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.

Posted February 19, 2012
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  • Laurance

    “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…”

    Yes, on the one hand it is indeed a bit hard to imagine total Nothing At All.  OTOH, death does not bother me because it finally occurred to me that unless I am horribly wrong (yeah, yeah, and I could be wrong, and boy, will I ever roast in hell), I won’t know I’ve died.  I won’t know because there won’t be anybody to know.  There won’t be any consciousness to look around and go “Holy shit!”.  There won’t be any “I” there to know that this thing has happened.  There will be consciousness, and then there won’t be consciousness.  And when the consciousness stops, well, shucks, there won’t be anything at all to perceive the change. 

    So I don’t worry about it.  I just go on living, seeing that living is ALL I can do.  When I’m not living any more, there won’t be any “I” left to perceive not living.

    Not a problem.

    (Y’know, I think for some people, the idea of Nothing after death is a kind of terrifying Negative Something.  Being fully awake and conscious, but there’s nothing to see, everything’s black; there’s no sound to hear, nothing to feel, nothing to taste or touch, just wide awake consciousness floating around Nowhere.  Now, that would be awful!)

    • Andrew Skegg

      In a way, you die every time you go to sleep.  The machinery of our consciousness collapses during various stages of sleep, and there seem to be phases in which we are not aware of anything.  No dreams, no senses.  While this is not total loss of all brain function, it does seem to come close.

      • Laurance

        Flashback to long, long ago (I’m 70 now) when I was in my late teens and I had my wisdom teeth taken out.  I was given sodium pentothal, and I was seriously, heavy-duty unconscious.  I was Not There At All.  Since that time there have been other operations, the most recent being a knee replacement two years ago (I’m an old fart, and the knee wore out), and I was seriously Not There At All.  If I had not woken up, I wouldn’t have known the difference.  I would not have known that I never came back.  Anesthesia for an operation is indeed a kind of death, but a death that most people come back from.

        Yes, sleep, but for me those truly totally unconscious periods are small, and eclipsed by the colorful and intense dreams I enjoy.  Better than TV, better than movies….time for this old geezer to go upstairs to bed and see what interesting show my brain will present to me tonight.

  • Danny

    I like Penn Jillette’s take on death in this video (around the 2 minute mark).

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