Death of an Atheist

By | Monday, November 09, 2020 Leave a Comment

Over recent years I have found myself thinking more and more about death. The death of my dog Kero, my heart attack, my father’s death, simply getting older, and now COVID-19, have each made death more of a reality for me. But, having become an atheist, death has become harder and harder for me to get my head around.

I was never particularly religious, though I was born Jewish. In mainstream Judaism there isn’t really an afterlife, but in my modern American cultural meme-set there was always a sense of something after life. There was going to be something; heaven and hell, reincarnation, Valhalla, filling pyramids with earthly items to use in the afterlife, building terracotta armies, becoming one with the cosmic consciousness, or just wandering the earth, haunting graveyards and old houses. There was a presumption that there would be something.

It is no surprise that humans have created so many ideas about what comes after this life because, no matter how absurd an afterlife we invent, it is conceivable, whereas nothingness, there being nothing after this existence, is inconceivable.

Part of the atheist package, as I understand it, is that there is absolutely nothing after death. After you die you are, well… dead. The consciousness doesn’t go anywhere, it simply ceases. The ever-quotable Mark Twain apparently said, “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” Similarly, another clever atheist (Richard Dawkins? Sam Harris?) said, “I’ve never concerned myself with what happened before I was born, why should I concern myself with what happens after I die.” They may well have believed that, and considering Occam’s Razor, it is undoubtedly true. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to try to “understand” that impending nothingness, whatever that might mean.

I had always expected that when I died there would be some awareness that it had happened. I’d have some realization of it. I’d have some feeling about it. Maybe I would think, “Ahhhhh, the pain is finally over.” Or maybe, “oh no, I haven’t finished yet.” Or perhaps, “damn, I wanted to see what was going to happen with the project/election/playoffs.” Mainstream American culture has taught me this. But if there is nothing, then there is no awareness of having died, there is no awareness of having lived, there is no awareness.

I have a subconscious expectation that if I die right now, I will somehow learn how future events turn out, and I will be pleased, or disappointed, or thrilled, or horrified. I also assume that I will know how I am remembered. But the atheists, of which I am now one, say that this is not the case. If I were to die while writing this sentence, I would never know it. Furthermore, you would never read it, which is unfortunate since we each could have enjoyed the irony.

How do I think about this? How do I think about not thinking? How do I think about not having the capacity to think? How do I think about there being no “I” with which to think? I’m trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.

Last night I went to bed a bit early. I briefly woke up a little after midnight and looked at the clock. I lay there for a short time, thinking about the amazing dreams I had just had - so vivid and strange - then fell back to sleep. Then I woke up needing to pee. I thought, “Good lord, I just woke up a second ago, why didn’t I go pee then?” But when I looked at the clock, I saw that it read 4:00am. Four hours had passed during which I functionally didn’t exist. I was neither conscious, nor dreaming. “I” wasn’t, as far as I was concerned. If an asteroid had landed on my house at 2:00am, killing me instantly, I wouldn’t have known. As far as I was concerned, I would have effectively died when I fell asleep a little after midnight. Yet I can’t even say that, because I wouldn’t have been “concerned”. “As far as I was concerned” has no meaning in that context. I would’ve gone to bed, had some amazing dreams and then ceased to exist.

For Jews, we live on only in the way that we are remembered. Needless to say, most of us would like to be remembered well. But if I don’t exist, why should I care how I am remembered? There will not be a “me” to care. Trying to discuss how I will be remembered after I am actually dead is meaningless. While I am alive, I am concerned about how I will be remembered after I die. But after the event, nothing.

There are those who have suggested that if there is no reward in the afterlife, and we realize that after death we won’t care how we were thought of, then there is no reason to be a good person. That is nonsense. I firmly believe that almost no one thinks about their reward when performing most good acts, nor their punishment when acting badly. I do good acts because, like most of us, I have empathy. When I see someone sad, in pain, suffering, or afraid, I feel badly for them and I want to help ease that condition. When I see someone that is happy, joyous, or simply serene, I feel good for them. I am happy that they are happy. This is automatic. The act is its own reward. I am certainly not thinking about anything that will accrue to me in the afterlife. No one is keeping score. I’m a good person because I’m a person, not because I need to rack up positive points to get into heaven.

But it is still strange to think that Charles Darwin, Jack the Ripper, Adolf Hitler, and Mother Teresa are all the same after death. None of them are aware of their good or bad acts. None of them are aware of their contribution to knowledge, or to kindness, or to evil. None of them are aware. It is nonsensical to talk about whether or not they are aware. They just aren’t. Having your name on a building, or a city or state, plant, animal, geographic feature, or a star or galaxy, means something to those you’ve left behind, and might have thrilled you if you were alive, but is completely meaningless, completely nothingness, once you are dead.

Similarly, whenever conversation turns to the “big bang” theory, people always ask what came before. There has to be something before. It is not possible that there was nothing. Right? What does it mean for there to be no time, no space, nothing? How could the “big bang” possibly have come from… nothing? There must have been something, because nothing cannot be conceived of. It is, again, inconceivable. That there was nothing before the big bang is inconceivable.

Even if there is nothing, there has to be something to contain the nothing. After all, if there is an empty glass, there is still a glass. Yet, there it is. The atheist is forced to accept this. There was nothing before I was born, and there will be nothing after I die. Impossible to contemplate or conceive, yet true.

And so, I go round and round, and round once more, arriving at… nothing. For my entire life, except during those periods when I was unconscious, I have been self-aware. I have been in possession of thought. I have been aware of the world around me. How can I possibly think about nonexistence? I can’t even use the word “think” to think about not thinking.

What is the death of an atheist?
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