In a world where religious faith feels dominant — where most people subscribe on some level to a belief that there is a higher power, to varying degrees of intensity and seriousness from cafeteria Catholics to devout Muslims to casual Jews, being a nonbeliever can be incredibly isolating. Especially when people make ignorant, peculiar, and outrageous comments about what life must be like as an atheist, framing their perception of our experiences through their own beliefs about G-d and culture. We’re frequently asked about things like how we can have morals without the presence of a higher power, for example, as though it is the threat of something larger than ourselves that alone stands between us and doing terrible things.
But one comment I’ve gotten on several occasions that has really irked me has to do with death, dying, and grief. Some people say that they can’t comprehend how hard it must be to lose someone, as an atheist, without the comfort of believing that something is going to happen next — that the person will go to a better place, will be found again at the end of my own journey, will be reincarnated. Others, though, say that it must be immensely comforting to experience death through the lens of atheism.
Why people think this, I don’t know — and usually people bring it up when I am grieving, so I don’t really want to have an extended debate with them about why they think that. Maybe they think that we don’t have to worry about our loved ones going to hell, or being subjected to some other kind of judgment? Perhaps they think that this way, we don’t have to live with the unknown, and great, mystical questions about what happens next, and what awaits in the afterlife? Maybe they think that atheists don’t experience pain, fear, terror at death and the bleak void that lies beyond?
Individual atheists view death very differently, of course, but my view is one of coldness and finality. I do not think there is anything waiting for me after death. I believe that once I die, and once the series of complex chemical and electrical interactions that makes me me stops, it’s done. I don’t have a soul, or some grand, lingering part of myself that is greater than and above my body. I’m a collection of amazing interconnected systems that make something wonderful happen in the world, but once those systems fall apart, they’re over — this tractor isn’t moving again, friends, and it’s time to take it apart for scrap.
Which is what happens next, whether you bury me, burn me, or dump me in the sea. My components break down quickly or slowly, aided by chemicals, bacteria, and other environmental influences. My individual molecules are recycled into other things — but I don’t believe in a sense memory, or in the idea that parts of my spirit live on after I’m gone in the form of the pieces of myself that I leave. I die, and the light goes out. Lock the door on your way through, if you would be so kind.
Not everyone feels that way, but it’s how I feel, and for me, that’s incredibly bleak. Death on the one hand seems peaceful and relieving — especially when I am in a state of deep depression — because I don’t have to worry any more, there is no fear, no pain, no life on the other side. But it’s also terrifying, because it marks a demarcation point between a world where I exist and one where I do not, and when I am fond of existing, I want to stay in that state. I don’t want to turn the light out. I want to stay up for another bed time story, and I will plead for it.
This is not comforting. It doesn’t bring me any sense of peace to know that when I lose someone, that person is gone. I will never find that person again — not in some small miracle in the world I live in, and not in the great beyond either, because there is no beyond. There’s just this, and us, and the pretty cool universe we live in and how we deal with it.
I have tremendous respect for faith and people of faith. I don’t think there’s an inconsistency between my beliefs and those of other people — there is no one true narrative. Maybe I’m wrong (I don’t think I am, or I’d be agnostic), and maybe I am right — and I don’t feel any need to attack people and convince them that my way is the only right way to view death, grief, loss, dying. Ultimately, death is an individual and sometimes terrifying and complicated experience for both decedent and survivors.
But don’t tell me that it’s somehow easier to deal with because I don’t believe in a higher power. I experience grief and pain and loss regardless as to my lack of faith, and my emotions are as acute and complicated as though who are religious. The fact that I think death is the great finality, the end of the movement, the termination of something beautiful and complicated and important, means that for me, it is an especially painful and difficult time, because there is nothing beyond. Nothing I can take comfort in. Just this, the here and now, the moment that exists now and the moment that will exist after — and in that moment, the after moment, the person I knew will be gone forever.
Explain to me how this is comforting?
Image: Headstones, Karen Neoh, Flickr.