Pondering Death as an Atheist

This semester, I’m taking a course in developmental psychology that focuses on the later years of life to death. We talked about death and dying this week, which is a surreal topic even when you’re studying it from a scientific, objective distance. In class, the professor asked students to share rituals surrounding death from their cultures. People talked about sitting shiva, about beliefs regarding reincarnation, and about burial with food and money for a better afterlife.

As the class was talking, I felt disconnected from the conversation because of my lack of religious belief. Death for me is final, like the period at the end of a sentence. It just is. It marks the end, and even if everything before it was beautiful, eloquent and poignant, it’s still an end.

That doesn’t mean I don’t feel terror and anguish at the thought of losing someone I love. Of course I do. And it doesn’t mean that I feel coldly about my own mortality. Evolution has successfully bestowed me with a strong will to survive and ensure that my offspring and loved ones survive. But there is a blankness of feeling for me beyond that, a lack of need to explain what happens next, or to ritualize the dying process and death itself.

After class today, I spent time considering how to conceptualize death for myself, and then for Soren, given that I don’t believe in an afterlife of any sort. Cultures develop religion in part to explain the unexplainable, and to comfort. What comfort will I offer Soren around death? How will I explain it to him?

I strongly believe that I owe Soren truth as much as I know of it. I believe in never lying, and that if he is mature enough to ask, he is mature enough to know. He doesn’t need to know the gory details of life (or death) before he’s ready, but I want to tell him the truth as far as I can, as sensitively as I can. I think that will keep him asking more questions.

The same goes for death, yet I can’t even fully understand the finality of it. All we know through our human experience is being. That’s what human experience is. We slowly awaken from our early childhood with a self awareness and the beginnings of an autobiographcal memory. Our early memories are gradients into reality, without sharp edges of our beginnings as human beings. We know nothing but our existence. That’s our experiential infinity. Death marks the end to awareness and sometimes that end is another gradient and sometimes it’s a straight line.

I can’t imagine nothingness. Even nothing seems like something. In my mind, it has properties — silence, darkness. But it doesn’t matter. It just is.

Theists have asked me how I can live my life with any sense of purpose if I think that when I die, I simply cease to exist. My answer is simply that the finite quality of life makes it that much richer and more meaningful. This world is heaven. This existence is everything and means everything. If we have no absolution for another life, if this is the only one we get, should we not work hard to make it count? To make the world better? To improve the lives of everyone? We can’t ignore the suffering of today in the hopes of a better life beyond, if this is all we have.┬áThere is a lot of hope and joy for me in this concept of existence. I suppose that’s the comfort I’ll offer Soren. Maybe it’s really more about life fully lived than about death.