Death Bothers Me More as an Atheist
On the morning of my open-heart surgery, I was at peace with the fact I might die on the operating table. Life or death; either outcome was fine. I would either wake up in the hospital and recover from my operation or wake up with God in the best place imaginable.
At 15, I had convinced myself that life on Earth was insignificant compared to the eternity I would spend with God. This became the foundation of my faith for the next five years — even as I began to doubt.
The more I learned about Christianity and the Bible, the less sense it made, and my belief in God started to slip. I was surprised by the relief I felt when my faith fell away completely. In the 12 years since then, I’ve never missed prayer, worship, church, or the Bible at all. Striving to maintain a relationship with a silent invisible fiction was exhausting. Adopting a secular worldview has improved my life in nearly every aspect I can think of.
However, there was one part of leaving Christianity I found quite challenging: facing the permanence of my own death.
Because of my heart defect, I’d always thought about dying more than most people my age, but heaven acted as my security blanket. I viewed life as page 1 of a long novel.
Once I realized there was probably no afterlife, the thought of saying a permanent goodbye to my loved ones — and to the very experience of being alive — suddenly seemed a lot more disturbing.
Most animals live fully in the present moment, but homo sapiens looked into the future and saw that death was inescapable; now, we can hardly enjoy life. Maybe this instinctive fear of death played a role in the invention of the afterlife to begin with. Believing in the continuity of your soul is one obvious way to feel better about the prospect of dying.
Have you ever imagined going to heaven (or hell), reflected on what it would mean to never leave that place, and felt a flash of vertigo as your brain attempted to wrap itself around the concept of eternity? This thought experiment used to overwhelm me as a child.
Just like I can’t comprehend infinity, I can’t grasp the idea of nonexistence either. It hurts my head the same way when I think about it.
There are times at night when I find myself in a semi-waking state of distress over my own mortality. I flash forward to that (hopefully distant) day when the time to die will be right now. This visceral sense of death’s approach gives me a disturbing sort of anxiety.
The usual mental diversions don’t seem to help
Many people claim to be completely unbothered by the idea of death because it happens to everyone, and there’s nothing we can do about it, so why worry? While that makes logical sense, sometimes I want to ask them: “have you ever had to consider what it would really mean for you to die?”
I envy people who can shrug it off like that. I’m not one of them.
Some people look forward to death as a release from a life they don’t want to live any longer. Understandable, but I guess I’m lucky in the sense that I enjoy being alive. Maybe I’ll feel differently if I live to be older. For now, the thought of leaving still makes me sad.
Others insist eternal life couldn’t possibly be desirable, and they’d rather disappear than remain conscious forever. There are plenty of good reasons to feel that way. Maybe you’d get bored. Without the option to leave — to change and evolve — even the best paradise could feel like torture. However, I’m not convinced by this logic. I wouldn’t expect to enjoy eternal life as a human, with this meat-brain that’s so dependent on the passage of time; but if I survived death as some kind of ascended spiritual entity, maybe timelessness would make perfect sense.
While those perspectives didn’t help me, I have found a few ideas that help me feel less anxious about death.
Three helpful ways to reframe death
1.I am absolutely minuscule and insignificant in the grand scheme of things.
When I die I will lose everything, forever; but the “everything” I’m losing isn’t really that important. I am one of nearly 8 billion humans, who will all die. Roughly 100 billion people have already lived and died. Everyone is eventually forgotten, including me.
People once thought Earth was the center of the universe. Then, we learned that we orbit the Sun. Then, we realized our galaxy contained billions of suns. In the 1920s we discovered that other galaxies exist outside our own. Today we estimate there are at least 2 trillion galaxies in the observable universe.
News flash to my silly human ego: the universe will go on without you, just as it has for the last 14 billion years. There will come a time when the very last human has been dead for 14 billion years.
When I think about the scale of this reality, it helps me realize that death is not a big deal and it’s pointless to dream of immortality. The feeling that my demise has any real significance is a relic of ancient times and primitive worldviews.
In one sense, this perspective is similar to my old belief in heaven: it allows me to see my life as vanishingly small compared to something much larger. Whether I believe in a 14-billion-year-old universe or an eternal afterlife, it’s clear that my time on Earth is short and all my concerns will soon be over, dwarfed by a sprawling expanse of infinity.
2.The finality of death is a relief compared to what (most of) Christianity teaches.
If there was a button I could push that would set up heaven and hell as real places, with the entry requirements I was taught growing up, I wouldn’t push it. I’d destroy the button.
If the criteria for getting into heaven included following Jesus, that’d mean a large majority of humanity would not be going there. All those wonderful souls would instead be sent to a place of desperation and pain with no escape.
As much as it feels sad sometimes to think that heaven isn’t real, it’s a massive relief to know that nobody will have to endure hell. I would much rather accept my finite lifespan than yearn for a system that forces most people into everlasting agony.
3.My desire for a novel continuation of consciousness after death might actually be satisfied by the dying process.
Those who have come close to death often report fascinating stories of what they perceived. We know that in certain circumstances, and in the presence of certain chemicals like DMT, our brains give us profoundly spiritual experiences that seem to exist outside the limitations of space and time.
It makes sense to me that these experiences are neurological phenomena; others insist they are evidence of a spiritual realm. In either case, it sounds like a fascinating experience.
Who knows — maybe when we die, we literally perceive it as lasting forever. What if heaven or hell is nothing more than the indefinite extension of whatever emotion we feel as we die? Or what if our “afterlife” is a result of how our brains have been shaped over our lifetimes, the sum total of all our memories, thoughts, fears, and desires melting together as we release and shut down?
By living my life as well as I can, I might increase my odds of experiencing a death that is peaceful, warm, and even joyful.
Maybe by acknowledging that every “goodbye” I say could be my last, I will stay on better terms with my loved ones and enjoy better relationships.
I don’t want to live in fear of death. I’d rather direct that energy into an awareness of how precious the hours of my life really are, and let it motivate me to do my best with the time I have. Being alive is a once-in-a-universe opportunity to love and learn.
I’m not going to pretend these are foolproof solutions — for me or anyone else. Death can be disturbing no matter what you believe. As with many of the grim parts of life, I think the best we can do is try to accept it and find ways to cope with it.
Maybe we can do better than cope, though. Maybe we can learn to see the beauty in it. Maybe the time limit on our lives helps give us meaning and value, and makes us who we are.
Sometime in the next few years I'll need another open-heart surgery; I still wrestle with the fear of something going wrong. I can’t rely on heaven for my peace anymore, but I will be thinking about these three ideas as I prepare for the operation.