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January 30, 2006

Come Off It!

Religious folks often suspect that, deep down, atheists -- particularly atheists as they face death -- really do have a feeling for God.

Do nonbelievers suspect that, deep down, religious folks have their doubts? That their faith in an afterlife, for example, is not quite strong enough to fend off fear of death?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at January 30, 2006 9:06 PM


I do always want to ask religious folk why they cry at funerals. Shouldn't they be happy? Their loved one is with God, and they'll see them again soon. But they cry, near as I can tell, just as much as us atheists. We all face death pretty much the same way -- with a deep sense of the totality of the loss it represents.

I've studied a lot of older, pagan religions -- Egpytian, Greek, Celtic, Nordic/Saxon -- and the one thing that always strikes me is how tentative the beliefs regarding an afterlife are. The Egyptians, say, had this full blown vision of the afterlife. It was like this world without the bad bits. Work would be fun. The sex would be great. Perfect weather. But so much went into getting into that afterlife that for most of Eyptian history it was believed to only be accessible by a few (originally perhaps just royalty, the nobility and a select few others). There was no easy comfort, though, even for Pharoah. If someone scratched his name off of his tomb and monuments, or hacked his body to bits, or or or -- there were so many ways in the Egyptian belief system that your afterlife could go wrong.

For all the beautiful afterworld, the Egyptians wrote about death with fear and sadness. They weren't death-obsessed. They were life-obsessed. They loved it. They hated the fact that it ended. Which, really, describes most people past and present. The difficulty of reaching the afterlife in Egyptian belief has always made me wonder if, on some level, they felt that none of it was real comfort.

Christians, Jews, Muslims, all those people with the most developed sense of an afterlife -- they don't seem to react in demonstrably different way to death than the rest of us. To me, that is telling.

Posted by: Gregory at January 30, 2006 11:40 PM

I am old enough now, approaching the end of my seventh decade of life, to have seen people die, too many, and many whom we have loved. In general, my observation is that those whose lives have been informed by a principled, deliberate, rational atheism have approached death with an equanimity and a level of acceptance that is unforced, totally honest, and admirable. Some of the most deeply religious matched that. The thing that unified all those people, believers and atheists, was their lifelong attempt to be good.

On the other hand, those we've known who approached death with fear and denial were, almost universally, people whose lives were marred by thoughtlessness, cynicism, and a continuing attachment to pleasure, wealth, and power.

Posted by: Richard Blumberg at January 31, 2006 9:49 AM

My mother was a devout Catholic. She prayed the rosary every day, enlisted the help of a favorite saint to find thinks she' misplaced, deeply revered the Blessed Virgin Mary (the phrase she always used). She pursued a lifelong attempt to be good, especially as it related to other people, and when she died she was mourned by a diverse group of friends.

But she didn't know her God very well. She'd grown up with the notion that ordinary people weren't "smart" enough to study the bible or writings of the Church's historical thinkers, and to her God was a remote, rather fierce, demanding father, and Jesus was a baby in a manger.

She was terrified of dying, and I think it wasn't for lack of faith so much as for lack of a good post-death outcome to anticipate. For her there wasn't hell vs. heaven; it was hell vs. non-hell.
I thought it was a really crappy theology, but as I was drifting into atheism myself, I couldn't help her much.

Posted by: Karen at January 31, 2006 6:37 PM

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