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August 18, 2006

Death -- Part IV

What might/can/should a nonbeliever think about death? JM commented that I am too hasty in suggesting that atheists "find death pretty tough" -- possibly tougher than believers find it?

Here are some related comments from some very early kind-of, sort-of or not-really atheists (all characters in the second chapter of my book):

Gilgamesh (after his buddy dies)...

What my brother is now that shall I be when I am dead. How can I rest, how can I be at peace? Despair is in my heart.

Egyptian song from the third millennium BCE...

Let these things fade from your thoughts. Weeping does not save the heart from the grave.

Anacreon (Greek poet)...

My closing years pass by in haste/Soon I no more sweet life shall taste.

Koheleth in Ecclesiastes...

What a delight for the eyes to behold the sun! Even if a man lives many years, let him enjoy himself in all of them, remembering how many the days of darkness are going to be. The only future is nothingness!


Accustom yourself to the thought that death is nothing to us. For all good and evil reside in sensation, but death is the removal of all sensation.....There is nothing fearful in life for one who has grasped that there is nothing fearful in the absence of life....The wise man neither rejects life nor fears death.

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at August 18, 2006 11:54 AM


I've been thinking recently of how the metaphysics of religion not only remove the fear of death from believers; it actually allows them to look forward to it in their life actions. This is the absurdity Kierkegaard exonerated in his writings, where he considered it a virtue for someone to act upon the absurdity of one's faith. If the non-believer is to compete against this, I think (s)he must be willing to recognize this, and risk even more - taking the more rational risk knowing life that has no afterdeath. Live every moment knowing it could be your last, so make the most of every action.

Posted by: X% at August 18, 2006 11:58 AM

carpe diem!
anachreontic philosophy
theme of my second chapter: "While Life is Yours"

Posted by: mitch at August 18, 2006 1:15 PM

Your choices above are interesting, M; thanks for adding Epicurus's astute observations to the list. My whole point, since you invoked my prior comments in your post, was to suggest that our conversation would be enhanced if we could distinguish between 'death' in philosophical terms, as a state of being let's say, and the emotional impact of death on those who remain. Epicurus resonates, for me at least, far beyond the others' eloquent, elegaic statements because he articulates that death, and life, are equally without privilege, that they form a horizon of human experience. We privilege life because it's all we know, and because death robs us of those we love, or sensation, etc. While I fully understand that privileging, it's not 'rational.' Is it?

To link up to issues recently articulated elsewhere, one needs to arrive at something like a more 'philosophical' position regarding death in order to cultivate an ethical political engagement in the world that does not rely on Enlightenment humanist conceptions of 'the individual'. For me, that includes opposition to states' use of the death penalty, support for ongoing legal access to abortion, and support for regulated access to physician-assisted suicide. Some might view these as contradictory positions, but they are only if one's ethical foundation, and ideas concerning death, are derived from Enlightenment conceptions of humanism...

Posted by: JM at August 18, 2006 2:58 PM

Every moment one can witness the creation of the universe. Life is awesome. Death is the end of the universe.

Carpeing the day is just the start, then you need to squeeze it and beg it and roll in it and eat it up.

I, personally, don't think treating today like it is the last day of your life is the best policy. One moment likely will lead to the next, one does not have to put that probability out of one's head to watch today do it's thing.

Posted by: Jay Saul at August 18, 2006 5:11 PM

I, personally, don't think treating today like it is the last day of your life is the best policy.

Is this because you think you'd be doing different from what you are now if it were? The thing is induction doesn't gaurantee that it won't be, and even if it were, why enjoy, or make the most of it any less? I guess what I'm asking is do you take less risks, because you feel there is no life after death?

Posted by: X% at August 18, 2006 5:32 PM

I think the knowledge/belief that death is the end of consciousness/me makes it easier/more imperative to consume life this moment.
Damn, I think one just got by.... gota run.....

Posted by: Jay Saul at August 18, 2006 5:39 PM

Yes, but do you think you take less risks now, than if you were to believe life continued after death?

Posted by: X% at August 18, 2006 5:47 PM

I'm back....I think how you deal with death is how you deal with life. It's attitude not theology. How do you deal with the possibilities of this moment/problem #1? When you seize the moment the next one comes along and must be seized as well...what was #2 becomes #1 and moment-by-moment life comes at us.
We do not have to ignore the fact that there are likely more moments coming. I mean a bottle of scotch can lead to a powerful hangover. There are consequences of seizing the moment with too much abandon, risks must be taken to stay alive, but staying whole and healthy are considerations that should enter into the decision of just how to tie the sucker on.

Many of my happiest friends are…gag me...spiritual. It's all attitude. OR it's all about altitude...my Persian guru was mumbling.

Posted by: Jay Saul at August 18, 2006 8:40 PM

I am surprised that you don't mention another view atheists can take on the issue. (Or maybe you did in the past. I started reading this blog recently.) If death is the end of my existence, then there is a much stronger imperative to live the good life. What seems like a hopeless and grim conclusion can actually be a way to "affirm life", as Nietzsche would put it.

Posted by: Cihan Baran at August 19, 2006 1:01 AM

Reading again, I guess Koheleth's quote slightly captures what I was expressing.

Posted by: Cihan Baran at August 19, 2006 1:23 AM

Glad to have Nietzsche invoked again in regard to this discussion... to me the right way to think of this topic esp re: christianity.

But, just getting up every morning, Sisyphus-like, is engaging in risk at some level, no? to engage with other completely unpredictable beings is to engage in some measure of risk; to use language is to engage in risk (Virginia Woolf comes to mind: "Words are dangerous things, let us remember" ['Royalty']). Living w/out regard for convention(al wisdom) -- which is where christianity comes in, to set boundaries that minimize the risk of mortality by focusing on an 'afterdeath' (like that word, thanks X%) in exchange for regulating one's life -- that's the risk of which we're speaking yes?

Posted by: JM at August 19, 2006 9:25 AM

Everyone fears dying, even people who have religion. Death anxiety is a component of human psychology from birth - a survival tool.(see Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death) The idea of the human soul was invented because humans wanted to believe immortality was possible. 'Nonbelievers' believe that it is not.

Nonbelievers could take comfort in this thought: all humans are part of the natural progress of life on this planet, along with every other natural living thing. It can be both humbling and freeing for people to believe that everyone has the same limits placed on their existence, in the end.

When Christianity had greater prominence in the world, people took comfort in the idea that their God loved all souls equally(rich or poor, etc). Today, without faith, people can take comfort in the natural cycle of life they are a part of with a similar idea of equality in death.

Carpe diem.

Posted by: Lisa at August 20, 2006 12:07 AM

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