Many people think atheists have a bleak, empty, and simple view of life. Many of us have heard people question how atheists can cope with the death of a loved one, the thought of one’s own death, or how we view the concept of death in the first place. Some atheists express having difficulty with this issue as well, especially regarding how to address the issue with children.
In the following points I explain my personal views on the nature of life and death which have evolved over the years. There is obviously a lot more that can be said on this topic, and many more perspectives. But hopefully you find what I have to say interesting and perhaps useful in your own life.
1. Clinging to existence, and aversion to the inevitable
What is born will die.
What ripens will decay.
What is built will fall.
What is strong will break.
What comes to be will cease to be.
All things pass away
for the sea of all things is ever-churning.
Many aspects of our lives breed a way of thinking and feeling that clings to the desire for life. These things can be our nature as evolving organisms in the eternal struggle to survive, as well as the cultural beliefs we are immersed in our entire lives,
Christianity obsesses over gaining eternal life and praising their deity for providing “victory over death”. Islam promises life in Paradise as the supreme reward and goal of human life. As mammals, our biological construction sways our emotions and actions in ways suited to ensure survival of ourselves and our tribe. So consciously or subconsciously, we are stuck craving to remain alive and not lose the presence of ones we love.
But this extreme sort of craving is emotionally destructive, even in the case of loving others and taking care of our own well being. So examine what is really happening. Fundamentally, what we love and miss about those we care about is the experience of our mind interacting with them. This occurs in the form of our emotional and physical perceptions. Instead of merely appreciating and loving when they are with us, we unwittingly take an additional but unnecessary step and become addicted to those feelings.
Then we are not only loving others, but we are also distraught for our own sake because we crave our own experience of their presence. And in the matter of our own death, the problem is much the same: we are addicted to experiencing emotion.
If you can mitigate this error in yourself then the severity and duration of your distress upon the death of a loved one, or when contemplating your own death, can be greatly reduced.
There are of course many views on how to view life and cope with death. As for myself, I think there are two main ways of addressing the problem of craving.
The first is simply to be aware of it. In my experience, the more often you actively think about the origin of your feelings, especially when intense emotions arise, the easier it becomes to naturally gain some level of separateness from those emotions as well as control over them.
The second way is develop a coherent idea of how you think reality works regarding the nature of life and death in the grand scheme of the cosmos. This is because the way you think reality operates and even the particular way you describe it has tremendous emotional implications.
The following points in this piece explain my own view of this issue.
2. All persons are moving, changing parts of one larger system
one body from which many heads grow
countless and diverse.
Mouths without number roar
but one blood sustains them all.
It is important to develop specific descriptions of what sentient beings are in a philosophical sense.
First, recognize that every person’s body is an arrangement of myriad tiny parts, down to the molecules and atoms and whatever composes those things as well. And what we call our ‘self’ is just a stream of experience.
As best we can figure given all available information, sentience is an aspect of nature that occurs when various material becomes arranged into network-like structures transferring energy in generally cohesive patterns. In humans, this structure is the brain. Obviously this description does not provide mechanical details about how sentience operates, but it defines these terms precisely enough for understanding the subject at hand.
Next, we must recognize that all living beings constantly undergo change throughout their entire existence. Everything your fetal body was comprised of was the result of your mother eating food which in turn came from other parts of nature. Then after your birth, your body sustained its form, and grew, by consuming other things just as your mother did. And all those things too were composed of material recycled from the rest of nature. We have even learned that all the atoms of your body are slowly but constantly cycled out and replaced over the years.
What this leads us to understand is that everyone you know and everything else in the cosmos comprises one singular system. This is a system composed of everything that exists in total, even beyond our local universe, if there is anything.
The cosmos is quite literally a singular body. However, this does not mean that all beings share a singular mind (our individual experience itself demonstrates this). Neither do we have sufficient reason to think the cosmos as a whole functions as a singular brain for a ‘cosmic mind’, although of course I remain open to this possibility and whatever fascinating perspectives and emotional concerns such a creature might have.
Rather, this is a system wherein structures form, including humans, that happen to meet the conditions which produce sentient experience. These structures are continuously bubbling into form then constantly undergoing change. This constant changing includes eventual dissolution to the point where the structure ceases to be arranged sufficiently for experience to still occur. Then seamlessly, those parts continue to shift and merge with the rest of the cosmos, producing new forms – many of which enable experience as well.
In light of this point I would like to add another poetic analogy to this section for anyone who gets some enjoyment from them:
Sands are blown into little dunes
that slowly transform in the wind.
The wind wears them away
and the sands flow along.
Then there are new little dunes in the wind.
3. Death is another state of being – a normal state
Death is not new to you and me.
So-called ‘death’ is the state of us all
after life is dissolved, yet also before it forms.
To live is the stranger thing.
Truly, to ‘not be’ is the prime nature of beings.
So we understand that constant change is the nature of the cosmos and all living beings are temporary arrangements of its parts.
This offers us a new perspective on death.
Our personal body is a tiny arrangement of countless smaller ever-shifting parts among a vast web of transformations. Death is merely the event where a particular arrangement has changed in a way such that the cosmos does not yield sentient experience in that portion of its body. But nothing stops or is ever truly separate, so from there everything you are merely shifts, moves apart, and gathers in new ways with the rest of everything.
From the perspective of this total system, every moment of our individual lives are like birth and death. Each is another small change in the form and function of our thoughts and structure. The portion of the system we call our “self” is new and so slightly different in every moment.
Death is but one of these infinite moments. It is just another change in one fleeting place in the continuous transforming of our living cosmos.
Of course none of these things mean the process of death or all other changes are pleasant. Death and incidents which produce suffering are clearly disliked by sentient forms while we live, and this renders them morally crucial.
The inevitability of changing and dissolution does not mean we should be idle about how change occurs and how we impact the experience of other ‘heads of the hydra’ once they come to be and while they are still formed. So it is my view that we should aspire to alleviate these miseries for sentient beings, such as ourselves, when and to what extent it is reasonably possible.
Finally, you can be the judge of what value these ideas have for your own life. But I hope you have gained something by reading about them, and that you see there really is a sense of wonder, totality, and connection that can be felt when we contemplate a reasoned perspective of our place in the greater world.