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.

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01495983897864604830 Andy

    Many of the theistic visions of the after-life offer raw deals. Hinduism, for example, says that I can get screwed over due to the acts of a person that I have no conscious awareness of. How is that fair. Mormons in the best case scenario become gods and must procreate celestial children. I don't want to be one of their gods and I don't want a lot of celestial children mmucking about.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18443320390393641600 Jordan

    Most people haven't heard of atheist comforts in the face of death. So they haven't rejected that in favor of religious ideas, they haven't heard of Greta Christina's ideas.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07869841108482389304 Binaliyu

    yet u guys believe that ur ipad is created but you refutes the Creator of the Universe smh! Atheist has no moral ground at all…you sucks

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu

    While I'm not sure what she meant, based on the rest of her post, I would suggest the following as a possible alternative interpretation:

     "But I don't agree, even in the slightest, that religious philosophies of death will comfort a normal human being who rationally examines them."

    In my view, she seems to be making a case that one shouldn't find religious beliefs in the afterlife comforting, after examining them.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Angra,

    Perhaps, but that blurs the emotions-vs-reasons distinction a bit too much for my comfort.

    I'm inclined to say that feelings just are. If someone is comforted by something, then they just are comforted. Whether they "should" be comforted is irrelevant, if it even makes sense to use the word "should" in this context.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu

    Jeffery,

    I can see what you're saying, and I see that my inclusion of the word 'normal' was not clear enough to convey the alternate interpretation I was going for. Sorry about that; I'll try to clarify.

    Essentially, the idea would be that if someone feels comforted under those circumstances, she's being irrational because the only way for her to feel comforted given a normal mind is having reached conclusions about the consequences of those philosophies that she should not have reached (i.e., the irrationality does not come from the feelings, bur from the reasoning leading to the conclusions causing her to have them).

    To simplify, if the alternative interpretation I suggested is correct, Greta Christina's position would roughly be as follows:

    AI1: If a human being with a normal mind (i.e., not mentally ill, temporarily altered, etc.) studies religious philosophies of death(1) and is being rational about that, she will reach conclusions about those philosophies that will make them not comforting to her.

    (1) More precisely, usual religious philosophies of death; I do not think she's trying to make a case about any hypothetical religious philosophy of death.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12045468316613818510 Blue Devil Knight

    It depends which religion, of course, but this seems a quixotic argument to take up.

    But wrt Christianity it would be hard to argue that atheists have a leg up in the whole "comforting" category if the afterlife exists and is even 1/1000 as good as they think it will be.

    And things atheists can do, like make the world a better place for future generations, the Christians can also do. So there is a real asymmetry here.

    This seems like an argument we are doomed to lose. You could cut hairs and say "Well it depends what your preferences are". But that would just come off as disingenuous or blind. Sure, some people would rather be extinguished than eternally at peace and love. But that would just suggest they are deviant.

    This is not an argument we are going to win with the Christians, and for good reason.

    I also can speak from personal experience, when loved-ones die it is much easier to handle it psychologically thinking they are at eternal peace and able to see that I love them, versus the fact that are simply gone, period, and any issues we had unresolved are going to remain unresolved forever. The grief is much, much worse. I don't know how you can get around that (sure, you can talk about them, make scholarships in their name, etc, but the Christians can do that too).

    We should accept that Christians have the upper hand when it comes to tales of the afterlife. The main problem with their view is that it is false.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00559542291878661224 TreehouseOnMars

    I find all philosophies of life after death uncomforting, except the Sokratic- Buddhist theory of its closest equivalent being a dreamless sleep. I find most of them hellish, including listening to an untrained church choir singing praise music of the Islamic promise I will spend eternity in a whorehouse.


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