We Don’t Have To Fear Death May 17, 2011

We Don’t Have To Fear Death

There’s a question a lot of religious people have for atheists: “Are you afraid of death?” Since we don’t believe in an afterlife, are we ok with the notion that this life is it?

Physicist Stephen Hawking was asked about death in an interview with The Guardian and answered the question beautifully:

You had a health scare and spent time in hospital in 2009. What, if anything, do you fear about death?

I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first. I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.

Over at The Stir, Maressa Brown doesn’t think Hawking gets the point:

All I’m saying is it’s okay to be afraid of death, and believing in something that comes after life — be that Heaven or something else — is a comfort to many of us. So what? If it helps us cope more with the inevitable, why shouldn’t we have that? There’s nothing shameful about spirituality, and furthermore, it’s more than possible to believe in science without shrugging off religion. Another brilliant scientist knew this — Albert Einstein.

What’s wrong with the idea of Heaven if it comforts some people? The same reason we scoff at people who believe in a god.

It’s untrue. It offers false hope. We should desire to know the truth and accept life the way it is instead of the way we wish it could be.

Having just one life isn’t so bad if you live it to its fullest. We’re lucky enough to be born on this planet, at this time. If you’re happy with your life, have wonderful friends and a good family, and don’t live in constant fear of death/natural disasters, do you really need a heaven to look forward to? You have everything you need right here. Enjoy it while you can.

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  • Robert L.

    I fully agree with you. The concept of a heavenly reward is ironically stopping people from living life to the fullest. I read the article about that sex survey and frankly I was disgusted by religion; people are made to live with guilt for doing something that is natural and pleasurable. The fact that religion keeps people from enjoying their one life as fully as they can (and I’m not just talking about sex here; people can use religion to justify almost anything) is one of the most important reasons why I oppose it.

  • Steve

    Einstein was agnostic. He wasn’t against spirituality per se, but he certainly wasn’t a fan of organized religion. And what spirituality he had certainly had very little to do with Christianity.

    You can be religious without believing in the afterlife though. Judaism doesn’t have hell and not really a heaven either, and it’s pretty obvious that it focuses more on living in many aspects.

  • Einstein was a self proclaimed agnostic but even if he were religious man it proves nothing. It is an appeal to authority, in this case a false one.

    Anyway I don’t believe that it is particularly healthy to believe in an afterlife. It gives a person false hope and denies them part of the mourning process when a loved one dies. In addition the concept of hell is simply revolting and those who believe in it should be freed from that kind of self perpetuating terror.

  • Nordog

    It’s untrue.

    The fact is, you do not know that; you believe that.

  • Claudia

    All I’m saying is it’s okay to be afraid of death, and believing in something that comes after life — be that Heaven or something else — is a comfort to many of us. So what? If it helps us cope more with the inevitable, why shouldn’t we have that?

    This is the one argument I simply fail to get every time I see it. “I believe it because it gives me comfort”? Say what? You mean you can actually will yourself to believe something just to make you feel good? Why not believe you will shortly win 1 billion dollars?

    The way I always suppose the brain works is that you justify a belief because it’s true. How can this not be the basis of any and all beliefs? I mean, I can understand believing something to be true that isn’t true, based on false information, a lack of critical thinking, being lied to, whatever. That much I get. But I just don’t get justifying a belief not based on it’s truth, but on the fact that believing it makes you feel good. How can you be self-aware enough to know that’s why you hold the belief and not automatically lose it?

    Oh and as for Einstein, he doesn’t believe in your God, or your heaven either:

    It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.

  • myownpersonalvenus

    ugh I’m so tired of religious people invoking Einstein when they don’t seem to understand his position on the subject.

  • doglovingirl

    It’s ironic to me that Christians, who supposedly don’t fear death because they’ll be with Jesus and god and in heaven with family (etc etc), are usually the ones keeping their loved ones alive at all costs (as if they fear death –Keep Grandma alive! keep Grandma alive!).

    Meanwhile, atheists (who, Christians often say, live in bleak despair and of course fear death because we don’t believe in an afterlife) are the ones who seem much more serene and reasonable when facing end-of-life decisions.

    Huh. Odd, isn’t it?

  • todwith1d


    are you insinuating that all beliefs have equal probability ?

    It’s untrue.

  • April

    I’m so tired of people thinking that, as an atheist, I must be angry about all the bad things in the world and blaming some god by not believing in any, or that I am empty inside. People say: “I need for this all to mean something.” So they CREATE something fictional because they themselves are empty inside, and can’t find meaning in life as it is. That’s a failing on THEIR part.

    It’s refreshing for someone as prominent as Stephen Hawking to reiterate that not believing in an afterlife gives more meaning and purpose to our ACTUAL lives. The mystery and beauty of the world we live in is enough for me. I think I am more optimistic and reverent than any religious person I know.

  • Christina P.

    I absolutely agree with you on the importance of enjoying the life that we have instead a false hope for a “better” afterward. I did, at one point, struggle with the notion of an absolute death when I was younger. I spoke with my philosophy professor about it and he said: “When I go on vacation the last thing I do is think about it coming to an end and going back to work… So stop worrying and start enjoying the vacation!” Granted, I would love that vacation to last as long as possible!… but I don’t fear death. I just want to look back from my deathbed and be able to say I lived.

    I will say though, I think that death will be one of the last remaining reasons why people hold onto their spirituality. Not just because they have such an intense fear of their own mortality but also people are very comforted by the idea that their loved ones are still “with them” or looking down on them, etc. From a psychological standpoint, religion has become a flexible coping mechanism for a lot of people. I say flexible because the idea of the “awesome power of God” can be applied to so many different scenarios. Problem is, in my opinion, it’s become an absolutely outdated coping mechanism. If you have the ability to be an educated person and access the large amount of scientific knowledge that we have at this point, then there is no excuse for relying on something so easily refutable to get you through the day. Our brains are very capable of handling our biggest struggles without the use of a story book and a big man in the sky to guide us there.

  • Believing in an afterlife is bad because it prevents one from fully appreciating and focusing on this life. Who cares about this short life if you believe you can life forever after you die? That’s what drives the “soul winning” programs, and many of those programs say they are helping others, but there is always a primary focus that lingers in the subtle background. Part of the charitable aid that goes to third world countries isn’t translated into food or medicine. Instead part of the money is used to finance the “soul winning” mission.

    This of course is a great reason to give to the Foundation Beyond Belief!

  • jose

    This “It makes me feel good so I don’t care if it’s really true” idea reminds me of Kenny from South Park getting all cheesed out.

  • Richard Wade

    Here’s my paraphrasing of Maressa Brown’s statement:

    All I’m saying is it’s okay to be afraid of LIFE, and USING OPIUM is a comfort to many of us. So what? If OPIUM helps us cope more with REALITY, why shouldn’t we have that? There’s nothing shameful about USING OPIUM and furthermore, it’s more than possible to ACCEPT THE GIFTS OF SOBER PEOPLE without shrugging off OPIUM.

    Using intoxicants or fairy tales to “cope” with life keeps people emotionally immature.

    The argument from euphoria, “It feels good to believe it, therefore it is true,” is the thought process of a child. It is essentially the tiny adult in a person admitting that she knows it is untrue, but the huge child in the person is in charge, so shhh, they have to keep pretending and playing the game.

    The problem with children being in charge of adult bodies is that they can behave very dangerously if someone threatens to expose the falseness of their fragile little pretend game.

  • Nordog

    The fact is, you do not know that; you believe that.

    Nope. We know what happens to our bodies and brains when we die. The process of decomposition is well understood. We also know that our thoughts and personality are intricately tied to these same biological processes. When we die, we cease to exist as the person we were when we were alive. Our bodies break down and are consumed and otherwise recycled and made use of. Our thoughts, feelings, who we are, all that information is lost.

    We do know this. You may believe that something else happens but you’re not basing that belief on observation or rational thought. It isn’t a knowledge claim on your part. I’m sorry if this is a shock to you but believing something to be true doesn’t make it so.

    I’m going to add the unnecessary disclaimer that our knowledge and understanding of death may change and we may have to amend our conclusions based on new evidence. Are you able to produce any evidence that would alter this conclusion?

  • Nordog

    are you insinuating that all beliefs have equal probability ?


  • Cyndi

    I see no problem with false hope. There’s no way of knowing anyway. As ridiculous as afterlife concepts are to ME, the fact is, this DOES bring my sweet SO a great deal of comfort. He’s still living and enjoying his life and not forcing anyone to live by his rules, so why should he not have hope to see his dad again one day? I don’t get the problem.
    I’m personally not afraid of death, but I am afraid of the part leading up to it. I’m afraid of the pain and lack of control. I’m afraid of how it will affect my family because my mom’s early death messed me up for a long time. I hope to live a long healthy life, which is normal I suppose. And I have no beliefs in any meeting with my mama in some grand afterlife, no matter how comforting the thought is. Sometimes I wish I COULD feel that comfort so I guess that’s why I’m sympathetic to other people’s hopes, even if they are false. If I thought it was harming him in any way I might change my mind, but I wouldn’t want to change him.

  • Matt H

    All I’m saying is it’s okay to be afraid of the closet monster, and believing that hiding under my blanket grants me protection is a comfort to many of us. So what? If it helps us cope more with irrational fear and lack of control, why shouldn’t we have that?

    Some children never grow up.

  • Jeremy

    Accepting comforting lies about death on the grounds that it is inevitable does something worse than giving people false hope: when that inevitability starts to be called into question by sophisticated science and technology, those comforting lies become active hindrances to developing real life-saving cures.

    While I’m glad to see no one here has so far expressed pro-death sentiments, I’ll note that theists aren’t the only people who make comforting excuses for death.

  • Ian

    Way to completely miss the point.

    The only reason that anyone is afraid of death is because of the idiots telling them that there is something beyond it. And good grief, once you start thinking like that who knows what might be in store. The idea of an afterlife isn’t a protection against fear of death. It is the only reason to be afraid of death.

    There is no fear in death, if you understand that there is no afterwards.

  • samuel

    I’m afraid of dying, not death.

  • Michelle

    Honestly, Mr. Hawking could have responded without the line at the end. On the other side, Ms. Brown could have been less defensive about the whole thing.
    From her side of the argument, instead of invoking someone dead and no longer able to defend himself why not try this approach, “Look Stephen Hawking said we need life after death beliefs because we are afraid of the dark, do you think that’s true?” And come up with some cogent arguments from her readers instead of giving yet another knee jerk reaction.

  • Alex

    ?”Salvation lies in paying full attention to nature” -Sarah Bakewell writing on Montaigne. Also I think Montaigne saw death as something natural and something you had no control over. It was not a matter of good or bad, it just happens and he found that he did not have to worry about it. It would be like worrying if the sun will rise today.

  • Steve

    I have no problem with a general idea of an afterlife. Maybe just some place where everything is nice and you get to meet your friends again. If that’s all it were, there is no problem with it.

    I can see the “Just enjoy your life” argument and largely agree with it, but the real problem is of course organized religion stepping in and setting up completely arbitrary conditions on who gets to enjoy that afterlife – or who gets the nice afterlife and who gets eternally tortured. They are using that somewhat understandable desire and hope and shamelessly abuse it to control people.

  • Suzy

    Funny that Brown didn’t quote this from Einstein:

    “I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither can I nor would I want to conceive of an individual that survives his physical death; let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egoism, cherish such thoughts. I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and with the awareness and a glimpse of the marvelous structure of the existing world, together with the devoted striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.”

    – Albert Einstein, The World As I See It

  • Ibis

    @Claudia You start by pretending something is true. If you pretend enough, you can convince yourself to believe it (for all intents and purposes). Just take care not to do too much self-reflection, avoid situations where your ‘belief’ might be questioned, and take on the role of victim when someone does manage to challenge it. The justification isn’t really justification of the belief itself, but a justification for not rocking the boat.

  • Poyndexter

    Fear is a reaction to uncertainty. Except if one is in a situation where death can come at any moment but maybe won’t, “dread” is a more apt term for any negative emotion connected with death. [Obviously this doesn’t apply to afterlifers.]

    I dread death because I KNOW it’s coming and there’s no uncertainty about what it means. I can’t understand people who claim to be at peace with death and yet still claim to love their life. They’re probably sincere, but I can’t help feeling skeptical that they’ve really “grappled” with it and have come out A-OK with the inevitability. The triumphant tone in their voices when they brag about how they don’t fear death doesn’t help in convincing me either. I just feel like reaching over and smacking them.

  • Edmond

    What’s wrong with the idea of Heaven if it comforts some people?

    Ask Harold Camping’s followers on Sunday.

  • @Poyndexter:
    I don’t fear death. I fear leaving my wife and children without a provider. I fear missing my daughter get married or my son get drafted by the Cincinnati Reds. I fear not getting to visit the pyramids or the Mediterranean. So in that respect, I fear missing out on things that death may preclude me from.

    As to my views on death itself, the actual “thing,” I tend to take the stance of the quote that is often cited to Twain (even by Dawkins in the God Delusion.) Although I’ve never bothered to chase the origin of the quote to see if it really is Twain or not, what’s important is I agree with the content of the quote: “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 realize it might be splitting hairs, but it’s one I choose to split.

  • ceti

    Some death-related mythologies are charming and fantastical — hence Anubis, the God Yama, the Grim Reaper, the Ferryman or even St. Peter (all the same being?) and are not meant to be taken seriously. However, people have gone to extreme lengths to cheat death or to ease their passing into some mythical afterlife at great expense (from the pyramids and elaborate burials of many ancient cultures, to the life-support systems and costly funerals of today), so these fears are not necessarily harmless. While one should fight like hell to live, the inability to let go and pass away gracefully and with dignity can incur a cost as well.

    If the concept of heaven and hell (a primitive conception of the afterlife really, and a huge step back for even theistic thought) is instrumental in judgment, then bigger problems arise. Indeed, even for theists, any morality that is solely dependent on an uncertain afterlife reward or punishment is no morality at all.

  • derek

    Einstein wasn’t religious!! I love it how he’s the poster boy counterpoint for religious thinkers on science and religion.

  • I don’t fear my own inevitable death. Just as I don’t get bothered about existing in a gravitational field (holding me down), I also don’t get all bothered about my own mortality. To me, eventually dying is just like gravity… Its natural and part of the way life works. Just as with gravity, I’m use to the concept and don’t become obsessive about it.

    Of course, I prefer the living state so I’m very careful to preserve and enjoy my own life and I respect the lives of others.

    I don’t think it is healthy to be death (or afterlife) obsessed.

  • ckitching

    I’m afraid of dying, not death.

    I’ll second that. My eventual death holds no more fear for me than the period before I was born. In either period, “I” do not exist. Dying, on the other hand, is something I’d rather not experience, but it is inevitable. I guess the best I can hope for is a quick end after a long, good life.

  • Peter Mahoney

    I was on a plane where they suddenly announced to prepare for a crash landing. I was surprised most of all by my own sense of calm.

    If the plane had crashed, we likely would have died and I realized it would be sad that my family would be without a husband or father.

    But overall I was serene with having lived well in the years I’ve had.

    I had zero expectation for any afterlife, and to me, this was calming (especially compared the message the Catholic church gave me in my youth: we humans are all evil and deserve hell…. fire-and-brimstone… and it really exists and the devil is out to get you, etc.).

  • cat

    I do find the idea of death scary. The not existing part is no comfort, because that is precisely what makes death very scary. I suppose I fall into the “I would rather feel pain than nothing at all” sort. Still, pretending that reality is not so will not help the issue. Theists end up just as dead as atheists. I know that pretending an afterlife exists will not create an actual afterlife, so I fail to see why that idea would be convincing to anyone who had not already committed themselves to the belief in an afterlife. Also, wanting X to be true does not make it true and, even if it is the case that X being true would be better than X being false, if X is false, pretending X is true can still be very bad. Take cancer for example. It would be better if the statement “cancer can be cured by singing itsy bitsy spider” were true. However, it clearly is not the case. And, if we pretended it were, that would make things worse, not better. Instead of doing cancer research, providing treatment, etc., we would waste our time signing about spiders. Afterlifes work the same way, instead of working on the problem of death and suffering, we waste our time with make believe.

  • littlejohn

    Pointing out that religious belief gives some people comfort is, as the saying goes, like observing that the drunk man is happier than a sober man.
    That doesn’t mean heavy drinking gives you a clearer view of the world. It just temporarily eases anxiety and the burdens of life. And it often ends in a headache.
    Believe if you wish, or get drunk if you wish. Just don’t kid yourself that either is a path to great profundity.

  • Sven

    The split second before I was in a car crash, the last thing that went trough my mind was “Oh shit..”.
    I remember being totaly relaxed, and without fear. Also no regrets about my life, and certainly no desire to call out to a god.
    Then the airbag inflated, and I stepped out of the car wrack, totaly unharmed.
    I fear the death of my loved ones more that my own death. I actually feel selfish saying that, weird huh?

  • R9

    If heaven doesn’t exist, it’s not like we’ll be in a position to regret the fact.

    Of course belief in heaven can pose problems – like if some terrorists blows stuff up believing he’ll get a reward in the afterlife.

    There’s a point where we’re not really criticising people because they’re doing something harmful or bad, but just because we personally think they’re being silly. At which point they’re quite justified in telling us to get stuffed; they’re not obliged to base their beliefs on someone else’s standards of rationality.

  • R9

    If heaven doesn’t exist, it’s not like we’ll be in a position to regret the fact.

    Of course belief in heaven can pose problems – like if some terrorists blows stuff up believing he’ll get a reward in the afterlife.

    But. The argument can reach a point where we’re not really criticising people because they’re doing something harmful or immoral, but just because we personally think they’re being silly.

    And, well, thinking that judgement should matter to them, is basically being a dick.

  • Maria

    I groaned SO loudly when this woman tried to paint Einstein as a believer in an afterlife/religion. So I went to my saved document of REAL quotes by him and found this little ditty!

    “I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own — a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. Neither can I believe that the individual survives the death of his body, although feeble souls harbor such thoughts through fear or ridiculous egotisms.”
    (Albert Einstein, Obituary in New York Times, 19 April 1955)

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    I’m so tired of people thinking that, as an atheist, I must be angry about all the bad things in the world and blaming some god by not believing in any, or that I am empty inside.

    @April: Haven’t you heard? Hawking is not saying than an afterlife is a fairy tale because he’s being realistic. He saying that because he’s angry that he has ALS!

    I’m still rolling my eyes after hearing that one. I mean, to believe that there is no afterlife we must all be depressed, nihilistic, valueless people… even if there really is no afterlife.

    It boggles the mind how easily people raise blinders to their own biases.

  • R9

    whoops double post there, sorry

  • “I was dead for millions of years before I was born and it never inconvenienced me a bit.”

    -Mark Twain

  • Jiminik

    The concept of ceasing to exist is something I fear. When encountering a situation where I am close to death, I am scared. I’m not okay with the concept that “this is it”. Given the option, I will try to survive as long as possible.

    I’ve never understood why so many atheists claim they are not scared of death. I think most are full of it. Having fear of death is a good thing, it keeps us from doing stupid things.

    Being afraid of death does not mean one can not accept the inevitable, that more than likely everyone ceases to exist. I’m not one to sell atheism, or try to make it look like something it is not. Atheism is not going to give anyone comfort when facing death of loved ones, or your own. It is just a lack of belief in gods. Many religious people want something to provide them comfort, even if it is a placebo. I prefer facing the most likely scenario, in that there is no afterlife – despite that such scenario provides no comfort.

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