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.

66 thoughts on “An Atheist's Approach to Death

  1. Terry_in_Sullivan

    I’ve seen death close and personal, it’s not so bad, not as bad as you imagine.  But I refer you to the works of Sir William Crookes for a serious scientific inquiry of this topic, to wit:  We ALL most certainly and really without equivocation continue on in a spiritual form.

  2. AnonyPastor Fred Dinkle

    Why I know That There is a God and That He Loves Me A Personal Testimony. Years ago doubt was creeping into my head about the Lord and then a miracle happened. Three years ago 100 members of my church were enroute to a bible camp in the Blueridge Mountains of Virginia. They were traveling in a chartered bus. As they sang hymns, Satan was up to his old tricks. You see, the bus driver was an atheist alcoholic socialist and that day he was filling his coffee mug with vodka. As the bus wound up through the switchbacks, the driver got progressively drunker. Then it happened. It was that day that changed this poor sinner’s life forever. Entering a particularly tight switchback, the besotted driver finally lost control of the bus and it plummeted 1500 feet down into a ravine where it exploded into a fireball incinerating the flock. The only survivor that day was a young boy who was thrown from the bus by his father seconds before it hit the bottom. This young boy suffered severe brain damage from hitting a rock head first and will have to wear a football helmet and drool cup for the remainder of his life. But his survival proved to me that miracles do happen because God does exist and loves me. The Lord used that accident to bring me back to his flock. Hallelujah! Praise Jesus! Just open your eyes to his miracles and you will see them everywhere.

    1. That’s a terrible argument, what about others who fall victim to tragedy and die? God must be blamed for that as well. You were lucky, but God had nothing to do with it. I know I’ll not change your mind, but others reading this will want this said too. The laws of physics isn’t a miracle.

      1. Jesus Freak

        1) I almost died, to live, to find out my purpose is to praise and  give glory to God. Why didn’t I die?2) As Christians, we’re not to argue. We’re simply telling you what we believe. I don’t believe no one should “shove” regilion down thorats. We show love as God shows us. 3) How is God to blame if someone died, and didn’t believe in Him? The choice is theirs, God doesn’t force anyone to love, that wouldn’t be true love. He knocks, but the choice is yours to let Him in. 

      2. Clayton

        I love how he knocks, and you have to let him in. Like you really have a choice. The alternative in your faiytale book is hell. That is just sick, and not loving. He only loves those who love him back. Sounds like a petty god to me.

      3. Anonymous

        Hell, is not the hot, burning place, where the devil pokes you with his fork, that is the folcloric belief about it, but in truth haven it means being with God (the source of all perfect and loce) while hell is the oposite of it, being without God, without his presence (Seing Him face to face at the last judgement  we can only imagine how it will feel when we will be confronted with the fact that we were rong, we had the chance of being in total harmony with the perfect LOVE, and we chose not to!)

      4. Anonymous

        How can you deny the existence of a God, or a Creator? Are you really attributing the creation of the complex human body to a random explosion caused by free-floating, polar atoms? Do you firmly believe that the perfect ecosystems of planet Earth was created by a reaction? Did you know that if the Earth had been even an inch farther from where it was located, all life on Earth would have melted or froze. Atheists really need to think about what they say and believe before they shoot down believers.

      5. gerard

        I love it when people cite the ‘perfect ecosystems of planet Earth’ as evidence of the existence of God! Because there are countless planets, stars and galaxies that don’t have perfect ecosystems. Yet arguably they would all have had to be created by the same ‘god’. So how do you explain why God needed to create a billion planets that can’t support life (as we know it), when he could have just created the Earth?Also, that’s a very narrow, dim view of Atheists – it’s a fact that most Atheists have thought long and hard about their approach to religion. I know I did. 

    2. Michelle

      Are you serious???This is an argument for you that God exists? What about the many people that died in the accident? What about the boy whose life will practically be a failure having to wear a helmet and a drool cup?? And the saviour of the boy was not God, but his father.”The Lord used that accident to bring me back to his flock.”  — what??? So God killed so many people just for you. As every religious person I’ve met, you’re so arrogant and full of yourself and have the impression that the (eventual) creator of the Universe gives a shit about what you believe.I don’t see any miracles. I just see accidents and bad things happening to both good and bad people. You should open your eyes and live in the real world. People like you give a bad name to all the religious people (because there are a few religious people who are intelligent and would not say something so stupid like you said). Get a life.

      1. Ziggy

        Dude this is an obvious Poe. It uses a commonly remarked on fallacious argument for the existence of God (one person survive improbably where many died) but with a ton of negeative language, and it’s engineered to get laughs, rather than a deep emotional response.

      1. Anonymous

        He successfully trolled two people. Hell, it may have even sparked a response from me if I hadn’t seen that exact story before.Successful troll is successful.

    3. So where was your “god” when everyone else died? And why didn’t your “god” keep the alcoholic from driving? (BTW, the driver’s alcoholism was the problem, not his being socialist nor atheist). Your “testimony” is a testament to your ignorance and desperate need to be loved by an abusive father figure. It’s pretty sick, frankly.

      1. T

        Ha atheist, socialist alcoholic… Ha because all atheists are alcoholics and socialist and… too funny. I wonder if he can even define what socialism is; I would guess not.

    4. Mitch

      You’re serious?
      A drunk bus driver killed a bunch of people and the only survivor of the incident is permanently disabled?

      And you call this a miracle of God?

  3. Lee

    The universe in infinitely large and it has an infinite amount of time to repeat the conditions that allow for each of our existences.  When the lights go out at the end of this existence they will seem to immediately turn on to another.

    1. Anonymous

      You seem to be suggesting the possibility of an infinite regress. Well, I find this to be irrational, and impossible in the real world. An infinite universe would have an infinite set of past events. If there was an infinite set of past events, how did we get to this specific point in that series?  

      1. Anonymous

        “If there was an infinite set of past events, how did we get to this specific point in that series?”Isn’t that just a rephrasing of Zeno’s Paradox?I don’t like the thought of an infinite Universe, though I have a hard time arguing that it’s impossible.

  4. I’m a slightly lapsed Buddhist in that I attended a Buddhist teaching centre for some time in my youth. I think they were a fairly funky branch as their thoughts on everything being temporary consisted of imagining that The Terminator was on the horizon and on his way to get you.One day he might appear nearer but other days he’s taken a bus somewhere else (prior engagement). The point (I believe anyway) was to get accustomed to the fact that nothing lasts forever and not to expect life to plan out in a certain way as Arnie may well catch a direct bus route tomorrow and be knocking on your door so expect this and anything else is a bonus.I tend to believe in reincarnation so death is part of that continuum I see around me in the seasons and in nature and the universe. Obviously this view brings no great help to those facing death or the impending passing of a loved one who each may hold an entirely different viewpoint.

    1. gerard

      Reincarnation was one of the Buddhist concepts I became uncomfortable with, to be honest. That and karma. For much the same reason that I rejected Christianity – none of it verifiable and surrounded by some arcane rules once you start to read into the topic.At the same time, I find the Buddhist approach to be a combination of comforting and somewhat romantic, which is why I warm to it quite a bit!

      1. Jesus Freak

        I knew this guy who was a Buddhist, and he later became a Christian. His Buddhist friends started treating him bad, and didn’t want nothing to do with him. How sad, because I thought Buddhist were for world peace, etc. How’s that being peaceful? 

  5. Travis

    Just this past year I’ve had a pretty close brush with death. I caught some militant strain of flu (No, it wasn’t of the pigly variety), but at its worst, I was nearly incapacitated on my couch running a 106.9 fever. Just a few minutes later, I stopped breathing for about 20 or so minutes. By all accounts, I could’ve have been declared legally dead and should’ve at least suffered severe brain damage.The reason why I mention this is because when I stopped breathing, there was nothing. There was no flash of light, no sudden rememorization of my life, there was only darkness. At first this scared the pants off of me, but later I found it to be comforting. The idea that there was nothing waiting for me after let me concentrate on the life I was living, not the life that might happen after I die.  

  6. Dear Gerard, I find your views refreshing and truthful – exactly the way I see and feel about death. I am not scared, I know that I have tried to do my best here on earth – and I deserve the rest. I will leave four beautiful children – now adults – each with their own beliefs and convictions. I respect all other religions and beliefs and expect people to respect the fact that I’m an Atheist. I wont try to convince anyone to turn from any religion – My path was a difficult one – but once I accepted the truth – I was liberated – my life started anew, and I feel good about myself.My mother passed away 12 years ago after a 10 year illness with a lot of pain. She remained a Christian to the end – All my love and respect for her, but I can’t help believing that she is right there where we buried her – at last without pain.You are so right Gerard – you are born – you live – you die – it is what you do in between that matters.Please, we do not need any religious sermons about someone’s god – we grew up with it – we heard it all – we have seen the pain, humiliation, rape, pillage and unfairness caused by the various gods. I am sure there are enough forums for all these gods. Go preach there. 

  7. But perhaps there is no actual end to life. This body and personhood will die when the time comes, but is anything really dead? Look at it under a microscope and you’ll see life in the ashes of a corpse. I’m just saying – perhaps death is an illusion, maybe life is as well. Quantum Physics is where I’m placing my bet for the answer to this mystery.

  8. Steve

    I’d like to comment on something that I find increasingly baffling…I was born and live in the U.K. I was raised to believe in God (you know the nice white haired old guy). In my early twenties I enjoyed ‘putting straight’ a JW friend of the family, only to become so impressed by his argument that I eventually became a J.W myself. I attended bible study twice a week for the next three years…and learned a lot about the Bible and enjoyed the fellowship of some very sincere people. After these three years of study I became very familiar with the ‘party line’, but found myself increasingly testing the logic/rational (call it what you like) of what I had been taught and what was written in the Bible. I asked to speak to the elders and explained that I had decided after re-evaluating the information that the god Jehovah (or any other god) did not exist. Coming back to my original point …how can ‘thinking’ Bible students continue to go along with all the blatant lies and contradictions that their ‘wish-list’ is based on.

  9. The God Delusion is an excellent book, and one that finally had me admit I’m atheist (previously I was agnostic, not fully understanding it).I struggle with the spelling of the word (atheist) so it’s heartening to see that you do too — in the post URL.From a fellow Norn Irn’er, I hope you’re well.

    1. gerard

      Hi David – I never really struggled with labels – I went through an intense period of questioning when I was a teenager which culminated in the simple realisation that God didn’t exist. I sometimes forget how difficult that transition was, and somehow expecting to be struck down for daring to disbelieve!I’m in the process of reviewing the Dawkins book. There are some areas I agree with and some I don’t. He’s certainly not the fundamentalist that his reputation suggests: I found his reasoning pretty sound even if he stretched his point a little when he tried to explain the rise of religion in evolutionary terms!And yes, shameful misspelling corrected in the post title, but it’s too late for the URL!

  10. Coleman Nogrady

    I guess I started to doubt the God thing at an early age, soon after my father died when I was 12. After I got older and out of the military, I got “saved”,( from nothing I later found out). And realized my father was burning in the ever lasting fires of hell, simply because he didn’t “know” Jesus H Christ. Mucho praying and unrelenting non quid pro from the allmighty, I have given up on all this nonsenseical control that is put out by the religious community. I almost had a revival a few months ago when I convinced myself that my prayers did “something” to help my sitsuations out. The only thing they did was give me a false hope that some mystical and all knowing divinity was watching my back and really had my best interests at heart. Worrying about things is natural, and I guess that praying and repentance is a way to ease your mind about things that you have no control over. Life is not unfair, it is impartial, “luck” is just good or bad things happening according the the impartiality of the way things turn out. To all those that want to belive in a fairy tale of going to good and bad places according to your actions then go for it. There is such a place on earth, it  is called jail. If i presented to a sanity hearing that I wwas foing to be raised from the earth by fantasic beings and took to a bueatiful place, they would lock me up in an institution, as being delusional. So I agree with the atheist point of veiw, that when the light goes out thats the end .    

    1. Jesus Freak

      I have a question. If you say (not you in general, but anyone) says they don’t believe in God, then why do you believe murder is wrong?  And if someone says they don’t believe in absolutes, do you  believe that absolutley? And if someone says they don’t believe in a God never they have never seen, well do have you seen your brains? And what’s are purpose for living? Also, do you believe in evolution? If so, who made the animals etc. ? And the world is a beautiful design. Who’s the designer? (think of a painting, painter) How could life come from non-living material? And what do you even  mean by ‘athiest’. Well what if you were wrong about what you believe? If you were right, they there’s no heaven and hell, I’d have nothing to lose, but what would be the consciences for you if I were right? Back to evolution (for the evolutionsit reading), if it’s true, whats the basis for laws, morals, ethics etc and why do we have different personalities? What fullfillment has being an athesit brought you? How do you know that’s there’s no afterlife, are you dead? 

      1. Anonymous

        Is this a poe? It’s just a list of all the arguments atheists hear all the time. They’re easily answerable if you just ask yourself the questions while seeing things as existing just as they are, but without a god hiding everywhere. Pretend that god isn’t there. How many of these questions can you then answer yourself?

  11. Anonymous

    I believe in God. To me just looking at the Universe, it seems hard to believe that is just appeared and was not designed. If the Earth was a little bit closer to the Sun it would be to hot to support life, if it was a little bit further it would be too cold. It seems that all these perfect conditions were met for us to exist. Organized religion is difficult at best, they have pushed me away time and again.  I think Christians have made Christianity very dificult to be a part of. I think they use Hell to manipulate people. I don’t believe that people burn for eternity because they didn’t hear about Jesus. Why would God put that responsibility on us? I think deep down we all know the truth, but we all see through a muddy glass at this point. We really don’t understand, it is impossible for us to. 

    1. God or Gods are culturally relativistic concepts that we use to help us understand what we can’t understand. The quasi-logic is that if we can’t comprehend it, then some greater “entity” than us must have had a hand in it. From there it devolves into the religions we see in all human cultures.

      1. Jesus Freak

        First off, the Bible says there is only one God. (Isaiah 46:9) And if what you said about we use ‘gods’ to help us understand what we cannot understand, then why is there so many questions? 

    2. Jesus Freak

      Some things, God makes known to us, others, aren’t known. We don’t use hell to manipulate people, hell is a real, and scarey place. And God calls us Christians’ hearts to break for non-believers. Mine does. I don’t want others to burn forever in hell, it’s sad. God also gives the responability and authority to tell others and show others His love. (even in places that Christianity is forbidden) So I will make dicicples making dicicples. Lots of time, deffinitly in our generation, people lack faith, and want “proof” But the Bible says that we should live by faith, not sight ( 2 Corinthians 5:7). I agree with the whole, sun, earth you mentioned. Everything is exactly where it should be. Thanks to God. Our responsibilty, as Christians is to praise Him and make dicicples, and to spread His love. He asked us too. And if you really loved Him, you would. 

  12. blue

    I’m an atheist and I also believe that we have just one life, no second chances, no afterlife. But I must also admit that I do not find this viewpoint liberating. The perspective of an inevitable death for the people I love makes me sick. The world is such a nasty and horrible place. I feel tired with all these proud, almost obligatory atheist comments – sometimes I have an impression that as an atheist I am supposed to be explaining all the time how I value life more than religious zealots, how much joy my atheism gives to me, how ready I am to accept death, how natural – or maybe even how sexy death is. That’s our public policy, right? But I’m fed up with politics and all this politically correct stuff. Sorry guys.

    1. Richard R.

      It means a lot to me to read this comment, because I’ve started to feel I was alone in feeling any of these things. Most of my friends are atheist as well, but none of them seem to mind the concept of death at all. And I’ve read so many comments like the original blog post or Roger Ebert’s discussions of the liberating quality of an absolute end. But I fail relate to any of it.As much as I may want to make peace with it, I can no more make myself believe that the nothingness is perfectly okay than I can make myself believe in an afterlife. Perhaps it’s because I was never raised with any serious religious indoctrination in the first place, so I don’t find anything freeing in the simple, unvarnished fact of death. From the time I was a small child, I’ve been terrified deep down in my core by the knowledge that I and everyone I love will eventually *stop*.Fine, it’s not the worries of heaven or hell. But it’s not floating in the black, endless void either. It’s *not being*. It’s that lost time between sleeping and waking when we know nothing at all…stretched out always, for all the incalculable years to come. The same at the first second of death as in the ten billionth year, when even this planet has fallen to dust and everything that was ever humanity has been washed away. I don’t understand how anyone can be so sanguine in the face of that. It’s completely beyond me.I turn 31 in a few days. My father died three years ago, at the age of 62. My mother is 71 and in relatively poor health. I spend each day mindful of the fact that it could be my mother’s last. Whenever it does come, I frankly have no idea how I will cope. The fact that she will cease to be is an intolerable pain that brings tears just typing about it like this. And even if it isn’t quite as acute a stab straight through me, the knowledge that the end awaits my nieces and nephews, the youngest of whom is just 3, makes my stomach churn.Everyone who has ever been dear to me, everyone I’ve known – and everyone I haven’t known – will all come to nothing. I would call it “unacceptable,” but that word is meaningless here. Accepting or not accepting is irrelevant, as the end was assured from the moment there was a beginning.That’s where I part ways with so many atheists, apparently. Because that certainty gives me no solace…only suffering. It hurts so, so much that all of them and all of you will one day stop. It hurts so, so much that so many who have mattered to me, along with everyone who has ever mattered to anyone (and even those to whom they mattered) do not exist anymore.And I haven’t even yet touched on the big fear…my own end. Every night when preparing to sleep, I say goodbye to the world, in case I never wake again – or in case I don’t make it to bed the next night. And whether it’s 31 minutes from now or 31 years, I know that the day will arrive when there isn’t another morning. When everything I’ve learned, everything I’ve felt, even the very knowledge that *I am*…will vanish.No silence. No emptiness. For those terms to have meaning, it necessitates there could even *be* an absence of something – much like a hole is defined by its borders. Death is not the absence of life. It’s not the absence of anything. It’s *not*.Whenever I think about my last moment (as I am right now), the panic grips me again. The fact that there will be a thought which is *never* followed by another overwhelms me. It grabs hold to such an extent that I find it hard to breathe.Will that final thought be the sluggish fear of a mind succumbing to disease? Will it be the stark terror of an instant of violent pain? Or, most likekly, will it be the all-consuming dread derived from the knowledge that my body has suddenly and spectacularly failed me?Perhaps, as I suggested, it will come as an endless sleep. Or maybe it will come in a flash, and the nothingness will arrive without me even realizing it was approaching (say, a stray bullet as I’m walking down the street). Regardless of the means, awareness will cease and there will be no more me. And I’m so very scared.I realize that’s there’s nothing for it, but the fear remains. And I’ve really had no one to talk to about any of this…so your comment truly does lessen the weight on me ever so slightly. It may not change what’s to come, but it does help me to know that someone understands why these things cause me so much fear and pain.

      1. blue

         Richard, it’s really good to hear that my comment lessened some of the weight …  I must say, I understand you  so well. You expressed in an extremely vivid way my own thoughts. Thanks for that. I have a daughter, she is 11, and I’m scared so much for her. There is a very, very thin line beyond which the horror begins … and as it happens, some of us are unlucky enough to live in a constant awareness of it – of the fact that this line is so close to us, all the time, with every breath we take.  I also part ways with so many atheists, in exactly the same place as you. I’m not sure how it really works for them. Maybe they feel liberated because in their life religion was such a burden? This doesn’t concern me; I wasn’t raised in a particularly religious family, I’ve never had to fight with religious demons – maybe that’s why there is no such zeal in me, I don’t know. But I have other demons to cope with, more sinister, because they are real and always close, so frighteningly close. So, how does an atheist deal with real demons? Like with death? Oh, let’s think. Hmmm … she fights. Every day she loses a battle. Soon, very soon, she will lose the war. 

      2. gerard

        I think it’s funny that one commenter referred to “atheist policy” – if there was an official policy, that would be dangerously close to doctrine, and we all know how shy atheists are of those!As the original poster, I took a few moments to re-read this post. It was written over two years ago when I was experiencing the death of my father first-hand. What strikes me is that I waffled on a lot about liberation from the fear of “final judgements” or “eternal damnation”. To put it bluntly, I barely give those things a moment’s thought.Speaking personally, I believe that we humans collectively overrate the value of our lives. That’s why we freak out about dying. We’re too important to die. Or too busy to die. Or whatever your rationale is.The thing about death is…it’s death. It’s the end. You don’t exist in a state of blackness for eternity. There’s no void. You’re done. Your body will decay, but you won’t feel it because your consciousness will have ceased to exist. What’s wrong with that? Why should that inspire terror?With that in mind, you must focus on the life you have. Enjoy yourself. Don’t tolerate things that make you unhappy (but don’t be a selfish arse either). Do things that make you and the people you love happy and contented.At least, that’s what works for me. I understand that my outlook might not work for everybody, but it works for me. I’d hate to think that there are people out there who are living in terror of death. Being old and sick and incontinent is much more terrifying!

      3. blue

         Hi Gerard, it was me who commented about “atheist policy” and when I now read it I realize that I owe you two things: explanation and apology. I start with an explanation. That was just a phrase, I don’t promote any conspiracy theory (all these fellow atheists with their policies directed against me, that would be nice, ha ha :-)). It was just … well, just an expression of irritation. I look sometimes at the discussions on the net and I feel weird. I’m an atheist but I have a serious problem with death and dying; I’m not sure at all that religion is harmful (it gives solace to so many poor, suffering and dying people, so who cares that it’s false!); I don’t think that if someone is religious then he must be stupid … and so on, and so on, there is a lot of this. And I don’t want to discuss it here, no way. It’s just that … oh, try to understand. As an atheist, I belong to a minority group, but you know … when I read discussions between atheists on the net I think sometimes: oh girl, you are a minority freak even in your own minority group‼! You get what I mean? Then I got depressed or irritated, depending on the mood; I react emotionally and that was it. Now my apologies. You were experiencing the death of your father and I shouldn’t give a comment in this style. When I read it now, it looks very callous. Even if my feelings were different I shouldn’t have put it like that. I’m not really a callous person, I was just thoughtless. I’m sorry for that. As for the rest, I don’t think that that people like Richard or me consider ourselves “too important or too busy to die” – it’s not that, reread Richard’s post, he put it better than I ever could.  It’s also not that death “should” inspire terror – there are no “shoulds” here, it just happens to some people. Oh, and I think the advice you are giving is very good – if only I could take it!!! In fact I’m afraid I will never be that reasonable 😦 

      4. gerard

        Hey Blue – no worries, I’ve been on the web long enough to develop the hide of a rhino! On reflection, the title “An Atheist’s Approach To Death” does sound a little all-encompassing, doesn’t it?You’re quite right that not everybody can adopt my viewpoints here, and I’m kind of glad that there have been a few different opinions in the comments.I’m intrigued that you manage to keep up with new comments on this post – how do you do that?

      5. blue

        Ok, so I will not worry :)I’m probably stupid but I don’t understand your question – how do I do what? What’s the problem with adding new comments? I’m just using the “reply” function.

      6. Richard,Thank you for your honesty.  You have expressed feelings that I too have felt and been unable to share with anyone.  Death is terrifying. But I am not willing to give up searching for meaning in life.  Perhaps it just comes down to loving the people we’re closest too while we are still together.  But the inevitable loss of that closeness is so painful to contemplate.  I am trying not to become completely cynical and despondent.  Reading such honest and direct remarks such as yours helps knowing that others sturggle with death as I do.  Thanks.

      7. stella

        Wow, i cant possibly express how awesome it is to hear you say this, and so well… the fear and pain of knowing that its only a matter of time before I am  nothing is agonizing. when ever I try to talk to other atheists about the subject, they always claim to be perfectly fine with it so it feels so good to validate these feelings. I will never be fine with it, in fact its kind of the most horrible thing imaginable to me. I constantly think about all the people and animals that have died in the history of history and it absolutely breaks my heart. people who had a thoughts and feelings, a whole universe inside their heads, and now they are dust, and I will be too. Everything that matters to me will cease to matter, my world will turn off and my body will rot. The only thing that I will leave behind is the effect I have on other peoples’ worlds and its only a matter of time before they turn into nothing too. I am not cool with this… if I could press a button that made me believe in some religious delusion, I’d press it without a second thought. I think that for those who can’t deal with the whole being nothing thing (which i suspect most religious people are),a religious fantasy is an excellent coping mechanism. Unfortunately for me, I think I would require a lobotomy. Anyway, thank you both. It is mildly comforting to know that I’m not alone.

      8. Moosemessier

        HolY crap I finally found someone whom exactly thinks as i do. Like I wrote this. I need to contact you. It is debilitating.

      9. Dalton F.

        Don’t feel alone, Richard – exactly the same feelings have hit me recently. Reading this years-old post was like reading the inside of my own head.

  13. Anonymous

    I have to say that I find it annoying in the extreme that there are so many comments arguing about the existence of God.  How about actually commenting on what’s in the post, instead of trying to advance your own cause? I’m more interested in reading about how people view death- in particular how atheists deal with death and dying.
    I am 31, my dad passed away almost 2 years ago from colon cancer- he was 52.  About 4 or 5 years ago I became an atheist after reading Bob Avakian’s book Away With All Gods- Unchaining the Mind, and Radically Changing the World.  I thought that I might be at a disadvantage before I went back home to wait for the inevitable.  Turns out I had a better grasp on the reality at hand than others in my family.
    One family member in particular was still hoping that God would work a miracle, and bring him back to life- her reasoning was that now God would show everyone his power, after the doctors and medicine had stopped working, now He would step in.  To which I replied that even if this were the case, that it would be really hard to physically recover from where he was at.  (He hadn’t eaten real food in over two months, and although only 52, he appeared to be much, much older.) I think this got through to her somewhat, it was soon after that she decided to stop the nutrient IV treatments-which were helping to keep him alive.
    There were other people that expressed that they were trying to understand WHY this happened to dad.  WHY would God let him die, and have him die the way way that he died.  WHY him, WHY us, WHY me?  Having unsubscribed from the idea of God’s Plan, there was none of that line of questioning for me.  If there is no plan, there is no metaphysical explanation for WHY dad died how and when he died.  Sure, there were reasons why he got cancer.  He smoked, not heavily, but I’m sure that increased his chances for getting cancer.  He didn’t get a colonoscopy at 50, like everyone should, so the doctors didn’t catch it till it was stage 2 or 3.  He might’ve been exposed to some environmental toxins in the city where he grew up, or later on in the military.  Who knows for sure?  For me there was no way to answer this question, and I don’t have to worry myself trying to figure out if I am somehow being punished in some way.
    After he died, yes, I felt sad…and relieved for him that he was through suffering.  I don’t believe that he is in some other world ‘in a better place’ as people say, but seeing the suffering that he did in the months before he died- I am glad that’s over for him.
    I miss him, terribly, and there’s mixed feelings that I can’t ‘take comfort’ in possibly being re-united with him after I die, or that he’s in a ‘better place.’  But that comfort is one I know to be an illusion, and it would be false comfort.  The whole idea of death seems surreal to me at times, even though I’ve watched it happen.  Grief is weird, and sometimes things hit me in unexpected ways. I don’t think that grief is easy whether you are an atheist or a believer.  Death hurts the living- that’s just a fact.  And watching someone die is not easy either. 
    I loved the story about the Bible handed to the dying atheist- my own dad was sort of a recovering catholic, and not big on religion, although I think he still believed…he wasn’t very open about what he thought on that topic.  I think he was somewhat afraid to die, and he certainly felt some bitterness about dying, and leaving his family behind, but I know that he was tired…and I think resigned that he wasn’t going to pull through. 
    To conclude, even though my feelings about my dad’s death and an afterlife are somewhat contradictory, I am overall profoundly glad that I am an atheist, and I am certain that I will continue to feel glad that I am an athiest, whatever happens in my life.  God does not exist, and I don’t need God in order to grieve. I don’t need God in order to live well.

  14. Al

    I personally know beyond a shadow of a doubt that an incredibly loving God exists and there is no debate/aurguement that could change my mind……  To the author of this article….I am sad for you, that you feel you will be saying good-bye to your father forever…..With all due respect I don’t understand how this frame of mind makes you feel more at peace than a frame of mind that helps you deal with missing him by giving you comfort that you will see him again when YOU die.  And also to the author:  How do  you account for the hundreds of thousands of near-death-experiences in which people adamently and firmly state that they were not dreaming and in fact the experience was more real to them than their entire physical life?  Does not this evidence move you to consider the possibility of an afterlife?  And if your aurguement is that you yourself have not experienced a near-death-experience personally, therefore you cannot consider it evidence for yourself: Consider the following senerio for a moment:  Must you experience being badly burnt yourself to know that it hurts very much?  Would seeing the experience and reaction of another person being burnt be enough to let you know this is a very painful experience?  We all learn from the experiences of others so why do you reject (I’m assuming you do) the near-death-experiences of others as a learning tool for yourself as to what death might hold?  I mean no disrespect; best wishes to you.

  15. cat

    u see im not afraid of dying at all and i know theres nothing after and it gives me peace to know that , i have been an athiest since i could remember . the thing i am worried about if when my family and friends go before me how will i cope? there is lots of comfort in faith i read the notes and poems about babies going to heaven in gods embrace smiling and having wings in heaven and i know its a crock of poo but i know that when the time comes im going to wish i could believe these things so i could give my heart comfort that my loved ones r somewhere good and are not inevitably gone forever . but i truly know that when we die we are going to rot and turn into natural material and thats the end . im ok with it happening to me and right now since i have experienced no signifuigant losses i am ok with the thought as well but at that moment after someone has gone unexpectedly or even with time im going to wish there was something more .. u get what im saying ??

  16. SamuelV

    I got to this page by “coincidence”; I planned on researching the Dawkins book after seeing him debate with a Muslim journalist on TV. His argument is scientific indeed and in this debate/interview he essentially ridiculed the Old Testament and spoke of how God (to him) seemed vindictive, jealous,etc. He asks the Muslim man if he believes that his God flew to Heaven on a winged horse. The Muslim man confirms his belief to Dawkins and adds that he also believes in miracles. Anyhow, as Dawkins is stating his case he says something that I won’t forget. He rhetorically asks why people must worship this “jealous” God and why they can’t believe/worship (in) a “universal spirit.” I myself refer to God as the “universal spirit” so I suppose this is why I remembered him saying this. I thought, so Dawkins, do you just not believe in the Bible and other religious texts and teachings but “ponder” or maybe have considered that their may be a “universal spirit” that is not necessarily God or a God? (Dawkins may have said universal entity or something else but certainly said universal.)
    I somehow got to this page and couldn’t help but read some of the comments. I read an older comment where someone is telling a story about a church bus crashing and killing all aboard except a young boy who was thrown off the bus by his father before the bus met it’s demise. The person commenting is stating that “miracles” like this are why he believes in God. Someone else then (of course) comments on how this argument is weak and what about all the people that died on the bus? Interesting point and just the same, why does God allow bad things to happen? I personally don’t believe that this “universal spirit” is a “being” nor do I believe that it views death as we do. I have always believed that we all live many lives. Call it a “hunch.” Recently there have been some very compelling arguments that reincarnation does indeed exist, take place, and is a part of the universe. There is a book about 20 case studies on reincarnation that I have not read but will eventually read. I would like to know Dawkins’ thoughts on reincarnation. (And the thoughts of you all, of course.) It seems like Dawkins will talk to anyone listening so I’m sure he’s mentioned it before.
    (I’ll end up researching this tonight.)
    I would also like to know what you all (and Dawkins) think about people who can contact the spirit world.(Psychics, clairvoyants, etc.) Are they all lying, mentally ill, and hearing voices in their heads, hallucinating spirits? How is that explained? There is a TV show called the “Dead Files” where a a lady sees and speaks to the dead. Either she is a liar and scam artist or she is the “real deal.” I believe her and there are plenty like her I’m sure. Anyhow, she sometimes mentions that whatever she sensed, saw, or spoke to, was “not human and never was human.” Apparently an entity that can be created by negative acts, thoughts, etc. Some she says, are ancient. Conversely, there must be “entities” that can be created by acts of unselfish love, bringing a balance to the universe, right?
    Because I do believe in reincarnation, there must be something that takes place after we die. I’ve read some very fascinating books on these topics. One book that changed my life has a title that does not do it justice. As I was reading this book, it “rang a bell.” As I kept reading, it made sense to me. (It was not the Bible.) It “spoke” to me and I “felt” it. It speaks of unselfish love, reincarnation, karma, etc. This book then “took” me to another (more ancient) reading that I had never heard of until that day. It is supposed to “present” itself to those who are ready to understand. It spoke of universal laws such as hot & cold not being opposites but the same, just different degrees. And that you are what your thoughts are. This too made sense to me!
    Using reincarnation as an example and given much evidence, how can you deny the idea? What if non-believers (and Dawkins) could “tag along” with someone who knows of the spirit world. Would they still deny the idea of life after death? If not, what would that do to their thoughts of God or the Universal Spirit? You do not have to believe in the Bible to believe. Absence of proof is not proof of absence.
    This completes my comment and as I described a few books that changed my life, the only one I will name is the book that the title does not do justice. A very lame title but a TREMENDOUS read, no matter what you believe. If nothing else, you will laugh at the many lessons the man learns from his teacher. It is titled, “The Lost Teachings of Atlantis” by Jon Peniel. Thanks for reading. One thing we ALL have in common is that we seek THE truth. Also, “there is no greater wisdom than kindness.”

  17. Maurya Murphey

    While this has a nice perspective on one’s own death, it says little to me about coping with the death of others, the loss of a child or partner, for instance. It seems that many of us agnostic/atheist/non-believers tend to have a balanced view of dying, but not so much on living with loss. It would be nice if more non-believers would talk about this subject, because it is just as inevitable as our own deaths. To me the biggest issue with death is NOT that I am going to die, but that I may have to live with the terrible loss of those I love.

    1. Holly

      I feel the exact same way. Fine. Ok. I will die and cease to exist. But the thought of my son eventually dying…unbearable. Also, witnessing his anguish when dealing with loss is in terribly difficult. He’s so young, 4 yrs old. He keeps trying to find a loophole in death so he can see his cat (she died when he was 2) again. And his fear knowing I I’ll die, and someday he will die. It’s brutal. I’m jealous of the parents who can simply say “your cat is in a better place” or “don’t worry, you’ll see them again” etc etc.

  18. Simon

    Amazing comments by Richard R about death. Elaborating all our fears about death indeed. Such a heartbreaking concept isnt it to be given this amazing life and then it is all snatched away from us in an instant.

  19. IceDragon

    I lost my dad this year to prostate cancer. He’d been ill for years with something completely unrelated and we found out just before the New Year that he had it. He was dead by the 10th Feb, but he was an Atheist until the end.When we found out it was terminal, someone gave him a bible and he just looked at it and said “what will I need that for?” before handing it to my mum. He never even glanced at it again.I just hope that when the time comes, I can die with the same strength, the same presence of thought and the same attitude as he did. He was very much into country music and the last thing he said was “the indians are winning”. He wasn’t scared, just so apologetic that he couldn’t be with us longer.He was 58. I just hope that I make my kids as proud as he made us.I’m an Atheist, I’m proud to be one, and I’m just happy that my parents both gave me the choice to be whatever I wanted to be.You’ll come out of this a better person, and as cliched as it sounds, I know exactly what you’re going through. Your dad sounds like a great guy.

    1. gerard

      58 is incredibly young, IceDragon. My own father has a good ten years on top of that. Clearly we have no idea how long he’s got, but it’s all about making the most of what time we’ll have left.Your story is a comfort though, and your father’s actions seem to have given you strength too.

    2. Jesus Freak

      What do you mean by ‘ I am atheist?’ How are you proud of being it, what fullfillment has it brought you? 

  20. Yan

    Thanks for the post. I understand why some people would bash ‘believers’ for what they have to say. I grew up an atheist but attended Catholic schools (I know it’s ironic). That said, there are times when I actually envy believers. I wish I was capable of just accepting beliefs without questioning them. My mom was a typical Christian (I don’t mean that in a bad way) and a real believer. She died of cancer a few years ago. All I can say is she was the bravest woman I’ve known. She was cheerful and thankful of life – through and though.I’m not trying to argue here, but I think this ‘God delusion’ means a lot to people who genuinely believes in God. Their faith is something I might not fully understand, perhaps in the same way they won’t understand why I am not capable of believing in a supernatural god.I guess what I’m trying to say is it doesn’t really matter if you believe in God or not. I think life and death is more of how you live the former and welcome (for lack of a better word) the latter.

  21. cgosling

    Being Dead

    Ever wonder what it’s like being dead?
    No longer being here but, being there instead?

    Looking ahead at afterlife,
    will there be happiness and little strife?
    Will heaven be like you were told?
    Will you walk upon streets of gold?
    Will you sing in heavenly choir
    and pity those in Satan’s fire?
    Will they let you own a dog
    and will you have a place to jog?

    What about burgers and fries?
    What about cookies and pies?
    What about a baseball game?
    Will TV programs be the same?
    Will your friends be there beside you
    and will the grass be wet with dew?
    Will there be a swimming pool
    where kids can play in waters cool?

    So, if you think about being dead,
    another choice you might want instead.
    How about a long peaceful sleep
    without a morning time to keep?
    How about no more pain,
    no more problems, no more strain?
    What about eternal rest
    guaranteed to be the best?

    It makes no difference which you choose
    when your future, you finally lose
    simply because it’s not your choice.
    In its selection you have no voice.
    So don’t ever worry about being dead,
    getting there is worse it’s said.
    When fate’s appointment you must keep,
    just hope it arrives while you’re asleep.

    The time will come when we will perish
    so every day we all must cherish,
    live our lives with love and zest,
    and fulfill our dreams before we rest.

  22. Trevor

    I don’t call myself anything. To me, Atheism is almost like a religion. Even Dawkins teeters between the word Atheist and Agnostic. I think it’s liberating just saying “I don’t know.”

    As for death, I don’t think I’m afraid. However, when the time comes, if I’m aware of it, I may be afraid. I think it’s only natural to have fear of the unknown. It’s a defense mechanism. Fortunately, I’m intelligent enough to know this and realize that fear is only an emotional response to certain stimuli. I’ve searched for the answers for a long time now and have concluded that life after death is most likely not going to happen for anyone, unless some technological innovation comes along and is able to transfer a person’s consciousness into a new body. I’m more afraid of not living my life to the fullest.

    Death is almost a welcome thing for me. I’ve lived with bipolar disorder my whole life. I’ve pretty much lived in misery most of my life. Despite my challenges I have learned to appreciate those blissful moments of freedom from it. Just looking at the blue sky, the flowers, the mountains, children playing, really makes me appreciate my own life. I hope at death that I look back at those things and smile and not regret missing out.

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