The following article by yours truly, Death and the Skeptic, is currently featured on The Humanist, a publication of the American Humanist Association.
Before I share it, I would like to explain a bit on why I wrote this piece. I have friends who are atheist who have lost loved ones and, in my view, not had sufficient coping mechanisms to deal with grief. One in particular lost two very close friends in less than two years, violently and suddenly, and he changed, became very introspective and cynical, and almost never hung out with friends anymore.
This may be because he has religious family + friends and doesn't wanna bring it up and hear about the religious imagery that usually adorns the idea of death in the public discourse. At first one sympathizes with religious people who are also grieving, but after a while I'm sure it gets tired.
I believe non-religious people need to have at least a small network of like-minded close friends with whom to blend one's mind.
And I think people should talk about death more honestly and openly and express their grief as a natural part of the natural process of losing someone. We should instigate conversations about 'what if' a loved one dies and try to develop healthy ways to cope when it does happen. Studies suggest that religious people have less difficulty dealing with the death of a loved one, probably because they have more social support and probably because they have more psychological resources to cope.
Also, after I wrote this piece I saw the documentary 'Flight from Death: the Quest for Immortality', where they explore something that social scientists are calling the 'death denial principle'. In studies, social scientists discovered that when people are reminded of their own mortality they tend to cling to things that are familiar and they get VERY hostile to things that are unfamiliar and especially to other religions.
In one of the studies, judges were asked to give a veredict on a case, they had a control group and a group that was reminded of their mortality just before giving a veredict. The group that was reminded of their own death gave MUCH MORE SEVERE PUNISHMENTS. Ergo, people become more judgemental when reminded of their own death.
Basically, whenever anyone bursts our bubble about any imagined idea we have of life after death, the death denial principle automatically kicks in (maybe part of our survival instinct?). The death denial principle explains not only bigotry against atheists, and against jews and hindus and people of other religions by xtians, between jews and muslims or any other set of groups whose religious beliefs contradict each other's ideas about the afterlife, but it also explains other types of hostility.
It even helps to explain our funerary traditions, art and cultural expression that seek to hide death from us. At times (as in Ancient Egypt and the salvific theologies of Islam and Christianity), a very complex cultural infrastructure is built specifically to try to deny death and finality. I may write more about the death denial principle in the future, but in the meantime here's my article...
Death and the Skeptic
“The world began when I was born and the world is mine to win.”
As much as the anthropocentric arrogance and subjectivity of the above statement contradict obvious facts, it could be said that every mind is a world, that the world begins, to each one of us, at birth and ends upon death. This adage represents an insight into the limited nature of our knowledge as mortals.
When I recently stumbled upon the picture of a much-beloved cousin of mine who died several years back, I was flooded with memories and burst into tears, wishing that the dead could speak again. That they could hug us and give us comfort. Death is the parent of religious fantasies and beliefs of all kinds, which so often contradict each other. As a nonbeliever I have pondered and sought meaning for death, or at least a respite from the pain caused by it, in Buddhist and Epicurean ideas.
As one tale about Siddhartha Buddha goes, there once was a mother whose infant child died and she could not bear the pain. She heard of the miraculous man called Buddha and went to him in the hope that he could resurrect her child. But Buddha’s teaching centered on the acceptance of the impermanence of all things in order to avoid unnecessary suffering. How could he perpetuate the notion of eternal life?
And so Buddha told her to knock on every door in her village until she found a household that did not know death. She began knocking on every door and every time she visited a home, the families would tell her that they were sorry but they did indeed know death: a mother, a son, a brother, or a father had died, and they fondly shared memories of their loved ones with her. As she went from home to home, she realized that death was universal and the negative energy of her suffering was transmuted into empathy and compassion, which translates as shared suffering. Humbled, the woman went back to Buddha and thanked him for his teaching about impermanence.
This realization that it’s not my pain but our pain—that we’re all in the same boat—is where compassion originates, and it’s also why Buddha is a type of humanist icon. He taught that all true virtues could be cultivated simply by contemplating death, pain, and all other human experience with mindfulness.
There is no need for gods or supernatural theories in Buddhism, but locking hands with fellow human beings is essential to the realization of its humanist virtues. Epicurus said that good friends are one of the most important ingredients for happiness. We can suffer through almost anything, as long as we have wholesome associates and friends who walk the path with us and make us stronger. Alone we are usually weak but together we are usually strong.
Epicurus also said:
So death, the most frightening of bad things, is nothing to us; since when we exist death is not yet present, and when death is present, we do not exist. Therefore it is relevant neither to the living nor the dead, since it does not affect the former, and the latter do not exist. Most people flee death as the greatest of bad things and sometimes choose it as a relief from the bad things of life. But the wise man neither rejects life nor fears death.
Some critics of Epicurus claim that he doesn’t factor in the complex reaction to the finality of human life, particularly when such strong bonds exist between us. But this, again, is not unique to humanity. Apes, whales, dolphins, and elephants form bonds and the death of loved ones is extremely painful and traumatic. Elephants are known to visit the graves of their family members and observe in what appears to be a solemn state when in the presence of the bones of their ancestors.
This, some may argue, sounds like the beginning of spirituality in another species, and it probably is. At least it hints at the possibility of a sophisticated level of philosophical curiosity among elephants. But it doesn’t provide factual evidence for an afterlife: those are two quite different claims. Loving bonds between family members serve an evolutionary purpose, but they are not in any way evidence for the eternality of our individual minds, as painful as this realization is.
Death is final. This means that time is sacred in the sense that it cannot be recovered.
I respect the maturity with which Buddha preached on the universality of impermanence, which in Buddhist doctrine is considered one of the three marks of existence. Rather than entertain religious fantasies and the persistent belief in the afterlife, Zen Buddhists accept that there is only now. There is so much freedom and insight in this realization.
The simplest and most painful insight that we can take in with a smile is that it’s okay. Everyone dies. And everyone hurts. Paradoxically, crying and being vulnerable require true courage.
In the end, human life on Earth is the true wonder. We can think and breathe. And we, of all earthlings, have become aware of our presence and our place here after billions of years of evolution. Life, not death, should be our source of awe.
Hiram Crespo is a blogger and freelance writer. He lives on the north side of Chicago.