Do Atheists Concede the Ground of Death Too Easily? A Reply to Greta Christina

According to Greta Christina, atheists concede the ground of death too easily. She quotes or paraphrases the following sentiment.

“Sure, atheism may have better arguments and evidence. But religion is always to going to win on the death question. A secular philosophy of death will never comfort people the way religion does.”

In response, she writes,

I’ve heard this idea more times than I can count. And here’s the weird thing: It’s not just from religious believers. I hear it from atheists, too. It shocks me how easily non-believers concede the ground of death. Many of us assume that of course it would be lovely to believe in an eternal afterlife… if only that were plausible. And largely because of this assumption, we often shy away from the topic of death. We happily talk about science, sex, reality, other advantages the secular life has to offer… but we stay away from death, and concede the ground before we even fight it.

I think this is a huge mistake. I agree that the fear of death is one of the main reasons people cling to religion. But I don’t agree, even in the slightest, that religious philosophies of death are inherently more comforting than secular ones. And if we want to make atheism a safe place to land when people let go of their faith, we need to get these secular philosophies into the public square, and let the world know what we think about death. (italics mine)

I agree with Christina: the idea that “religious philosophies of death are inherently more comforting than secular ones” treats an emotional response to death as if it were an objective issue, rather than a subjective issue. Emotions are, by definition, a subjective state for the person who holds them. Emotions are properties of persons, not objects (including abstract philosophies). Talk about “religious philosophies of death as inherently more comforting than secular ones,” however, makes it sound as if “comforting” were a property of religious philosophies, rather than a property of the people who subscribe to those philosophies. This is wrong.

This leads to my second point. If the state of “feeling comforted” is a property of persons, not philosophies, then the italicized sentence above needs to be interpreted like this. “But I don’t agree, even in the slightest, that religious philosophies of death comfort more people than secular ones, when asked to consider both kinds of philosophies and after hearing explanations from proponents of both .” This is a testable, empirical claim. (I, for one, am very skeptical.) But what is the evidence? I don’t know of any. And Christina does not say. But if, as I suspect, most well-informed people do find religious philosophies of death more comforting than secular ones, then that largely vindicates the sentiment which Christina deems a “mistake.” The fact, if it is a fact, that a minority of well-informed people are just as comforted (or more comforted) by secular philosophies than religious ones does not refute or even undermine the fact, if it is a fact, that the majority of people feel the opposite.

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