Ask Richard: A Young Person’s Question about Mortality Meant for Richard Dawkins

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

I don’t know if Mr. Dawkins actually reads these but if you do I just wanted to let you know you’re doing an awesome job spreading reason, and thanks to you reason was able to reach me at a young age. I was a devout Catholic until I was about 15 or so. I went to church and all of the other “fun” stuff, but then I started having my doubts after I started learning about the sciences. My particular interest was biology which lead me to question creationism because I saw why evolution was true and if creationism was wrong then what else was wrong with it? Then about a year ago I discovered your lectures and was able to completely see through the lies and fairy tales that the Bible says.

I am currently 17 and trying to spread reason much in the way you spread it to me, although I am nowhere near as smart as you. I promise to do my best with the knowledge I do have and I am buying your book The God Delusion tomorrow :D to help me on my way. My aspirations are to pick up a biology degree and work in the medical field.

I do have one question though. How do you deal with the fact that we are all going to die and there’s nothing afterwards? I try not to think about it because I’m still young but I know I have to face it eventually.

I wish you a long and happy life friend,

from Kevin

Dear Kevin,

Your excellent letter has come to the wrong person, but I am grateful for it anyway. Once in a while people mistake me for Richard Dawkins because we’re both involved in atheism and we have the same first name, but there I’m afraid the similarity ends. Dr. Dawkins is a giant in both the atheist movement and in his field of evolutionary biology. I am merely a retired marriage and family counselor who answers letters from people who are having conflicts about religion with their families, friends and co-workers.

Your letter is both earnest and encouraging, and you should definitely send it to The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. There is a section called Converts’ Corner where people have published letters similar to yours. Read some of them and add yours to the wonderful collection. Then read an article he wrote called To Live at All is Miracle Enough, which begins famously with, “We are all going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.”

Even though you wrote to me by mistake, I would like to take the liberty of responding to the question you posed. The loss of the comforting idea of immortality is a concern that young or newly “deconverted” atheists often express.

We all have a self-centered part, a natural and necessary feature of our personalities that, as we grow into young adulthood, helps us to differentiate ourselves from others who are important in our lives. It helps us to become independent from our parents and our peers, to act in our own best interests, and to begin taking responsibility for our own thoughts, feelings, and actions.

It’s natural for young people to be somewhat self-centered, so I’m not using the term as a value judgment here. It’s simply a stage that people must go through to grow and develop. As we begin to move into full adulthood, we form more and more important relationships with other people, and so we begin to shift toward being less self-centered, and more other-centered, more interested in the needs of others, rather than exclusively our own needs. Most people reach a healthy balance of the two. People who don’t make that shift in adulthood are called “self-centered” in the disapproving, judgmental meaning of the term.

I think that much of our desire for immortality comes from our self-centered part. We want our self to continue, and so we’re too often willing to believe, as you say, lies and fairy tales that tell us we will. But as we mature, we begin to see that how we affect and influence people around us can be a legacy that can live beyond our physical existence. That legacy can be positive or negative, something that makes the world a little better or a little worse because we were here. Our other-centered, self-less part can be a very comforting and satisfying compensation for the eventual loss of our own self if we see that we are adding to the well being of people, even in small, humble, and non-famous ways.

Kevin, as you grow and mature, focus on your desire to help others. You have displayed two examples of that in your letter: You want to work to spread reason as Dr. Dawkins does, a task that is very much needed. You are also interested in working in the medical field, which is a powerful way to have a positive, even lifesaving effect on people and their progeny who will live long after you.

As I grow older, I am increasingly aware of opportunities where I can have a positive influence on people around me, both who are younger and who are older. In my previous work I had the privilege of helping many thousands of people who were in very dire and miserable situations, who were at their rope’s end. It was dramatic, tangible, life-or-death, and exhausting. I don’t do that kind of heartbreaking work any more, but there are still plenty of things I can do to make the world a little bit better. They will never be as grand and important as perhaps what Dr. Dawkins does, but that doesn’t matter. Knowing myself, focusing on grandness and importance would only reawaken my self-centeredness, and I’d rather not do that. My life has already accomplished a very fulfilling meaning and purpose in service to others, and one way or another I ardently, fiercely intend to keep adding to that as long as I’m alive.

Some of this might seem hypothetical or remote for you because you’re so young and you’re still building what looks like an admirable adulthood, and if so just file these ideas away somewhere in your mind, and in the future perhaps you’ll run across them again when they might be helpful. In the meantime, enjoy your life, invent your own meaning for it, and pursue that meaning passionately every single day.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • Vend Tana

    Whenever I get panicky about my own mortality I remind myself that I am star dust. After I die my atoms will disperse and live on. In several billion years they may once again become part of a star – Our Sun. I look forward to being a Red Giant!

  • Thalfon

    Richard, I don’t know that “merely” is ever a word I’d use to describe you. ;) You don’t have to be in the spotlight like Mr. Dawkins to be a giant. While we need those public figures for obvious reasons, we benefit just as much from the thoughtful, intelligent and caring words of people like yourself.

  • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    I long ago realized that I was dead for 13+ billion years before I was alive, and I have no recollection of it being an unpleasant experience. (At some point I learned that Mark Twain made this argument, and it has since been observed or paraphrased by others). It’s a comforting thought. I also recognize on an intellectual level that fear of death is nearly an evolutionary necessity for any species to survive. While our intellectual and emotional minds are often out of sync, I do think that with practice the latter can be increasingly moderated by the former.

    At the end of the third book of His Dark Materials (SPOILER ALERT) all the people who had ever died, but still lived an awful afterlife, were able to escape to true death. They joyfully dissolved into their constituent particles and drifted, unaware, out into the Universe. We’ll do the same. The evidence suggests that this Universe will be warm and hospitable to stars for a few trillion years yet… plenty long enough for my atoms to be reused in stars, planets, and maybe even other life forms. Isn’t that an amazing thing to contemplate?

  • Carla

    This is, without a doubt, the most comforting thought I’ve found. Aaron Freeman talks about how the particles of the universe are forever changed by you, and how through physics we’re all connected to each other’s energies after death. It’s thrilling to think that eons after I die, I’ll be racing around the universe in millions of atoms, and that my energy lives in the energy of the people I love. And not in some hokey, take-it-by-faith way, but in a real, measurable way.

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4675953

    • Sqrat

       For some reason this reminds me of Evil Carl Sagan: http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2690

      • Carla

        :D

    • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

      I think that piece by Aaron Freeman was meant to be a joke. It is quite appropriate to grieve when someone you love dies because something special has indeed come to an end. Although, morning for the loss of something that never existed and never will exist (notions of a before or after-life) is something that can definitely be rationalized away with thoughts of energy particles.

      • Carla

        It’s mostly comforting to me in the way that holding on to a person’s belongings after their gone can be comforting. Keeping a favorite ring won’t bring a person back, but it’s nice to think that some little part of them is still around. It’s not in place of grieving, but it’s somehow nice to think that the energy in their neurons that made them who they are still exists. It’s not particularly rational, as that energy will never spontaneously form into that person again (no, I don’t believe in ghosts), but then dealing with death isn’t always a rational process. Sometimes you just want something to make you feel better. At least this feel better relies on facts, not fairy tales (and is generally harmless).
         I’ve never heard it suggested that this piece was a joke, though. Where did you come up with that? (Then again, I’ve only read it, not listened to it)

        • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

          It just seemed to me that the posting was somewhat in jest with the juxtaposition of talking about the grieving widow, parent, spouse, or child and then the talk of the velocities and wavelengths of the subatomic particles like that would sooth their grieving. If such talk would sooth their grieving that is great, but in my initial reading, I thought it was a little over-the-top. Perhaps I was wrong.
          Jeff
          —– Original Message —–
          From: Disqus
          To: admin@religiouscomics.net
          Sent: Tuesday, August 07, 2012 9:20 AM
          Subject: [friendlyatheist1] Re: Ask Richard: A Young Person’ s Question about Mortality Meant for Richard Dawkins

          Carla (unregistered) wrote, in response to Jeff P:

          It’s mostly comforting to me in the way that holding on to a person’s belongings after their gone can be comforting. Keeping a favorite ring won’t bring a person back, but it’s nice to think that some little part of them is still around. It’s not in place of grieving, but it’s somehow nice to think that the energy in their neurons that made them who they are still exists. It’s not particularly rational, as that energy will never spontaneously form into that person again (no, I don’t believe in ghosts), but then dealing with death isn’t always a rational process. Sometimes you just want something to make you feel better. At least this feel better relies on facts, not fairy tales (and is generally harmless). I’ve never heard it suggested that this piece was a joke, though. Where did you come up with that? (Then again, I’ve only read it, not listened to it)
          Link to comment

  • http://twitter.com/_mikeweber Mike Weber

    Kevin,
    My experience was very similar to yours. I was born into a Catholic family and around age 14 or 15, I decided it just wasn’t for me. It wasn’t until college that I started tackling the question of my own mortality, and I remember being very depressed for at least a month while I faced it head on. I came out the other side better for it, but there’s no question that I had a hard time. I decided that while I wouldn’t live forever, at the very least there will be people inhabiting this world long after I’m gone and the best thing that I can do is try to leave this world just a little better so that following generations can have the same opportunities that I did. The changes we make don’t have to be radical, but if we all do just a little bit, we can make a big difference. Much like you, my main focus is spreading reason and making my atheism known, so that future atheists and freethinkers don’t have to be afraid to be open about their beliefs. 

    And if you’re interested in biology and evolution, I’d highly recommend reading The Greatest Show on Earth. I enjoyed it even more than The God Delusion.

    • Ibis3

       I suggest reading The Ancestor’s Tale. You really get a sense of your place in the large scheme of things. Imagine: you are actually the cousin (whatever times removed) of every living thing on the planet: every flower, every tree, every dog, cat, whale, and butterfly. Yes, we’re mortal. But not only are we star dust, we’re also part of this amazing immortalish* thing that is life on this planet. It’s like a leaf on a tree dying when we die. The tree just keeps on living.

      *Presuming no death from the skies or some strange nuclear annihilation, life from Earth should survive at least to the death of the sun and perhaps even past that through colonisation. And once the universe dies, well, that’s a long, long, long ways away. It might as well be eternity from our perspective.

  • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

    I deal with my eventual mortality just like I deal with living in a gravitational field. Just like it would be nice to be able to fly around the planet with only pushing of with our toes, it would also be nice to continue to live after we die.  Both, though, are just wishful thinking.  Not being able to push off with your toes and fly around the planet doesn’t seem like much of a loss because no one has put the idea in your mind that you will be able to do that if you only believe X,Y or Z.  The only reason some people think not being able to live after they die is a loss, is because they had been previously conditioned to expect to be able to live forever if they believed the right things.

    Since I have lived in a gravitational field for so long, I mainly take it for granted and don’t think about it a lot.   Awareness of gravity only enters my mind when I am doing certain activities where I have to be prudent.

    Likewise, I take my own eventual mortality mainly for granted and don’t think about it a lot.   I am, though, aware that I won’t live forever and try to live my life in such a way as to leave the word in a little bit better place that what it was.

    Over time, your previous emotional conditioning to expect a continued existence after you die will diminish and any residual feelings of loss about now realizing that you will not live forever will also diminish.  Give it time.

  • Sailorsguide

    I think it is not so much self-centeredness that creates problems with non existence, as that it is impossible, when alive and thinking, to mentally grasp a dead state except in purely intellectual terms. Although we loose consciousness each night it is far from the state of being dead. For me the thing that comes closest is having been concussed a couple of times. Coming out of that is like coming out of nowhere. I find that experience quite comforting

  • ruth

    It just dawned on me that I never really believed in an afterlife.  No wonder I ended up an atheist.

  • Drigerald

    Bravo, Richard. You have written a beautiful and compassionate letter Ofmgreat truths.

  • ReadsInTrees

    This was sort of one of those “Just don’t think about it” topics until I read this article: 
    http://parentingbeyondbelief.com/blog/?p=336
    And also when I heard the Mark Twain quote: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”


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