Dealing with death
Religious believers are often dumbfounded at the skeptics disbelief in an afterlife. The very illusion that our minds are somehow separate from our brains seems to imply it may “live on” after the death of our physical bodies, however there seems to be no physical evidence that this is the case. Perhaps, we are told, the mind is “non-physical” and therefore cannot be measured using the tools of science. A kind of non-overlapping magisteria – looking for the 2 inch fish of the spiritual with the 3 inch net of science. Our consciousness grapples with the idea of total non-existence. We find it impossible to imagine what it might be like not to imagine. To think that we all will, at some stage, cease to be is frightening to many, and the evolutionary desire to go on living is strong.
Perhaps this is why so many have convinced themselves they will never die, that a benevolent loving father figure will cater to their every need now and for all time, and further that we are magically transported to a Heavenly realm after we die.
“I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” Mark Twain
So it is difficult for atheists to deal with death?
Kimberly Winston has written a piece on USA Today highlighting the “Grief Beyond Belief “ Facebook group, where skeptics, non-believers, and atheists can mourn the death of a loved one and share their grief with similarly minded people. I think it’s a great idea, but I would like to briefly examine the assumption that religious belief provides comfort at these times.
There is a sinister flip side to many religious doctrines – the eternal threat of every lasting torment in Hell. There is no guarantee a believer will be granted access to Heaven in the afterlife. Although many assume they are among the privileged few who have discovered the true meanings of the holy texts, there is no way to determine the true situation. As so often is the case, faith itself seems to be the deciding factor and each individual believer seems to choose what they will have faith in. A good predictor of what this choice will be is the environment in which these individuals find themselves. Isn’t that revealing enough?
So how does a believer deal with possibility they have chosen the wrong god, or the wrong method to appease this judgemental and capricious deity?
The answer seems to be they often ignore it, dismiss it, reassert their faith based convictions, or agonise about it. Some have reported deep emotional distress over unbaptised babies suffering in Hell, or more generously, languishing in purgatory until the end times. Similar tortures occur when loved ones die while believing in the wrong god, following the wrong denomination, or not believing any of the nonsense in the first place.
These thoughts often have one of two outcomes: they drive the individual to wonder about the nature of a god who would inflict such unjust punishments, or these desperately seek to avoid these tortures through reaffirmation of their faith – often in more radical and fundamental ways. Fear is a powerful motivator and the religious faiths which evolved to include this hideous mutation have been very successful memes.
So does religion provide comfort when a loved one dies? Yes, I think it can, but it can also be a source of emotional turmoil.