On Atheism and Death
Throughout the last year of my life, I have experienced a few heartbreaking losses: my mother passed away last June, and I lost a beloved cat in March. Both of them died rather young, my mother being 57 and Nero, my kitty, being only 2. Both deaths were sudden and shocking sacks of bricks that knocked me unexpectedly into the icy cold pool that is the reality of the biological life cycle.
So, naturally, both deaths created in me pensive contemplation about the very idea of death.
As an atheist, of course, death is a permanent experience, which invites some not-so-subtle indications. Namely, being an atheist makes it impossible to ignore the “big” question: how does one cope with death?
After my mom died, my aunt asked me where I thought my mom “was” now. My answer, of course, was that I don’t think my mom “is” anywhere. I think that she died, and, like other biological organisms who die, no longer exists. This thought is incomprehensible to many people — how could I believe that my mom is really gone forever? How do I cope without the belief that I’ll see her again someday in a glorified version of her former self?
It’s not that I don’t understand these sentiments. I get it, on some level. After my son found out that Nero wasn’t going to make it, he curled into a ball on the floor and called out our cat’s name again and again. And after we’d said goodbye to our kitty and stepped out of the room, he collapsed again and cried out, “Why, why?” Again and again. In all honesty, there was a part of me that wanted to tell him that Nero was going to a better place. That he’d be free of pain and happy again, playing with other spirit kitties for the rest of eternity. A part of me wanted to tell him that he’d see Nero again. Someday.
But the simple fact of the matter is that I don’t believe these things are true. I don’t believe that Nero’s spirit is happy and free and waiting for us in heaven or at the “rainbow bridge.” I believe that Nero’s body stopped working and that he died, and that he therefore no longer exists outside of our wonderful memories of him, just as I believe about my mom, and so the thought of trying to comfort my son with fairy tales swiftly evolved from an inviting prospect to a vastly uncomfortable one.
There are some interesting hypotheses that the religious have developed about us atheists as to why we embrace the worldviews that we do, but in instances like these it’s important to set the record straight. I am not an atheist because it’s hip. I’m not an atheist because I hate god. I’m not an atheist because I want to “sin” all the time and not be held accountable. I’m not an atheist because I’m closed-minded.
I am an atheist because I have explored and studied the idea of deities and religion, and all claims that I’ve come across do not stand up to scrutiny and evidence any more than other fantastical claims, such as Bigfoot or garden fairies, do. I happen to care very much about whether what I believe is true (and I care very much that my son grows up to be a critical thinker, whatever he winds up believing in a religious sense), and I therefore hold extraordinary claims up to an extraordinary burden of proof. I don’t believe in gods for the same reason that I don’t believe in garden fairies. There simply isn’t enough evidence to justify it. And that makes the crutch of eternal life in spiritual form profoundly dishonest for me.
So, when I was sitting in that veterinary clinic with Brendan, I did not tell him that Nero was in a better place, or that we’d play with him again someday. Instead, I hugged him very tightly and told him to cry as much as he needed to. I told him that I knew how much it hurt, and that he needed to feel and acknowledge that hurt until, eventually, the flow of time would dull it. And, together, we allowed ourselves to be overcome by the wave of grief that accompanies loss.
I did very much the same thing when my mom, his “Nana,” died last summer. And the most remarkable thing happened in both instances: my son and I grieved together, acknowledging a tremendous amount of pain rather than try to dull it … and, little by little, that pain became more and more bearable. Memories of our loved ones became a welcome part of our lives rather than pangs of grief. I may be wrong, but I think that acknowledging permanent loss was the first step, at least for us, in healing.
But I realize that the healing process isn’t the same for everyone, and so the question remains for many people — how does an atheist get over a death?
I’ve come to the conclusion that we don’t ever “get over it.” We heal and move on, but there are parts of us that are forever marked by the deaths of loved ones. We are changed, both positively and negatively, by those who touch our lives and then leave us forever. All of us mourn the passing of others from our lives. As atheists, we do not have the luxury of dulling, numbing, or running from that pain by telling ourselves that we’ll see those people again. For us, death is a very permanent part of life. With this, we are also faced with the unsettling reality of our own nonexistence sometime in the not-so-distant future. I know. These thoughts, at first, seem unbearable.
And for a while, it is unbearable. I’m not going to deny that. The reality of never seeing someone again is hard. At first, memories sting with pain because all they do is remind you that those good times, along with that unique person you loved so much for all their uniqueness, are gone forever. If you happened to be on bad terms with a loved one when they died, you are faced with the paralyzing reality that you will never, ever, have a chance to make it right again. You begin to notice TV shows that you’ll never watch with that person again, songs you’ll never listen to with that person again, and inside jokes that will never be shared between you again. Not now, not in heaven. Not ever. Yes, at first this can be absolutely devastating.
But there is also beauty in this. Although accepting the finality of death can be excruciatingly painful, it also makes the recognition of life exceedingly beautiful. No, we atheists do not comfort ourselves with thoughts of seeing our loved ones after we die, but through this we realize the importance of being with our loved ones before any of us dies. We recognize that we don’t get a second chance with anybody. And when you don’t have eternity to “get it right,” the urgency for love, fulfillment, and connection in this life becomes very real. The importance of not letting years, days, hours, or even minutes slip by because of petty differences, because we cannot make anything right after death, is very real. And when we do lose those we love, we are forced to put this worldview that much more into perspective.
So, no, I do not believe that my mom is looking down on me from heaven. I don’t think that Nero is waiting at the rainbow bridge. And I’m okay with that. I still cry over those I have lost, and I’m okay with that, too. I am okay with all of this because I know and recognize that my loved ones had such a profound impact on me and how I will forever view my future relationships. I can let go of them while still holding onto their memories.
It isn’t easy. Both life and death are, however, profound. This was particularly true for me once I realized that the numbing sentiments of permanent loss can eventually serve to illuminate the joys of life while we do have them.