Monday, July 30, 2012

Dealing with death: How does an atheist cope?

An atheist friend recently experienced the loss of three friends and family members over a short span of time and asked me for advice on how an atheist deals with loss. I suspect that when he was a believer the rituals and dogma provided comfort. But now, without the support structure of an imaginary afterlife, hope for future reuniting, and a “meaning” for the loss he is grasping for a reasoned substitute to ease his pain. 

I don’t think I’ve ever considered this before. I don’t mean dealing with death, I’ve done that, been there. I mean considered how differently freethinkers and theists deal with the grief of loss.

How easy and comforting it must be to imagine ones dead loved one running in a sunlit field in the afterlife – eternally young, physically perfect, ecstatic, and being chased by their equally ecstatic childhood cocker spaniel.  Or surrounded by a few generations of previously deceased relatives who embrace them and welcome them to eternal life and introduce them to their angel friends.  Or dressed in a white robe, glowing with contentment as they spend eternity fawning over their man-god and telling him what a wonderful god he is, like an eternity in Disneyworld, except they have to give Mickey oral everyday, forever.  Wonderful.

Heaven, Paradise, Valhalla, the Happy Hunting Ground, the Underworld, the Land of the Dead, the Spirit World, all have always held out the promise of eternal life as a way to avoid coming to terms with the ultimate new experience, the finality of death.  Nothing in a thinking person’s quiver of reasoned thoughts can compare to, or compete with it.  All we have is reality and for us that is quite enough.

It’s enough for me to know the deceased person loved me and I loved them. Enough to know the pain of illness has subsided. Enough to know their contributions to the world will live behind them and their progeny will carry on.  Enough to know that the cycle of life is unstoppable, inevitable, and is shared by all living things. It’s enough to know that the oblivion of death is no more fearful than the oblivion that was pre-life.  I take comfort in that, we all should.

I had no magic bullet of reason that would spare my atheist friend his burden of grief.  All I could do is tell him that while there would always be a hole, hollowness, in his life that those people once filled, that in time it will shrink. Oh, it’ll always be there, but the depth of grief he is feeling now will gradually be supplanted by wonderful memories of what those people brought to his life, and he to theirs. That is the gift they, we, leave behind.

 Let your sadness run its course. Time is the great healer. The brain is a marvelous thing that way.   I wish theists could appreciate the beauty in the simplicity and reality of that.
[ dedicated to my friend G. David.]


Guido Núñez-Mujica said...

Bart, thanks a lot for your post. Hard, but reality is hard, and complaining about it being hard won't make it go away.

My solace is trying to find beauty in the face of death and extinction, trying to remember and smile, but it is difficult now, specially when there were a lot of what-ifs.

A big hug.


Dromedary Hump said...

Back at ya pal.
Hang in there.

NewEnglandBob said...


Your words here are perfect and I have no need to add to them.

Jim Hudlow said...

Well put Hump. No matter if you have all kinds of religious rituals and activities to fall back on what do these activities do? They allow time to go by. That is what they do. It is time that assuages the emotional intensity whether you are theist or non theist...and allows normality back into your life. Finding the best way to pass that time is the challenge.

Dave Hitt said...

The only time I feel a bit jealous of religious people is when losing someone close. Yes, I know that their belief is a fantasy, and I'm not jealous of that fantasy, but I am envious of the comfort and peace that fantasy gives them. We are denied that. It's one of the prices we pay for choosing a reality based life.

CMY said...

Former Catholic here. I never felt a loss in realizing there is no so called after-life. I now appreciate my life and other humans more and live for this life.
One thing I find interesting: when I tell people I am and atheist, more often than not they reply with something to the effect of "that is so final!". I think they just can't bare the thought that this is the only chance they get.

Padraic said...

My thoughts on death are incredibly bleak.

When I die, I will be gone. period.

People will remember me for a time, then they will die. Before long, no one will remember me. Any mark I ever left on the world will have turned to dust and blown away.

Then, someday, our sun will swell into a red giant, consuming the inner planets, including earth, laying waste to any trace of life in the solar system. And then, unless we've found a way off the planet, any memory of the human race will have been annihilated.

Even if we have mastered interstellar travel and spread to other planets, entropy will have its way with the universe and nothing will remain but pervasive infrared radiation. Unless the universe itself has a memory, there will be no one and nothing to remember that life ever breathed anywhere.

And you know what? I still prefer that to believing a lie.

Graham ASH-PORTER said...

Well Bart, having been lucky enough to survive Prostate Cancer and its treatment with their side effect (still ongoing) I can only say I was NOT frightened of dying, though obviously wanting to stay alive as long as possible. My sadness would be leaving sad people behind, especially my wife.
I am however really scared of more pain (an ongoing problem) and am so grateful for the advances made by scientists and the care and after care given by all medical staff. When the inevitable priest came round, he couldn't believe it when I told him (politely) to go away.
I don't want to waste what time I might have left on arguing about myths with the glum priest.

As for losing a loved one, I lost both my Mums (I was adopted and found my birth mother) 2 years ago. Yes I miss them both, but once past the initial grieving I look forward to see what the next generation has to offer to take the world forward, rather that have it dragged backward into the dark ages again.

Anonymous said...

"the oblivion of death is no more fearful than the oblivion that was pre-life"

Mind blown on that one.

Your post made me think of the "circle of life", which of course, made me think of this:

Start it at 00:38 Enjoy.

Anonymous said...

That may seem bleak, but there's a kind of beauty to the thought as well: aren't we fortunate to have experienced this small sliver of existence in this remote, nondescript corner of the universe, which will eventually (perhaps) dissipate? That is far more interesting and awesome to contemplate than some ridiculous fantasy about spending eternity sucking up to an old man with a white beard, getting laid by 72 virgins, or whatever. How banal by comparison.

Cephus said...

Seriously, the only way to actually deal with death, rather than retreating into ridiculous fantasy, is to accept reality as it actually is. Everyone dies. End of story. I'll die, you'll die, everyone I've ever known will die. That's reality. I accept it as an inevitable part of reality.


Valérie said...

I'm catholic but I mostly agree with everything said here. Maybe that's why the American born-again wackos who have plagued PP (the blog where I am all the time) tell me I am a stupid girl who is not a REAL christian, LOL.

Shaw Kenawe said...

Great post.

I tell people who wonder how I, a nonbeliever, face death that I will be returning to where I was before I was conceived--Oblivion.

Since there isn't anything I can do to alter this truth, I accepted it a long time ago, and actually feel liberated by its simplicty.

At some point, my atoms will be part of a red giant, or white dwarf.


Marie Neer said...

"Dealing with Death" came at an appropriate (for lack of a better word) time. My husband died three months ago this week. My sister, who claims that she "doesn't need faith because she KNOWS" told me that surely now I would find the need for God and Jesus. I found neither God nor Jesus waiting there to hold my hand and my heart. She used the old saw "There are no atheists in foxholes," and argued that G&J would find their way into my heart now that I would be open and 'vulnerable' to their love
Well, they didn't I am going this alone. I actually had moments that I wished that I could see a light, that I could believe, that I could accept once again the deluding comfort of myth. No. Not even with the loss of a husband could I believe that G&J took a personal interest in my grief and wanted only for me to turn to them. I hope you realize that I write all this with heavy irony. No, G&J are too busy building swing sets in heaven for those millions of children who die of disease, violence, and starvation every year. Too busy putting bowls of kibble out for those millions of animals abused at the hands of beings created in their loving image.
No, not even the death of my beloved husband could weaken me enough to rely on a mythical snake-oil tonic. BTW, all those Christians who came to his funeral and were disappointed at the lack of devotion there have not contacted me with any offered comfort. I guess they figure G&J are pissed at me. (Um, am I expressing anger? Um, yes.)

Dromedary Hump said...

sorry to hear of the loss of your husband.
Xtians offer platitudes, that is all they have.
Thanks for sharing this with us. Stay strong, I know you are.

Padraic said...

Here are some words that I find comforting:

As the late Carl Sagan reminded us, every atom more complex than hydrogen was born in a star. What's more, the atoms that make up life as we know it are distributed to the universe only when that star that forms them explodes in a supernova.

This is not a metaphor for death and rebirth; it is empirical fact. We are literally made of star stuff.

Marie said...

Padraic and Bart,
Thank you. Timothy Ferris, in Coming of Age in the Milky Way restated Sagan's words--that "we are made of stars themselves" To understand that certainly takes us out of ourselves and a wee closer to what I think is a beautifully stunning reality. It was good to read Sagan's words again.

I was an English teacher and worked through Ferris in fascination and awe, struggling mightily with the scientific theory, but loving the history and the beauty of his words. One day I was enthusiastically recounting that very theory, that we are star stuff. I noticed one boy looking stubbornly unreceptive. I asked him what the matter was, and with infinite superiority, he told me, "Mrs. Neer, we are Christian." Well that shut me up! How does one even try to respond to such blind and stupid ignorance.
Anyway, yes, Bart. All they could give me were formulized platitudes. Ah! I could make a list and rank them from ridiculous to stupefying.
This is a good place to be.

Anonymous said...

I was pulled out of a drunken, murderous blackout, a little over 37 years ago by PURE WHITE LIGHT.

I can't prove it to you. I don't hate you if you don't believe. Most of my peers who are unbelievers an addicts, all sorts, seem to be nihilists. Nothing I can do about it.

Jung gave the Higher Power to AA---The most successful program or treatment available. AND, of the FEW, who arrive at their doors, only 25% get and stay sober.

I am an un-baptized Christian.

This, is what I believe----

John 3:19 (WYC)
19 And this is the DOOM, for LIGHT came into the world, and men loved more DARKNESS than LIGHT; FOR THEIR WORKS WERE EVIL.

There is a good principle which created order, light, and man, and an evil principle which created chaos, darkness, and woman. Pythagoras

Best wishes,

One of my screen names is, Light_V_Dark. And, I KNOW, that I'm OK, by how many people UTTERLY-DESPISE-ME.

If one of you came to me as a sick and suffering alkie---near death---I would tell you, THIS IS WHAT WORKED FOR ME. TRY TO BELIEVE THAT I AM TELLING YOU THE TRUTH.

Ask a Power Greater Than yourself, FOR HELP, when nobody is around.

You might get it, IN SPITE OF YOURSELF.


Dromedary Hump said...

you may want to consider some professional counseling.