Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Are atheists afraid of death?

It's happened to all of us. You're casually driving along on a beautiful, sunny afternoon, enjoying the fresh air and singing along to the music. The light turns green and you start through the intersection. Suddenly, a scream of tires and brakes rips you from your tranquil mood. You look to the left and directly into the terrified eyes of a teenager who was too distracted to notice his light had changed until it was too late. Somehow he misses you and you pull over. You can feel the adrenaline flood your system, your hands start to shake as you pull out your cell phone and call somebody.

Over the next few days you realize what a boring story this is. At first people seem to care because it just happened and you're still close enough to it to sound excited, but sooner or later the novelty wears off. You lose a few nights of sleep over it, but eventually everything goes back to normal.

Or maybe he hits you. In some cases you wake up in a hospital, maybe somebody who was in the car with you doesn't ever wake up again.

I wasn't speeding officer, I promise.

 Or maybe you're the teenager, I was. I just wasn't paying attention. I misjudged how fast somebody was coming down the road and pulled my station wagon out right in front of them. The driver of the other vehicle left a long streak of tire marks when he somehow expertly dodged around me at 60mph and continued on down the road. I pulled off to the side of the road completely terrified. This misjudgment changed my perspective long enough for me shift everything I was doing and to quickly propose to my first wife. I had looked into the abyss, peacefully waiting to embrace me for eternity, and I was afraid. Life is too short, I thought, anything could happen.

It is natural for life to decay, age, and expire. There are billions of organisms living on your skin and inside your organs as you're reading this. They live, feed, breed, and die constantly. Without them you wouldn't be healthy, but they are effectively invisible and an individual lifeform passing means nothing to you. Why should it?

Over 16,000 children die from hunger every single day. You don't have enough capacity in your heart to care about this. It's horrible and, if some commercial on televisions forces you to watch a kid with emaciated fingers pawing at a crust of bread, they might guilt you into giving them some money, but you can't wander the planet all day counting a new dead child every 1.5 seconds, you would rightfully go mad before dinner. But it matters, doesn't it?

If someone you care deeply about passes, your life is shattered, sometimes forever. One of my grandmothers woke up to a corpse one morning and never got married again. She's slowly losing her mind, but somewhere inside of her are the memories. Sometimes she calls me by his name.

I know it's taken me a long time to get to the point. I'm only 34, but one of my friends recently had her first heart attack, and two weeks ago my 88 year old grandfather fell nine feet off of a ladder and may never have complete use of his arm again. He served in the Navy in WWII, owned and operated a brick company with his brothers and father. He was always a tough guy and yesterday somebody and to stop by the house to give him a sponge bath, and it made him tired. There are no more ladders in his life, but he lost his father and brothers years ago. 

So are atheists afraid of death? They tell me that there are no atheists in foxholes, easily proved wrong when you talk to atheist soldiers, but it's something that gets thrown at us a lot.


Sometimes when you're talking to the faithful on twitter, they like to vomit out the "You'll change your mind on your deathbed, you just wait", like I haven't already tasted it before. Last year I went to the ER at the end of a three hour asthma attack. As the team of highly trained professionals worked on me, there was one no-nonsense nurse with a Nebulizer calmly reassuring me that I just needed to slow down and breathe, but I couldn't. I couldn't breathe. If you haven't had a severe asthma attack, I wouldn't recommend it. My attention was flitting from trying to slow down my breathing, to the calm eyes of my nurse, to the terrified eyes of my girlfriend who I dragged out of bed too damn early in the morning. She had wanted me to wait for her to finish putting on makeup. I yelled at her and she finally took me seriously. I found out later that she thought I was faking, there's a lot of reasons we're not together anymore, but in that moment the scariest thing to me wasn't dying, it was that our last conversation was going to be me yelling at her about her stupid makeup. I wanted her to know that I loved her, that everything would be okay. My self defense mechanisms are sarcasm and humor, neither of which work when half your face is obscured and there's an ER doctor stoically checking your oxygen levels. A small eternity later we got out of the danger zone and everybody started to relax. I felt the tension leave the room at the exact same rate as that my breath started to come back. Afterwards the doctor told me that in ten more minutes I would have stopped breathing altogether. Just another day in the ER.

I use one of these now, so I'm basically almost Darth Vader

My health issues contributed to the dissolution of my relationship which led to me currently living in a tiny basement apartment and writing this for you on the back of a cardboard box. But you know what I never thought about once? God. At no time during any of it did I pray or beg for something to rescue me. The calm in the center of my mind was positive that even if I had passed out they had other means to rescue me, I still don't know if this is true or not, but I was more focused on the strong voice of my nurse, the confidence in the stance of my doctor, and the fear in the eyes of my love, to waste time thinking about something miraculous happening. And when it was done, the doctor wanted me to stay for observation but we had a party to host in a few hours, I thanked everybody and we went home. I slept through most of the party.

I can't speak for all atheists when I say that I'm not afraid of death. I have a myriad of chronic health issues and have had my share of depressive episodes and near suicides, but I do know one thing: We don't talk about death. Not ever. There are a lot of clever quotes from atheists about death, but at no point does a group of us normally bring up the subject. Death exists, it is a normal part of the cycle, but it is just one part. Atheists believe that life is all that we have, that the feelings of the dead are the same as the feelings of those that are not yet born. We don't hold rituals where we drink the blood of a god to cleanse us for the afterlife, we don't wear magic underwear or promise each other virgins (overrated!) when we die, and we certainly don't martyr ourselves in the belief that an eternity of heaven awaits us. From our perspective, everyone else seems to be obsessed with death, but when our number is finally up, I think most of us would rather have lived a full life than fear what happens after.


  1. A couple years ago I set out on my noon run. It was a beautiful summer day. But I immediately starte feeling a sharp, shooting pain from my chest down my left arm. It was so bad I had to stop running. Every time I started up running again, the pain would return.

    One of my first thoughts was that I could be dying. I happened to be at the entrance to the park next to my office building -- I hadn't gone very far -- and I walked in and found a nice patch of grass to lie down. I actually felt peaceful and calm. I thought about my kids, my wife, my life.

    God didn't come to mind.

    Good post, Mikey.

  2. I think fear of death (thanatophobia) is separate from religious belief or lack thereof. I find that the religious folks I know seem to have a much harder time dealing with death and mortality than any of the non-religious folks I know, which I always find amusing. I tell people that death is precisely the same state I was in before I was born, which was not unpleasant.

  3. Not trying to change your beliefs, yet, proving what’s Upstairs as you’ll soon find-out: the Warning shall influence humanity to choose — Greetings, earthling. Because I was an actual NDE on the outskirts of the Great Beyond at 15 yet wasn’t allowed in, lemme share with you what I actually know Seventh-Heaven’s gonna be like for us: meet this ultra-bombastic, ex-mortal-Upstairs for the most-extra-blatant-and-groovy, pleasure-beyond-measure, Ultra-Yummy-Reality-Addiction in the Great Beyond for a BIG-ol, kick-ass, party-hardy, eternal-warp-drive you DO NOT wanna miss the sink-your-teeth-in-the-smmmokin’-hot-deal. YES! For God, anything and everything and more! is possible!! Cya soon…