Grief Without Belief: How Do Atheists Deal With Death?

For all the talk of rationality, intellectual honesty, and objectivity we engage in as atheists, this is one of the most uncomfortable questions we have to wrestle with.
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A religious friend once wrote to me, asking how I coped with death as an atheist. Her father had just died a week or two earlier, as mine had years ago. She wrote:

He's dead and in the ground. I take great comfort in thinking that he's in a good place. Do we just become fertilizer, end of story? I am not questioning your beliefs and the why or where of it. I'm just asking what you think is the next step. If you think it's fertilizer, please lie to make it more interesting.

For all the talk of rationality, intellectual honesty, and objectivity we engage in as atheists, this is one of the most uncomfortable questions we have to wrestle with. What can we offer as a substitute for the emotional comfort religion offers believers in facing their own death, or that of their loved ones? What should we say to our believing family and friends when they are acutely grieving these losses?

My friend's note jolted me. Not because I didn't have a response. I did. I just wasn't sure how to articulate it in a way that was both accurate and emotionally supportive, her loss being so recent. It also forced me to revisit the death of my own father, who I had a very close relationship with.

Processing a horrific experience like the loss of a loved one using rationality and logic does help when you're trying to make sense of things, but not as much during those times you're feeling helpless and emotionally vulnerable. I can see how believing in God can help there.

That said, what do believers do with this God? Do they rage at him for cruelly taking their parent, spouse, or child away from them? Or do they surrender to their helplessness, thanking him for putting their loved ones "in a better place", begging him to reunite them one day?

I wrote back the same day, but the subject has stuck in my mind since. I re-visited what I wrote several times in the following months and kept adding to it. Here is what I would write to her today.


Dear Friend,

I am sorry for your loss.

I lost my dad a little over a decade ago, and your question ran through my mind then as well. At the time, I approached it by separating my thoughts into what I know, and what I don't know.

I know that we're alive through our offspring. You are physically an embodiment of your father's biological and genetic essence. This includes everything from how you look to many of the behavioral and personality traits you have. In other words -- and this is not an exaggeration -- your father is literally alive through you, as mine is through me. For me, knowing that is incredibly powerful and comforting.

I know that we continue to exist through the earth. This is my attempt at being euphemistic about your fertilizer theory. As part of this huge reservoir of terrestrial carbon, we die and become part of the earth, which gives rise to new life, as it once gave rise to us. That is also very powerful to me in a more collective, worldly sense.

I also know that I've only been conscious for some 38 years out of the 13.8 billion years that the universe has been in existence. Everything from plankton to dinosaurs and the formation of the UN to the moon landing happened before I was even self-aware. I don't miss those things, nor do I recall that huge chunk of time as horrible or upsetting. I simply can't recall it at all because I didn't exist.

Not knowing anything else, I work on the assumption that after death, we go back into the pre-birth phase. I don't feel like that would bother me any more than it did during those first 13.8 billion years. This is actually a really comforting, peaceful idea when you give it some thought. Especially because it makes me value this little sliver of time I have as a conscious, living being for a few decades a lot more than if I thought it was just transit time to someplace else. It also helps me not take my life or that of others for granted.

There are other things I'm not all that sure about, but which make me think nevertheless.

I know that according to the law of conservation of energy, energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but can be changed from one form to another, or be transferred from one object to another. I know that the subatomic particles that constitute you, me, and all of the matter we see around us can exist outside of the realm of time, travel through extra dimensions, and even temporarily violate conservation of energy by literally popping in and out of existence. I know there is a possibility that we're part of a multiverse and may exist in several universes simultaneously. I know that even nothing is still something.

I am not completely sure what these things mean. I'm cautious about making connections between these ideas and the experience of human existence, or the process of human death. I am not a physicist, and I am skeptical of those who do make these connections as if they were facts. But this is still more compelling and awe-inspiring to me than the notion of angels, or rivers of wine, or the pearly gates, or eternal torment in hellfire.

Take a look at this passage from Aaron Freeman about why you'd want a physicist to speak at your funeral:

You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.

And at one point you'd hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.

And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.

And you'll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they'll be comforted to know your energy's still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you're just less orderly. Amen.

It's often said that religion was created by humans as a means to cope with their own mortality -- a powerful defense mechanism that arose from an irresolvable conflict almost unique to humans: having the same instinct of self-preservation that insects have when they run for their lives sensing they are about to be stomped upon, yet simultaneously harboring a central nervous system advanced enough to comprehend the reality that we will all die one day. This is not an easy conundrum to grapple with, and I can understand why the faithful exist, even if I don't understand the faith.

But even if you believe in a god or gods that created the universe, why go to a messiah or book from thousands of years ago to get closer to him? Why not study the creation that's all around you? This "creation" is called nature, and the study of it is called science. The language of science isn't Hebrew, Aramaic, or Arabic. It's mathematics, which stays the same whether you're in Israel, the West Bank, or on the moon. Why rely on faith without evidence when the evidence is so much more breathtaking? To me, the beauty lies in real questions, not false answers.

You asked me what I think is the next step.

Well, no one has reported back from the other side, none of us who are alive have been to the other side, and we don't have any factual evidence supporting a life (as we know it) after we die. To me, believing what I want to be true can be very comforting (like my unshakeable belief that Jessica Alba wants all my babies), but that doesn't make it true. I find more comfort in what I know to be true. For the things I don't know, I prefer saying just that -- I don't know -- instead of entertaining supernatural guesses or made-up answers from a time when humans didn't know about the carbon cycle or the structure of the DNA that your father passed on to you, his living, breathing daughter.

You said that if I didn't have the answers, I should "lie to make it more interesting." But I have always found things most interesting when I didn't have to lie. That is why I am an atheist.

Admitting ignorance is humbling. It reminds us that as fleeting inhabitants of this vast universe, we are part of something much bigger. It forms a foundation for the curiosity that defines us as human beings, that drives us to contemplate our existence, educate ourselves, and to grow and evolve as individuals and as a species.

To lose that is a much worse death than physical death.

I wish you the strength and resolve to cope with your loss. Mourn his death, but also celebrate the life that he helped give you. That's what he would have wanted.

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