Speaking of fleeting lives, one of the great things about being an ageless immortal in the company of ageless immortals is that I never have to confront the decline and death of any loved ones. Ever! It's awesome.
Recently, however, a mortal who was close to me passed away. Her death got me to thinking. As one who believes ardently in God, I can be certain that the end of her mortal form was not her end. I can take comfort that her immortal soul received the reward she earned in life (which, granted, was condemnation to Hell. She was a good, honest, and loving person, but unrepentantly wore cotton/polyester blends for decades). Similarly, a mortal who believes in God as I do could look at her death and stave off the fear of his own with that same, comforting thought: my body's inevitable death is not the end. My loved ones' deaths are not the end. Our souls will go on.
But what about atheists? How does someone who believes that there is no afterlife confront the loss of a loved one? Where does she or he find comfort from the fear of death? What does she or he say to young children who keep hearing that the deceased is now "watching over them from Heaven," and asking their atheist mother or father whether that's true?
I didn't have ready answers -- I mean, apart from "all of those thoughts are affronts to the LORD; repent your heresy!" -- so I thought I'd conduct another thought experiment. This time, I'm asking:
If I were an atheist, how would I mourn the loss of a loved one?
Well, first, I'd have to confront the hard reality. The person who died is gone. Forever. Her single shot at a meaningful existence is over. All that's left of her are the changes she worked in the world and our memories of her...but even those will gradually dim and disappear. Our crediting her for her works, our memories of her, will decay. The biochemical and neurological mechanisms we have evolved to defend ourselves from the strain of trauma will work inexorably to close the psychic wound of her absence by dimming our memories of her. And then, soon enough, those who knew her works and remember her will themselves die. The world will go on as if she had never been here.
Next, I'd have to accept that the exact same thing will happen to me. That the exact same thing will happen to every single one of my loved ones. I'd have to confront the fact that there is no external source of comfort from the fear of death. No God will shepherd me to an afterlife; no aspect of my consciousness will continue to eternity. Death is instead (except for one species of jellyfish) total and inevitable.
As I, an atheist, grappled with this, I'd also have to be jealous of theists. I'd watch them find sincere comfort in their beliefs of an afterlife and a merciful God. I'd realize that while I disagree with them about God's existence, I see undeniable value in how they mourn together through ritual and song, knitting together communities to aid those hit hardest by the loss of a loved one.
At the same time, I'd be furious to hear them label the person who died a flawed sinner, who goes to Heaven only through the grace and forgiveness of God. I'd want to scream at them that they were demeaning her memory in the name of ancient superstition. I'd want to ask them why they couldn't just celebrate her as a good person who struggled through a good person's life to leave behind healthy, well-loved children. But then I wouldn't do any of those things, because who wants to be the [blasphemy redacted] who pulls that [more blasphemy redacted] at a funeral service?
Then I'd answer the questions from my children:
Is our loved one in Heaven, like the celebrant said?
No one really knows. Some people believe that. I don't think there's a Heaven.
If there's no Heaven, where did she go?
Nowhere. Her body and her brain stopped, like they do for all living things. What goes on is people's memories of her.
We're supposed to be happy that she's in Heaven. If she's not, do we just have to be sad?
Being sad is perfectly natural when someone you know dies. Everyone feels sad when they lose someone. But we don't have to just be sad because she's gone. You saw all the people who came to celebrate her life; she made a lot of people happy for a long time. We can be happy for us and for them that we had such wonderful times with her -- and have the happy memories to carry with us.
Will I die? Will you and Mommy?
Yes, eventually. But probably not for a long time. And for as long as we're alive, I promise we'll work to have wonderful times together and build lots of happy memories for you to carry when we're gone.And then...where would I go from the thought that death is final, total, and inevitable?
Well, after I finished crying, I'd go to the realization that my finite life -- which is no greater or less in dignity than the finite life of every sapient being on the planet -- is precious. I don't have eternity to find meaning or satisfaction. If I want those things (as I ardently do), I need to work for them now.
I'd realize that I still need comfort from the fear of death, but that the source of that comfort isn't faith, or a religious leader, or God. The sole source of comfort from the fear of death is me. If I want to prolong my existence, I need to make choices that protect and strengthen my body starting right now. If I want to die satisfied with my life, I need to work for that satisfaction starting right now. And if I want to make sure that my loved ones are left with comforting, happy memories of me -- or that I'm left with comforting, happy memories of them -- I need to create those with them starting right now.
In short, I'd realize that what shields me from the fear of death is not avoiding it with promises of an afterlife, but working every day on myself and my relationships to be satisfied with my lot in life when my death inevitably comes.
My next thought would be that because we all evolved the same way, and that none of us is favored above others by any God, that's true for everyone. So everyone I see working through their days? Is working to make the most of the only meaningful existence they'll ever get. So I should probably make choices that help them (within reason) to reach our shared goal of personal satisfaction.
What, then, about the comfort of believing that my consciousness will continue on to eternity? That there will never be a world without me?
I don't get to have that. I have to instead confront the universe for what it is: something that will go on without me almost entirely unchanged by my death.
But while I may have to live in an uncaring universe, I get to live in a consistent one. As an atheist, I view every natural death -- including my own -- as neither fair nor unfair. No death is freighted with divine judgment or inequity. Death is natural and impartial.
If, for example, my three-year-old neighbor is afflicted with an inoperable, cancerous brain tumor, I'm not driven to resent a God who let something so awful happen to an innocent and his family. I don't have to struggle through grief to reconcile my beliefs about God with the evidence of suffering before me. Because I know God didn't let that child die. I know He didn't engineer the boy's death for a greater purpose. The child just developed cancer because the biological processes that have allowed all known life to evolve occasionally lead to cellular mutations that cause cancer. So I can work through my grief without the distraction of anger at an absent, heedless, or cruel God. I get to see every death as tragic, but sensible.
So, in short, as an atheist confronting death, I lose the external comfort of the promise of eternal life. But in exchange, I can take comfort in the fact that while the universe is cold and uncaring, it is ultimately cold and uncaring to all of us equally. And I gain the urgent desire to live my life meaningfully -- and to help others do the same.
Wow, that really sounds like a ton more work than believing in Heaven.
Yep! And why would anyone put in that kind of effort? Thank God (again) I'm not an atheist!
Thank you for reading, mortals, and as always, I look forward to your comments and questions. Take care, and God (who, again, totally does exist) bless.