An Atheist Encounters Death October 12, 2010

An Atheist Encounters Death

A couple weeks ago, The Globe and Mail published a heartbreaking piece by Cerise Morris about her friend’s death and how it made her think twice about her atheism:

I have lived comfortably with the belief that this life is all there is, but the experience of watching my friend die put this comfort to the test.

Sandra’s dying made me confront the boundaries of my atheism as nothing had up to this point. I realized how profoundly comforting it must be to believe that this life is not extinguished forever, that this personality –- or soul if you will -– continues to exist on another plane. And how beautiful to imagine that people who matter greatly to you will be re-encountered in recognizable form.

It’s really the most difficult thing about being an atheist: realizing that there’s no afterlife. When your loved ones die, that’s it. But their memory lives on, as does their teaching — they’re never truly gone unless you completely forget about them. There’s something honest and poetic about that.

Religion ignores that entirely and offers a unsupported myth in its place. As Cerise points out, that’s a comfort that’s hard to drop… but if you want to be honest, you have to let it go.

If you can accept that truth, I think it allows you to live a much better life. You know that your actions and legacy matter and will hopefully be remembered. The truth encourages you to make the most of the one life you have and to connect with the people you love — you’re not going to see them in the afterlife, so cherish that time now.

(Thanks to Orson for the link)


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  • Kyle N.

    As someone who has just lost two important members of my family on both sides, I really feel for Morris. However, I did not once entertain the notion that my late family members are up in some sky heaven afterlife. My great-grandmother lived to be 98 and had seen her daughter and her husband pass away many years ago. Then my favorite uncle died last week. He was a hedonist of the highest order who had smoked every day of his life since he was 12 years old and ate fried food whenever he could. He lost both his sisters well before their time, my mother being one of them 12 years ago. They both lived very full lives and made the most of what they had. It does not comfort me to believe they still exist but in another form in another place. That’s what one of my brothers believes and he took both of these deaths quite hard. As an atheist I accept death as being just another part of the process of life, nothing more or less. Certainly I’ve had to come to terms with it quite early in my life and I’ve had to deal with painful issues around death. But it wasn’t until I gave up the idea of God and the afterlife that I’ve been able to cope with death as gracefully as I have. You never stop loving them and you never forget them, but you can let go.

  • Robert

    I believe it is a misconception that because Christians believe in an afterlife that we don’t cherish our life here on Earth or that we don’t live it to the fullest. Our christian faith calls us to live beyond ourselves and to live for a greater purpose as part of God’s plan. If as a Christian you do that you have a full life here on earth and you have the added comfort that you will see your loved ones again.

    As much as a memory of someone you love can comfort you in the time of sorrow, in my opinion it is a greater comfort to be able to say that they are in Heaven with their savior and that we will be with them again.

  • I guess I must be one of the lucky ones, since I never believed in an afterlife. That “comfort” was never taken away from me because I never had it in the first place. I don’t have any other way of thinking about death. While I guess I can understand the appeal of thinking that your loved ones aren’t permanently dead and gone, I just don’t understand how people can bring themselves to believe it. I mean, really, honestly, truly believe it. I suppose it’s something you have to be raised with because it’s beyond my comprehension.

  • flawedprefect

    It wasn’t until I thought seriously about the existence of an afterlife (I don’t believe there is one) or the immortality of the human soul (it’s as mortal as the rest of me, if it exists at all) that I began to cherish not only my own life, but the time I spent with the people which really matter. Death is a tragic loss. It is also part of life. It is something each of us will face with 100% certainty.

    I don’t see the point in nurturing claims based on what you would “like” to be true. Accept it: move on. I DO see the point in telling those you love that you love them each and every day, and make the very most of the time you have.

  • JohnJay

    This is what keeps guiding me in doing the most I can with my life, and enjoying it as best I can. Because I believe that this life is all we are sure of. Still, I’m not saying it is easy at times. Makes me think of the MUSE song … “Thoughts of a dying atheist”

  • Aaron

    In short: if death was easy to cope with, religion wouldn’t be nearly as popular as it is.

  • Rieux

    Here‘s Greta Christina with some related thoughts.

    And of course Christopher Hitchens is all over this topic these days.

  • Grimalkin

    This is one of the (many) things that the movie The Invention of Lying got really well. The main character invents religion just to comfort his dying mother.

    I have to agree with Flawedperfect, though. Knowing that I won’t get a second chance to see my parents once they are gone keeps me on my toes. I make sure to see them every opportunity I get, and to tell them that I love them every time I speak to them. I know that I have to let know how much they mean to me now because I’ll never have a “do-over” in the afterlife.

    It keeps my on my toes for my own life as well. I can’t afford to be lazy about accomplishing my life goals because I could be hit by that metaphorical bus Christians love so much at any moment. As a result, I try to accomplish something every day.

    Atheists don’t get second tries. We know that we can’t waste the one life we have dilly-dallying about fantasizing about how much nicer the next one will be.

  • tim

    Her reaction is no different from anyone else in that situation – religious or not. So she was acting human in a period of distress. Perfectly normal.

  • As much as a memory of someone you love can comfort you in the time of sorrow, in my opinion it is a greater comfort to be able to say that they are in Heaven with their savior and that we will be with them again.

    What if your loved ones aren’t Christian? That would cause a lot of fear/stress/pain for the surviving believer. I can imagine a devout Christian mother is not going to find “greater comfort” if her atheist son has terminal cancer.

  • Karen

    My mom died three years ago. She was my best friend, and it hurt like hell. But unlike Cerise, I didn’t find myself wishing for the comfort of a heaven or an afterlife. I just wanted my mom back. I still would like her to be right here, right now. Every day I wish she could be here playing with her grandsons, eating dinner with me, talking about the news, laughing about stupid things that people do. I want her on this plane, not some other one. So I miss her every day, but I also live each day happily, enjoying my friends and family who are alive here with me. I really don’t think it’s the hardest thing about being an atheist. In fact, I think it may even be easier for us, because, as other people have pointed out, we tend to take advantage of each day and so we may have fewer regrets and “should haves.” I think people who believe in heaven are just as devastated when a loved one dies, because it really is the day-to-day stuff you miss. A big hug in the sky won’t make up for that.

  • Methodissed

    As difficult as it is to deal with the death of loved ones, I find comfort in knowing that my existence is finite. Granted, the process of dying is often something to fear, but I’m comforted by the thought of being dead.

    Just think – if you believe in hell, then its conceivable that you’ll be tortured for all eternity. Believers all think they’re immune, but religious faiths are notoriously mutually incompatible, i.e., “we’re right, you’re all screwed.”

    Even if there was a heaven, the idea of having to worship a self-absorbed asshole for all eternity sounds really unappealing to me.

    Some day I will never have to worry about pain or suffering, because I won’t exist. That idea gives me peace.

  • ThilinaB

    Nothing can place doubt on ones own reasoning and logic like emotions.

    The only thing most of us want once a loved one passes is to see them again. And if an afterlife is the only chance we have at that (mad science experiments and zombies aside) people will want to believe in it, even if its an empty belief, many people find it better than the alternative.

  • jolly

    I’ve never had a human close to me but my dog died a few years ago. I had the same feelings and I know he is still around just like a Christian knows, he is in my memories. Even writing this I am tearing up, remembering how much better I made his life and how he took me from a depressive type person to one full of life. Yes, I wish he were still here but since I don’t believe in an afterlife, I made sure he had the best life any dog ever had and that makes me so much happier than believing in a children’s story about heaven. I know this life is real.

  • ff42

    Not that I believe in an afterlife, but must an atheist, BY DEFINITION, refuse to believe in an afterlife?

    In other words is the notion of God required to believe in an immortal soul?

  • neathCobaltSkies

    In his book I AM A STRANGE LOOP, Douglas Hoftstadter has a very uplifting way of dealing with the death of a loved one. It is completely humanistic, life affirming and does not accede to the supernatural.

  • gwen

    My mother died 5 years ago and I still miss her.The idea of a mythical place where she can grovel at the feet of an all powerful being gives me absolutely no comfort. Living my life to honor her is a much better legacy for her.

  • @ff42,

    “Not that I believe in an afterlife, but must an atheist, BY DEFINITION, refuse to believe in an afterlife? In other words is the notion of God required to believe in an immortal soul?”

    To answer your questions, “No” and “no”.
    That being said, it would be rather unusual to have come to atheism by a way devoid of logic or evidence. I’d have to think that the overwhelming majority of those who identify as atheists by default also dismiss the existence of anything in the supernatural or metaphysical realm.

  • Methodissed

    >…must an atheist, BY DEFINITION, refuse to believe in an afterlife?

    Not in my opinion. Atheism (A=without, theism=god belief) is a rather narrow definition. You could still imagine that there is some happy god-free cosmic realm where we all frolic for all eternity.

    Most atheists that I know also self-identify as skeptics. Modern skepticism involves the application of logic, reason, and evidence to evaluate truth claims. Because there is no evidence of an afterlife or supernatural realm (only wishful thinking), related beliefs become untenable.

    For more information on skepticism, check out http://www.csicop.org/ and http://www.skeptic.com/.

  • Jordan

    If you can give up all the good arguments provided by an atheist/agnostic world-view for a very narrow slice of theism (the consolation), how much of an atheist were you?

    I think, if anything, this should remind you of the demonstrably powerful attraction that faith has over a human mind, even one that has given up the ghost of religion in days past.

  • I never have believed in an afterlife nor do I expect there to be anything after I die. I have accepted that those that I have loved who have died live on only in people’s memories. Its sad when people die but its just the way biology works.

    There is no evidence that there is an afterlife. Even if there did happen to be some kind of afterlife, there is no evidence that any of the worlds religions knows any accurate information about it. Its all wishful thinking and smug arrogance to believe that only those that believe the “right things” get to go to some kind of heaven and everyone else burns in some kind of hell. It is part of human nature for people to form cliques and exclude others… Man projects this trait on the Gods he invents. Now we have Jesus doing all this dirty work of judging, accepting, and excluding people based on how much they profess love for Him. Not exactly worthy of the so-called supreme creator of the entire universe.

  • ACN

    Depending on your reading, it can be a little light hearted or very thoughtful, but for whatever reason this one means very much to me:

  • Lana

    I actually became atheist after (and in part because of) my mom’s death.

    My dad remarried shortly after mom died. The woman he remarried is pretty jealous of my mom. She’s never met her, but she’s not pleased about having to share a heavenly mansion with a sister-wife (according to their religious beliefs).

    So she would talk crap about my mom, then turn around and say things like, “Your mother came to me in a dream last night and blessed our marriage! She’s so happy for your dad and I!”

    Dad was saying similar crap.

    Meanwhile, in the months after her death, I was suffering from horrific insomnia and having hallucinatory nightmares wherein my mother returned in zombie form, gravedirt dripping from her fingers, to ask me why I had let dad re-marry.

    It was horrible. And horribly confusing — if there was one thing I knew, it was that my mom had loved me (and all her children) fiercely. Yet somehow, only the religiously-minded people were getting comforting dream messages from her. I was getting horrific nightmares and my atheist brother was getting nothing.

    At first, I thought it was because of my religious doubts. I quickly dismissed that, as it didn’t jive with the god I’d been taught about (loving and compassionate) or (more importantly) the mother I knew, who would do anything to ensure the well-being of her children.

    The only logical explanation was what I’d always suspected — there is no god. And if there is no god, there is no afterlife. Their dreams were wishful thinking; my nightmares were the product of a grieving mind.

  • ethinethin

    What if your loved ones aren’t Christian? That would cause a lot of fear/stress/pain for the surviving believer. I can imagine a devout Christian mother is not going to find “greater comfort” if her atheist son has terminal cancer.

    All it takes is a little cognitive dissonance.

    My grandfather was an atheist for his entire adult life. When he was on his deathbed, my parents stayed with him and prayed to him; they tried to “save” him. He never said anything about changing his beliefs but he was smiling the day before he died. He had a tube in his throat to keep his airway open, so he couldn’t tell them why he was smiling, but my parents were convinced Jesus visited him the night before and he got “saved”.

    I’m sure there are other mental gymnastics that can be employed to help Christians take comfort in the death of their non-Christian friends and family.

  • Robert

    Anna,

    To answer the question directly, it would break a Christian mothers heart to have a child die without being saved.

  • Robert:

    I believe it is a misconception that because Christians believe in an afterlife that we don’t cherish our life here on Earth or that we don’t live it to the fullest.

    It’s not a matter of how you view your life. It’s the fact that, if your life will last forever, your mortal life has no meaning at all in comparison. Being given immortality would cheapen a temporary life, even if you enjoy it while you’re having it. Life becomes nothing more than a speed bump that you have to slog through to get to the really good part, and you know that nothing you experience now could ever compare to what’s coming next.

    To answer the question directly, it would break a Christian mothers heart to have a child die without being saved.

    And yet she worships the being who set up the rules by which souls are judged. That god she worships? He’s the reason people need to be saved in the first place. He rigged the system so that we could never be good enough for him, then punished us for it.

  • sarah

    my uncle and grandmother (who was like my second mother) died within two months of each other, my uncle unexpectedly. i was an atheist at this time already so it didn’t sway me one way or another. i never think about them being in heaven or anything like that. we don’t know, obviously, what happens when we die, but to think they are in a magical land called heaven is unrealistic. i think about them every day and to me that is what keeps them alive.

  • Steve

    Humans simply have trouble envisioning “nothing”. Literally nothing. Not just a lack of something, like emptiness, but non-existence. It’s the same problem with trying to wrap your mind around the Big Bang. How can something come from nothing and what came before? Even the most intelligent scientists can’t really do it. It’s probably a limitation of our brains and our cognitive process.

  • I, myself, wish that there was more beyond this life that I could look forward to… unfortunately I see no evidence for it and I’m not willing to believe in something merely for the dubious comfort it would provide.

  • Arachobia

    My dad passed away 2 weeks ago. I miss him. But he identified himself as an atheist and I would not wish a conversion to belief in the afterlife upon him.

    As to comfort I may receive from belief in one, as arguments against Pascal’s wager show us, people cannot imply choose what they believe. I could take comfort believing in a unicorn that visited me every day and gave me money, but only if I absolutely believed in it. I don’t believe the afterlife is possible, so I can gain no comfort from it.

    I miss my dad, and I do sometimes feel sad that I will not see him again. But ultimately there is nothing to be gained from wanting too as I will not. better to remember the good times I had with him and what he gave me then waste my time on unbelievable and impossible fantasies.

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    You know that your actions and legacy matter and will hopefully be remembered.

    The rest of your post is spot on, but the harsh truth is that almost all of us will be quickly forgotten after our deaths – just as surely as most of us are barely known by anybody while we are still alive.

    Our influence is minuscule in both time and space.

    Future civilizations will know us only through our durable plastic utensils – just like we only know the Egyptians from their stone ones.

  • Gordon

    I find the idea of a celestial waiting room very disturbing, not at all comforting. And that’s before you factor in a praise demanding tyrant.

    My grandparents died, and I miss them very much. But I dont want to think they are hanging about waiting for me to die. It is sadder, but also more comforting, to know that they are gone. They live on only in the legacy of the people who loved them. That is enough for me.

  • gsw

    The only guarantee that we have is that the shamans/priests etc. also have no idea what happens when they/we die. Since none have ever come back (he didn’t either) with proof – it can only be conjuncture with persuasion.

    Some people I knew are displaced in space (other side of the planet) others displaced in time (died years ago) but they are all still alive, there or then, just not accessible.

  • jumping in unread, i have to say: death will be a comfort to me. and i won’t mourn those whom i love who die. death is the end of pain, and suffering. what’s wrong with that? life is beautiful, but it’s also painful and difficult. and death means no more wondering, or worrying. it’s the embrace of Nothing, and Everything. which is to say: my consciousness will end, as an individual entity, but my molecules and particles? hell, they may go on to be stars, or new planets, or weird animals.. who knows? that’s sort of exciting to me, as a concept. CS Lewis was trying to convince me to be a theist when he wrote in “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” that stars are personalities, as well as fire and compressed helium and all that, but what he really did was make me more of an atheist. i can almost believe that my consciousness will be “elevated” into another state when i’m dead, and zillions of years later the stuff of my person is transformed into another type of universal matter that “transcends” my current understanding. but whatever, i don’t worry about it. I, which is to say the me of right now and until the death of this body that carries this brain, will be, you know, dead n shit. twain said it better than i can: “i was not alive for billions of years before i was born and it didn’t worry me, i don’t worry about the billions of years in which i will be dead after i die because i won’t be able to perceive that either” or something close to that.

    off to read your fab comments now…

  • Death can’t be a comfort to someone who no longer exists…

  • It’s rather ironic to me that you are posting this today, as I sit in the apartment of my best friend of some 3+ decades, who passed last week. The one thing she asked me was to re-examine my faith, as she was a woman of extreme faith. I still have to stand by my statement that “faith” is simply a language of “mystery” and isn’t a literal reality. It’s a product of culture which expresses those things which many people have no lexicon for… and which leads to quite a bit of misunderstanding when groups or societies attempt to make it THE language of the masses.

    It’s difficult for me, because of course at a time like this I WANT to be able to believe, but simply can’t. Almost everyone around me is taking a great deal of comfort thinking that my friend is still present in some way, only waiting to be reunited with all of us (which is quite the morbid thought if you take time to dissect it) and, of course, I don’t. There are times I quite frankly feel like I’m the only one among them who has lost her forever.

    Of course I KNOW that gone is gone, but they don’t.

    One thing I’ve learned from all this is that the services and trappings associated with death really aren’t for the dead (who are past caring anyway) but ways for the living to deal with loss. It doesn’t make a whit of difference to me what happens to my ashes or how people remember me after I die, but it makes a great deal of difference to those who are living.

    If a little religious folly gives comfort to the people I love, it seems harmless enough. It’s not like they’re taking my ashes to schools and teaching resurrection, or using the thought of an afterlife to attempt to discredit physics. All they’re doing is deluding themselves so they can cope with a loss… a comfort, as PZ Myers once referred to, like knitting.

  • Siobhan in Vermont

    The story behind all this is long, but the short version is my older brother kicked my disabled father out of his home (where my brother had moved him after Mom had died and my bother defaulted on Dad’s mortgage) with three days notice to go somewhere else (I managed it in two days while living in Vermont and my father was in Florida, and got Dad into a great facility).

    My brother had promised my Mom that he’d take care of Daddy after she was gone, and that he’d keep Daddy in the home Mom had bought for him (she had cancer and had a long time to plan for Daddy’s care after she was gone).

    So sometimes I daydream about how awesome it would be if my brother had to explain to my mother about how well he “took care” of Daddy after she was gone. I know it’s a daydream, it’s not real. I wish it was real, because I’d love to hear just exactly what my mother would have to say about how he behaved in this situation. And I’m a little sad I’m never going to get to see that, the idea of his getting some comeuppance from Mom is appealing.

    Still, I suppose in the end, he has to live with the fact that he didn’t speak with Daddy the last year of his life out of vicious spitefulness, and that Daddy died on his (my brother’s) birthday. Maybe my brother is his own punishment.

  • Quite frankly, I had no problem at all accepting that there’s no afterlife. It wasn’t hard at all; it was just “Okay, this is what I get.”

    What is a little hard is the knowledge that life is finite, and that it has to end sometime, taking my consciousness with it. The idea of no longer having ideas…? That’s a downer.

    Whenever I start thinking of that stuff, however, I quickly remind myself that I have plenty of time left, and may get even more if I take care of myself. Plus — ever notice how it seems that every five years or so, the average life expectancy goes up by five years or so? And even if that’s not so, there’s no denying that we live longer now than we ever have.

    And anyway, I think there is an afterlife. It’s just not the supernatural one of which theists speak. To me, the idea of an afterlife is that you live on in the memories of those you leave behind, and increase the quality of their lives in so doing. When someone close to me dies, I mourn their passing, of course, but most importantly, I take a lesson that they taught me, or a good deed they did for me, and I pass it on to someone else.

    If I can manage to live long and leave a meaningful legacy, then nuts to harps and clouds, man.

  • ErnBall

    There are some problems I see with the afterlife.

    When I look at the book to see what is on the agenda for the afterlife, it is a little vague. I’m told that we will worship and sing praises to the deity and spend time with our dead relatives and friends. We will get to do this for an eternity.

    I had an uncle who died a few years ago. We didn’t get along too well and I didn’t really enjoy being around him. I saw him a couple times a year at family reunions and holidays. It was tolerable since I only had to endure a few days a year. Spending an eternity with him around doesn’t sound too pleasant.

    A majority of the people I know who go to church, do it twice a year to celebrate the birth and death of the demigod. They are happy to go but they are also glad that church is done with for another few months. When they have to do this for 24/7 add eternity, I imagine it is going to get old pretty fast.

    So between being bored with doing the same thing over and over and having to deal with the annoying dead relatives, they may want to take a nose dive into the fires of hell. At least then they can go around putting out fires. People make an honorable career out of that here on Earth and enjoy doing it.

    Another problem I have is that I’m told that when someone dies, their soul lives on in the afterlife because it is eternal. If the soul is truly eternal, it is outside of time having no end or beginning. That means that death is a good thing since it frees the soul from the mortal body it is in. At birth, or the creation of life (not sure when the soul arrives), should be the worst time of a believer’s life. They have now trapped an eternal soul in a mortal body. Life is a cruel and unusual punishment for the soul no matter how good that life is; a prison is still a prison. The most humane thing a believer can do is not to have children and they will therefore avoid torturing the soul.

  • Salmon of Doubt

    I hated this article. Though, I’ve recently decided that I won’t explain why I hate things, at least, not online. Why? Because the justification for the conclusion (that I either ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ a publication) is completely irrelevant when I don’t give a shit about the intended audience.

    I hated this. It was trite, juvenile and one dimensional. Maybe, at the current rate of the author’s “insightful” development, she’ll learn something worth publishing after thirty or forty more “close friends” die.

    Until then, I hated this.

  • Jen

    At the risk of sounding like a total douchebag for promoting my husbands music here, I had to chime in because this post totally reminded me of a song he wrote recently. It’s actually not my favorite song of his (don’t tell him), but the last verse always gets me.

    “I will die someday
    And everything will go away
    Except the love that I gave
    It is all that is saved
    And that is how my heaven will be
    A piece of my heart into your history”

  • Ethanator

    Death is obviously tragic and difficult. My mom died ten years ago and I still miss her every day. It has been by far the most difficult thing in my life.

    One quote from Epicurus that has always given me some comfort is: ” . . death is nothing to us. For all good and evil consists in sensation, but death is deprivation of sensation. … [Death] does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.”

    If you think about it, what’s actually terrifying about not existing? Epicurus’s point is that if death is loss of the ability to feel or think, then it by definition can’t be bad for the dead person. There is also the old Stoic idea that you did not exist for eons before you were born, so why is not existing for eons after you die any worse than that?

    Granted, death could be bad in that it means you have no more future experience. Most of all I think death sucks for the survivors. I’m actually very sad that someday my death will do to my loved ones what my mom’s death has done to me.

  • pansies4me

    I wish I could direct this link to Kyra Phillips, the CNN anchor in the morning after American Morning. She excitedlly yammered on about how the Chilean miners are faithful men and had a stupid discussion with Dr. Sanjay Gupta about the “power of prayer”. She made a comment to the effect that prayer and spiritually are also helpful even for any miners that might be non-believers. Perhaps I was just grumpy this morning, but I fired off an e-mail to CNN that her comments smacked of the old “there are no atheists in foxholes” canard and that I was insulted – yadd, yadda, yadda – you get the picture. I told them I thought I’d accidentally switched the channel to TBN!

    I am sorry for all of your losses mentioned here, and I am heartened that when I face the loss of someone dear to me that other atheists have faced the same pain with dignity and (no surprise to me) their atheism intact.

  • To answer the question directly, it would break a Christian mothers heart to have a child die without being saved.

    Robert, thanks for answering my question. It seems like a lot of extra pain to me. Not only does she have to deal with the loss of her son, she also has to mentally wrestle with the fact that she believes he’s “chosen” to be tortured for all eternity. This blissful view of a happy family all together in the afterlife only works if each and every person the Christian cares about has been what they consider to be “saved.”

    In contrast, as an atheist, I have lost people that I’ve loved, but I have never had to debate whether or not I’m going to see them again, or worried about what’s happening to them. I just don’t believe they exist anymore, aside from in our memories. Death is hard no matter what, but belief in an afterlife seems like small comfort, and to add an additional layer of worries about heaven and hell doesn’t seem like any comfort at all.

  • As much as a memory of someone you love can comfort you in the time of sorrow, in my opinion it is a greater comfort to be able to say that they are in Heaven with their savior and that we will be with them again.

    Saying it doesn’t make it true. The other side of this “comfort” for the survivors is the terror that the dying person may feel because of their religion. When my mother was dying (two months ago), she was afraid that she wasn’t a good enough person and that maybe her cancer was some kind of a punishment for things she did wrong in life. That is what her religion did to her. I tried to reassure her that she was a good person and that she didn’t do anything to deserve her cancer, that these things are random and maybe genetic, but since I’m the family atheist, I don’t know that my words held much weight for her in that department. I pointed out that her god would have to be a pretty large asshole to punish her in such a way for some minor transgression, and that a creature who would do that hardly seems worthy of worship, and she agreed with that idea, but childhood indoctrination is not that easy to overcome.

    She asked to see the hospice chaplain, but unfortunately, by the time he came out to see her, my mom was unable to communicate and all he did was say a prayer with the other family members who were there with us, although I told him what my mom had said about her fear. I was pretty pissed because his job (as I saw it) was to give my mom some comfort and I didn’t feel like she got what she needed. As far as I was concerned, the other family members could go talk to their respective religious leaders on their own time. So I just kept trying to reassure her that everything would be okay, that she will always be loved and remembered by everyone who knew her, and that she had nothing to fear. I’m sure she would have felt some fear of death even if she wasn’t religious, but her religious beliefs worsened her fear.

    In my opinion, fear is the basis of religion, whether it’s fear of the unknown, fear of nature, or fear instilled by religious leaders. True courage consists in the willingness to face reality in spite of your fear, not burying your head in some so-called “holy” book or engaging in some other type of wishful thinking. If you truly wish to honor your loved ones and take comfort yourself, remember them and help others in their name. Giving love and help to others on behalf of your deceased loved one will bring you greater comfort than religion ever will.

  • Robert

    I am truly very sorry to hear about your mother. From your description of her passing with friends and family around it sounds as if she was very loved. I can tell you that the chaplain should have told her that she is saved by grace through her faith in Jesus Christ and that her works aren’t part of the equation. He should have told her she had nothing to fear because that is the absolute assurance of the Gospel. You don’t have to die thinking did I do enough.

  • Robert, thank you for sharing your particular flavor of Christian theology. There are many others that directly contradict what you just said. Perhaps someday that’ll be enough for you to realize that it’s fiction. Perhaps not.

  • Musing on this topic some more, I find it rather odd that Christians who believe in the whole heaven/hell scenario seem to think that this a good selling point for their religion. They want to convert me, yet they expect me to find such a barbaric system morally acceptable. Not only that, they expect me to find it personally appealing, which is strange considering that such a scenario would mean that every single member of my family is going to be tortured for all eternity, as none of us are evangelical Christians.

    Of course, my “stumbling block” (as they would say) to Christianity is that I don’t believe in the supernatural, but the blatant immorality of hell certainly doesn’t make me inclined to view the belief system favorably. Even if I became convinced of the existence of some sort of supernatural realm (not likely), why on earth would I pick this belief system over any of the others? It’s wretched any way you look at it.

    It’s also interesting how many atheists seem stuck on the idea of heaven/hell, too. There wasn’t a single mention of reincarnation or other afterlife scenarios on the entire thread. I guess it just goes to show how powerful Western culture is, that these silly stories have been so ingrained in our minds that we can talk about them without even thinking of other possibilites.

  • John

    A week and a half ago I was holding my grandmother’s hand as she died. As an atheist, hearing “There are no atheists in fox holes” and other such nonsense, I’ve always wondered how my beliefs might be impacted when faced with my mortality, or the mortality of a very close loved one. I’ve always assumed that my beliefs wouldn’t change.

    I sat with her for the last 12 hours of her life. I was with her when her kidney’s stopped working. I was with her as her breathing slowed. I was with her as her mind slowly shut down, until all that was left was her lungs, struggling to take in air, and her heart which had to work with that small bit of air to keep enough oxygen moving until the next breath came. Seeing the last bit of life slip away from my grandmother was immeasurably sad and it’s something I will have with me for the rest of my life.

    I’m still an atheist. I lost my grandmother as I was holding her hand, and my view of reality was not shaken in the slightest. Dying sucks. It sucks something royal; but it happens and it is inevitable. There was a point when she was clearly not there mentally anymore. Before that point there was a sliver of her still present, and after that point there was her brain, lungs, and heart doing what they had done for 86 yearsby rote. There was nothing else. The doctors call that point of dying a “coma”, but people have a potential of waking up from comas. This was the end, and her mind was no longer. I guess that’s the point where religious minded folks might say that her soul had left her body. It surely wasn’t the point at which she took her last breath. There was nothing purposeful or deliberate about that last breath. There was no gasping for air. There was no last attempt to live. She had been gone for hours and her body had finally run out of oxygen.

    There was no point in any of that in which I felt that there might be something more to dying. Her body stopped working and she ceased to exist. A few months back I read “Slaughterhouse V”. Kurt Vonnegut’s main character gains the odd ability to randomly travel through time. He gains this ability when he is abducted by aliens. These aliens share the same ability because they live freely in 4 dimensions. They view time as we view any of the three spacial dimensions we live in. I found this thought of time comforting when I was with my grandmother in her last few hours. She was alive for a time and in that time she will always be alive. The events that transpired in that time will always be there. I believe that Vonnegut had turned to this view of reality to help deal with the horrors he experienced in war.

    Symbolic as time travel might be. We will always have our memories of the people that we care about. We will always have the knowledge that they existed and that they were a part of our lives. There is no need to pretend that they are still existing somewhere; They aren’t. They have existed and that is all. That’s enough. So it goes.

  • Not that I believe in an afterlife, but must an atheist, BY DEFINITION, refuse to believe in an afterlife?

    In other words is the notion of God required to believe in an immortal soul?

    ff42, interesting question. I stopped believing in the soul’s existence long after I stopped believing in gawd. It took learning more about evolution and biology to rid me of the notion of a soul. Frankly, if there were such a thing as a soul, it would be some kind of physical force and proof of it would no more be proof of gawd than the physical body would be.

    The rest of your post is spot on, but the harsh truth is that almost all of us will be quickly forgotten after our deaths – just as surely as most of us are barely known by anybody while we are still alive.

    I disagree. It’s the rare person who doesn’t live on in the memories of people near and dear to them. I can also remember stories handed down from previous generations of my family by the generation before me and their generation. My grandfathers both died before I was born but I was told enough of them for them to be as real to be as famous people in history. We really do live on in people’s memories. Even if it only last a generation or two, it’s still good. (And doesn’t really matter since we no longer exist to appreciate it or not.)

    jen, nice! I like those lyrics.

    Am I the only person who finds the idea of eternal life or endless phsyical ones (nods to Anna) utterly horrifying. Just the tedium alone… Ewww.

    I don’t find death scary. Dying sounds painful and hard but once it’s over, it’s over. I’m over. End of my story. And since I’m a loud pushy, person ( 😀 ), I know I will live on in others memories. lol! No, not really. As my grandson would put it, I’m just joking you. I know I will live on in others’ memories because I have given of myself to them. And that part of them I have given, they will keep and hold near and cherish all their lives. That thought makes me very happy. I have enriched lives just by being.

    I’m sure my grandson will be telling his grandchildren stories of me when he’s old and gray and I’m long gone.

  • I just don’t get the whole “soul” thing. I’m sure it’s different for people who grew up assuming that an afterlife existed, but I have a hard time wrapping my mind around it.

    I’ve never understood what a “soul” is supposed to be or what it has to do with consciousness. We know that consciousness comes from the brain. That’s what “I” consist of. When my brain dies, I don’t see how “I” could continue to exist. My thoughts are what make me what I am, and a dead brain can’t produce thoughts.

    Plus, human beings aren’t any different from other organisms, so if you believe in an afterlife for humans, wouldn’t you logically also have to believe in one for ants, horses, cats, butterflies, dogs, pigs, and chimpanzees? Where does it stop? What about bacteria? Or even flowers and trees? Either everything survives its physical death, or it doesn’t. It doesn’t make sense to believe that human beings are unique.

  • Anna, that’s exactly where I got — eventually.

    As you surmise, it has to do with growing up brainwashed. It took me 10 years once I really started asking questions at 17 to get from Christian to Atheist. When I was small I did but also accepted the premise of gawd.

    I stopped questioning when at the end of plaguing my mother with how could this be’s, I begged forgiveness and salvation from Jesus and was “saved” just before turning 8. I think at 16, I started having some niggling questions again but, in addition to going to church as my mother would have insisted even if I had resisted, I was listening to Garner Ted Armstrong (cringe) on the radio voluntarily and squelching those but they kept coming back. Finally, at 17, I decided that I just wasn’t understanding God’s plan and decided to read the Bible to get closer to Him and understand Him better. I prayed and promised him, I’d devote an hour a day to this task and Him. And then I did just that.

    lol, that did not turn out as planned. It only convinced me that Jesus could not have been the Messiah at first. As I said, it took me 10 years (I went from Christian to Jewish to Agnostic then to Atheist) to break free of religion. After that, it took several more years to let go of the notion of an immortal soul.

    I always sucked at science but discussions with other nonbelievers first in real life and then on the ‘net was an edcuation in both evolution and biology (and Atheists being Atheists, they tend to back up what they say with links and books and articles to read) and that got me to where you’re thinking even though if I had to really quote the science, I couldn’t since I’m horrible at it.

    Also, my schools taught only the minimum on evolution that they were required to by law. I’m 52 years old so that should let you know not very much was required. I honestly don’t recall much beyond that chart of the evolution of man from prehistoric man to modern man. I vaguely had some sense of cavemen and really couldn’t even give you the different phases of man that chart depicts. Until recently, I thought evolution claimed we descended from apes rather than we and apes descending from the same ancestor.

    I still suck at science (and thus avoid debating or even discussing it for making a fool of myself) but I have some better comprehension and that has, indeed, made the idea of a soul seem an absurdity.

  • I still suck at science (and thus avoid debating or even discussing it for making a fool of myself) but I have some better comprehension and that has, indeed, made the idea of a soul seem an absurdity.

    I’m not passionate or particularly knowledgeable about science, either, which seems to be a bit unusual for an atheist. I think this is probably one of the differences between people who grew up atheist and those who deconverted later in life. While I certainly appreciate science and find it somewhat interesting, I’m much more attracted to other topics. When I was growing up, science was never one of my favorite classes. I preferred other school subjects: reading, spelling, Spanish, history, art, etc. Science was down at the bottom of the list, just slightly above P.E. (shudder) and math (double shudder).

  • Becky

    I believed my whole life in some sort of afterlife. I was brought up Catholic until i was 12, my mum got a divorse from my dad and the church thought this was a imortal sin. After that my mum said i could still go to church if i wanted but me and my brother were more than happy to stop going!
    When i was 14 until around 21 i had dreams about my spirit leaving my body. I honestly was terrifed it felt so real. I could see my body still lying on my bed as i floated up in the air!!!
    I read books on astral projection and then ended up buying a book called mind magic by betty shine. Betty was a meduim and talked of the after life and was a healer and talked to dead people. So the explanation for my dreams … was that they were real! I believed this for years too!
    Ok so i am 34 now, I lost my beautiful mum on the 5th July last year. I was with my mum at the end and excepted 100 percent she was gone and was at peace…… that was until the day after my mums friends and family talked of my mums spirit being around. She knocked on peoples doors and visited them in thier dreams. The relgions people telling me my mum was still watching me from heaven smiling down happy with angels.so this went on for months, i couldn’ t except any more she was gone and searched for the place people told me she was now.
    I can tell you it has taken months of sleepless nights and hours of contemplation for me to realise there is no after life, my mum has gone forever. She is not around me, i will not meet her in heaven. It like i was brain washed my whole life!
    I think i nearly cracked up facing the truth, but at least i know whats real now and can begin getting on with my life.
    I have courage for facing the truth.

  • Richard Wade

    You do have courage, Becky, and integrity too. Enjoy your life, and be a gift of love to all who know you.

  • Zaki Aminu

    Atheists have to keep talking – incessantly. They fear the grave-like silence that reflects the emptiness of their souls when they stop. They have to keep thinking up excuses for their unbelief; they fear the intuition which quietly, yet eloquently and forcefully, speaks to them of the unvarnished truth when they stop putting it through their distorted, prejudiced, intellectual strainers. They have to constantly engage in revelry, which they call “enjoying life” because they no longer know how to be happy through simply being.

  • Janice

    I am scared that because my Dad is an Atheist I have no soul and won’t be going to heaven. Which means, I get buried six feet under and rot-period-no uplifting magical fantasy eternity. On one hand, a relief because I suck and God will have a field day with me and 2nd it is not a relief because i wont get to spend that uplifting magical fantasy eternity in heaven. Hmm which sounds better? I say #2. BUT, Oh well I have 2 strikes already, my Dad and my disrespect towards God. I am middle aged now gasp and only have a little time left to decide my fate or have it decided for me. I believe in Jesus which means I am in but yet I suck. blah. It’s all so overwhelming.