Atheism and Death: First Request

My recent experience with death and dying hit me in two ways:

First, as the guy in the middle of it, thinking and feeling it first hand, I’m grappling with … oh, all kinds of stuff. I still get hit, several times a day, with these waves of mental discord. Something interesting happens and this wordless thought-form pops into my head: “Hey, I should call the Old Man and tell him about …” followed instantly by this second thought-form that translates into “Oh. I can’t. Ever. … Shit.”

But second, the experience revs an insistent engine in my head, “You’re a writer! Write a book!”

So I’m thinking about it.

(Actually, one part of the reason for it is that I feel I owe something to all the people who donated to make my trip to California possible. I owe you a full accounting of the experience, the something-special your generosity made possible.)

I’d like to ask a couple of things, one of them I’ll put here, the second (related to your own experiences with facing the death of loved ones as an atheist) I’ll put in the adjacent post, Second Request.


Tell me what you think of the following. It’s a first approximation of a letter, almost certainly way too long (I’ll probably cut out the part about the “culture” of atheism, for instance, but I wanted you to know some of my thoughts on the larger subject), to potential agents and publishers.

I’d also like to know what you think of the book idea itself. I worry that it’s … I don’t know, pretentious. I worry that I might not do it justice. And even that it might somehow steal something away from the profound struggle of our beloved Christopher Hitchens, who is facing the prospect of death in an even-more-personal way.

Thoughts? Suggestions? Criticisms?


Dear [Agent or Publisher]:

I’m the author of the glowingly-reviewed Red Neck Blue Collar Atheist: Simple Thoughts About Reason, Gods & Faith.

I’m planning a new book, tentatively titled “Saying Goodbye to Dan: An Atheist Deals With Death.”

I recently lost my “Dad,” Dan Farris, a good friend I’ve known since 1975, someone who was closer to me than my own blood-relative father.

He lived in California, I now live in New York. I heard he was sick only after he was already in the hospital and had started refusing food and water. I desperately wanted to see him, but because of some serious financial issues, it was completely impossible. I couldn’t have afforded even a taxi ride to the airport, much less tickets, car rental, motel room, etc.

I started thinking about which friends I could borrow money from, and coming up short. I had little hope of making the trip, but almost as an afterthought, I posted an appeal on my Blue Collar Atheist blog (on FreeThought Blogs), along with a PayPal donation button.

The response was incredible, and I mean that literally. My original thinking was that if a few generous readers donated a few dollars, maybe as much as $50 total, it would make the trip slightly more possible. But the atheist/freethought community jumped in with generosity off the scale of anything I expected.

Within 20 minutes of posting the appeal, I had more than $150. I left my desk at that time, and was able to check my PayPal account only several hours later. But when I did, I was astonished to find the total close to $900 and rapidly rising.

Using my Droid phone, I posted a short followup blog note titled “Everybody Stop Sending Money!” but before I could get home and remove the PayPal button from the previous post, donations totaled more than $1,200. (That turned out to be a really good thing — I didn’t realize it at the time, but last-minute plane tickets are expensive as hell.)

The book would be about three things:

One, my relationship with my Dad — why he was so special to me, and so special as a human being. Dan was a “mule packer,” a real, no-kidding mountain man and wilderness guide who took people on camping trips in California’s High Sierra for close to 60 years. I met him on the job as a mule packer myself, and worked with him for a couple of summers, our friendship becoming closer and closer until I considered him my true Dad. He was a unique character, a cowboy and horseman, teacher and mentor, back-country cook, unmatched teller of campfire tales, fan of Louis L’Amour westerns, friend to dogs and horses, sometime cowboy poet, legendary bare-knuckled bar fighter, irrepressible lover of women, and world-class friend.

Two, the fact that I’m an atheist, and went through the very personal loss of a dear friend and “family” member without the supposed solace of religion. I was there stroking his forehead and talking to him when he drew his last breath. Lacking any sort of god-belief, I had to work to understand what was happening in my life and mind as I lost somebody so precious to me.

Three, the amazing fact that the atheist community – cold and heartless in the majority public view – jumped in so avidly to make it possible to visit my dad and sit with him through his final few days.

I see the book as a warm accounting of the first bit, with a narrative overwrap of the second bit, touching on atheism at several points throughout the tale of what Dan was and what he meant to me. The third part could be handled as either a mild but significant aside mentioned one or more times in the accounting, or as a punchy ending bringing into focus the issues of atheism and compassion in regards to death – which in our society seems perpetually the triumphant domain of religion.

The journey to California itself will come into the book, as I flew and then drove the 24-hour trip to Dan’s side, with a lot about our friendship, and Dan’s own fantastic life, interleaved into it as back-story. (As part of this back-story, I have countless warm, funny personal anecdotes, and even a number of photos of Dan taken over the 35 years I’ve known him.)

Atheism and atheists are invariably slighted in the majority-religious public view in the United States. We’re considered totally divorced from even mundane ethical and moral issues such as why not to steal from fellow members of society. The picture of us dealing with death in a close and personal way, without resorting to trite religious formulations of “we’ll be together again someday in glorious paradise” is simply not there.

Given the fact that atheism has always been an ugly stepchild of larger society, it’s likely that most atheists don’t have good mental models for dealing with death. We’re left to individual fumbling coping devices – each of us, each time, reinventing the philosophical wheel – when it happens.

To every religionist, the idea that people really die, that they vanish forever from the world and our lives, is something cold and merciless. To them, it seems typically Atheist, coming across even as hateful – as if by spreading such ideas we seek to kill their beloved grandmothers all over again.

But, as I would relate in this first-person account, there are some good reasons why understanding true death, the permanent cessation of life in loved ones, is desirable – both for the individual and for society. On the flip side, there are reasons why believing that people live on in Heaven for all eternity, and wait for us there for loving reunions, is a bad thing.

The Market, and Related Matters:

It appears to me the book would help create a new niche – atheism and the art of living. It has, as far as I’ve seen, no competitors.

Given the status of atheism in the modern world, the literature so far has addressed the question “WHY should I reject religion?” Society-wide, readers first needed to hear arguments against religion, why it and how it fails, and the negative ways it impacts modern rational society, before they could move on to other aspects of thought.

In Red Neck Blue Collar Atheist, I sought to address this other question: “HOW do I reject religion?” Written from my own experience, the book dealt with the actual  mental mechanics of atheism – how a person might think, how he might understand and act – in daily living.

Generally speaking, even this handful of years after atheism splashed into public view with best-sellers such as The God Delusion, God is Not Great, and The End of Faith, I think most of us still misunderstand the bigger picture of what we’re dealing with.

It’s been said that Islam is at once a religion, a culture, and something of a government. Less so in some ways, the same is true of Christianity.

For those who embrace it closely, religion embodies a moral code, a guidebook to daily living, an arrangement of yearly holidays and family gatherings, ways to approach birth and death and marriage, a scattershot of daily-to-yearly ceremonies large and small – even something to say when people sneeze. For many of us, it offers even a guide on how to vote and be a citizen.

Because religion is vastly more than “I believe in God,” I think we’ll be forced to realize that any community comprised of atheists will eventually need to provide more than just “We DON’T believe in God.”

Because I want an end to religious control of human lives, I see this as a society-wide issue. But even aside from that, each atheist individual has to grapple with religion-related cultural furnishings packing the rooms of his mind.

Redecorating the interior of his head, so to speak, an atheist has to figure out whether or not to replace the metaphorical Christian table and Christian bed and Christian desk and chair … and what to replace it with.

The fact that even confirmed atheists grapple with arguments on whether or not to celebrate Christmas, whether to reject or quietly accept the god-bless-yous that come our way every time we sneeze in public, or even the basic definition of “atheism,” we are not very far along in this process.

The assumption appears to be that other ceremonies or social habits will somehow quietly move in and fill whatever void the departure of religion causes, at the will of each individual. I’ve met exactly zero atheists who are willing to address questions of deliberate social engineering.

However, speaking as someone who had to figure out atheism almost totally on his own, and over literal decades, I damned sure wish I’d had some outside advice during that transition.

Besides which, the public selling of atheism is itself a bit of social engineering. I think it’s a shame to leave all these other questions – how to deal with the death of a beloved family member, for instance – totally up to the imagination of the distressed relatives.

I see this larger cultural addressment not as a top-down, draconian “this is how you must do it” (making atheism into just another social sledgehammer), but as a friendly talk to equals: “This is how one guy did it” or “this is how some of us do it.” It would offer a mental model for approval or rejection by individual readers. It would at least be SOMETHING for those of us floundering in the necessary creation of our own individual habits and understandings in our religion-free lives.

Anyway, “Saying Goodbye to Dan: An Atheist Deals With Death” will provide a deep and hopefully touching look at how one atheist handled (and is handling) the death of a loved one.

I’d like to write it. Would you like to publish it?

Hope to hear from you soon. And thanks!

Hank Fox

Beta Culture: Being Grownups on Planet Earth
Race and Culture Again: Bessie and Lois
Zoning Out on Liberal vs. Conservative Issues
  • Ophelia Benson

    I think it’s a great idea.

    I also think you shouldn’t second-guess it too much. There are a squillion theist books out there on every subject there is, so the more atheists can think of books to write on little out of the way subjects like death and friendship and love and generosity, the better.

  • Ophelia Benson

    Besides, you make a great case for it. That’s a goooood book proposal. (At least, if I were a publisher, I would certainly think so.)

    Watch out, you might have a contract by the end of the day!

  • rwahrens

    Because religion is vastly more than “I believe in God,” I think we’ll be forced to realize that any community comprised of atheists will eventually need to provide more than just “We DON’T believe in God.”

    Outstanding! I’ve been talking about this in my local area secular humanist meetings, and have had little real understanding of what that entails from the other members.

    It is nice that someone with a little reach into the blogosphere does!

    Yes! Write it! I’ll buy it for sure.

    On a more personal note, I am sorry for the loss of your friend and Dad. My own experience with my mother’s death a few years ago presented me with similar feelings. It resulted in my becoming an atheist. May you always remember him with fondness, you honor him by helping us get to know him.

  • Big Mountain

    Well, if I was the one to receive that letter, I would certainly want to publish this book. Since I am not a publisher, but a rabid book consumer, I can tell you right now that I would buy it.
    I really hope someone picks this up because it’s a brilliant idea.

  • mikeg

    You’re an amazing writer, and I hope to buy the book if it ever gets to that point.

    I agree that Islam and Christianity set out a whole blue print for life where you ought to act like this is a certain situation whereas atheism provides a more fluid framework. (Which you noted by saying ‘this is what one guy did’.) It seems so much more… practical.

    My dealing with death and my first days of atheism are tied quite closely:

    Two years ago, my grandfather (92 at the time) fell ill. He was a farmer all his life, and up until two months before he died, I was out there with him. Not many guys around like him anymore, tough as a nail and sharp- he could tell you every political affair since the depression.

    He was like my father, (our stories parallel in many ways)and I was struggling very hard with his passing. I wasn’t yet nineteen at the time and I was going through a very ‘spiritual’ time. At this point I broke away from organized religion, but still believed the woo of it all.His death really made me examine my beliefs and helped me forge a unique lens to view the world around me.

    At the moment of his death I think I knew that there wasn’t any supreme being, nor afterlife. I went along with the pomp of the funeral (family are devout Catholics) because it seemed like that was what I needed to do during that time. I still hadn’t even admitted my atheist to myself yet, so pondering ceremony and interactions with religious relatives was still beyond my scope at this point.

    I remember speaking at his funeral. I included stories about wrestling with my 70 year old grandpa when I was a kid. Things of that nature. I also read an excerpt of Swineburn’s ‘Garden of Proserpine’ (check that out for a cool atheist’s poem dealing with death.). And that was it. I didn’t focus on the afterlife, I wanted to honor his memory and share the moment with those still alive.

    What really got me through those times was thinking about the how much my grandpa (being a farmer) valued utility. He has a bigger impact on the universe as recycled matter than a passive entity floating on a cloud.

  • chasbo

    Great idea. I’ve struggled with the simple matter of how I’d want my own funeral service conducted. I have more don’ts (no prayers, no religious references) than do’s (what would make my believer friends comfortable during a non-believer’s service or celebration?).

    I’ve also struggled with the issue of how to replace the “ceremonies or social habits” required to “fill whatever void the departure of religion causes.” To that end, I put up a very unsuccessful, tongue-in-cheek, Facebook group (“We Choose PEACE”) as a place to arrange my thoughts. I call it a “church for non-believers” for lack of a better idea. It’s in response to the sad fact that the atheist community has no central organizing body–and therefore, no one central organization to represent us politically. I realize this is going far afield, but thought I would put it out there. Herding cats, I know.

  • carolw

    That sounds wonderful. I know a lot of people who would definitely love that book (myself included, of course).

  • anthonyallen

    Welcome back, Hank.

    I think that’s a great proposal, although I think we’ve established that I’m pretty easily swayed ;)

    I will most definitely reply to the Second Request with my story of how I tried to deal (and in some ways am still dealing) with my mother’s death 5 years ago.

    But don’t look for that for a while, It’s probably not a good idea for me to be in tears while at work, when I’m supposed to be the authority figure. ;)

    • anthonyallen

      PS: Please don’t tell me how much you are looking forward to it. I don’t say that to be mean, but I know that I will buckle under the pressure.

  • docsarvis

    Hank, go for it. I love your book proposal, and as Ophelia said we need all these books we can get. I look forward to reading it.

  • judykomorita

    I would definitely buy it. Had to go google book proposals to see how long they should be. I saw anywhere from 10 to 25 pages, so yours shouldn’t be too long. If you haven’t already, be sure to gather the best of advice out there as to what should be in it.

    Good luck!

  • Jane

    I like the concept very much, and would buy such a book.

    My only critique is with regard to editing your pitch letter. That is, I think the beginning needs a better hook. It seems like you might want to open with a tight paragraph on the concept of the book, rather than just the title, and then go into a more full description. Also, as part of your platform, you might want to describe your blogging a little more thoroughly. You do make reference to your blog, as part of the story about getting out to see your dad, but an agent who doesn’t know you won’t really know what you’re talking about.

    • Hank Fox

      Jane, thanks! That’s exactly the kind of input I need.

      • Jane

        You’re welcome :-)

  • geocatherder

    this response is a little late, but I’ve been busy with a houseguest and thinking about other things. And thinking about my response.

    Yes, you should write the book, and you should make it big, a story of many atheist’s perceptions of death of their close ones. I answered request #2 in a fairly perfunctory manner a few days ago, but there’s a lot of story there. I expect a lot of atheists have a lot of story there.

    Don’t worry about treading on Christopher Hitchens’ coattails; he has his own story to tell, and he’s telling it in bits and pieces as it unfolds. You’re telling a story of loss; he’s telling a story of dying. They’re different stories, different losses. Hitchens will not be shocked by a wave of loss of another that ambushes him unsuspecting; he’ll not lay awake in the night wondering if the loss of another could have been prevented if only he’d done something better. His own pain, his own sense of loss, are totally different. Grant him this, that you can’t possibly compete with him. No one expects you to.

    I’m not sure I said that last paragraph well — I’ve not read Hitch 22 and for all I know he could be plagued with the same sense of loss of others as you or I — but his feelings in regard to his own self are his own, and we can’t fully understand them. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t share our sense of loss as atheists and explain to the world what that means to us.

    And you’re the guy to do it.

  • MiaBee

    This is wonderful. We need all the thoughtful atheist books we can get. I was thinking about writing some books on the subject, myself, but geared toward children.

    I had the advantage of growing up within a largely agnostic family (who came from midwestern United Methodist and Southern Baptist roots). Over the last few decades, we have been successful creating our own sorts of ceremonies — weddings and funerals. We do what we’re comfortable with. Weddings tend to fit a standard mold with non-religious wording, and funerals tend to be pretty much wakes.

    My Dad (who never really professed belief in a god, but always said, “God is in your heart,” when asked about the subject), died about seven months ago, September 2011. I truly mourn his passing and think of him often, and so wish he were here to enjoy life. But I haven’t found it difficult to deal with his death as an atheist. I think it’s actually made it easier to accept that he really is gone.

    His relationship with this world is done, and it’s easier for me to accept if I don’t have some spectre of possibility that I’ll ever see him again. That sort of psychological tease seems more painful to me than just being done with something. But my family is pretty practical-minded and we tend to just get things over with when we know the jig’s up.

    Even Dad decided to go ahead and die before we expected it. He’d been through treatments and recoveries related to esophageal cancer for nine months. He’d been active all summer long (the kind of intelligent, tough, leathery man who won’t sit still — always has to be outside working on his projects at the farm). Then he got a fracture in his spine and went downhill very quickly. It took ten days, which is pretty fast, considering what I’ve seen with most cancer deaths. He did not elect to linger.

    He didn’t even wait for all of us to show up by his bedside at the hospital. My second sister and I got there ten minutes after he died.

    What I find most wonderful about being an atheist in relation to dealing with death is that it means I love and appreciate my relationships, my loved ones’ lives, and my own, so much more than I ever could imagine when I was very young and really thought those old mythologies might be true.

    All that said, I would love to see your story in print, Hank, and I know there are millions out there who would be buoyed and guided by your experiences.

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