An Atheist's Approach to Death

How does an Atheist deal with death? Two things have made me think about death and Atheism lately: a reading of Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion and the news that my father has terminal cancer.

Personally, I don’t think my approach to death has ever been challenged by the death of a close relative. I’ve only attended a handful of funerals since my grandmother (on the McGarry side) died back in 1985. Of course, back then I was a fully subscribed Catholic, but I can only vaguely recall her decline and death. I might tell that story someday.

But for almost half my life now, I’ve been subscribed to an Atheist worldview. In later years, I’ve mixed in a little Buddhist philosophy with this: Buddhists don’t shy away from the process of ageing and death, they accept it and embrace it. I read a few years back that some Buddhist monks meditate on skulls as a reminder that life is finite. Why pretend otherwise? 

What I believe about death

I believe that you have one life. There is no afterlife, there is no purgatory, and you won’t continue to exist as some kind of spirit.

I find this viewpoint extremely liberating. I don’t lose sleep at night over final judgements, whether I deserve Heaven or Hell or how long I might spend in some purgatorial prison. As an atheist, my concerns are grounded in my own lifetime.

But do I fear death? No. If it comes suddenly, it won’t be planned for, it hopefully won’t be painful! If those cancers that like to feast on my family members visit me someday, then I might worry about pain and deterioration. But I won’t fear death.

Deconstructing conventional attitudes to death

Perhaps because my conversion to Atheism required radically rethinking every thing I’ve every been taught about the world, I tend to second guess standard societal responses to things. Death is one of those things I’ve questioned.

Death is arguably one of the most written-about topics in literature next to love. Death is personified in many forms, and when we contract diseases like cancer, we use words like ‘battle’ and ‘fight’ and ‘defeat’ to describe the process of trying to cure the disease. I was particularly cynical whenever Jade Goody and her management used all these words and more to tap into the raw emotion of death in order to profit from cancer. That is the power of death in our society.

Death, despite his/her portrayal in art and literature is not a person. Nor is cancer a tactical military genius, hell-bent on conquering its host’s body. Death - when you strip away all of the ‘meaning’ associated with it - is inevitable. It just is. You can’t avoid it, and you shouldn’t fear it. You certainly shouldn’t concern yourself with unverifiable judgements and what your address in the afterlife will be - a mansion in Uptown Zion or a shack in the lower shanty towns of Hades.

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins noted that despite their belief in the afterlife, many religious people are afraid of death. Let’s face it, your entry into Heaven isn’t a foregone conclusion, is it? No-one seems to have the definitive guide as to what qualifies you for Heaven, Hell or purgatory. That’s like the Russian roulette of the afterlife!

And perhaps that’s why there’s so much accute mourning in religious circles when someone dies. If there was a straight path to heaven, then funerals would be happy places. We wouldn’t dress up in black and instead of mourning, we’d be celebrating the person’s passing and the life they lived.

Speaking for myself, I’d rather know that my relatives were dead and buried than suffering indefinite torment for some long-forgotten misdemeanours before the gatekeepers of Heaven will grant them access.

The Poetry of Life and Death

Having found the conventional methods of dealing with death inadequate, I have my own way of approaching life and death. I think my outlook is informed by Atheism and Buddhism in this regard: Atheism in that your life will only happen once, and when it ends you cease to exist. Buddhism in that death is inevitable and that we mustn’t treat death as such a tragedy.

In the first instance, having one life increases the urgency to make the most of it. Go out, have fun, get a job, make your friends laugh, fall in love, fall down drunk from time to time, have children (or don’t). Whatever. Don’t tolerate people, situations or ideologies that make you unhappy. Treat life as a blank canvas and you are the artist: the final picture can be unveiled after you’ve gone.

You’ll find this rather eloquently argued on the De-Conversion blog. I especially liked this contribution from a commenter:

I am fairly at ease with the idea that death will be final and that my ashes will one day become part of the natural matter of the earth. This seems appropriate to me. Ironically, I no longer have to wonder and hope that I really, truly am saved and will get to heaven and avoid hell. The solace that Christian faith was supposed to bring me led to uncertainty and some anxiety. That anxiety disappeared when my faith vanished. In the meantime, I want to live each day to its fullest because life is incredibly precious

I’ve thought a lot lately about the traditions and rituals of death. Let’s not treat death as a surprise or something to be mourned. Let’s treat it as a natural event and perhaps change our outlook from one of prevailing sadness to a celebration of the deceased person.

If a person’s life really was a blank canvas, wouldn’t it be nice for the family and friends who survive them to sit back and look at the picture that person created while they were alive?

And you?

At the top of this article, I mentioned that my views on death have been challenged lately. In the last few weeks, I’ve wondered how well the Atheist outlook would stand up to dealing with my father’s cancer. The answer is: surprisingly well.

I’ve found a lot of strength in this outlook, and my thoughts have crystalised into what you’ve just read. I’ve watched people around me struggling with the diagnosis and adopting the traditional roles of the bereaved. I will feel sadness when the time comes, and I know I’ll miss my father but I’ll also privately celebrate his life and everything he means to me.

Please share your own outlook on this, whatever your religion or personal worldview. Also, check out this thread on Reddit, which has a good continuation of this discussion.

Gerard McGarry Written by:

Liberal, humanist type. Optimist. Lover of life. Tryer of new things.