Wednesday, January 16, 2013

How Atheists Cope with Death

There are millions and millions of atheists around the world. Whether it's in Brussels or Beijing these atheists cope with deaths in the family in a variety of ways. None of them require the false comfort of god(s) or heaven.

I live in a (relatively) secular society. Most of my friends are nonbelievers. We are at the age where the deaths of friends and family members are not uncommon. In many cases, the memorial services are completely non-religious but even in those cases where the service takes place in a church my friends are not troubled by their lack of belief in god(s).

However, problems arise in societies where the vast majority of people are religious and where the believers have no concept of what it might be like to be an atheist. The problems aren't caused by the inability to cope with death in the absence of god, they are caused by intolerant and insensitive believers who can't, or won't, recognize that their false beliefs provide no comfort to an atheist. That's why there's so much talk these days about how atheists cope with death in the USA [After Tragedy, Nonbelievers Find Other Ways To Cope].

If you read the examples in that article, you will realize that the problems they face would not exist in non-religious societies. Their "problems" all stem from feelings of guilt about not believing or from interfering Christians. You won't see articles like this published in Brussels or Beijing.


  1. Dear Prof Moran

    If death and how to cope with it is not an issue for you why do you even post about it? Also why do you consistently label all believers the same, don't you think It would be unfair of me to say that all atheists are genocidal maniacs just like Stalin was or is this statement true? Stereotyping all believers as the same exposes your ignorance on a grand scale, you however know very well that its not the case but you say it anyway..... I wonder why?



    1. I wonder why you would claim that "death and how to cope with it is not an issue" for Prof Moran when he said no such thing ?

      It almost make me inclined to label all believers as either ignorant incompetents with zero reading skills or deliberate liars for baby jebus.

    2. Steve have you ever read a book called Red Dwarf? I said that in a jovial manner alluding to the chapter in the book. Here is the opening part

      Part One

      "Your own death, and how to cope with it ONE 'DESCRIBE. USING DIAGRAMS WHERE APPROPRIATE, THE EXACT CIRCUMSTANCES LEADING TO YOUR DEATH.' Saunders had been dead for almost two weeks now and, so far, he hadn't enjoyed a minute of it. What he wasn't enjoying at this particular moment was having to wade through the morass of forms and legal papers he'd been sent to complete by the Department of Death and Deceaseds' Rights. It was all very well receiving a five-page booklet entitled: Your Own Death and How To Cope With It . It was all very well attending counselling sessions with the ship's metaphysical psychiatrist, and being told about the nature of Being and Non-Being, and some other gunk about this guy who was in a cave, but didn't know it was a cave until he left. The thing was, Saunders was an engineer, not a philosopher - and the way he saw it, you were either dead or you were alive. And if you were dead, you shouldn't be forced to fill in endless incomprehensible forms, and other related nonsensica. You shouldn't have to return your birth certificate, to have it invalidated. You shouldn't have to send off your completed death certificate, accompanied by a passport-size photograph of your corpse, signed on the back by your coroner. When you're dead, you should be dead. The bastards should leave you alone. If Saunders could have picked something up, he would have picked something up and hurled it across the grey metal room. But he couldn't. Saunders was a hologram. He was just a computer-generated simulation of his former self; he couldn't actually touch anything, except for his own hologramatic body. He was a phantom made of light. A software ghost. Quite honestly, he'd had enough. Saunders got up, walked silently across the metal-grilled floor of his sleeping quarters and stared out of the viewport window. Far away to his right was the bright multi-coloured ball of Saturn, captured by its rainbow rings like a prize in a gigantic stellar hoop-la game. Twelve miles below him, under the plexiglass dome of the terraformed colony of Mimas, half the ship's crew were oft planet leave. No planet leave for Saunders. No R&R for the dead."

    3. If there is one book I can recommend you to read, this is the one! Cheer up Steve you see death will work like this, if you choose death as the final end to your existence your will shall be honored and it will be so. You will get exactly what you asked for. Nothing more and nothing less. Now I'm in no position to dictate what you choose freely and neither are you in any position to dictate what I choose freely. You should try and respect my choosing as I respect yours. That my friend is tolerance, what you however is showing is not its anger and hatred and for what are religious people stalking you? Are they threatening you? If they are I need to comfort you and you can be safe in knowing what they are doing is not the Gospel and they can then be treated with disrespect at your discretion.

    4. But we have to take this one step further, if religion or superstition is indeed a product of natural selection and random mutation then it is part of evolution, your claim however that you had the ability to break away from religion and superstition would imply that you have become more powerful than natural selection and random mutation and in a materialist world such a claim is absurd because nothing is more powerful than evolution if it is the cause of everything Steve. How did you beat evolution Steve?

    5. I wonder why you would claim that "death and how to cope with it is not an issue" for Prof Moran when he said no such thing ?

    6. OK Steve I get it right over your head....... got ou loud and clear

  2. It's interesting that you hasten to write 'false comfort' by your third sentence, thus revealing your own deep prejudice.
    How would you define comfort as 'false', or 'true' for that matter? If the person experiencing comfort in thinking they will see their loved one again IS, indeed, comforted, then is that comfort somehow an illusion? Are feelings illusions?
    It is part of human nature to interpret, to create our own unique perspective. If you are right, and the atheistic outlook is correct - i.e; the universe is a non-conscious event wherein some matter and aspects just happen to gain complexity over time and under certain conditions - then I don't see how you can make any particular judgments as to the validity of another's experience.
    Let's say you're right: a person dies happily knowing they will soon be united with their loved ones. Then they die and experience - nothing. No disappointment, no nothing. But in the moments before that, they were joyful and at peace. Nothing 'false' about the joy and the peace.
    You may say, without any actual authority to do so, that the comfort does not have a factual or evidential basis. But the feeling itself is as real, true, etc. as whatever feelings of satisfaction you get from being an atheist.

    1. @andyboerger
      Sorry, but I have to write that.
      It's interesting that you hasten to write about prof. Moran writing 'false comfort' by your first sentence, thus revealing your own deep prejudice.

      Now let's be serious.
      As I mentioned some time ago, I agree that for some people that comfort may be real.
      The problem is for how many people and for which one?

      And what about persistence of those feelings?
      I posted a link to article, which showed that the feeling of comfort may be only temporary.
      Would that qualify as "false"?

      And here is another link:
      It seems, that religious people may be actually more afraid of death than less-religious.

    2. Hi Arek,

      I know you are joking but nevertheless, if I have a deep prejudice (and perhaps I do) it is most definitely not toward atheists. It is toward the arrogant assumption that some people have, believers and non-believers alike, that their version of truth is the only one, that they have the whole cosmos more or less sewn up in their own heads, and that those who think differently are missing something, whether it's in terms of thinking, feeling, or some combination of the two.

      I'll look over your links and comment. Thanks for providing them. Hope you are well.

    3. Arek,
      Both articles are interesting, but are open to many interpretations. What is yours? What do you make of the findings?

      In the first article, I found this line interesting:
      "But it suggests that people with more religious belief felt more connected with the event in some way."
      This could indicate that some people are actually more 'hardwired' to be spiritual, to feel interconnected with all of life, or humanity, or a consciousness in the universe. Leaving aside whether or not they are 'right' or 'wrong', they simply perceive things differently from those who reject all ideas of gods/an afterlife/etc
      This reminds me of Carl Jung's famous comments about 'belief', such as
      "When we have a relationship to a particular thing or experience with it - belief/faith ceases to be a factor. The truth is this, I have had the experience of being gripped by something that is stronger than myself, something that people call God. So, I will never say that I believe that God exists. I must say I know God exists"

      As for the article about Muslims fearing death, it provides an interesting counterpoint to the broad and mostly baseless assumption made by some people here that belief in god comes from nothing other than people fearing 'death and the dark'.

      Anyway, interesting to learn your take away from the articles. Thanks again for providing them.
      Just one other thing, your question, would a feeling of comfort qualify as 'false' if it diminishes over time? I would say no. The feeling of comfort, while it was being experienced, was a legitimate and 'true' experience throughout its duration and proportionate to whatever intensity it was felt. It may even have had emotional and physiological benefits such as boosting the immune system during a person's time of grieving. There are definitely health benefits to feeling good.

    4. @andyboerger

      Yes, I agree that in such cases it doesn't really matter what is "true" or "false". What matters is what someone believes in.

      But I don't think many people really believe in going to heaven. They certainly hope to go to heaven and meet their loved ones, but they are not "sure" enough to feel much comfort.

      Also - I think (and this is also partly based on second article) that it strongly depends on what one _exactly_ believes. If someone believes in a vengeful god (and many muslims and christians do believe in such god in spite of their claims), he won't find much comfort in his religion.

      So, my conclusion after reading those articles?
      It's not true that religion simply gives people comfort. It may lessen temporarily bad feelings after something nasty happens, but that strongly depends on ones exact beliefs, culture and probably many other factors which may also influence atheists. In my opinion religion (or generally belief in afterlife) isn't really necessary for anything.

      I'd only like to add, that my opinion is not based only on those two articles.

    5. Isaac Newton showed that the motions of all objects was governed by the same set of natural laws but because of the comfort he took from religion he still thought thought that a god was necessary to explain how the planets were set in motion and how their stability was maintained.

      It took over a century for LaPlace to demonstrate that natural laws also explained the stability of the planets.

      So what was the cost of the 'false comfort' that Newton took from belief in an invisible friend ?

      It could reasonably be said that Newton had the intellect and mathematical tools (including the calculus that he himself invented) to come to the same conclusions that LaPlace did, but a century earlier.

      How much more would be understand of the workings of the universe with the concomitant increase in human well being if he and other religious scientists were not crippled by the false assumptions of religion ?

      Then consider the Institute of Creation "Research" who appeared in the BBC debate on whether all religions should accept evolution that Larry commented on earlier. And that nutbar "Doctor" waving around a single paper that had been published in a real journal. You could see the real scientists trying to restrain their mirth mixed with anger at the incredible waste of resources by this Institute, crippled by religious dogma, publishing one paper when real science could have made far more efficient use of the same resources.

      So what is the real cost of the "false comfort" of religion multiplied over the lives of all human beings in terms of lost opportunities to make the world a better place for all human beings to live in ?

    6. "..,the motions of all objects was governed by the same set of natural laws". LOL - did you not notice the 20th century?

    7. As Luther Flint correctly points out, the classical/Newtonian laws of motion and gravity have been superceded by Einstein's laws of special and general relativity.

      Of course the Newtonian model is still completely consistent with the data that Newton used to formulate these laws (mainly lunar data provided by the Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed). It was the introduction of new data, for example differences in the observed versus predicted transit times of Mercury, that drove the development of these new laws of motion.

      It is precisely because science is not handicapped with any sort of metaphysical framework that our understanding of the universe can undergo such massive changes at the most basic levels.

      This would hardly be possible were scientists to do the work of science "comforted" by religion.

    8. But you are completely bound by crazy metaphysical notions. How else your faith in some deterministic (+ chance) laws which rule out free will despite the fact that to prop it up you have to resort to outrageous and/or unfalsifiable notions quite at odds with the obvious reality of human agency.

    9. steve, your way of looking at humanity is downright sad, and deluded. It's as if you are calling for the removal of the right hemisphere of everyone's brain; or the same- or very similar - attributes of the human character that inspire people to create great works of art or poetry.

      You seem unable to acknowledge that religion has led to good things as well as bad, science has led to bad things as well as good, human beings are more than just reasoning creatures, that we probably would never have survived as a species if we didn't have to turn to our non-rational/spiritual/philosophical/artistic nature at periods throughout our history, that even some animals treat death with suggestions of mystery or reverence, or that not everybody has to be like you. Or that a world full of seven billion steve oberskis would NOT be a better world than the one we inhabit.

      There's just, there's just....a lot of things you don't understand, steve.

    10. For steve, here is an interesting article. It's not to 'prove' anything, just a follow up to what I wrote about animals.

    11. shorter andyboerger

      It is sad and deluded not to offer the false comfort of delusions to the sad.

    12. clever, steve! That's another one to show your homeroom teacher and your mom!