I recently received an e-mail from an atheist asking for advice:
I’ve always been afraid of death, and usually I tell myself that it’s pointless. But lately, I’ve started thinking about my existence and ultimately, my death. I was, and still am to some extent, horribly afraid of losing myself forever, which is quite irrational I suppose. I’ve cheered myself up, worked through this fear several times. I’ve made myself realize that life is short and that I should look at death as a reminder to cherish life, to be happy with my past and my present, and to stop focusing so much on something I cannot comprehend. Death will come soon enough, and when it does, it’s not the irrationally horrible void that I tend to imagine in my head. I can only live and work with what I have, and what I have is this reality. I’ve embraced this fact with emotion. I want to be strong. I know I can overcome. I know I have hope inside me. I refuse to live a life of despair when I could live a life of happiness. And yet, the fear keeps lingering.
…Now don’t get me wrong. I am in no way suicidal; I want to live as long as possible, as happily as possible. I would never consider ending my life. But I think to myself sometimes: “once I get out of school, I’ll work, then I’ll have a family, then I’ll keep on living until I die.” It all seems pretty bleak.
If such thoughts depress you, then I suggest you ask yourself this question: What else do you want there to be?
Answer that, and you’ll already have gone a long way toward lifting your bleakness. Your course in life is not set; no one is forcing you to settle down at a job or start a family. If the most common path doesn’t appeal to you, then take a different one. Only you can decide what would make your life meaningful to you, so make that decision and then set out to do it. I’ve had thoughts like this on occasion, and I find that taking this perspective is a good way to vanquish them. From your letter, I take it you’re still fairly young, which is even better and gives you much more flexibility to shape your life the way you want.
If indeed there is nothing after life, then is life not pretty pointless?
I don’t see the logic behind this statement. If your life is meaningful to you now, then that meaning is real, regardless of what happens in the future. You may no longer experience meaning after you die, but death does not “reach back” and retroactively erase the meaning or purpose from all the prior moments you enjoyed. Those earlier moments do not cease to exist. On the other hand, if your life is not meaningful, then what would you gain by extending it other than more meaningless existence?
To see this from another angle, consider a clever argument from John Allen Paulos’ book Irreligion. Let’s take some point in time far in the future, long after you’ve ceased to exist – say, a thousand years from now. Let’s assume that nothing we do now will matter in a thousand years. Depressing, no? Well, maybe – but, by the same argument, it would seem that nothing that will matter at that far-future time matters now. In particular, it doesn’t matter now that it won’t matter then. To put it in simpler terms, why should we care what happens in the distant future, when we’ll have no possible ability to influence events? What we should care about is the here and now, the events that do matter to our lives and the ones which we can affect.
I could just as well see life as full of life wonder, an opportunity to enjoy myself, a view which I harbor much of the time, but not all of the time. I fear death. I fear losing my identity, losing my memories, my experience as a human being, not as a system of atoms.
Obviously, no one wants to die; evolution has given us a strong drive to prefer continued living. At an emotional level, I understand the pull of this argument. But on a rational level, I don’t see what there could possibly be to fear about death. To regret its inevitability, to wish it were otherwise, yes – but to fear it? That claim seems to me to involve a serious confusion of terms.
Fear, by definition, is the expectation of something bad happening to me. But if there is no “me”, then nothing bad can happen to me, so what is there to fear? Claiming to fear being in a state of nonexistence, to me, makes as much sense as claiming to have felt joy before you were born, eagerly anticipating your chance to come into being.
Do you have any advice for a struggling atheist? Any outlooks or personal anecdotes? Have you ever had to deal with such a state of despair or were you always so confident with your mortality?
Yes, I have had these existential fears and doubts from time to time. Everyone does – it’s an inevitable part of having limited knowledge, which means it’s an inevitable part of being human. The most comforting thing I can say to you is that they’ll probably lift on their own, given time. Like any other grief, time heals the hurt.
But that doesn’t mean you have to live with it in the meantime. From what you say, it sounds to me as if you’ve already got a solid, well-grounded humanist philosophy worked out. That will be a tremendous help in overcoming this – it probably is helping already, even if you don’t realize it yet. Everyone has to come to terms with their own mortality eventually, as part of becoming a mature human being. Think of this phase as growing pains. It will pass, and you’ll be stronger for it; and I have no doubt that you’ll rediscover the beauty and the hope that you mentioned, and learn anew to cherish life and live to the fullest because it is brief.
However, on the chance that words can offer you any more assistance, let me offer a few more. Christopher Hitchens’ The Portable Atheist closes with this passage from Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It reached in and grabbed me, and it may do the same for you:
The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.
This, in my opinion, is how an atheist should view life and its inevitable accompaniment of death. Would I live longer, if given the opportunity? Yes, of course – but I’ve never believed for a moment that my life must be meaningless unless it’s infinite.
What comes after this life, if anything, I don’t know. We may be resurrected from the dust by a supernatural being on some future judgment day; we may all be living in a dream; we may be digital souls in an unimaginably powerful computer running a massive simulation of the universe. I don’t know, nor do I care. I only care about what is verifiable, what is real. And what I know to be real and true is that this world and this life are enough for me. There is beauty here, wisdom, wonder and love – as much as I could have asked for. It’s an embarrassment of riches, and there are so many different paths to happiness that it would be selfish and needless to demand anything additional. I echo Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and I would extend her compelling conclusion to all atheists. We need nothing more.