Does Atheism Offer As Much Comfort in Death As Religion?
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
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.