effort to begin making the necessary changes or do the necessary work to make things better right here and now. It allows them to postpone taking responsibility for their own lives or education (since god will enlighten them and fix everything once they get to heaven) and permits them to sit on their hands in ignorance and inertia while life passes them by. Why make a serious search for truth if truth will be revealed on the other side?

    * It legitimizes the use of persecution and torture in the name of saving souls for the after-life.

    * It allows religious leaders to control their people by offering hope in the next life, promising rewards, threatening punishment, even sentencing eternal damnation (through papal bulls, excommunication) all by invoking interpreted church doctrine.

    * It assumes a mind-body (or soul-body) dichotomy, a disembodied spirit that is mystically and temporarily ‘housed’ in human flesh while blissfully ignoring the inescapable synthesis of each person’s material surroundings, environment, cultural prejudices, parental influences and biases, birth order, sex, physical appearance, shape, size, color, health, biochemistry, electrochemical reactions, stored memory, bones, flesh, blood, eyes, ears, mouth, and steady oxygen supply to shape personality. Everything we think we are we owe solely to the state of our flesh and empirical surroundings, a process impossible to remove from the intrinsic network of matter. With all the above in absence, what would remain exactly to “stand” in judgment before the throne of god, and what mechanisms (or lack thereof) would drive interaction with the divine inquisitor?

    * It rewards laziness, complacency, ignorance, superstition, irrationality, religious fervor, and blind faith with promises of an other-worldly victory and assurances of everlasting retribution. No need to accomplish anything of importance here and now—end world hunger, wage global peace, unify polarized religious belief system, teach critical thinking and practical reasoning—since our ‘true’ lives will start up after we die!

    To me it feels (and I may be wrong), that people who profess to being afraid of death are actually afraid of embracing life, here and now, and living it to the fullest. If dead is dead, then where’s the beef? If dead is dead, then they’re not going to be around to know they’ve died, or once lived, or were ever born. To understand and accept this is ultimately liberating in all six meanings of the word.

  • The Kübler-Ross model deals with grief but is very useful when talking about how to deal with a life threatening illness. That is after all something that we all have. Given 70, 80 or 100 years we’ll all be killed by the terrible ravaged of that disease called age. Assuming something else doesn’t get us first.

    Stage 1 is Denial – “I feel fine.”; “This can’t be happening, not to me.” For the religious I would (uncharitably) say that many of them are stuck at this stage. “I won’t really die”, “Jesus will save me” all just denying the trust of their own mortality.

    Stage 2 is Anger – “Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?” There is nothing to direct this anger at though so often it is misplaced. I’m generalising but perhaps some atheists have a reputation for being angry just because they get stuck at this point. Maybe not. I certainly haven’t.

    State 3 is Bargaining – “Just let me live to see my children graduate.”; “I’ll do anything for a few more years.”; “I will give my life savings if…”. Again there is no-one to bargain with but perhaps some forms of religion invent gods just so that they have someone to bargain with.

    Stage 4 is Depression – “I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”; “I’m going to die… What’s the point?” . Respectfully I’d suggest that this is the stage that “Anne” is at. Trapped with the certain knowledge that death will take her but unable to move beyond it. It unfortunately keeps people apart from others as they can’t see a point in connecting with people as it is pointless. Of course it is an important time as it involves coming to terms with reality. Yes that means facing the truth but once that has happened you can move on to…

    Stage 5 Acceptance – “It’s going to be okay.”; “I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.” In this last stage, the individual begins to come to terms with their mortality or that of their loved one.

    The quotes are from Wikipedia

    Based on this model (and the assurity that it is only a model and things are a bit more complicated than a model allows) and as difficult as it would seem I would say that professional counselling to help “Anne” face up to the inevitability of eventual death is the best course.

  • These abated after I realized I don’t have to live up to some of the greater expectations I had for myself.

    yes! that’s really this issue, isn’t it?

    Anne, if you’d been raised by wolves, you wouldn’t have any notion of “what death means” or “what happens after death.” your fear, i’m guessing, comes (unfairly) from living in a world where many, many hucksters and sham artists have manipulated majorities to give them (and you) this fear. “what happens afterwards” is about on the same order of ‘what is life like on a planet ten million light years across the galaxy?” which is to say: you can’t know, and it’s frankly just silly to worry about, as a human, mortal being. it’s like how people tell you to fear “al qaeda’s #3 leader” even though the vast, vast majority of americans have exactly no experience with anything that group does, nor ever will. don’t let others give you fears and worries you don’t need!

    it’s hard, and i know this personally as well as from reading smarter people who talk about it, to truly “let go” and just enjoy life every moment, of every day. but that’s the challenge! the excitement of life, as it were. one can’t be “happy” all the time, but then again, would you even want to, if you could? think about that for a minute. without sadness and fear and pain, how would we truly know joy, health, and the strength?

    my favorite saying from a (heh) sci fi tome is this: “wait for the Wheel.” the wheel is mortal life. and it turns, incessantly, inexorably, always. sometimes, it crushes you; sometimes it uplifts you. rejoice in the simple yet profound fact of your life which in and of itself is a “miracle.” and again, you are not alone. sometimes, i think that’s really what drives questions like these (and i’ve struggled with them myself). no one is truly “alone” if only we can all just realize that in moments of fear and doubt. if anything, you should rejoice to live in this age; as a woman, an atheist/agnostic, etc. it’s never, in the whole of human history, been more easy to find the company of people asking questions like you do, whatever they may be. that alone is worth celebrating, and treasuring for the time you have. “peace” is another thing that comes with death, if i may argue for such a superstitious concept. the peace of the long dirt nap will be welcome to me, after experiencing all the conflict that is my life.

    and just to be a pedant: please, let’s not be ignorant westerners. there’s plenty about Buddhism that is objectionable to rational atheist thinkers. it may not construct “divinity” the same way as the monotheisms do, but good gravy, it’s just as filled with ridiculous magic, superstition, sectarian hatred and wars, sexism, etc. don’t make me go get my texts on the subject and quote those passages which are as ridiculous for rational people as any that can be found in the Torah, Bible, Koran, etc. no organized religion, including those favored by atheist-friendly social liberals and modernists, is free of absurdity. not one. including the “good” religions like wicca/made up by modern women/feminists, “Satanism,” “Gaia” worship, or pseudo-Eastern “philosophies of the spirit.”

  • I wish I had a fear of death. I feel like I’m missing something. Even after years of ridiculously elaborate meditations on my own mortality, the concept brings up no emotions in me.

    Maybe it’s because I feel the time I do have on earth is a gift. Like Richard (well, not exactly like Richard, because the type of circumstance was different), I have reason to be grateful I’m still alive. I still value my existence; I probably just feel like it’s icing, and while icing is great, I won’t cry about having a little rather than a lot of it.

    My grandfather had the same attitude. I don’t know if that’s relevant.

  • faustfire

    I have 3 letters for you. LSD.

    (Or maybe DMT?)


  • Angela

    Like Julie, I first dealt with this when I was about five. I would lie awake night after night, sobbing about the idea of ever not existing, and I would usually eventually go wake up my parents and cry at them, too. Since my parents are agnostic, the only thing they could say was, “You’re not going to die for a very long time,” which was no comfort at all.

    I’m still really afraid of death, and I really admire those atheists who aren’t. But I think the fact that I dwelled on it so much when I was little makes it easier. At the time, I didn’t have any strategies for coping with that kind of stress — I couldn’t distract myself, so I had to deal with it fully. And I think I just got bored — there’s only so long you can contemplate dying.

    If you let yourself sink into that complete terror and the abyss of nothingness that is death, it brings up less and less panic each time. You realize… there’s not much to contemplate. I still really don’t want to die, and honestly, my strategy is to avoid thinking about it. But when the thought comes up accidentally, I don’t panic — I just let it float by, like so many other irrelevant thoughts that appear, and move on. I know the complete futility of even going there, so I just don’t.

  • The Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear has calmed my nerves in many a frightening situation. It brings me back to center; the wave passes, and “only I remain.” We all must find coping mechanisms; ways to deal with the unknowable, the painful, the unacceptable. Frank Herbert’s words bring calm and rationality to me when things threaten to spin out of control:

    “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” ~ Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear

  • Secular Humanist Rabbi Jeff

    Hi Anne,

    One of the things that helps me is to think about what it was like for me before I was born….

    I didn’t exist so there was nothing to be afraid of. As I get older, it is the the process of dying that is more frightening, but that’s what friends and family will help me through when the time comes if I’m luck enough to live a long life.

    When I think of actually being dead, it gives me some comfort to know that I will be in exactly the same position I was in before I was born.

    Best of luck!

  • Richard Wade

    PZ Myers is going into the hospital for heart surgery.

    “Why should I fear death? If I am, death is not. If death is. I am not. Why should I fear that which cannot exist when I do?”
    – Epicurus

  • Anup Asokan

    I think he better check if he shows symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder.. Its possible OCD patients suffer from fear of death (own and dear ones), cleanliness etc.

  • I’m another thanatophobic, and most of the comforting ideas that some atheists have about death are not comforting to me. Especially as I don’t seem to be able to live life very well, so I constantly feel this pressure of time wasted and little time left before none of it matters anymore.

  • sailor

    Anne, I think part of the problem is that death is rather incomprehensible emotionally when one is alive. Like the universe it is way to big for one small brain.
    I found suffering from concussion with complete unconsciousness gave me a foretaste that it is not all bad.
    If it is any comfort it used to worry me when I was young, now I am fairly ancient the idea of death is even a little comforting, even though I am still healthy and having a great time.
    With luck you will live a long time, so one way to deal with it may be to put off worrying till you are much older, by which times things will look different.

  • Aj

    One thing that struck me about Anxious Anne’s email was that she mentioned thinking about the “nothingness”, I don’t know what that means. My not being is not a “something” that I can conceptualize on its own, I can only conceptualize it in regards to my non-agency in the universe. If my consciousness ceases it will be none of my concern (I will have no concerns, and nothing to have concerns with), I will not be there to experience not being, therefore it’s not something that will happen to “me”. Worrying about the “nothingness” seems incoherent to me, it’s thinking about not having an afterlife from the perspective of the afterlife. I wish Anxious Anne had elaborated on what “it would mean” and why that troubles her.

    Thank you for the quote Richard Wade, I had not seen it before. Epicurus sums up my thoughts once again, I love the Mark Twain quote as well Jenn, it’s one of my favourites. This seems so strange to me, I’ve been aware and even embraced my own mortality for as long as I can remember.

  • Chelsea

    Anne, I’m not sure if you would’ve read this before, but Greta Christina has a nice blog post called “Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to do With God”:
    Hope it helps.

  • GSW

    And if none of this works – look for a Flat-Liners club, either locally or online.

    Talking to people who have been dead and come back will make you realise that there is actually nothing to be afraid of, except maybe living past your time.

    Personally, I believe the day will come when I ask someone to just pull the plug.

  • ibn isa

    10 out of 10 of people die… so, even those who aren’t afraid of death, those who have no qualms one way or another, will die.

    you could follow Mr. Wade’s advice. you could TRY to add meaning to your life, but how will you know you’ve added enough? will you ever be satisfied that you’ve done enough to validate your own existence? if that is possible, then on what metric or standard would you base the comparison (money, fame, credentials, achievements)?

    if i could offer you a promise to show you a place where fear dies instead of you, would you want to hear it?

  • JB Tait

    Don’t be afraid of dying: From those who have come close, the report is that it feels pretty good.

    Don’t be afraid of being dead: Assuming there is nothing beyond the death of your body, then there is nothing you can do about it, and nothing to worry about.
    Assuming there is a persistence of consciousness after the body ends, you can deal with that when you get there. I’m sure there will be procedures in place, might be a queue to join, and the like, but I really hope and expect there will be no paperwork. You won’t have to worry you didn’t bring the right things, since no one is allowed to take anything with them.

    The right thing to be afraid of is dying before you are finished here. Plan your life to complete your most important goals first. Keep your sense of wonder, never stop learning, make sure you will be remembered fondly, and don’t forget to have fun.

  • I’ve never had a “thinking about death panic attack” but whenever I’m feeling a bit down, this song always puts a smile on my face.

  • Nurse Ingrid

    Wow. I am in awe of some of the amazing responses here. I can totally relate to Anne’s fears, and, like some of the other commenters here, I have been experiencing my own version of the “death panic” moments since I first realized, at the age of five, that I myself was going to die. I did get some therapy, and I have learned some self-soothing techniques over the years, and mostly I too can let them “float by” (as Angela said above) when they occur nowadays. They are much more rare now, and much less severe.

    I loved chicagodyke’s way of looking at this in particular: who can imagine an afterlife that you would actually want to experience? And the point about getting off the stage and letting others have their turn is good too. I do think, as others have pointed out, that this fear is really and truly the root cause of the persistence of religion. And I love the Dawkins passage about how it is you and I, in our ordinariness, who are lucky enough to have been born.

    The only time it really bothers me anymore is on airplanes. I take happy pills for that though!

    Thanks to everyone who commented above for your brilliant and moving insights. I’m sure Anne has some new ways to think about this now. (And Anne, I agree with those who suggested that you seek medical and/or mental health advice. It’s quite possible that you do have some form of anxiety or panic disorder that could be treatable.)

  • Zoe

    Have known several people with these kinds of panic attacks about fear of death. Some religious, some not. It’s not necessarily connected to you being an atheist, it’s a psychological thing. If it bothers you, seek help.

  • SickoftheUS

    Accepting the finality of death is an essential part of the package of atheism. You take the bad with the good.

    And over the years (I’m 45) I’ve started to see how death will eventually be a good thing. Perhaps that’s me mentally coping to some extent with the necessity of death.

    Eternal life is a childish fantasy which most people never get over.

  • ibn isa, is that the old bait and switch?

  • Rommel

    I think I will never find comfort.

    Einmal ist keinmal.

    Life is not more precious for being absolute.. it is useless, worthless… and still we have to BE in it.

    Thinking otherwise is as futile as thinking there’s a God and/or an afterlife.

  • Sasha

    I am finlly getting over the same felings. What helped me accept death is realizing how horrible eternal life or conciousness would be. A million years, a billion years, a trillion years,a hundred trillion years,eternity – no thanks. Eternal life would be hell. A long healthy happy life would be heaven. And I happen to be lucky enough to be born in a time and place where it is more than possble.

  • colin

    I have teh same fear… I fined it very hard to falla sleep i stay up days till im just to exasted and just pass out. i try and keep buisy all the time.
    I hate this fear and i realy don understand how people get around it, iv been pleged buy panicatacks daliy sence i was 8 im now turing 18… evry dads a struggle and it only gets worst… i realy do understand when i say i wish there was a god to! more then any thing! i wish i was one of teh lucky pepol that can lie to them selvs and belive that death is only the begining… but im not and im sitting here tired as hell… have had 2 panic atacks in the last hour :'(

  • Richard Wade

    colin, you don’t have to suffer like this. Find a licensed, regular, secular, non-religious counselor. He or she can help you to express your feelings, and to sort out how much of it is your ideas that you can change, and how much can perhaps be helped with medication. Don’t be afraid to give that a chance. What you’re describing is well understood and can be well managed. It’s also dangerous for you to be so tired so often because you could get into an accident. Tell your regular doctor right away, and get a referral.

  • g

    courage isn’t being without fear, its completing the task inspite of your fear, was a quote made by a WWII general during the war i mean wheres the credit for the quote looks like he is taking credit as if he made it up himself.

  • Richard Wade

    My statement about courage is original to me, I did make it up myself. So I wasn’t plagiarizing the good general’s words. I never heard it uttered before, although I’m certainly not surprised that such a thought has been thought and said, probably many times before. I’d expect that people have been making the same basic observation for thousands of years.

    I’d appreciate it if you could supply the general’s name.

  • Jenin Younes

    Anxious Anne,
    I have exactly the same experiences you have described.  In fact, I came across your letter googling ways for an atheist to overcome extreme fear of death.  I, too, have been able to live a functional life. When I was a kid, about ten or so, I first started to comprehend the idea that I would cease to exist forever.  It gave me no comfort that that time was probably very far away, whether that day came tomorrow or eighty years from now seemed irrelevant.  At some point I decided I simply had to stop thinking about it, and I did, for about eighteen years.  I am now twenty-eight, and yesterday began for the first time in all those years to have the same feelings of terror and panic attacks.  I have no idea why this is happening now, except that yesterday I just found out my parents are getting divorced after thirty years of marriage, so perhaps that is forcing me to reflect.  Everyone around me, including my boyfriend, tells me I’m crazy and irrational and just to be happy and enjoy my life.  And usually I do, but this fear has suddenly been crippling me.
    If you have found anything that helps, do let me know!


  • DDM

    If I plan ahead for a trip an atheist would call me
    wise, however if not and I run out of gas he might call me foolish, if on the
    other hand I plan ahead for death (by believing in the life giver) then that
    same atheist calls me foolish, who is the real fool I wonder?

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