Atheism and Death

30 Mar

Recently a friend of mine’s grandfather died. She is religious and made some comment on facebook about how the whole thing got her thinking about heaven: Is there one? Is my grandfather there now?

Well I know tact and not wanting to be a jerk in her time of grieving, I merely said that my thoughts were with her. But this got me thinking about Atheism and death. How do you treat people who are grieving because of a death?

To answer her question “is there a heaven?”, no. There is no heaven, there is no hell. This is going to sound very painful and very blunt, but there is nothing after this life, the person is gone.

Yeah, I know, it hurts and it’s ugly. But here is what people don’t want to accept: what we want to be true, and what IS true are not the same thing.

The fact that when we die we are gone forever is such a painful and scary thought that people turn to religion for comfort. Even if it is a lie, believing in that lie is easier than facing the facts.

This fact amplifies everything. What I mean by that is it amplifies the grievousness of loss at the same time it amplifies the preciousness of life. A person and their life is all the more beautiful because they are only here once. Treasure it. At the same time, murder and war all the more heinous because they destroy something so immensely precious. The cold unyielding fact is that there is no justice beyond this life. As much as we will there to be, no amount of wishing will make it so. For this very reason it is so important to fight for justice here and now, that’s the only time you might get it. (But I digress)

So how do you comfort someone without turning to comforting delusions? Well, the main thing you can do is to help them cherish the memories they have. Grief is a cycle, and the best thing you can do is be there for someone.

6 Responses to “Atheism and Death”

  1. Brian March 30, 2010 at 1:35 pm #

    Lots of interesting assumptions here. Allow me to play devil’s advocate:

    A person and their life is all the more beautiful because they are only here once. Treasure it. At the same time, murder and war all the more heinous because they destroy something so immensely precious.

    But the rarity argument only goes so far. A mayfly’s life isn’t more precious than a human’s because it’s so vastly shorter. And you can just as easily use the same argument to devalue human life; since you’re only here once, and for the briefest blink of an eye on even a geological scale (forget cosmic) what does it really matter? Against the vastness of the universe, what does a single human life, or even billions upon billions of them, matter?

    The assumption that your life matters in any appreciable way is a very self-centered one. The assumption that any human life matters isn’t much better.

    This is going to sound very painful and very blunt, but there is nothing after this life, the person is gone.

    And you know this for a fact? Perhaps death is a harvesting by hyperdimensional spiders and we spend millenia after death slowly being nibbled to bits by them. No one knows. You could be right, but it’s not an assertion I’d be willing to put money on.

    • godlesspaladin March 30, 2010 at 5:27 pm #

      “But the rarity argument only goes so far. A mayfly’s life isn’t more precious than a human’s because it’s so vastly shorter. And you can just as easily use the same argument to devalue human life; since you’re only here once, and for the briefest blink of an eye on even a geological scale (forget cosmic) what does it really matter? Against the vastness of the universe, what does a single human life, or even billions upon billions of them, matter?”

      Good points. 🙂 The only reply I can think of for the mayfly analogy is perhaps sentience makes a human life more valuable, but that still feels a little weak. That dives into the whole existentialism thing, possibly even nihilism. I guess I choose to care, which may be subjective, but there it is.

      And you know this for a fact? Perhaps death is a harvesting by hyperdimensional spiders and we spend millenia after death slowly being nibbled to bits by them. No one knows. You could be right, but it’s not an assertion I’d be willing to put money on.

      That would be so much cooler (and scarier)! And no, I don’t know that for a fact, but until I’m presented with evidence for the positive, I’m going to assume the negative. There is a neat little quote from Marcus Aurelius that sums up why I feel fine putting my bets where they are:

      Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.

  2. Sidney Carton March 30, 2010 at 1:41 pm #

    I appreciate your emphasis on teaching the individual to cherish the memory of the departed.
    I would argue that no one knows what happens when we die, so one cannot claim that any particular point of view (including your own) is a “lie.” When we die, we’ll find out. If there really is nothing after this, then none of us will be disappointed.

  3. Oddysey March 30, 2010 at 3:53 pm #

    There’s a difference between a lie and a myth. Some people use concepts like “pray” and “heaven” just because it makes them feel better, sure, but things like that — and the general concept of “afterlife” — are also the sort of things that get at deep human truths that are hard to nail down and talk about in a simple way.

    On the other hand, I definitely agree with you that the serious focus some religions have on the afterlife, and the way they treat this life as a waiting room for the next, is kind of scary — sometimes very scary. All kinds of bad rabbit holes to jump down there. I think it’s important, no matter what your opinion on what happens after wards, to treat this life as meaningful, for all kinds of reasons. But that’s me and my UU existentialism. 😉

  4. aforcier March 30, 2010 at 9:50 pm #

    the truth: we do not have the foggiest idea of what happens when death occurs… to all forms, including the human form. period.

    during this existence… rewards (feeling good) and punishments (feeling bad) is always instantaneous and corresponds directly to the dream, thought, or act undertaken (in the process of being or not being).

    by the way… in an infinite universe… each and every form occupies the center space. so, you are right when you think that you are the center of the universe. the value of your existence depends of what you do with (and within) that space. from there you can be and feel as small or as large, as insignificant or as magnificiant as you chose. (your the boss)

    http://www.ANaturalPhilsophy.com

  5. isnessie April 13, 2010 at 9:36 am #

    A friend of mine’s mom recently passed away, and they’re Christian. It was really difficult watching her deal with her mum’s death. On the one hand she seemed to be comforted by her religious beliefs in heaven, and on another she was questioning every thought she’d had about a loving God. She was clearly in pain, and torn.
    I’ve come to the conclusion (personally) that when strong emotions like grief and experiences like loss of someone loved are involved, rationality is the least thing of importance for the person experiencing them, especially if they already hold to irrational beliefs. Combine that with the state they’re usually in, and I’d say it’s not the place or time to assert personal disbeliefs… People are often on the edge and just needing to get through the bad time, and I think it would be callous to challenge them by asserting my own beliefs in the context of what is very, very personal to them. I told my friend she was on my mind, her family was in my thoughts – I joined the memorial group she created for her mother to show my support, I send her messages asking her how she’s doing, and I even told her to hold to what she believes (even though I don’t share the belief) because it was integral to her survival and recovery. I managed to keep my own boundaries and integrity without compromising on doing all I could for her. I think if we had been very much more involved in one another’s lives, it might have been more difficult. I often wonder if my theist friends hate me when things like death happens and they know what I believe about things like heaven and God.

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