How An Atheist Responds to Death

I’ve been reading The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by Andre Comte-Sponville. Good book! More on that later.

The following passage on an atheist’s response to death seemed to perfectly encapsulate why we don’t need to turn to religion during the most depressing times in our lives.

The author talks about the mindset of an atheist who has just experienced the death of a loved one:

… Gradually, however, the idea of the person one has lost evolves from gaping wound to piercing nostalgia, to moving memory, to gratitude, and almost to happiness… At first, you thought: “How dreadful that (s)he should no longer be here!” But as the years go by, you start thinking, “How wonderful that (s)he should have lived, that we should have met, and that we grew to know and love each other!” This is the mourning process: It takes time and memory; it takes acceptance and fidelity. At the moment of the death itself, it is obviously impossible — there is nothing but horror and inconsolable suffering. How one would like to believe in God at such times! How one envies, temporarily, those who do believe! Yes, it must be admitted, this is where religions are virtually unbeatable. Is that any reason to believe? For some people, it clearly is. For others, including myself, it would almost be an additional reason to doubt, either because the ploy seems too obvious or else out of pride, rage and despair. Despite the pain we must endure, mourning merely reinforces our atheism. In the face of terrible distress, we consider revolt more appropriate than prayer; horror, truer than consolation. For us, serenity will come later. Mourning is not a race.

If we don’t need religion when we’re in the worst of times, we don’t need it at all.

  • Jeff Satterley

    I love what Douglas Hofstatder (Author of Godel, Escher, Bach) said about death in I Am A Strange Loop:

    Halos, Afterglows, Coronas

    In the wake of a human being’s death, what survives is a set of afterglows, some brigher and some dimmer, in the collective brains of all those who were dearest to them. And then those people in turn pass on, the afterglow become extremely faint. And when that outer layer in turn passes into oblivion, then the afterglow is feebler still, and after a while there is nothing left.

    The slow process of extinction I’ve just described, though gloomy, is a little less gloomy than the standard view. Because bodily death is so clear, so sharp, and so dramatic, and because we tend to cling to the caged-bird view, death strikes us as instantaneous and absolute, as sharp as a guillotine blade. Our instinct is to believe that the light has once and for all gone out altogether. I suggest that this is not the case for human souls, because the essence of a human being–truly unlike the essence of a mosquito or a snake or a bird or a pig–is distributed over many a brain. It takes a couple of generations for a soul to subside, for the flickering to cease, for all the embers to burn out. Although “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” may in the end be true, the transition it describes is not so sharp as we tend to think.

    It seems to me, therefore, that the instinctive although seldom articulated purpose of holding a funeral or memorial service is to reunite the people most intimate with the deceased, and to collectively rekindle in them all, for one last time, the special living flame that represents the essence of that beloved person, profiting directly or indirectly from the presence of one another, feeling the shared presence of that person in the brains that remain, and this solidifying to the maximal extent possible those secondary personal gemmae that remain aflicker in all these different brains. Though the primary brain has been eclipsed, there is, in those who remain and who are gathered to remember and reactivate the spirit of the departed, a collective corona that still glows. This is what human love means. The word “love” cannot, thus, be separated from the word “I”; the more deeply rooted the symbol for someone inside you, the greater the love, the brighter the light that remains behind.

  • Jeff Satterley

    By the way Hemant, what are you doing posting at 9:00pm tonight? Sarah’s on TV!!

  • http://keenabean.blogspot.com Kaleena

    I just got that book from the library yesterday! It really is excellent!

  • http://perkyskeptic.blogspot.com/ The Perky Skeptic

    Death sucks. I’m pretty peevish about the whole concept of the cessation of my existence. However, it is a fact of life, and nothing we do changes that. Thus, I’d rather face the prospect of oblivion head-on than try to dress it up in a fairy tale. Or a lacy frock. Or lipstick. Because it would be like putting lipstick on a pig, and I’m told that phrase is off-limits during this election year.

  • http://www.ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    If we don’t need religion when we’re in the worst of times, we don’t need it at all.

    Could not agree with you more. No one needs religion, ever.

    How one would like to believe in God at such times!

    Dealing with loss is the hardest thing for anyone, regardless of their belief/unbelief in God. Believing in God does not make it any easier. We all go through a similar grieving process.

  • mikespeir

    I have the same instinctual aversion to death as anyone else. When faced with it, if I thought there might be a way to avoid it, I would probably do all in my power to live, provided I didn’t have to hurt somebody else in the process.

    But, really, becoming an atheist has all but extinguished in me any real fear of dying. Honestly, when I contemplate it I feel more sadness for the ones I’ll leave behind, knowing they will grieve.

    As a Christian there was always some fear. No, I wasn’t taught that I could trip over my shoelaces and fall into Hell. But there was always that doubt that I had held my mouth just right–and that in spite of the fact that I hadn’t been taught that way. When one believes in Hell, one absolutely dares not make any mistake about whether one is ready to die. No matter how much assurance one thinks one has, there’s always the subtle suspicion that one might not have understood something critical quite right. All that evaporates when belief in Hell goes away.

  • Tom

    I’m happy to read this. My close friend commited suicide two weeks ago, and I’ve been looking for support. I’ll have to pick up that book at the store

  • Lost Left Coaster

    Believing in Christianity certainly wouldn’t make me feel any better about the loss of friends and family that I have experienced in my lifetime. Because Christians have to live with the idea that their friends who weren’t properly saved by Christ are suffering through eternal Hell. The idea that anyone that has been important to me in my life, some of whom suffered, too, before they died, were still suffering, forever, is an unbearable thought to me. But I don’t have to live with that idea, and I think that idea posted in the comments above, about the “afterglow” of a person that lives on, is a perfect way of putting it. I know that is true for me regarding the people I have lost, that is how I experience it.

  • Indriel

    Despite the pain we must endure, mourning merely reinforces our atheism. In the face of terrible distress, we consider revolt more appropriate than prayer; horror, truer than consolation. For us, serenity will come later.

    Uh…Ok…if it works for you…

  • Siamang

    Indriel,

    Really, read the whole book rather than sniping on a heartfelt small portion that speaks to some of us.

    It’s a great book. Really it is. It deals unflinchingly, but ultimately joyfully, with some of the harder parts of life.

    But it’s as any truly serious spiritual inquiry should be: unafraid, and devoid of cheap consolation or easy answers.

    Your responses here have been brief, disapproving and a bit snippy. Engage us, don’t dismiss us.

    You seem to come here scrapping for either an argument or to build up your ability to feel superior to us. Take a chill pill. We aren’t a threat to you or your god. Breathe in. Breathe out. Find your balance and then converse with us.

    What a wonder that you and we are all in the same universe, sharing this moment and this conversation! Delight in it. Be awake in the joy of this moment.

  • Polly

    I have my own fantasies of a potential “afterlife.” They involve uploading my neural network into a computer, body transplants, or cryo-cum-VR existence. Or, maybe just good old fashioned improved medical technologies and rejuvenation and gene-repair therapies. Of course, I’m not rich enough to afford such technologies even if they existed.

    But, one can hold out hope, I guess.

  • Polly

    Speaking of death, I deconverted shortly after my M-I-L died.
    BAAAAD Timing.
    It brought the death question into sharp relief:

    My wife: “So, you just believe we’re all worm-food after we die, now.”

    Me: “As best as I can tell, I don’t have any reason to think otherwise. Everything else is just a fantasy since nobody CAN know. At least the [decades of] pain and troubles are over.”

    My MIL had an existence, that to me, was reminiscent of Hell, or at least akin to my worst fears of Hell…and it lasted for over 20 years every second of every minute of every day. She was completely immobilized by MS from just below the neck. BUT!! she was NOT desensitized. She could feel every ache and every itch.

    The complications of not being able to feed herself and thus requiring a feeding tube meant she was subject to infection often. On top of her condition she would also get pneumonia a few times a year. Even a little phlegm was a major discomfort since she could not really control her throat muscles even to swallow.

    Yet, she often seemed upbeat when we came by the old-folks home for a visit. There she was, a 40-something woman, with smooth skin, sharing a 3-bed convelascent room with octogenarians who were enviably mobile in their wheelchairs or with their halting shuffling footsteps to-and-fro about the hallways.

    If there is a god (and I am quite convinced there isn’t) then he is not love. He is at best indifferent and amoral. Love is something human, born of the advantages of community for a physically weak species that only with great difficulty can produce even one child a year for but a few years. It enabled our survival and expansion. But knowing that doesn’t make me sneer at love. I recognize it and still respect it because of what it confers upon us.
    A powerful, self-sufficient, solitary being would know, and could know, NOTHING of love. He never needed to.

  • Larry Huffman

    Well…I can say that I agree with this view as well.

    I have mentioned this before…but my wife and I lost our first child when she was 2 and a half to a terminal illness. I was a fundamentalist at the time…and so I got the usual religiously inspired sentiments from people…but it troubled me. I was never really at peace with her death, not because she was gone, but what the implications were concerning god and his so called plan.

    As the years passed, I did not grow more content with her death. I was content with her being gone…had moved on to a cross between poignant nostalgia and happiness at just having known her. But…I was more and more uneasy about her loss from a religious standpoint.

    What had been said previously, in efforts to help me spiritually, now came back as sounding off base or flat out wrong. I think as I began to lose faith, because of doctrinal issues and sudden and uncontrollable outbursts of reason on my part…I also found the memory of my daughter and her death to be a wrench in the gears of me clinging to my faith. I found that when faith was on uneasy footing when being aligned with logic…my daughter’s death helped move me away from god even more. I had not been angry with god about her death…I trusted his will while a believer. When I finally lost my faith…I would have been angry with god, had I believed he existed. But at that point, it just all fell into my shame and embrassment for not seeing things clearly all along. Part of that hang-over like feeling I had where I found myself slapping my forehead and saying, “How could I have ever believed such nonsense!”

    Since we have become atheists, I can tell you that my wife and I are both much more at ease about her short little life and her slow painful death. We think of her in only happy terms now…sometimes a tear or two, but usually with smiles. We no longer talk of seeing her again…of meeting her in heaven…and all of the inconsequential pondering that brings up. We understand we had her and now she is gone. There does not have to be a heaven for there to be meaning to her life…in fact, I personally think life without heaven makes every moment of every day that much more important and precious. I am much happier talking about my daughter in terms of who she was and what she did do for those who knew her, rather than speak of her being in heaven with god, etc. Nonsense and baloney…designed to make people feel better…so long as they disengage their brains. For us, the moment she died was the beginning of the end of our faith, I see now. It was something that was eventually going to require a rational conclusion and not superstitious mumbo-jumbo. I didn’t know it at the time, but I can see that pretty clearly now.

  • Siamang

    What a sad story, Larry.

    Thank you for sharing. What people don’t seem to know or realize is that so many of us have been on a long journey that has brought us to this place of peace and spiritual humility.

    Life is too precious to spend it in a fog. How clear is the air we breathe once we stop chasing phantoms.

    How important those moments of life your daughter was here to share with you. How fortunate we all are to be sharing these moments. I don’t need to imagine sky-kingdoms peopled by ghosts and chimeras in order to savor life’s full joy in the moment. The universe itself is wonder enough, I don’t need to go around inventing imaginary reasons to enjoy it.

  • Indriel

    Your responses here have been brief, disapproving and a bit snippy.

    Oh, have I been snippy? I’m sorry. I guess I will need to read the book. You must excuse me. I used to be an atheist so I didn’t mean to alienate anyone. I also didn’t mean to imply I’m superior or that I know more. I realize I’m not you so my route to theism might not work for you the way it did for me (I’ll spare you the details). The book does sound interesting. I’ll read it. Sure.

  • Indriel

    I’ve been nice now Siamang. So would you please cut out the holier than thou attitude?

  • mikespeir

    I have mentioned this before…but my wife and I lost our first child when she was 2 and a half to a terminal illness.

    Dang! I can’t even imagine. My heart goes out to you and your wife, Larry.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    When 9/11 happened, I wished that I believed in God.

    For about 10 seconds.

    And then I realized that, if I did believe in God, I wouldn’t be comforted. I’d be furious. I’d be wanting to find the biggest ladder I could, climb into Heaven, and punch him in the face.

    This is an important point to remember. For many people, religious belief in the face of death or other hard times isn’t comforting. It makes it harder. It adds a level of guilt (“What did we do to deserve this?”) and/or anger (“Why would our loving father hurt us this way?”) that makes it more painful and harder to deal with.

    For me, facing death as an atheist is harder in the moment than facing it as a believer was… but the grief is cleaner, and it doesn’t last as long.

    And to Tom and Larry: I’m so sorry. You have all my compassion and sympathy.

  • Siamang

    The book does sound interesting. I’ll read it. Sure.

    It’s brief. But I think it conveys something that I rarely see expressed about atheism… that it is ALSO a valid step in a spiritual journey. Here, I’m taking the word not to mean that we have any kind of supernatural “spirit”, but rather the disposition of mind and outlook on life… those thoughts and the curiosity which animates us in our daily lives.

    Rather, we are treated by many who believe in supernatural entities as those who war against a spiritual wonderment, or who abrogate our duty to ask deeper questions of the universe and our place in it.

    We are often treated as “the broken”, “the closed-minded” and “the bitter and isolated.”

    I dance in the light of the fading stars, for too brief a time, but with all the love I can manage. Would that others, whatever they believe, could know that I too feel joy. I experience the universe directly and fully-in-it, myself a part of it and one with it.

    This joy that religions parcel out to their adherents in miserly doses, is available to everyone. If only people could see past the fear and the guilt that their religious leaders use to control them, and see that the wonderment of the universe surrounds them.

    I’ve been nice now Siamang. So would you please cut out the holier than thou attitude?

    What I really want you to know is that we are on a journey here, just the same as you are. We may not end up where you are now, but that’s okay.

  • Indriel

    about atheism… that it is ALSO a valid step in a spiritual journey

    Actually it is. And I never meant to imply it isn’t. I just don’t quite understand that portion of the paragraph I quoted. Serenity will come later? Why not have it right now? Why is revolt more appropriate than prayer? Why pick horror over consolation? But, yes, I haven’t read the book yet. Maybe if I read more of it I’ll have a better understanding of what the author is really saying.

    We are often treated as “the broken”, “the closed-minded” and “the bitter and isolated.”

    Yes, I understand that. I understand that all too well. Once I even had a group of fundies do this big spiritual “Jesus” conversion on me. Not only did it not work, but it left serious emotional scaring.

  • http://perkyskeptic.blogspot.com/ The Perky Skeptic

    Wow, Larry… I can’t even bear to imagine how you must feel. Thank you for sharing your story with us.

  • Siamang

    Serenity will come later? Why not have it right now?

    He means in the moments immediately following a loved-one’s death. He means that it is appropriate and natural to grieve, and not something to be avoided or rationalized away. But with the knowledge that after proper grief, and with time, one can eventually find peace and serenity.

    Why pick horror over consolation?

    It may be something you feel that you can pick, but for me it doesn’t seem that I have a choice. When a close loved-one dies, I hurt. That’s honest, and that’s life. I eventually gain some distance and some healing… but it seems to me that for me to do other than just feel the pain of that moment is to wish to be something other than human.

    Death fucks you up. It fucks up your life, it fucks up your emotions. If the person was close at all, it leaves a hole, and that hole cannot heal immediately… it takes time.

    This is all “for me” and “my experience has been”. It’s not to say that you experience it this way, or even that you should. This is just me sharing that for me, death is a wound. Losing a loved one fucking hurts. I know I’m strong enough to take it, but still, it fucking hurts.

    But I’d rather love deeply and risk a hurt, than to live at a cool, emotionally safe distance.

  • http://madmansparadise.blogspot.com Asylum Seeker

    Why is revolt more appropriate than prayer? Why pick horror over consolation?

    Because feeling good about something as horrible as a loved one dying isn’t necessarily a good thing. Sometimes, just being allowed to admit that a tragedy is tragic, and being permitted to mourn it without trying to lessen the blow, is something that needs to be done. Trying to futilely sugar-coat reality with inanities will only rob people of their power to properly deal with the legitimate pains and trials of existence. The consolation provided is no more than a crutch based in idle fancy. If it helps some people, more power to them. But, the people who see how useless that crutch really is, and how it is a mere distraction from a grievous injury, may not share the sentiment.

  • Beijingrrl

    I personally don’t worry about death. It sucks to think about but it will cease to bother me when it actually happens.

    It’s much harder to talk to my young children about it. Sure, it’d be easier to offer assurances to my kids that we all live forever, but it doesn’t feel honest to me. It’s still a temptation to give them the comforting fairy tale.

    Thanks for the above afterglow post. We’ve talked about how we still have the memories of people after they have died. That’s a much more lyrical way of expressing it while still being honest.

  • Saint Splattergut

    Beautifully written.

  • Indriel

    This is all “for me” and “my experience has been”. It’s not to say that you experience it this way, or even that you should. This is just me sharing that for me, death is a wound. Losing a loved one fucking hurts. I know I’m strong enough to take it, but still, it fucking hurts.

    Because feeling good about something as horrible as a loved one dying isn’t necessarily a good thing.

    You know what guys, I’m human too. And I’m trying to be tactful here. Of course you should grieve for a loved one! I’m not talking about that! Maybe the author is. But I did acknowledge that I’ll need to read MORE. Can we talk about this without throwing obvious and not-so-obvious attacks at each other? Thank you.

    When I think of spirituality I automatically think of letting things go. So, when I read the section I quoted I couldn’t help but scratch my head. Everything I read on spirituality is about letting go. I don’t think of morality! Yeah, I know, Christians do. Spirituality and morality are almost identical to many of them but that’s not me. We’re all in the same boat, guys. I’m not a Christian Fundie and I’m not here to judge you. In fact, I consider myself a pretty selfish bitch. I’m not holier than you.

    When I die I want my loved ones to be at peace with it. Maybe this is partly due to “knowing” (note quotations) that I’m going to live. It’s been 7 years since I was an atheist, people. Please cut me some slack so I can get back on that page.

  • Awesomesauce

    Indriel,

    That you think you are being attacked says something about how you read things. Keep in mind that you aren’t going to get the writer’s inflection, demeanor, or tone necessarily through text. As somebody not involved in this conversation, I don’t see where anybody was attacking you. Disagreement sure but not attack.

    That being said, and except in the face of namecalling or overt sarcasm, don’t make the mistake of taking everything as an attack, not even harsh language. This is the internet and that is the quickest way to burnout.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=637688546 KAZ

    I’m not even atheist; I’m agnostic…and yet the above seems more about making people feel better through pretty words and reassuring-but-shallow sophisms, than actually addressing the permanent horror of death, for one who does not have faith in eternal life.

    Every time someone important to me dies, it accumulates upon the awareness of my own inevitable death, and that no matter what I may tell myself now about how much nicer I’ve made this incredibly unimportant little bit of universe, in fact when I’m gone, nothing will have mattered, at all, from MY now-nonexistent perspective.

    And hell, that’s with me being agnostic, and fully aware that there MIGHT be something-or-other beyond observable reality.

    Plenty of devout atheists, without even the loophole of “maybe there’s something”, have it even worse.

  • Indriel

    Well, Awesomesauce, I don’t really agree but we’re talking about spirituality so I’ll just let that go. (Don’t spoil it for me, pal. I was actually enjoying the conversation.) :)

  • Indriel

    KAZ, that posting was NOT THERE when I answered Awesomesauce. You put it there didn’t you? Why are trying to make me look meaner than I actually am, KAZ?

    You know what guys, I apologize. I can’t stay here if my postings are going to be messed with. But I do want to say a few things:

    Larry and Tom, I’m so sorry for your losses and that until, now, I didn’t say anything to acknowledge those losses.

    Polly, I’m very sorry about your Mother in Law. You don’t have to agree with my definition of God. I wish I could have explained it better in that other blog but I just don’t know how to do that right now.

    Jeff,

    The word “love” cannot, thus, be separated from the word “I”; the more deeply rooted the symbol for someone inside you, the greater the love, the brighter the light that remains behind.

    That was absolutely beautiful.

    Siamang, I’m sorry we got off on the wrong foot. I really did want to make a connection with you. I’m sorry it had to come to this.

    And everyone, please forgive me. Obviously, I criticized words that really meant something to you. I didn’t mean to be insensitive but I guess I was. I’m sorry for that too.

  • Awesomesauce

    Indriel,

    KAZ hit reply before you did, he/she just took longer to type his/her response than you did. You really are starting to sound paranoid. In fact, what KAZ said had nothing to do with you. I’m sorry to see you leave, but I think you have been misunderstanding almost every post you’ve responded to.

    From what I’ve seen, nobody has been attacking you or messing with you, and I am confused by your behavior. I doubt that the atheists are out to get you.

  • Indriel

    Awesomesauce, you’re right. I don’t think KAZ was talking about me. It’s just I checked the blog 3 hours after I replied to you and his post was not there between your post and my post. Apparently there were networking issues.

    My apologies, KAZ. Gee, under the circumstances, I guess I do look pretty paranoid. Oh well, at least in a nice sort of way.

  • Mich

    KAZ, that posting was NOT THERE when I answered Awesomesauce.

    I saw this too. I also notice KAZ’s posting reads 1:33 and Indriel’s 2:48. His comments are confusing. Awesomesauce should think before speaking.

  • Richard Wade

    Indriel, Awesomesauce and Mitch,

    I’ve read the last few comments over and over, but I cannot see what the conflict is. Kaz seems to be speaking only about the original post and the excerpt from the book. He does not appear to me to be addressing anything said by anyone else who is commenting. I also do not see what significance the order of the appearance of his comment vs. Indriel’s has, since the content of Kaz’s comment changes nothing about the apparent meaning of anyone else’s comments.

    Mich, the comments seem to be in chronological order. What are you seeing that I am missing?

  • Richard Wade

    One possible explanation for a post seeming to “butt into line” is that Hemant’s new blog software seems to divert some comments for review before publishing, and perhaps that delayed Kaz’s comment. Why, I don’t know. Then it might have been inserted into the order according to the time he clicked “submit comment.” You can see the “Please note:” just above that button. Even some of my comments get delayed. I don’t think there are any shenanigans here, just quirky software.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant Mehta

    One possible explanation for a post seeming to “butt into line” is that Hemant’s new blog software seems to divert some comments for review before publishing, and perhaps that delayed Kaz’s comment. Why, I don’t know. Then it might have been inserted into the order according to the time he clicked “submit comment.” You can see the “Please note:” just above that button. Even some of my comments get delayed. I don’t think there are any shenanigans here, just quirky software.

    Hi all. Richard’s pretty much right.

    If you’re a new commenter, I have to “say yes” to your comment. Those comments get placed in a queue until I give the ok. Then they get inserted into the comment thread in the order they were first submitted.

    So while it may look like a comment is suddenly inserted in the middle of nowhere when it wasn’t there before, there’s a reason for it.

    Sorry for the confusion.

  • Awesomesauce

    Awesomesauce should think before speaking.

    Perhaps I should have started with “One possible explanation would be [previous post].”

    On average, I think we all should think before speaking. In this case, I happened to be partially correct; KAZ did reply first and it did take longer for his/her post to go through.

    I was just pointing out that there was no apparent foul play involved.


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