Many people think atheists must all have a bleak, empty, and simple view of life, and many of us have heard people question how atheists can emotionally cope with the event of someone dying who they knew or loved or how they can conceive of and cope with the thought of their own death. Some atheists have expressed that they have difficulty with this issue as well, especially concerning how to address the issue with children.
In the following points, I explain my personal views on the nature of life and death that 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 here interesting and perhaps useful.
1. Clinging to existence, and aversion to the inevitable
All things pass away.
What is born will die.
What comes to be will cease.
What ripens will decay.
What is built will fall.
What is strong will break.
All things pass away
and the sea of all things is ever churning.
Our evolved nature as organisms trying to survive, as well as most of the cultural beliefs we are immersed in our entire lives, breed a way of thinking and feeling that clings to the desire for life. 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, and our biological construction as mammals is structured around swaying our emotions and actions such as to ensure our survival. Consciously or subconsciously, we are stuck on the craving to remain alive and to not lose the presence of ones we love.
But clinging is emotionally destructive even in the cases of loving others and taking care of your own survival and 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 through our emotional and physical perceptions. Instead of merely appreciating and loving when they are with us, we unwittingly take another step and become addicted to those feelings.
Then we are not only loving those others we care for, but we are also distraught for our own sake because we crave for ourselves to experience their presence. So if you can address this issue in yourself, then the severity and duration of distress you experience when a loved one dies (or that you may experience when pondering your own death) can be greatly reduced.
There are of course many views on how to cope with death and how to look at it notion of life itself. As for myself, I think there are two main ways of addressing the problem of clinging.
The first is simply to be aware of it. In my experience, the more often you actively think about your feelings and their origin, including when intense feelings arise, the easier that you naturally gain some level of separateness from them and control over them.
The other way is develop a coherent conception of how you think reality works regarding the nature of life and death, because the way you think reality works and the way you describe it has emotional implications.
The following points in this piece explain my own view of these issues.
2. All persons are moving, changing parts of one larger system
The world is a hydra;
one body from which many heads grow,
countless and diverse.
Mouths without number roar,
but one blood sustains them all.
To develop a greater sense of ease with the notion of death, it is important to develop more specific descriptions of what sentient beings are in philosophical terms than we nonreligious people generally tend to bother with.
What we call our ‘self’ and what we mean by “I” and “me” is a stream of sentient experience – specifically, the one from which we experience perspective. As best we can figure given all available information, it seems that sentience is a condition of nature that occurs when various physical parts form into network-like structures that transfer energy in certain patterns (which in humans we call the brain). Every person’s body that yields sentience is an arrangement of myriad tiny parts – down to the molecules and atoms and whatever composes those things as well.
(This still sounds very general of course. It obviously does not provide mechanical details about how sentience operates, many of which will probably elude us forever in my opinion. But this description more precisely defines our terms which helps us understand the related concepts of life and death)
Furthermore, all beings constantly undergo change throughout their entire existence. Everything your fetal body was comprised of was due to your mother eating food which came from other things, and after your birth your body is sustained by yourself consuming other parts of nature which are also composed of recycled material from the rest of nature. We have even learned that all the atoms of your body are cycled out and replaced over years.
So everyone you know and all your relationships with family, friends, pets, etc are part of one system, which is everything that exists in total (i.e. the universe or multiverse). The universe is quite literally a singular body. However, we are not a single mind, nor do we have sound reason to think we originate from a single mind. Rather, the nature of the universe is a single system wherein various tiny regions form structures (like humans) that yield sentient experience in isolated pockets. These continuously bubble into form, constantly undergoing changes, then dissolution to the point where sentience ceases to occur. Then from those parts of all the various beings that existed and changed, new structures emerge that experience sentience as well.
So I would like to add another little poetic analogy to this section for anyone who gets some enjoyment from them:
Sands are blown into little dunes
and they change constantly in the wind.
Then the wind wears them away.
and the sands flow along,
then there are new little dunes.
Although it may not provide the same easy satisfaction offered by the arbitrarily conceived Abrahamic religions, this secular, evidence-based conception of nature still offers an interesting sense of totality, interconnection, and even serenity of its own.
3. Death is another state of beings – a normal state
Death is not new to you and me.
So-called ‘death’ is the state of all beings
not only after life, but also before.
To live is the stranger thing.
Truly, to not be is the prime nature of beings.
I have spoken about how the nature of beings is constant change, and how all are temporary arrangements of parts of the larger body of the universe.
This means that both life and death are merely different arrangements of the many, many parts of the same universe’s ‘body’. In this way, conception and birth are in fact like death – another change of form and function in nature – but they are changes which sentient minds themselves identify as significant due to their effect on the process of sentience.
So death, dissolution, nonexistence, or whatever term you wish to use, is inherently just another aspect of the nature of every being; it is not really some external force or event that happens to a being.
Of course none of this means that dying – the process of dissolution of the body by old age, violence, sickness, etc – is pleasant. And it is my view that our self-imposed moral purpose must be to alleviate these miseries for sentient beings, such as ourselves, when and where it is reasonably possible. After all, 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 and functioning, so to speak.
But there really is some idea of totality, completeness, wonder, grandness, and connection that can be felt when we think about how the world really is, which I hope you have felt a little bit today.