What Do Atheists Think Of Death?


This post certainly struck a nerve, particularly among atheist readers. One writes:

Sharing Kevin's sense of never having felt the need to believe in God, perhaps my answer will be of interest.

I have always felt that when I die, I am dead and gone, my conscious life will end, my interactions with others will end, and I will be simply GONE. I don't know what causes consciousness (call it spirit, call it soul, I don't mean to pick sides with my words), but I expect that it will end. My afterlife will be in the memories of those I knew, those who loved me, those who carry me on in their hearts. I, myself, cease to exist.

This gives me a beautiful, shockingly beautiful sense of the Now. Being in the present, the here and now, is the ultimate reward of life. I am constantly gobsmacked by the minutiae of life; I stand in awe of the things around me right fucking now. There's no reward, no judgment, no heaven, no hell. I live right fucking now.

Another writes:

I think that when I die I'll cease to exist, and in some ways I'm happy about that.  Life is hard work.  Life is good, worthy work that I'm proud of and that makes me feel good, for the most part, but even though I'll probably be sad to die (and I'd hate to think I was about to die any time soon), I'm still glad, in principle, that some day life will cease, and my burdens will dissolve with my joys.  I don't want to live forever.


Speaking as someone who shares Kevin's view on this topic, what we think happens when we die is that we die, only our contributions to the world we are departing will live on, and that's all there is to it. We're not going to be around to experience it afterwards. Would it be nice not to die? Maybe, certainly sounds interesting (although I could see myself wishing fervently for death to put me out of my boredom when I turned a million, and considering it an inhuman and sadistic torment to deny that to me...). But if we wish to live in a reality based world we need to acknowledge that there is no rational reason to believe this to be true and it is a monumental case of group wishful thinking to put it politely. People are afraid of dying, they don't want to deal with it, and believing they'll never have to *really* deal with it because they're not going to *really* die is just easier.

How do I feel about it? Meh. I accepted my mortality (and that of everyone else I know) a long time ago, I dealt with it, and now I rarely give it much thought unless circumstances call it to my attention. I have better things to do with my life than obsessing over a time when it's going to be over. And no, that is not me declaring how incredibly brave and stoic in the face of death that makes atheists, I don't imagine I'd be any less scared facing the imminent ending of my life when the time comes than your average person... it is simply not a concern of mine now. Wringing my hands over it would be about as pointless as wailing over the gravitational constant of the universe not having a different value more to my liking. Reality is what it is. And reality is that people aren't immortal.

Yet another:

"I wonder what Kevin thinks happens to him when he dies?"

I think the fact that you have to ask this question at all says a lot about how the fear of death is inextricably tied to a belief in higher powers in the minds of theists. To one such as I, who shares Kevin's views, the answer is rather obvious and intuitive. Nothing is going to happen to him when he dies, because there won't be a 'him' for anything to happen to.

As for your follow up question- "And how does he feel about that - not just emotionally but existentially?"- I can only speak for myself, but again, the fact that you feel the need to ask this question says a lot about the source of your faith. Forgive me if this sounds overly judgmental, but to me terms like "faith" and "spirituality" are just shorthand for an individual's inability to cope with the concept of oblivion. Why must one feel anything particular about it in the first place? I am. One day, I will not be. This doesn't bother me and I don't understand the need to waste the precious gift of sentience agonizing about such things.

I recognize that some people can't shrug off the idea of not existing in some form. Take my husband for instance. He has an overdeveloped fear of oblivion but can't bring himself to believe in fairy tales. He takes comfort in philosophy. In the words of (probably) Marcus Aurelius:

‘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.’


As an atheist who has just recently had two friends die, I can say that not all atheists are as lucky as Kevin. For me, the fear of death is far and away the most immediate and challenging aspect of my atheism. Death affects me in a profound way, because I know it's not a matter of belief at this point, for me that this life is all we get. As much as I would like to believe platitudes like "He's in a better place now" and "I know he's smiling down on us," I see them for what they are, and what they represent: attempts to avoid facing the reality of death.

So if you truly believe that "Facing [death] is our life's task," may I suggest you try atheism? Religion is how people AVOID facing it. It's the common thread in all religions, from the most ancient to the most modern: "When we die, it's not really the end. So don't worry so much." But for most religions it doesn't stop there. Most of them teach that life after death will not only exist, but it'll be way more awesome than stupid ol' life with all its trials and tribulations. A choir of angels! Forty virgins! Nirvana! All your old friends, your family, even Mittens and Fido will be there to give you a big hug and welcome you to eternity!

Eternity. Living forever. Whatever philosophical contortions you want to twist yourself through, if you believe in eternity, you are not facing death. Atheists face death. We have to come to grips with the finality of our end without the aid of any comforting fairy tales. It's not easy, but neither is life. Atheists and theists can agree on that, at least. We just don't think death is going to be any different.

A reader asks:

When atheists claim that religion is just a fanciful way to deal with the unpleasant inevitability of death, the faithful often decry such a reduction as unfair. And yet your main response to Kevin Drum's unapologetic description of his lack of religious impulse is to ask "Then what do you think happens when we die?" As another of those "untragic" atheists, I can only scratch my head as to why my answer to that question would seem to be revelatory to you... unless, that is, the avoidance of death offered by religion is its key selling point. So which is it? And how does soothing my fears (be they rational or irrational) make something like religion more likely to be True?

A final thought:

I believe we have a "soul," but not in the sense of a spiritual being apart from our bodies, but in the sense of a consciousness that transcends our physical limitations. It is, first, the essence of our beings, the thing that connects the person we are today to the person we have been at all the stages of our lives. The boy I once was is in some sense the man I am today and the old man I will be, and I think this persistence of being - this connective line, this inner self - is part of what I mean by "soul." In addition, by "soul" I also mean our ability to contemplate time and space and perhaps a sense of harmony far outside our own physicality. And finally I mean a higher morality - the part of our beings that makes us not only human, and thus animal, but also humane, and in that sense spiritual beings with a higher morality than self-interest and even survival. This feeling no doubt has a physical cause as well, but at some level our higher-processing brains and our experiences and learning give us feelings that seem unconnected to physical sensation. And it is here where the best of humankind resides and expresses itself.

When I worry about my own death, it is not death that I really worry about, but the manner of death, and the lead up to it of decline, decrepitude, helplessness, pain. (If I knew I would be fairly healthy until the end, and then die peacefully in my sleep, much of my anxiety would be gone.) Death itself does not scare me. I remember undergoing general surgery for some minor problem, and was given some anesthetic drip before being wheeled into the operating room. At one moment I was talking to the surgeon, and the very next moment - a nanosecond later - I was in the recovery room. I had no awareness of a dimming of consciousness. One instant I was there, an instant later I was gone. This, it seems to me, is what death is like, only there's no reawakening. Consciousness ends, and along with it any awareness and sensation. There is not even a feeling of absence.

Another way I look at it is that life after I am dead will be just like life before I was born. I don't regret not being here sooner than I was, and I had no sensation of existence before my birth. So it will be after my death.

The only death that really scares me is the death of those I love, far more than my own. This is not to say that I don't want to live as long as possible, so long as I can function in some way and not be an excessive burden. And this desire, it seems to me, is itself strong proof that there is no afterlife. Freud's thanatos notwithstanding, even our souls hunger for a concrete existence. We may long for transcendence, but it is a transcendence in our lives, not in some desire to be totally spiritual beings, removed forever from connection to the real. At least not for long - that way lies madness. Sooner or later, we want to reconnect to the world. And we constantly hunger for the visible world, the streams of sensations that feed our consciousness and being. It is the very opposite of an afterlife idealized by major religions. And that leads me to my final point (probably a startling one, from your point of view): I think life after death would be stupid.

By this I absolutely do not mean that it is stupid to believe in an afterlife or to desire it (though such a desire may be a result of naivete, irrationality, or great pain). I mean that such an existence would itself be stupid. It would be devoid of anything that gives our intelligence any significance, and our current lives any meaning. It would not in any sense be human. I remember telling my brother that if I died and there was a God and he told me that he indeed created the world in six days, I would be extremely disappointed, for I find the world as it is far more miraculous and awe-inspiring than its biblical description. Similarly, a life after death devoid of physicality would mean very little to me, and I don't desire it. Perhaps it would matter to whatever essence or spirit survived me, but to the living human being I am, this world - you and me and everyone else - is all that really matters.

Again, Andrew, what do you think happens when you die? Your body and individuality recreated in some recognizable way, with friends long gone again available to you? Andrew Sullivan as a disembodied spirit, glowing because you - or it - are in the presence of Jesus? You must have some view. Share it. And tell us if you really prefer that afterlife, to all the pain and glory of this real one.

One of the starkest things I remember from my one afternoon spent conversing with the subject of my doctoral dissertation, Michael Oakeshott, was his response to a question I posed him about the notion of salvation and the after-life (he died the following year). It was "who would want to be saved"? Oakeshott's LU last unwritten essay (I suspect he had been writing it in his head much of his life) was going to be about a conception of salvation which had nothing whatsoever with the future.

I have two intuitions about what happens when I die. The first is that I cannot know in any way for sure; and I surely know that whatever heaven is, it is so beyond our human understanding that it is perhaps better not to try an answer. The second is that I will continue to exist in my essence but more firmly and completely enveloped in the love and expanse of God, as revealed primarily in the life of Jesus.

I guess you can believe there is nothing there (atheism/agnosticism); or that there is something there into which everything dissolves - human and divine - which is a kind of non-material unity of love and compassion (Buddhism). Faith gives me the hope of the Christian alternative to both, that we will remain who we are, the unique objects of God's love, and yet part of such a miraculous sea of divine love, we will be both ourselves and yet far less limited  by ourselves, freed from the sin that keeps us from knowing one another, forgiving one another and loving one another and loving God as parent, child and spirit.

My most indelible connection with death was being by one of my closest friends of my own age as he faced his own mortality. I was there at the hour of his death; and I was there when he was fully and healthily alive; and I was there when he faced his death, day by day, for two years, until he died at the age of 31 in his mother's arms.

One memory, related in Love Undetectable, came when Patrick, toward the end of his life, was enduring terrible sweats. In one of the lulls in which his body seemed to rest, I lay down next to him on the bed and asked the hardest question:

I asked him what he thought death actually was. He was shivering and we spooned, that candlewick bedspread holding our bodies inches apart. I remember feeling his bones beneath it for the first time, the skeleton beginning to shape the once firm, rosy flesh of his body. 

"I don't know," he said. "I don't really know. Sometimes it seems like some blackness coming toward me. And sometimes it doesn't feel like anything." He paused and I felt unqualified to add anything. So we lay there for a while in silence, staring at the ceiling, me wondering if I'd asked him because I was actually curious as to what a dying man might actually think, as if he might know a little better and help me navigate what I thought was ahead of me; or whether I asked him because somebody needed to, and no one else would dare; or since I was his only close friend facing the same prospect, no one else could ask him. He shivered again, and the phone rang. But death became one more of those banalities we had in common.

Where is Patrick now? He is with me whenever my thoughts turn to him; he is alive and vivid, if transfigured sometimes, in my dreams. He is with me at the end of the Cape each summer, as a seagull flies close to me in the evening sky. He is in my prayers. He is. I can prove none of this. I can only witness that watching my dearest friend die, after being in the AIDS bunker with him for two years, helped me understand that my friend lives. You will mock me for this wish-fulfillment. But they mocked the disciples too who knew that the Lord was alive, and that death was not the master of Him.

I live in this awareness. But I also live in the awareness that eternity is here already, that the majesty and miracle of God's creation resonates through every second of our lives and every particle of matter within and without us. That is how I interpret Oakeshott's deeply Christian (and somewhat Buddhist) understanding of salvation as having nothing whatsoever to do with the future. The unity and individuality and wonder we are told we will only know then is actually here now, shielded from our own eyes by our own mortal fear, by our own avoidance of death, by our own inability to grasp that this struggle we fear is actually already over, that God loves us now unconditionally, overwhelmingly, this knowledge prevented solely from penetrating us by our own sense of inadequacy, or our looking away, or are losing ourselves in the human and worldly things that I understand by sin.

So I do not believe our consciousness is utterly different after death than now. I believe, with Saint Paul, that this is the same divine experience, but through a glass darkly. I believe it is Love, because Jesus showed me so. And I await with great fear because I am human and I await with great hope because of the incarnation and resurrection of God in human history.

To philosophize is to learn how to die.

To believe is to hope for light in the face of "some blackness coming toward us."