May 30, 2020

Facing Death Without Faith

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I don't write many posts without knowing whether I'll actually put them up on the blog. This is one of them. I wrote an early version of this post in 2010 after hearing about Mojoey's (Deep Thoughts) loss of his father and followed it up with another later that year. At the time, I found myself thinking that death is a subject that needs far more attention in the West. We don't like to think about it, and we rarely discuss it. I cannot help thinking that this reluctance has many adverse effects. Since religious belief often seems to be driven by fear of death, perhaps atheists ought to be involved in this discussion. In 2020, I decided to consolidate those two prior posts into the one you are reading now.

Thinking About Death

At the outset, I have to acknowledge that I'm every bit as guilty as anyone in not wanting to think about death. I know I'll die, and I know everyone close to me will die. But I tend to sweep thoughts like that aside. No point dwelling on something so unpleasant, I tell myself. I've still got some living to do, and I don't want to get bogged down with such thoughts. Even if I think there might be some benefits to doing so, I'd prefer not to think about such things.

But in the back of my mind, there is an awareness that I am not doing myself any favors by pushing thoughts of death away. It means I'll be less prepared when I inevitably lose more people close to me. It will likely make my subsequent grief worse. And it probably doesn't help with my approach to my own demise in a rational way.

As an atheist, I understand that death is a natural process and that it represents not a transition to another plane of existence but an end. The living person ceases to live, ceases to be a person at all. There is no afterlife, except for the survivors. There is no next chapter, except for those left behind. It is we who survive the deceased who have the transition, and it can be an extremely difficult transition because we are the ones who have lost someone.

If I was a religious person who truly believed in some sort of afterlife, I might be justified in refusing to think about death. But as an atheist, I must recognize that the temporary nature of our time here has implications for how we should live our lives.

The Fear of Death

Assuming we do not do a great job of talking about death and dying in the West and that we might be able to overcome some of our many hang-ups on the subject if we learned how to do so, what might that look like? How could that benefit is? Perhaps fewer people would have a need for organized religion. If that was the case, that could benefit all of us in many ways.

If atheists view death as an ending of the self, the termination of everything we call "I," does this mean it is something to be feared? For some of us, the idea of returning to nothingness might provoke fear. Others find the idea of nothingness too abstract to elicit strong emotion. And still others, including me, lost our fear of nothingness somewhere along the way even as we developed new fears.

I was recently asked about my views of death and the degree to which I feared my own death. In composing my response, I was struck by how much my views have changed over the course of my life. As a child and well into my teen years, the prospect of death terrified me. And yet, I found myself somewhat less afraid once I threw off the shackles of religious belief and begin to explore the writings of my fellow atheists. Don't get me wrong - I was still afraid, just not as much as I had been previously.

fear of death

But shouldn't atheism be associated with greater fear because it involves the recognition that there is no afterlife? I have heard that argument, and it does make some sense to me on an intellectual level. It just doesn't ring true in an emotional way. That is, I see why others might feel that way, but that has not been my experience. Honestly, I attribute the pre- to post-atheism decline in fear of death more to maturity than to anything specific to atheism. But it is true that abandoning thoughts of hell reduced my fear to some degree.

The more time has passed since my teen years, the less I find myself fearing my own death. I have little trouble viewing death as a deep sleep from which one never awakes and in which there are no dreams. I see it more as an inevitable conclusion than as something to be feared. In fact, I have days when it almost seems welcome. There is, however, one aspect of death that I do still fear: the process of dying as it often unfolds in modern America. Like most strong fears, this one is irrational. And like most strong fears, knowing that it is irrational makes little difference.

So what exactly is it that I fear? I fear being confined to hospitals and nursing homes. I fear the indignity of being poked and prodded by medical staff. I fear the sort of cognitive decline that occurs in many older adults. And maybe most of all, I fear becoming dependent on others. Collectively, this all scares the hell out of me. In fact, it scares me so much that I'd prefer to avoid it all, even if it means suicide.

Moving Past the Fear of Death

Religious believers move past their fear of death by denying it altogether. That does not strike this atheist as a viable option. And this is what brings me back to the notion that thinking about death more often and being willing to openly discuss it with others might have some benefits.

We might acknowledge, for example, that some atheists do fear death. This does not make them [insert ridiculous Twitter insult of your choice here], and it certainly does not make anyone any less of an atheist. Those of us who don't fear death might be of some value to those who do, but this is unlikely if we elevate ourselves above them. We might also acknowledge that not talking about death probably makes some of our fears worse. I think this includes the tendency some of us have to proclaim that it is our awareness of death that gives our lives meaning and then demand that others go enjoy their lives.

Not everybody enjoys their lives. Not everybody is healthy enough, physically or psychologically, to live the sort of life they might want. Some have major limitations that others often fail to consider. And so, telling someone who is seriously ill or struggling with many limitations to "be happy" and "go live every moment as if it was your last" may be rather hollow. The challenge of death, much like the challenge of life, may be that each of us has the task of defining its meaning for ourselves.