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The Austin Atheists Meetup Group Message Board › Coping with Death as an Atheist

Coping with Death as an Atheist

A former member
Post #: 1
My sister was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer a couple years ago. I grew up in the Catholic church but never fully believed in it and didn't ever give the religion any thought. Now having to deal with the thought of death on a daily basis it's really forced me to think about what I truly believe in after this life comes to an end. Most people to turn God, I've turned to the truth. It's hard to talk to people about how hard it is to cope without them telling me to pray about it all the time. I know they have the best intentions but telling me she's going to a better place is not helping me at all.

Admitting I'm an atheist is new to me and a little (and sometimes a lot) scary. It's nice to think there's a heaven and that we'll see our loved ones in the future, I just don't believe it. She's probably got 3-6 months left. I'd really like someone to discuss this with. So how have you coped with death?
Chris H.
Oakland, CA
Post #: 6
I had my own battle with cancer and I will admit that during chemo it made a lot more sense why people would believe in God and heaven to make all the crap I was going through seem more meaningful. Those were dark days and I wouldn't begrudge anyone who wanted to cling to their faith; you really have to do whatever you can to get through those times. But in the end I knew that what's true isn't just what you want to believe in times of stress.

Unfortunately, that doesn't leave you with any great answers to dealing with death. We all know it would be great if I, you, your sister, would never die, but we also know that's not to be. I don't know your sister, but I think I can assume you have loved being part of a world that is better with her than without her. You should cherish being part of that world for as long as you can. You'll weep for that world when it is gone. But you'll also know that the world that follows will be better for her having been part of it. Whether or not she goes to a better place, she'll be leaving a better place for you, your family, and by extension all of us. If the same could be said for me, as an atheist, I don't know what more I could ask for.

Hopefully some of that makes sense and gives you some peace to concentrate on what's important. Take care.

A former member
Post #: 24
I had a bout with pancreatitis a few years back and the doctors were not certain what was causing it and were not ruling out pancreatic cancer which is often a death sentence. As I was being wheeled into surgery there was a possibility that I might never wake up. The one thought that kept me from panicking was my near certainty that death was the end of all consciousness, all sensation, that I would never experience death since being dead I would not be able to experience anything. The anesthesia would put me under and I would either wake up or I would not. If I didn't I would never know that I didn't because knowing is a condition of the living. Those who do not live do not know. I tend to agree with Epicurus on death:

"Death is nothing to us. For all good and evil consists in sensation, but death is deprivation of sensation. And therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not because it adds to it an infinite span of time, but because it takes away the craving for immortality. For there is nothing terrible in life for the man who has truly comprehended that there is nothing terrible in not living. [Death] does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more."

I look at the death of a loved one with the same degree of sorrow (and no more) than when a friend moves away to another state or country and I know that I will never see them again. I am sad that we will no longer share each other's company. I cherish the memories we had and I look back upon those memories with longing from time to time. It is painful but seldom devastating. There is no unique or special sadness reserved for death over other types of loss. If it is a friend who has suffered long than I am happy that he or she is no longer suffering.

I hope this does not sound cold. I know I can be an odd duck at times but this way of thinking has truly helped me on many occassions. And I know that it is easier said than done. Good luck.
user 8341977
Austin, TX
Post #: 11
Good post, Wrath. A good clear headed approach. Unfortunately, in our culture we are taught not to accept our death as final. We must just face the fact of our impermanence head on. That's just the way it is. What more can be said? Except that we love, and feel a sense of personal loss, and that is natural for all people.
A former member
Post #: 1
One thing to keep in mind is that everyone will die; those who believe in or don't believe in an afterlife. The difference is only that the believer has the false and actually, if you look at it rationally, somewhat ridiculous notion that some mysterious part of them that makes up their personality and their memories will survive their death. Just because they believe in that it doesn't give them anything besides the immediate emotional support granted to them by their delusion. So I kind of see death as a great equalizer of sorts. I take comfort in knowing that I am not dying alone, really. Every great human who has ever lived has died. We are not alone in that. We should just be grateful that we are still here right now and we should strive to live it meaningfully as best we can. That's all we can do. No other choice. Yes, it's a terrible thing to contemplate sometimes, but I think that to deny it and to turn to fantasies--things that you can't really believe in (if you want to retain personal conviction in the face of reason and evidence)--is kind of like giving up, giving in. I think it takes a lot of maturity to face the facts of life--and death--straight on and learn how to deal with them somehow without needing to give in to comforting superstitions. So the question is really, for me at least, "I'm going to die anyway just like everyone else. Do I want to do it with personal conviction or do I want to lie to myself about it?" I choose conviction. And yes, at this point, I would have to completely lie to myself in order to think that there is a soul that continues on after death. I just can't believe that without some act of mental dishonesty. It's a matter of principle to me. In any case, whatever delusions I may or may not choose to hold right now, I know that on my deathbed (if I get in that type of situation) I will die knowing that it is the end. I might as well just face it today.
A former member
Post #: 25
I expanded a bit more on my thoughts on this on my blog. I think this might help.

A former member
Post #: 2
Thank you all for your responses and thoughts on the matter. After reading them, I've realized that I don't think it is death that I am so upset about. It's that she's only 33 and has been sick for such a long time so she hasn't gotten the chance to experience so many things. Her seven-year-old daughter has to grow up with out a mother. She just got remarried 5 months ago and her new husband is going to have to bury his wife without getting to celebrate their one-year anniversary. I'm mourning for my parents who have to deal with losing a child.

I've never had a problem dealing with death in the past because I had always thought about it rationally. I was either not close enough to them for it to affect me other than the fact that I was sad I'd never get to see them again, or they were old and had lived a long and full life.

It's amazing what you realize if you just talk (or type) things out. There's nothing about the religion aspect of death, the afterlife or lack thereof, that is really bothering me although I still think about it. If just a few posts can really help me sort things out, I look forward to reading more and getting more involved with this group.
A former member
Post #: 2
You're right. Dealing with your own death or with the death of someone who has either lived a full life or was not very close to you may be easier in a lot of ways than dealing with the death of a loved one and especially of a loved one who has not had the opportunity to live a full life. All that I can say is that I myself have never quite had that experience yet--what you must be going through, I mean. It sounds like it is simply a tragedy. Sometimes the only thing to help us get through such terrible experiences is time, taking it day by day and just doing your best. It is awful that people die at all, yes, it is. But especially when they have been deprived of so much. I wish the best for you and your family.
A former member
Post #: 1
I have deeply considered that if you were to have an extremely powerful computer far greater than we have now and used it to calculate the exact position of every particle of energy in a person's body at a single point in time and were able to replicate every particle into the form of another body, including all the patterns of energy that comprise memories, feelings, etc. there is no way you would be seeing the world through that persons eyes. So the idea that we are only the sum of our particle parts is unlikely to me. Therefore, I think that there is a different..."dimension"...of energy (not supernatural, not any religious mythological place) that our awareness exists and accesses our bodies through the energy patterns of the mind. And when the mind ceases to function our true selves disengage. I believe that this realm is within the grasp of future scientists who could figure out how to detect it. And therefore it is quite possible to me that your sister will be just fine after her disengagement with our space-time continuum.
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