Life after faith – how do atheists think about death?

I recently spoke with a former spiritual mentor and inevitably the conversation wound its way past the trivial pleasantries to the deeper questions about our existence. After an hour of stimulating debate, he looked me squarely in the eyes and said “if you’re right why would I want accept that?! If we die, and that’s it, what’s the point of me believing such a bleak truth?” His face had a hopeless, faraway look, as though merely contemplating the finitude of death had engulfed his mind with a dark and dreary cloud. Finally, he stepped backwards and vigorously shook his head, unable to consider this any longer and we kindly parted ways.

I had heard his question before on a few occasions. A couple of times it came from men who were in public ministry, preaching, leading worship, or even pastoring at a local church. Each time this question quietly emerged after a long, intimate, heartfelt conversation once the armor of holy confidence was finally put aside and we spoke “heart to heart.”

“Yuriy, if you are right, and it’s true that death is final, why would I want to accept that?”

One of these preachers, a dear friend of mine, has even said (my paraphrase) “Some of these arguments are really strong, and maybe you are right, but I simply can’t live my life and be happy if I accept them. So maybe it’s all false, but I choose to believe because it gives me joy and purpose.”

I will always remember that conversation, I was overwhelmed by this “brother” being so valiantly honest with me (it’s something he has never shared with anyone else) and yet I was tremendously grieved by the irony of the simultaneous dishonesty. How could someone willfully choose ignorance of the truth out of a desire to avoid discomfort?

Frankly, I too don’t like to talk about death, its not a pleasant topic, and yet, every once in a while, it’s prudent boldly think of that which is arguably the ultimate fear of every human being. So while my Christian hope in an afterlife has come and gone, the grim reality of death remains and it is this reality I want to confront in this blog post.

This essay will be broken down into four parts:

a. Death is sad

b. Death doesn’t prove anything

c. Six reasons eternal life would become hell

d. How to deal with thoughts of death

A – Death is sad.

Psychologists use a term called “mortality salience” to describe the awareness of the inevitability of one’s death. There are some studies that indicate people with a higher mortality salience have a higher level of religiosity. This makes quite a bit of sense to me. People who fear death are more likely to seek out an escape from that fear, whether that escape is real or not.

My wife seems to have a mortality salience of 0, she’s so filled with thoughts about life, beauty, creativity, she simply doesn’t have time to consider death. On the other hand, my own mortality salience is quite high (which is probably why I spent all my days reading theology books while my friends were out at the beach). That said I can certainly testify that it’s quite possible for individuals with a high mortality salience to live a happy life without existential terror or abnormal/irrational behavior. Dealing with death for the first time was utterly horrifying for me initially, but today it hardly bothers me at all.

If we are honest, I believe most people who think about death may at times experience both emotions: fear and peace. I have myself experienced both emotions during both periods of my life (Christian, secular). And even though the though the longer I live, the more peaceful I feel, I want to highlight that death is not a comfortable topic. For everyone involved, whether they are a believer or not. I know many Christians and atheists that claim to be completely unafraid of death and likewise people from both groups that admit they are terrified.

But in the end, everyone cries at funerals, whether they are religious or secular. Regardless of all of our beliefs or ideologies, we can be united in this.

B – Death doesn’t prove anything

Very often you will hear stories about atheists being absent in foxholes (the idea being that when faced with imminent death, everyone begins to pray.) This is, of course, untrue, there have been plenty of literal atheists in literal foxholes, but sadly many people prefer easy-to-memorize slogans rather than accurate information. I have known people to project their own fears about death onto others (i.e. “since I would be scared to die without an afterlife, you must be scared of it too.”) I have seen this kind of emotional appeal to the fear of death used as the ultimate argument on a number of occasions. When someone is unable to reasonably explain why their view on religion is true, they often cross their arms and end the conversation with something like “well, we will see how you will think when you’re close to death!”

Obviously their point is something like “it’s easy to deny God when you are distant from the horrifying reality of death, but when it’s tangible or near, then you will seek God because you will be scared of death.” Ironically enough, I think this is one of the most powerful naturalistic explanations for the existence of religion. All humans (and all mammals in general) are afraid to die. We will do, say, or believe just about anything to avoid or escape death. As a result of this primal fear, nearly all human have produced religious narratives that teach adherents how to avoid the inevitability of death. Is this mere coincidence? I don’t think so. I believe our fear of death is precisely the reason we have invented religious stories that tell us of ways to conquer death. Religious people believe that God is the cause of our fear of death, but I think it’s the other way around, our fear of death is the cause of our wishes about god and the afterlife.

C. Six reasons eternal life would inevitably become hell

While I certainly think death can be frightening, and would want to extend human life by millions of years, I think that an eternal life would eventually become a curse, not a blessing. There are usually very specific reasons why people want to live forever. Each of these reasons appears, at least initially, to be very desirable, but upon closer inspection is filled with serious problems. (I’d like to acknowledge Philosopher Garrett Merriam, as this borrows heavily from his work).

1. We want to live forever to continue the experience of living.

I love life. Desperately. I want to live and keep living. I don’t want it to end. I don’t want to lose the sublime beauty of being alive. Emotionally I wish for an eternal life. Yet if we consider the logical implications of eternal life, it seems that if my wish were truly granted, eventually this eternal life would become morbidly dull. This is because rarity is a source of value. Consider how rarity is correlated to the value of a diamond: if tomorrow we discover an infinitely tall pile of diamonds free for the taking, will not the value of diamonds go down… infinitely? Can you truly treasure something of which you have an infinite amount?

Think back to your favorite memory. Mine is during our honeymoon, after a long day of exploring, Inna and I lost our camera. We ran back, zipping and winding our way through numerous streets of Disneyworld until we found it sitting on a lonely bench. Our moment of joy was interrupted by a wild roar of thunder and a torrential downpour of rain. Dazed and confused, we began running for shelter, getting so thoroughly soaked, that we began laughing uncontrollably. Drenched, laughing, and filled with unexplainable joy, we found shelter in what I recall as the most quaint little coffee shop in all of reality. That memory is my “happy place.” Yet what were to happen if I was stuck in a time loop, replaying that memory forever and ever? For the first few thousand days I would be overjoyed, but after a thousand years I would be bored. After a million years, I would be annoyed. After a trillion years, I would not be able to squeeze even an ounce of joy out of this memory. After a trillion, trillion, gazillion years I would be utterly horrified, and reliving this memory would become a horrifying prison of existential claustrophobia.

How would you feel a trillion-trillion-trillion-trillion-trillion years down the road, repeating the same exact thing over and over again until you know it so well there could not possibly be anything new or exciting about it? That is the curse of eternal life. The experiences we can have are finite in number, you can only “try the best ice cream for the first time” once, each time you try that ice cream afterwards, you will get diminishing returns of joy. You can only “see the most beautiful sunset of your life” one time, and each time you see it after, it is slightly more mundane. You can only visit a new vacation destination for the first time once, and each time you return, the sense of adventure, wonder, and fascination is replaced by a sense of nostalgia, déjà vu, and familiarity, which is not as thrilling as the first time, and can never be as tantalizing. This is why people in life are always looking for the “next best thing” whether it’s a bigger house, better vacation, or larger dose of heroin. It’s because we want to recapture that feeling, that fragile beauty of “the first time.” Alas, it’s something can never be found again.

2. – We want to live forever to be with our loved ones forever.

Another, very understandable reason that ideas about eternal life appear so pleasant is because we desire to have a reunion and an eternal friendship with our loved ones. And while this truly would be blissful in many cases, it would also bring about intense eternal suffering in many other cases. Consider how many people have unrequited love for others. In an eternal life, they would spend all eternity feeling the pain and misery of that unrequited love. Even worse, in almost every single narrative about the afterlife, there are large swaths of people that are condemned into an eternity of the most excruciating torment. Think how horrible an existence would be for a mother who knows her child is burning in hell below? How could anyone live with joy knowing their loved ones are being tortured and suffer the worst agony imaginable?

3. We want to live forever to see divine justice be done

The world is filled with such inexpressible evils that I too long for justice to be done. It breaks my heart to think of all the injustice and unfairness that has been incurred on so many people. And yet, and eternal life filled with eternal punishment does not solve the problem of injustice, but it multiplies is.

Humans are messy, we are a mixture of good and bad, honesty and shame, bravery and cowardice. Even the worst villains have done good, and the best saints have done evil. And often the things that drive us one way or the other are psychological, psychosocial, subconscious and not fully under our willful control. To simply punish people with an eternal punishment for a finite crime, is one of the worst acts of injustice that can be imagined. Literally. Consider a teenager that punched his friend, certainly it may seem fair to punch him back, so he experiences the same kind of pain he caused another person to feel. But what if a judge demanded that this teenager be punched in the face, a thousand times, every day, for the remainder of his life? Is this just? The ideas of eternal punishment found in most major religions are like this, but (literally) infinitely worse. No one is wicked enough to deserve eternal punishment, and no one is righteous enough to deserve eternal bliss.

4. We want to live forever to obtain meaning of it all

Some people think the only way there could be meaning to life is if it were eternal and unending. In another essay I have already mentioned that there are numerous irreparable problems with such a belief. Furthermore, I would argue that the exact opposite seems closer to truth: if there is an eternal life, then nothing in this life can have meaning. If a heavenly afterlife is the best thing that can happen to anyone, then the only thing in this life that matters is getting to this afterlife. No amount of finite suffering or joy in this life can ever compare to eternal suffering or eternal joy! In fact, if you could reliably get to the afterlife right now, there is absolutely no meaningful reason to remain in this life and wait.

In mathematical terms both 1 and 1,000,000 are INFINITELY smaller than infinity; neither matters in comparison to infinity. It doesn’t matter whether you suffer 1 minute or 1,000,000 minutes, because in comparison an eternity of bliss is INFINITELY larger and more significant. It does not matter if you create the greatest art or music, write the life-changing stories, change the whole world for the better, save thousands of lives, or anything else, because if you don’t make it to heaven, you will be INFINITELY worse off for an eternity. It doesn’t matter how much good you do, because the infinite reward you get so vastly outweighs the good that it drowns out your nobility and sacrifice. No sacrifice or struggle can have any meaning, for it is infinitely swamped by an infinite reward. No great act of heroism, courage, or nobility can have any meaning for it is engulfed by the infinite chasm of eternity. Consider this: how meaningful is the sacrifice of a man giving away a penny to obtain a hundred trillion dollars? Not at all.

In this way an eternal life robs this ephemeral life of meaning, and makes only one thing matter: getting to the right place in the afterlife. It even robs us of the justification to weep for our loved ones upon their death, for we ought instead rejoice at them having achieved ultimate joy for eternity. But even more than that, when all of your experiences are eternally maximally good, without sorrow, grief, or pain, it seems to me we yet again return to the problem #1, the dull monotony of reliving the same thing forever ruins our ability to enjoy anything.

5. We want to live forever to obtain all the answers the answers

Most of us want to finally obtain all of the ultimate answers about reality, meaning, and existence. This is something I am very sympathetic to, yet, upon closer consideration we discover being granted this wish would yield more misery than joy.

“Eternity is the end of curiosity.” In an eternal life there is nothing left to ponder, wonder, investigate, or explore for there are no more distant lands or mysterious horizons.

In every single narrative of heaven it is said that we finally receive “all of the answers.” Consider the intellectual who has devoted his life studying and seeking answers, and now compare her to a lazy man who has comfortably coasted through life without ever struggling to achieve anything. In the eternal Paradise, both instantly get “all of the answers.” So what was the point of one person struggling, seeking, and learning to their utmost, when everyone will simply get the exact same “reward”? If all of the answers are at the back of the book, why study? Why strive? Why try?

6. We want to live forever to achieve all of our desires

And so we come to the final and most terrifying reason why people desire to have an afterlife: to achieve the culmination of all of their goals, ambitions, and desires. And yet an eternal life would accomplish the exact opposite, it would remove the purpose of our goals, struggles, accomplishments and cast us into a monotonous and changeless prison.

First, why ought we strive to achieve anything in this life at all? Why work diligently to build an better life here, when simply closing your eyes transitions you to the most perfect heavenly life you can ever image? It seems that the promise of a perfect afterlife, is the ultimate anti-motivator.

Worse than this, in an afterlife everything has culminated into “the perfect” and while this seems wonderful at first, it comes with a paralyzing consequence. There is nothing left to strive for! There are no more enemies to conquer, no more dragons to vanquish, no more mountains to climb, no cities to build, no puzzles to solve, and nothing you can do to improve your situation. Heaven is like that that moment when you have finally win a video game, and the screen blinks with the words “you have won!” You smile. You are first filled with joy, considering that everything has now been achieved. Then as you continue staring at the screen, it begins to dawn on you, there is literally nothing else left to do in this game! You can only stare at that winning notification and enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that you won. How long until you grow mad?

Even if we imagine that there will be some things to do in an eternal after, how long until those things become mindless, repetitive, routines? If you have an eternity of time, eventually everything that can be done, will be done. Eventually the last enemy will be vanquished, and what then? Eventually every last goal will have been achieved, and what then? Eventually every possible song will have been written, sung, remixed, and resung, so what then? Eventually every possible invention will have been invented, so what then?

Eventually every possible thought will have been thought, and every possible conversation will have been had. What then?

This is the horrifying reality of an afterlife, at some point in this afterlife, there will be no more goals, ambitions, desires, or dreams. There will be no more reason to exist. Eternal life would rob us of our humanity, making us, for all intents and purposes, dead.

D. How to deal with thoughts of death

If the beautiful-yet-tragically-flawed idea of an eternal life cannot offer us any solace or comfort, what are we left with? Is the mere idea of death a soul-crushing cataclysm that relentlessly throws us into an irreparable existential paralysis? I don’t think so. I have stared dead in the face and was broken upon its jagged shores. But I have also laughed at the absurdity of it all and learned to get back up and move on. In my own existential quest I have found a few lessons that were immensely helpful.

1. Realize you already know what it’s like to be dead.

Pause here for a second and let it sink in. You already *were* dead before. You already have experienced the feeling of being dead. For billions of years before you were alive… you were “not alive.” You missed some of the greatest moments in the history of our cosmos. You were absent during some of the most epic moments of human history. And how did you feel about that? Did it feel painful, tragic, or depressing? No. That is exactly what feeling “dead” will feel like. It’s still tragic to think about being absent from this life, which is a beautiful symphony of experiences, and yet, you won’t be around to feel that loss. As Roman philosopher Seneca said would you not say that one was the greatest of fools who believed that a lamp was worse off when it was extinguished than before it was lighted?”

2. One day you shall tire of this restless and repetitive toil.

Recall again that an eternal life would involve reiterating the same functions over and over again. It would involve thinking the same thoughts, using the same language, feeling the same feelings, doing the same work, experiencing the same struggles or pleasures, and apprehending over and over again that “there is nothing new under the sun.” Though this may seem bleak, there is a strangely peaceful realization about the final restfulness of death. Death provides a way for each of us to finally rest from our struggles, burdensome responsibilities, difficulties, pains, and toils. For young people as myself, this is not an attractive prospect, however, I have heard numerous people who are far older than myself, speak of this rest with much peace and satisfaction. Perhaps our lives are far too short, and we would desire to live a few thousand years, but eventually all men tire. “Death is a release from all pains, and a boundary beyond which our sufferings cannot go; it returns us to that state of peacefulness in which we lay before we were born. If someone pities those who have died, let him pity also those who have not been born.” (Seneca)

3. Don’t waste time being anxious about things that are outside of your power to change.

Another profound lesson I have learned from the Stoic philosophers is that our worry about things outside our control is useless. It’s true that death can be a frightening thought. But will worry or negativity change any of that? Can worry make you live forever? Will spending large swaths of time in debilitating terror do anything at all to eradicate the inevitability of death? Fear and anxiety does not add anything to your life, nor does it do anything to eradicate death. It’s certainly wise to remember the fragility of our life at times, and ask deep introspective questions about its meaning, but living in fear does not add anything of value. Epictetus even wrote that the worry of death is worse than death itself: “It is not the things themselves that disturb men, but their judgments about these things. For example, death is nothing catastrophic, or else Socrates too would have thought so, but the judgment that death is catastrophic, this is the catastrophic thing.”

4. Be aware that it is possible to die peacefully

David Hume was one of the most prolific atheist philosophers of the 18th century, and possibly of all time. So when he became mortally ill in old age, many visited his deathbed, out of a sense of morbid curiosity, wanting to see a defeated, terrified creature gasping for breath. Instead what they saw was a joyful man, filled with great peace.

Adam Smith wrote: “though [Hume] found himself much weaker, yet his cheerfulness never abated, and he continued to divert himself, as usual, with correcting his own works for a new edition, with reading books of amusement, with the conversation of his friends; and, sometimes in the evening, with a party at his favorite game of whist. His cheerfulness was so great, and his conversation and amusements run so much in their usual strain, that, notwithstanding all bad symptoms, many people could not believe he was dying.” 

The myth that atheists die terribly, full of fear is an old wives tale. It is the projection of those who themselves fear death, and use their belief in an afterlife to as an inoculation against their own fear. The truth is, anyone can die in fearful agony, just as anyone can die peacefully. Years ago, when I worked in a clinical setting, I met an aging world war 2 vet, who gently told me he was had a wonderful life, and was ready to “sleep forever.” At the time, this horrified me, I could not imagine how he could be so peaceful without an afterlife; today I can. As Marcus Aurelius noted, our emotional response is ours alone: “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

5. Dance while the clock is ticking

Now that we have dispensed with the comforting idea of an eternal life are we to remain with nothing more than the dilapidated ruins of our existential yearnings? No. As Alan Watts is fond of saying, most of us in the West have been raised in a culture that uses the metaphor of a journey to describe life. We have been inundated with the idea of doing things for some ultimate purpose, of walking to get to some destination that makes all of this “walk” worthwhile.

But that is the wrong way of looking at life. A better metaphor for life is a dance, not a journey.

A dance has no ultimate destination. You do traverse the dance floor in order to reach some distant location. That would be absurd! A dance is not about reaching something in the future, rather it is about being someone in the present. Likewise, a dancer ought simply to dance, not worry about the music ending, for if you spend all your time worrying about the music ending, you will neglect to enjoy the dance.

Ironically enough, I first wrote about this years ago, as a fundamentalist Christian. Even though I have left behind most of my naïve views of the world, this one has stayed with me, and the sentence below is probably the only piece of my writing from the past that I can earnestly support:

“Do you hope to achieve something amazing tomorrow? Do you want to become healthy? Fit? Smart? Rich? Do you want your life to be better? Do you want your dreams to be satisfied? Do you yearn to create an Eden someday? To make a place where everything bad is replaced and only good reigns? Are you neglecting your life today in order to build this “little heaven” tomorrow? Stop living for the future, for it shall never come. Take all of those hopes for tomorrow and discard them. Live in the present. Live slowly, intentionally, and purposefully today. Live now while you have life.”

So don’t obsess over some future state of being, dont waste your life seeking to reach some destination; simply dance. Trust me, this ephemeral dance is far grander than any destination could be.

Why do I write? An overly sentimental open letter to religious believers

After years of blogging/talking/dialoguing about religion, I am ashamed that I have not been able to clearly communicate my “heart.” In the last few years I have seen so many responses riddled with spite & condescension. I have heard dozens of stories of gossip and ugly rumors that have been spread about me. On days like these I am deeply disappointed in humanity, but also hopeful that we can restart everything from the beginning.

So this is my clumsy-and-sentimental open letter to all of you who are religious believers. I earnestly hope you will hear my “heart of hearts.”

 

Dear religious believer,

It’s no secret that I sincerely think that some of your beliefs are not correct, a position which I accepted very reluctantly in an effort to be as intellectually honest as possible, no matter the cost. Yet my disagreement with you doesn’t mean that I harbor hatred or spitefulness towards you.

I am not at war against you.

I am not on the side of the enemy. (In fact, our real enemy, I believe, is the cowardly intolerance, brutish unkindness, and unneeded aggression we as humans often exhibit in our foolishness.)

As strange as this may sound, I am on your side, because I care about you enough to hope you believe the truth.

Deep down, at the core of my being, I genuinely want us to share an earnest pursuit of truth together. I want us to join hands as we explore the fabric of reality and strive to understand the universe as it is. You think the answer to everything is your religion, and because I was once a deeply devout preacher who believed it with all of my heart, I totally get that and understand how it feels. And if that answer is indeed true, I sincerely want to accept it and believe it. And likewise, if its false, I want to reject it so that we can move on and discover the more accurate answers, even if we don’t like them.

I promise you this.

I really need you to understand this: I did not come to my conclusions because I am evil, wicked, stupid, daft, and most assuredly not because I hate you or want to offend you.

I am not here to cram some ideology down your throat or to promote a sinister agenda. I am not here to justify some secret sins, nor because I am angry and want to bring about revenge against someone that hurt me.

I really don’t have a wicked plan to wage war against all the infidels, heathen, sinners, or fools, in fact, I hate all those words. I certainly don’t want to make a deep line of division that will separate people into camps, “sinners vs saints” or “smart vs dumb.” As strange as it may be for you to believe this, the fact of the matter is, I want the very opposite.

I earnestly believe we can make the world a better place, where religious and existential dialogue is kind, friendly, helpful, and most importantly, honest. Where people are not degraded for their beliefs, even as these beliefs are challenged. I want to live in a world where people are are not indoctrinated, nor shamed, shunned, mocked, or frightened into submission, but instead share a deep passion for seeing the world as it really is.

This is why I “waste” so much of my time writing and discussing these matters. It’s not to offend you or degrade you, but because I want to be helpful to you.

Deep down, I really do care for you. When you try to “evangelize me,” do you not do this because you care for me and want to “save my soul”? In the same way, when I try to persuade you, I do this because I really do care about you and I care about the truth.

What do I want?

If I am wrong, I sincerely want you to use sound reason and good evidence to convince me of that, so I may join you (don’t merely call me names, gossip about me behind my back, or threaten me with hell – as is unfortunately all too common). If I am wrong, at least I will have sharpened your thinking, and helped you correct some serious flaws in your theology (surely you don’t claim to have all of the perfect answers, perhaps there is something you can learn from me).

If you are wrong, I want you to become aware of this, so that you may join me in being “less wrong” and seeing our universe as it really is instead of believing the wrong answers. Consider that billions of people in the past believed things you now accept are false, surely if you were an ancient Greek polytheist, you would have wanted me to tell you Zeus doesn’t really exist, even if that would upset your worldview? No?

Surely if you are wrong, you want to know that? Don’t you? I certainly do.

I want to make you think, carefully and critically. I want to help you consider your faith with as much scrutiny as you consider the beliefs of other religions or philosophies. I want to make you care more about the truth than what people will think of you. I want to encourage you prefer the truth over comfort and safety. I wish that you would learn to be more fair when examining other peoples religions and perspectives, and learn to be more critical of your own. And I want you to kindly encourage me do the same.

At the end of the day, I want you to join me on this honest journey to pursue the truth, and whether it takes us to Christianity, Buddhism, Atheism, or something even stranger, I want us to walk together in honesty and kindness, willing to accept the truth, whatever it  really is, even if we don’t like it.