From the Vault #1: The Perfect Mirror

Since I’m going to be on the road this weekend, you’ll be getting some posts from the vault.  Here’s the first.  :)

We’ve all heard the phrase “there are no atheists in foxholes”.  It’s a condescending set of words telling us that even though there’s no good reason to believe in god, that atheists will be so scared when in a helpless situation that we’ll hope one exists enough to believe for all the wrong reasons.  Frankly, it says much more about believers and the reasons for which they’ll believe things than it says about atheists.  It’s the coward who succumbs to despair and retreats into self-deception.  It’s hardly admirable.

I’ve always wondered if staring death in the face would cause me to suspend my rationality long enough to do something embarrassingly useless like praying.  Well, Monday I got to find out.

After all the kinks in my travel over the weekend, I finally flew out of KC Monday night.  As we reached Columbus, a monster storm had situated itself directly over the airport, daring planes to land.  It was beautiful.  The sky all around us was awash with lightning as we circled, waiting for the storm to pass.  However, at one point we entered a thunderhead which produced powerful turbulence.  Then there was a deafening crack of lightning off the right side.  Now, I’m aware that commercial airplanes are struck by lightning around once per year on average, but seeing a bolt of lightning that close is still fucking scary.

Immediately after the lightning, the plane tipped hard to the left and began falling downwards in a half nose dive.  Everybody on the plane was screaming.  I’m not sure if my perception of how long this went on is accurate because my blood was racing, but I would wager about ten seconds.  During that time, I was genuinely convinced that I was about to die.

I remember precisely what I thought.

  1. For the love of Loki, stop screaming to god, all of you!
  2. I am glad I got to have such an enjoyable weekend before I die.
  3. I hope my parents will be ok.
  4. I hope I live, but if I don’t, I hope this is painless.

When you’re in that type of situation, you have no motivation to lie to yourself.  These thoughts are as close a glimpse to who I really am as I can get, and I was very happy with them.

Thankfully, the plane was righted and we flew over to Pittsburgh for a few hours to refuel and to make sure the storm was gone by the time we flew back.  All the way there, everybody around me was thanking god.  Of course, there were no censures of god for sending the storm in the first place and certainly no credit being offered up to the pilots.  But maybe that type of silliness is a good trade for comfort in the face of a frightening situation.

I say fuck no it isn’t!  Sure, fantasies can provide comfort, but there are avenues to comfort that don’t require a surrender of our good senses.  We have approaches to solace that are drawn from an understanding of the world and the importance of the people in our lives.  Atheists are not so intelligent or special that these intellectually honest means are available only to us while the poor theists have to settle for thoughtless drivel in order to brave the hardships of life.

No matter how much believers argue for their limitations in this regard, we should convince them that they have the personal strength to acknowledge that death is just as much a part of life as living, and to let it be enough to live their lives in such a way that when death finally catches up to them they’ll be ready.  You want to be brave?  Stare down what frightens you instead of turning your head and pretending it isn’t there.  Trust in the power of human beings to fix problems instead of resigning our sagacity for empty hope at the drop of a hat.

I’m not sure I’m there yet myself, but I’m proud of how far I’ve come.

“Cowards die many times before their deaths.  The valiant only taste of death but once.” ~ William Shakespeare

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About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Michaelyn

    When I was flying from Columbus to Atlanta, it was stormy and the flight was pretty bumpy. At one point there was a big lurch that made everyone hold their breath. All I can remember thinking is, “You’re going to be okay.” The guy next to me crossed himself, and pointed upward in thanks to god after it was all over.

    I didn’t quite face death, though. It’s interesting to wonder if I would buckle and pray for help if I lost all hope. I really don’t know the answer to that one.

    I’m amused by the fact that your first thought was, “stop screaming to god, all of you!” Can’t say I’m surprised.

  • Clive Tooth
  • FlyingTeaCosy

    You know, my dad has a very similar story of turbulence, plummeting, and profoundly panicked religious people. His story had a bonus prayer mat followed by an impressively shouty air-steward, but the theme’s pretty much the same.
    Sometimes I think that as atheists, we’re far better equipped to deal with impending death. We- particularly those of us who have deconverted from a faith- have already had to come to terms with your own mortality. We’ve already had to stare it in the face, find ways to come to terms with it, and go on with our lives. We know it’s coming, we know it’s final. And we’ve already dealt with that.
    Religious people are more likely to be clinging to hope, as opposed to knowledge. They spend their lives thinking of death as a portal to heaven. But if there’s any doubt there, they often won’t have dealt with that until they’re confronted with it in the moment. There’s often no pragmatism there.
    Also, dude. Fear of hell has got to be worse than that of oblivion.