Philosophy with Attitude

Death and the Atheist, revisited

The death of a loved one is a difficult experience for virtually everyone. Grief and the other emotions associated with loss are often far stronger than the feelings we experience on a day- to-day basis, in large part because death is so final for those who still live. Never again will we touch them, laugh with them, hold their hands... experience anything with them.

If nothing else, this recognition is a powerful motivator for the inception or strengthening of religious beliefs. It seems that it would be so much easier to cope with death if one knew they would, in fact, be with that person again after death -- to think that the separation was only temporary, that some day they would be together again, be able to share again. Indeed, the concept of an afterlife is one of the more universal features of human religions, which are otherwise quite diverse in their tenets; I believe that it is the finality of death and its impact on the human psyche which makes that feature so common.

What, then, of the atheist? Very few atheists or agnostics profess an active belief in the possibility of an afterlife. Those who do are generally unable to justify their beliefs on the basis of proof or reason: they believe in one simply because it hurts too much to do otherwise -- the cessation of existence is unthinkable, or even unbearable. Life is short in comparison to the duration of the universe; we have such a small chunk of time within which we exist! To admit that after this time we must simply cease to think and be... it is a difficult prospect for even the most emotionally-fit of us; not much less to admit that those we love have and will also no longer exist.


Neva Eileen Nielsen, nee Camden, died on August 21, 2000, of congestive heart failure. She had lived a good, full 82 years, and in fact, celebrated her 82nd birthday with her family just two weeks before her death. Her son and daughter, as well as a few of her grandchildren, were with her when she died.

That sounds awfully clinical. Maybe the reality of her death is still too close for me to write about. After all, the memorial service was only a few days ago.


So, what of death and the atheist? Is it more difficult for us to bear than it is for believers? I began this essay thinking that it was, but now I'm not certain -- it is hard to accept that he is truly gone, that I won't ever be with him again; but at the same time, I know that he made a difference in this world, for us and the hundreds of other lives that he touched. I know that what he taught us is still alive; that we will remember him for as long as we live; and in such a way, his death is easier to accept, even if we will never communicate again. It has been perhaps more difficult to come to terms with this; but in the end, I am at peace, and stronger myself for it.

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