Death: An Atheist Perspective

If one thing can be said for certain about death, it would be that it has undoubtedly crossed all of our minds at some moment or other. Many of us have lost friends or loved ones, some of us have nearly lost our own lives, and others have even witnessed death on a regular basis. Understandably, death makes a lot of us uncomfortable, leaving behind several significant questions. How will we die? Is there anything after this life? Will we ever get to see our loved ones again? Will we be remembered when we’re gone? Despite what you may hear from psychics, televangelists, and other charlatans, there are no definite answers to these troubling questions.As an atheist, I do not believe in a god, and as a skeptic, I do not believe in an afterlife. I have found the arguments for both unconvincing, and seen only evidence against their existence. In the eyes of many theists, this is a perspective without hope or comfort. Christian apologists like Josh McDowell, Gary Habermas, and Dinesh D’Souza have each argued that the promise of life after death is a large part of what gives meaning to this life we now live. Yet I believe that life has value on its own merits, not based on what may succeed (or precede) it, and I find no reason to fear the eventual end of my life. For this article, I will present one atheist’s perspective on the subject of death.

I. Death, Where is Thy Sting?

When I was a Christian, death was no small concern for me. The eternal destination of my friends and family ran constantly across my mind. Would they be with me in heaven? Would I be in heaven? With so many different types of believers throughout the world, with different ideas about how one becomes saved, I had no real guarantee of what would happen after death. Of course, that didn’t stop me from witnessing to the “unsaved” with all of the pretend conviction I could muster. But inside I struggled because I knew many other people, Christians and non-Christians, who held their beliefs about the afterlife with just as much apparent fervor, and according to them, I would be in for a rude surprise on the day I died.

“O death, where is thy sting?” asks 1 Corinthians 15:55. “O grave, where is thy victory?” For the apostle Paul, the resurrection of Christ meant that death was now robbed of its power. The wages of sin is death, Paul says in Romans, but with the sacrifice of Jesus came the forgiveness of sins, and thus the believer in Christ would be victorious over death. It’s not entirely clear what Paul meant by this, but as there is substantial evidence that the early Christians thought the world would be ending very soon (in Matthew 16:27-28, Jesus claims that no one in his audience would “taste death” before the kingdom would arrive), it is possible that Paul literally meant that believers would not die. They would instead be taken up in the clouds to meet their lord in the air, as he states in 1 Thessalonians 4:17.

However Paul meant it, the passage is certainly intended to convey a victory implying that believers need no longer fear death. Even though I was well aware of this verse when I was a Christian, it offered little to no real consolation. The true “sting” of death is not sin, but the separation that results from death. Recall the questions above and notice how many of them involve the pain of separation. Christianity does not provide any resolution to this pain – on the contrary, it is exacerbated. Several times throughout the New Testament, Jesus promises that unbelievers will suffer an eternity of incredible agony in the afterlife, separated from their friends, family, and god. For any believer with a conscience, the sting of death is still felt.

II. Hoping for Heaven

As I got older, I wrestled with the idea of hell and drastically changed my beliefs. Soon I came to view hell as a metaphor for annihilation, or non-existence, and then it became a punishment bestowed on only the most immoral human beings. Aside from more conservative Christians and Muslims, this liberal approach to the afterlife is what many religious believers have adopted. There is a paradise that most, or all, human beings will make it into, at some time or another. Indeed, this belief may help to resolve the pain of separation, making it only a brief and temporary inconvenience in contrast to spending a blissful eternity with friends, family, and god. Why not believe that?

For my own part, I have to say that I would rather believe what’s true than what’s comfortable to me. I certainly like the thought of seeing my friends and family again in a life after this one, and I may even wish it was true, but that alone is not enough reason for me to believe. I have also seen that, when we believe in something based on preference or emotion rather than reason, we sometimes cause conflict and discomfort among others. In my own research into the question of life after death, as described in my article, What Happens After We Die?, I have found little more than anecdotal evidence that is largely explicable by science.

Of course, everyone is free to believe whatever they like, but I have to wonder how comforting it really is to believe something only because it makes you feel good. It will not have any impact on whether or not there truly is a life after death. It will not take away all the pain of having lost someone. At best, believing because you hope for heaven to be real is like sticking a small band-aid on a broken leg. Psychologically, it may be of some minor use, but there’s nothing to show that it’s really any better than no band-aid at all.

III. Meaning Without an Afterlife

What if death is the very end? If there is no afterlife to strive for in this life, then what is the meaning of our present lives? When I say that I believe life is valuable on its own merits, I mean that we give our lives value by what we do with them. I refer not only to the doctors and fire-fighters who keep us safe, or to the scientists and innovators who improve our well-being and comfort, but also to you and others like you. I may not know your name, I may never meet you, but what I do know is that you matter to someone. Whether it’s family, friends, lovers, or co-workers that you matter to, you do matter. Your life has meaning and value because of what you mean to those around you and because of what they mean to you.

In a world of this size, almost everything we do affects other people, whether we’re aware of it or not. The garbage truck driver has as much value to his life as the Wall Street executive or the Nobel laureate. This value doesn’t come from anything as arbitrary as his belief in Jesus, or as irrelevant as the idea that we’re all created by a god; it comes from his character, from his words and actions. The value of his life is who he is as a person. No life is without any value, as even the worst figures in history have affected those close to them in positive ways, however much that might be overshadowed by their treatment of the rest of humankind. The point is that life does have meaning, especially if we have just one chance to enjoy it and to get things right.

It’s terribly cliche, but there is a lot of truth behind the idea that we live on in the memories of those who we love and who love us in kind. Sadly, we spend a great deal of time worrying over what might have been and what we could have done differently, when we ought to be focusing on what we enjoyed. I can think of no better way to honor a departed friend, relative, or lover, than by remembering them fondly and living your own life well. If they were anyone that cared about you at all, then you probably already know they would feel the same.

Bertrand Russell had something to say about death that has stuck with me ever since I first read it.

I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man’s place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own.1

The pain of loss can seem unbearable at times, but it does not in any way mean that the love and happiness we felt was any less real or meaningful. I am glad for the opportunities I had to experience those joys with my departed loved ones, and if I should be grateful or thankful to anyone, it should be to them. Out of all the people in this brief life that they could have chosen to spend their time with, they chose to spend it with you. Who would dare to call that meaningless?

IV. Facing the Fear of Death

Undoubtedly, some will still not find this enough. Death is an inevitable part of life, and because of the jarring nature of that fact, many people choose to deny the finality of death altogether. These types will not likely be satisfied with any approach to death that does not involve its circumvention in one way or another. I find it difficult to sympathize with such a view, because it appears to be more about selfish arrogance than about concern for others. Perhaps science will one day give us the ability to live forever, and in that respect we would lose our fear of death. But unless it is such a practical kind, immortality is only a hollow promise preying on our fear of death.

As an atheist, I find myself significantly less bothered by death than I was as a Christian. Where I used to fret over the eternal destination of myself, my family, and my friends, I now take comfort in knowing that suffering ends with death. There may be no paradise awaiting those who pass on, but neither is there any question of who gets in, or what one will experience (or not experience) in heaven. Rather than a bizarre transition into a whole new realm of uncertainties and wishful speculation, death is simply release. Indeed, there is no more sorrow, no more pain, no more injustice, and no more evil. Of course, the truth is not contingent on our personal comfort, so all of this is but a positive lens through which to view the issue.

What should matter the most to us is what reason we have to believe something is true. If there is no evidence of an afterlife, there is no reason to believe one exists. As I’ve shown above, this does not make death any worse, but in some ways it does make it less terrifying. We will probably still have many questions about death, like if we will be remembered after we die, or how we can deal with the pain of loss, but there are some realistic answers to these questions that have helped many people. If we want to be remembered, we must live well. If we want to address the pain of losing a loved one, we must remember them well. We cannot wish them, or ourselves, into returning in the future anymore than we can change the past.

In the five stages of grief, many people remain stuck in denial or depression, yet it’s only with acceptance that real catharsis comes. Atheists who see death as the very end believe that we are accepting reality as it is best indicated. Rather than having to wallow in hopeless misery, we can find comfort in this view, as it enables us to move on, to remember our loved ones in practical ways that may also touch others, and to make the most of the time that we have on this earth. Death will still have a sting, but from my position now, as a non-theist, I feel that I finally have the liberation of acceptance.

 

Sources:
1. Bertrand Russell, “What I Believe” (1925).