News & Politics

Does Atheism Offer As Much Comfort in Death As Religion?

The comfort of religion doesn't eradicate grief. And many people would much rather believe in no afterlife at all than an afterlife determined by a sadistic god.

What is an appropriate atheist philosophy of death?

And how should atheists be talking about death with believers?

As regular readers know, I've been doing a project on Facebook: the Atheist Meme of the Day, in which I write pithy, Facebook-ready memes explaining one aspect of atheism or exploding one myth about it, and asking people to pass the memes on if they like. (BTW, if you're on Facebook, friend me!)

Some of my Memes of the Day have generated disagreement from some atheists. Which is fine, of course. I don't expect or want all atheists to agree about everything. Quite the contrary: one of the great things about atheism is that we have no central dogma that we all have to agree on, and no central authority that we all have to obey.

But the memes that have generated the most vocal and vigorous pushback have surprised me. They have consistently been the ones about death: the ones trying to show that a godless view of death can offer some degree of solace and meaning; the ones that begin, "Atheism does have comfort to offer in the face of death." Whenever I write one of these, I can almost guarantee that within a few hours -- usually within a few minutes -- someone will be complaining that the comforting philosophy I'm presenting isn't comforting at all. Or even that atheism can't possibly present a philosophy of death that could compete with the comfort offered by religion... with the apparent implication that it's either deceptive or deluded to pretend that this is possible, and that we shouldn't even try.

I'm a bit puzzled by this. So I want to explain in a little more detail what I mean by these memes. And I want to try to find out why there's resistance to the very idea of presenting an atheist philosophy of death that provides meaning, hope, and comfort.


I think part of the problem here may lie with that word "comfort" -- and with some people's expectations of it. So I'll try to make my meaning a little more explicit.

When I say that some particular view of death offers comfort, I don't mean that it completely eradicates any pain or grief associated with death. Of course it doesn't. Nothing does that -- not even religion. (More on that in a moment.) When I say, "This view of death offers some comfort," I'm not saying, "If you look at death this way, it will no longer trouble you. With this philosophy, you can view death blithely, even cheerfully. The death of the ones you love, and your own eventual death, will no longer suck even in the slightest."

That's not what I mean by "comfort."

When I say, "This atheist philosophy of death offers comfort," I mean, "This atheist philosophy can, to some extent, alleviate the suffering and grief caused by death. It can make the suffering and grief feel less overwhelming, less unbearable. It doesn't make the pain disappear -- but it can put the experience into a context that gives it some sort of meaning, and it can offer the hope that with time, the pain will diminish. It can give us a sense that there's a bridge over the chasm: a feeling of trust that, when the worst of the grief passes, we'll have a solid foundation to return to. It doesn't make the grief go away -- but it can make it better."

That's what I mean by "comfort." It would be nice if an atheist philosophy of death could do more; but given how monumentally frightening and upsetting death is, the fact that atheism can provide even this degree of comfort is not trivial.

And maybe more to the point: Religion doesn't do any better.

Ever since I became an atheist, I've been struck by the fact that, even when people believe that death is no more than a temporary separation, they still grieve deeply and desperately for the people they love, as if they were never going to see those people again. Belief in an afterlife doesn't keep people from mourning in terrible anguish when their loved ones die. It doesn't keep people from missing the loved ones they've lost, for years, for the rest of their lives. And it doesn't keep people from fearing their own death, and putting it off as long as they can. (And for the record: No, I don't think this makes them hypocrites. I think it makes them human.) The comfort of religion doesn't eradicate grief, any more than the comfort of atheism does. It simply alleviates it to some extent.

But does an atheist philosophy of death offer less comfort than a religious one? Honestly -- I think that depends. For one thing, I think it depends on the atheist philosophy. A philosophy of (for instance) "Yes, I'm going to die, but my ideas and the effect I had on the world will live on for a while " will probably be more comforting than a philosophy of, "Yeah, death totally sucks, but that's reality, reality bites, whaddya gonna do."

Plus, obviously, it depends on the religion as well. Many true believers in a blissful afterlife aren't actually very comforted by this belief. It's common for believers to be tormented by the thought that, even if they're going to Heaven, the apostates in their family are going to burn in Hell... and how can Heaven be Heaven if their loved ones are burning in Hell? And many religious beliefs about death fill their believers, not with comfort, but with terror and guilt... and many atheists who once held those beliefs say that letting go of them was a profound relief. They would much rather believe in no afterlife at all than an afterlife determined by the vengeful, nitpicky, capricious, psychopathically sadistic god they were brought up to believe in.

And whether atheism or religion offers more comfort in the face of death depends an awful lot on the person. When I believed in an afterlife, I always had a nagging, uncomfortable feeling in the back of my mind that my beliefs weren't based on anything substantial, that they weren't sincere beliefs so much as wishful thinking. Compared to my current conclusions -- that when we die, our consciousness will almost certainly disappear entirely -- I suppose those beliefs were more comforting. Or they would have been, if it hadn't been for my uneasy suspicion that they were bullshit.

But... well, that's my point. My current ways of coping with death offer a major source of comfort that my old beliefs couldn't give, a source of comfort that more than compensates for the pleasant belief in the false hope of immortality. And that's a strong degree of confidence that I'm not deluding myself. As Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote: "The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism." Having no cognitive dissonance in my philosophy of death is a considerable comfort. This might not be the case for everybody; some people seem better able to live with cognitive dissonance than others. But it certainly is for me. And it seems to be for many other people.

Which brings me back to my point:

Yes, I care about reality. Any regular reader of my writing knows that I care about reality to an almost obsessive degree. I am not a fan of pretty lies that make people feel better*, and the argument that "it doesn't matter whether religion is really true" fills me with sputtering rage. I think reality is far more important than anything we could make up about it... pretty much by definition.

But it is not a denial of reality to offer comforting thoughts about death that have nothing to do with God.

It bugs me when atheists with a more bleak view of death than mine present that bleakness as a logical consequence of atheism, the inherent and natural result of not believing in God or an afterlife. It bugs me partly because I disagree. Obviously. But it also bugs me because it treats a question of personal opinion and philosophy and perspective as if it were a question of fact.

Look. Questions like, "Is there a god?" "Is there a soul?" "Is there an afterlife?" -- these are questions of fact, questions we can and should be debating the evidence for. But questions like, "Is it comforting to view death as a natural process, something that connects us with the great chain of cause and effect in the universe?" or, "Is it comforting to view death as a deadline, something we need to inspire us to accomplish anything?" -- those are questions of opinion, personal perspective. We can discuss and debate them... but ultimately, they are questions that can be legitimately answered with, "If it's true for me, then it's true for me."

And it bugs me when atheists argue that these forms of comfort are somehow delusional... because it treats a personal perspective on life as if it were a simple question of fact.

Besides, when it comes to questions of perspective and opinion and personal philosophy... why not try to be positive? Why not try to frame our experience in ways that are hopeful and meaningful and comforting? And why not share those ways of framing experience with people who are considering atheism but are scared to pieces about it? Of course our philosophies should be consistent with reality... but if we have a choice in different ways of dealing with that reality, why not choose the ones that minimize suffering and maximize joy?

I'm not trying to pretend that death doesn't suck. I'm not even trying to pretend that the finality of death with no afterlife doesn't suck. Death sucks -- and it should. Life is precious, and we should treasure it, and mourn its loss. If we care about the people we love, it is reasonable and right to grieve when they die; if we care about our own selves and our own lives, it is reasonable and right to grieve in advance for their eventual end.

But we can find ways to frame reality -- including the reality of death -- that make it easier to deal with. We can find ways to frame reality that do not ignore or deny it and that still give us comfort and solace, meaning and hope. And we can offer these ways of framing reality to people who are considering atheism but have been taught to see it as inevitably frightening, empty, and hopeless.

And I'm genuinely puzzled by atheists who are trying to undercut that.

Of course it's valid to discuss and even debate personal philosophies and opinions and perspectives. I'm not trying to squelch dissension and debate; if I post a Meme of the Day or anything else that other atheists don't agree with, I'm curious to hear about it. And especially when it comes to death, I understand that some people see certain perspectives on it as comforting, while others see those same perspectives as unsettling. (I, for one, am baffled by people who say that death will be a relief from the burden of life.) And I'm interested in hearing about those differences.

But I think there's a difference between saying, "Gee, that isn't my experience, I don't find that comforting at all" -- and saying, "But death still sucks even when you look at it that way -- therefore, that view isn't comforting at all!" And I think there's an enormous difference between saying, "Gee, that isn't my experience, I don't find that comforting at all" -- and saying, "There is no way atheism can ever offer a philosophy of death that will be more comforting than religion. That's just a simple fact. We shouldn't even try."

And I am genuinely puzzled by people who so vehemently insist on the latter responses.

There are a lot of things I'm trying to do with these memes. (All the memes -- not just the ones about death.) I'm trying to dispel myths and misconceptions and bigotries about atheism. I'm trying to disseminate methods of critical thinking, about religion specifically and reality generally. I'm trying to get people to view religion as just another hypothesis about the world, with no more right to special treatment than any other hypothesis.

But one of the biggest things I'm trying to do with these memes is to help make atheism a safe place to land. I'm trying to make the world a safer place to be an atheist: not just safer from the bigotry and hostility of others, but safer emotionally and psychologically for the people who are considering it. The journey out of religion and into atheism can be a frightening and traumatic one, even under the best of circumstances. And the fear of the permanence of death is often one of the most frightening and traumatic parts of the transition.

I'm trying to help ease that transition. I'm trying to show that an atheist life can be a good and happy and joyful life, and that, while losing religion will often mean losing some forms of comfort and meaning, there will be new forms of comfort and meaning to replace them. Including new ways of dealing with death. (And it's not like I'm not pulling these memes out of my ass. Every meme I've written about death has been a view that some atheists find comforting: if not myself, then people I've spoken to or read.) The world is increasingly full of people who are falling out of religion, or who are close to falling out of it. I'm trying to help create a safety net, to make that landing softer.

And I'm genuinely puzzled when it seems like other atheists are trying to cut the ropes.


Read more of Greta Christina at her blog.
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