I vaguely remember when death used to be this abstract, far-in-the-future thing that I didn’t need to think or worry about. These days, at age 50, I think about it quite a bit. People I know and love are dying with more and more frequency (I actually just learned of one today), and eventually it’ll be my turn. I keep having grim thoughts like: “Will I go before my husband? Will he be OK without me? What if he goes before me? We don’t have kids and we don’t live close to family — am I gonna die alone? Will I go peacefully in my sleep, or after weeks/months of pain? Who will remember me 10-15 years after I’m gone? It’ll be like I was never here at all! Like, death is unfair, you guyyyyyys!” (That was my best whiny teenage voice. You’re welcome.)
At the same time, I feel a stab of guilt for even having the audacity to expect my memory to live on. I haven’t done anything great or noteworthy to earn that. And what a privilege it is to be able to contemplate this stuff when so many are suffering in the world, struggling to even survive. Just who do I think I am, anyway? Bad Dobby, bad!! *slap*
But honestly, I think most of us have these thoughts at some point. Contemplating your death can be healthy, or so they say, because nobody escapes it…but if you dwell on it too much, life can turn into a nihilistic “What’s the point in doing anything??” slog. And the past few years I’ve been feeling that way a lot. Probably more than I should. Hell, it’s taken me six months of stopping/starting/rewriting this post to finally finish it, because I keep hearing Bette Midler’s voice whining: “Why bother?” (She really nailed it with that bit, folks! It’s hilariously apathetic.)
It can get more complicated when you don’t believe in God or things like Heaven and Hell, as in my case, because sometimes it feels like your existence boils down to “I’m a bag of meat on a rock hurtling through space.” Which itself may not be 100% terrible, depending on your attitude… But I need more than that. And looking back at the books I’ve been reading the past few years, it’s pretty obvious that I’m searching for a more optimistic view of The End™.
So here are some thoughts I’ve been having on all this stuff. I’ve come to believe that being atheist or agnostic on religious topics doesn’t mean your mind must be also closed to…other things. Just like there are 500 varieties of vegetarians, there are 500 varieties of nonbelievers. Sorry, that’s probably a crappy comparison but you know what I mean.
My philosophizing is armchair-level at best, so maybe expect kiddie pool wading vs. deep dives…
Let’s start with the most popular and obvious route to accepting your demise:
These days I can better understand, and even appreciate, why people are religious: it’s the perfect coping mechanism for a fate we all share. It eases the finality of death and gives people something to hope for, because the alternative can be super fucking bleak. Sometimes I think: how comforting it would be if I believed 100% for sure (without any evidence whatsoever) that after I pop my clogs, I’ll live forever in an afterlife kingdom with my deity of choice! Or, more likely, the one I was raised to worship…
But I don’t think I’m wired that way. Instead of going on a religion-bashing tirade, which I’ve done many times elsewhere, let’s just say that the problems with religion (especially the dominant ones) are far too many…and there are hurdles with it that I will never conquer.
Of course there are more religions than just the Big Three. If I could actually put faith in a religion or belief system, I think I’d gravitate towards something more nature-based. Have you ever had one of those weirdly deep-green moments of connection while standing in a beautiful, natural place? I have, and I think there’s something to that. I don’t know if I’d be up for traipsing through meadows and flinging wildflower garlands onto tree branches and sacred stones, but I’d figure something out… Maybe George Carlin had it right when he said that the only thing worth worshipping is the sun — it provides life, we can actually see it, and it answers prayers at the same 50-50 rate as anything else. It’s actually kinda perfect.
You’re dead, get over it
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the atheistic view that death is the end of you and all that you were. Full stop, game over, you’re done.
I would love to believe that when I die, I will live again…. that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better, it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.Carl Sagan
A few years ago I read a bunch of those “I escaped religion and here’s my story” books which were excellent in most regards, but on the subject of mortality and purpose they all said the same thing: the beauty of existence is that there is no point. “You die and you cease to exist. That’s it. This makes life so much more precious! Make the most of your time here!” This is the standard nonbeliever take on the matter.
I can’t totally disagree, but… While intellectually this makes sense, it took me a while to find any comfort in it emotionally. When you abandon the idea that there’s no higher power dangling a Heavenly carrot in front of you, it can be a huge adjustment. I did find that Buddhist philosophy, once you remove all the religious baggage, is worth exploring when grappling with this problem. Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs was my introduction to this, and I highly recommend it.
Once in a while I come across a hard-science take on death that’s actually kind of poetic, with concepts like undying energy and “stardust.” This speaks to my more romantic side. Here’s a good example:
Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than the atoms in your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about the universe: you are all stardust. You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements (carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, all the things that matter for evolution) weren’t created at the beginning of time, they were created in stars. So forget Jesus. Stars died so you could live.Lawrence Krauss, Theoretical Physicist
Another good one:
Even if it means oblivion, friends, I’ll welcome it, because it won’t be nothing. We’ll be alive again in a thousand blades of grass, and a million leaves; we’ll be falling in the raindrops and blowing in the fresh breeze; we’ll be glittering in the dew under the stars and the moon out there in the physical world, which is our true home and always was.Philip Pullman, “The Amber Spyglass”
Yet another good one:
When some of our long dead ancestors looked out and saw dead loved ones shining down from the heavens, they almost had it right. The same cosmic forges that fueled our birth also birthed everything we see in the universe. This is a connection far more profound than any of them could have ever known and astoundingly more beautiful than stories of blood and fear passed off as divine inspiration.Timothy Havener – godlessengineering.com
This is what I call extreme recycling:
How completely has your own body changed since you were five years old? Even when we die, our physical process continues; centuries reduce our bodies to dust, recycling every atom so that the air you breathe today might contain a particle that was once Napoléon. An atom of iron in your body might once have spilled from the brow of Jesus Christ.Grant Morrison, “Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero”
This one’s a doozy — when we add the concept of time to the mix, our “momentary blip” in this world can be far more profound and interconnected:
We ourselves were miraculous, already divine in our glorious, ordinary impossibility. …I was now very aware of myself as the front end or leading edge of something that was pushing forward into time. But more important, it stretched behind me, thirty-four years long, diminishing at the baby tail where it twisted up into my mother’s belly… She branched back into her own mother; and so it went all the way down to the dawn of life on Earth in a single unbroken line. And the same was true for all of us. Everything that had ever lived was a twig off the same tree, a finger on the same hand. Add time, and it became blindingly obvious that the entire tree of life on Earth was alive and physically connected, even after three and a half billion years. Not in any metaphysical way but literally, materially, back through all time toward the root. The same primordial mitochondrial cell that began its eternal self-cloning process in the primordial ocean was and is still dividing inside each and every one of us.Grant Morrison, “Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero”
Now, that’s some far-out shit. Grant Morrison is kinda known for that. I enjoy these perspectives — they’re a lovely mix of science and schmaltz.
There and back again
So the possibility of an afterlife is off the table, right? Aren’t godless heathens supposed to say “Pshaw!” and “Pfffft!” and “Harrumph!” to such things? Well, not necessarily…given the evidence. That’s right: evidence! Or as close to evidence as we can get on something intangible and un-testable.
A few years ago I picked up a book called Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife. I loved the cover: the Grim Reaper with a happy face plastered on it. A portion of it is dedicated to near-death experiences (NDEs), and this is how I learned that these are being meticulously recorded and studied on a large scale, and being approached as scientifically as possible to weed out the fakers and charlatans. Because let’s face it, some of this stuff has simply been made up to sell books. Remember The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, which sold a gazillion copies in religious bookshops and ended up being a total lie? And so many others over the decades? Yeah, there’s reason to be skeptical.
But honestly, Stop Worrying and other evidence-focused books on the subject opened my eyes to some possibilities. People are having these common experiences across all races and religions, and some even have culture-specific twists. Many thousands of cases have been collected, scrutinized, and compared with some mind-boggling results. The thing that surprised me most is that very few NDEs involve any sort of religious experience in the sense of meeting a deity — the vast majority of people just meet long-departed family and friends for a brief time. Hmmmm. Like the asshole Senator at the end of the movie Contact says with a smirk: “That is interesting, isn’t it?” (That’s still one of my favorite movies. The moment where this hardcore skeptic is confronted by something ineffable and profound still gets to me.)
True, NDEs are anecdotal by nature. How can they be otherwise? But some of them were actually impossible to fake. Like those patients whose senses were completely shut off due to anesthesia (or total brain death!), and yet upon regaining consciousness they were able to describe in very specific detail things that happened in the room while they were gone…because they somehow “saw” it from elsewhere in the room. WTF? There are many, many cases like this, and for me this nixes the skeptics’ argument that it’s all just a trick of the brain, something it does to ease our fear of death. What’s a materialist “I need hard evidence” sort of person supposed to do with this stuff?
My take on it is: while science may not be able to prove that NDEs are real or that an afterlife exists (how can double-blind studies possibly be done on such things?), the documented evidence in favor of something happening there is pretty compelling. Lack of evidence supporting any belief can be problematic, so as someone with an open mind who doesn’t claim to know all the answers, this is something I can’t just write off as fantasy. Unfortunately that’s what most atheists do, and they do it with great relish (as I used to).
“I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here. I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.”Richard Feynman
Here are a few books I can recommend on the subject: Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife (Greg Taylor), Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience (Pim van Lommel), Science and the Near-Death Experience: How Consciousness Survives Death (Chris Carter), On Life After Death (Elisabeth Kübler-Ross).
Here we go again
What about reincarnation? Billions of people believe in it, but surely it’s off the table to the science-minded, right? Wellll… As someone who has his own reincarnation story (kids say the darndest things), I can’t say that I completely reject the idea. Although, I’m not sure I really like it.
To me, reincarnation is one of those things that sounds good at first. The notion that death is just a transition to a new earthly life can be attractive and comforting, because otherwise everything you learned in this life just goes out the window. Or into the ground, whichever.
But when I really think about it, given the choice (which one probably doesn’t have) I think I’d just rather not. The thought of starting over from scratch as a helpless baby, learning all those bodily functions again, clawing my way through the snakepit of teenage school years (as my Mom used to call it), and settling into the soul-crushing adult life of working a mostly meaningless and unfulfilling job until I can retire and eventually die just doesn’t sound like something I want to do all over again. I’m being needlessly snarky, because luckily my life hasn’t been nearly as difficult as some… But what are the odds that things would be drastically better the next time around? They might be far worse, especially in this fucked-up world. No thanks. Send me to that other dimension for a while, the one where social media doesn’t exist. That sounds like Heaven to me!
But what about evidence? As with NDEs, there’s a lot of bullshittery floating around to sell books — but at the same time, for decades there have been people actively collecting and analyzing cases of reincarnation in order to drill down to as close to the truth as possible. And also, like NDEs, there are cases which would be nearly impossible to fake. Some of it gets downright unsettling. The Stop Worrying! book details some striking cases of this, but there are plenty of other books (by Raymond Moody, Chris Carter, Ian Stevenson, etc.) with more. A good place to start would be this collection of studies provided by the University of Virginia School of Medicine.
Having said all that, I do I try to view this stuff through a critical lens, and I’m extremely skeptical about most paranormal-type stuff…but I also acknowledge that I don’t know everything about how the universe works, and the mountain of available evidence suggests that something weird could indeed be happening.
Not to mention all the quantum physics weirdness we’re beginning to get a handle on. People are using that to explain just about everything now (“Predict your future by accessing the AKASHIC RECORDS inside the QUANTUM FIELD!”), which should be taken with a massive grain of salt, but some extremely weird and impossible shit does happen at the quantum level, and we still don’t understand it fully. Maybe it will surprise us someday, and we’ll discover that reincarnation is just a case of your consciousness being quantum-entangled with someone else’s. Sounds like a cool movie, at the very least. Actually it’s probably already been done, so nevermind…
A question that many nonbelievers have at some point is: how do I create meaning in life without God or the promise of an afterlife? It’s a tough question, and I’ve often asked myself the same thing. How do you get beyond just…existing for no reason? Basically living to die?
Recently I ran across this article from 2019: Sunny nihilism: ‘Since discovering I’m worthless my life has felt precious’. Reading it, I felt like it jarred something loose — a nugget of something I’d been chasing for a while.
I was chronically stressed at work, overwhelmed by expectations, grasping for a sense of achievement or greater purpose and tip-toeing towards full-on exhaustion. Then it hit me: “Who cares? One day I’ll be dead and no one will remember me anyway.” I can’t explain the crashing sense of relief. It was as if my body dumped its cortisol stores allowing my lungs to fully inflate for the first time in months. Standing on the side of the road I looked at the sky and thought: “I’m just a chunk of meat hurtling through space on a rock. Pointless, futile, meaningless.” It was one of the most comforting revelations of my life. I’d discovered nihilism.
Finding the pointlessness of life comforting? Being forgotten can bring relief? Huh. Well, that’s something I’d never really considered. I’ve read Buddhism-flavored books about accepting our transitory nature, but I recall it being presented as just a (inconvenient) truth to accept, not something we could actually take solace in. Maybe I wasn’t allowing myself to see it that way, who knows.
The article briefly explores “existential nihilism”, which is basically acknowledging and accepting the utter meaningless of your existence, which in turn encourages you to create your own meaning and purpose vs. struggling to somehow “find” it in some external way. It’s essentially what all those atheism books said, but somehow less…cold. More optimistic, maybe. Anyway, the two videos linked in the article are short-ish and well worth watching. Especially the one by Siddharth Gupta, a teenager (at the time) who has some pretty amazing clarity on the subject.
After consuming this article and the two videos, I had the same comically obvious realization as the author: I may care now about who remembers me when I’m gone, but once I’m dead…I won’t care about it at all. How could I? You can’t care about something you’re not even around for. Like, duh.
Maybe desperately chasing meaning and purpose in life adds a bit too much pressure. Who wants to die full of regrets about a life unfulfilled? Seems to me it might be enough to spend your time making the world better in whatever way you can, and also focusing on doing things that make you happy. As long as you harm no one, of course.
Is it possible to be happy before anything happens, before one’s desires are gratified, in spite of life’s difficulties, in the very midst of physical pain, old age, disease, and death? We are all, in some sense, living our answer to this question—and most of us are living as though the answer were ‘no.’Sam Harris in “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion”
So, anyway. Despite all these ideas floating around in my head, I still have work to do on my outlook on life, especially given some health issues and the general shitty state of the world. Some days it’s hard to see any point in getting up in the morning other than earning a paycheck. But I try to keep in mind that things could be far worse, and that I actually have a pretty good life to focus on, not just the end of it. My friend John (who died a few years ago) used to tell me “Oh, get over yourself!” when I was being a drama queen about something, and if he was still around, he’d be saying it now. Probably in a profanity-filled text message. It’s still good advice…
P.S.: Here’s the darkest, bleakest take on human existence I’ve ever read. I couldn’t find a good spot for it anywhere else in this post, but it’s so perfectly hopeless that I had to share:
For the rest of the earth’s organisms, existence is relatively uncomplicated. Their lives are about three things: survival, reproduction, death—and nothing else. But we know we are alive and know we will die. We also know we will suffer during our lives before suffering—slowly or quickly—as we draw near to death. This is the knowledge we “enjoy” as the most intelligent organisms to gush from the womb of nature. And being so, we feel shortchanged if there is nothing else for us than to survive, reproduce, and die. We want there to be more to it than that, or to think there is. This is the tragedy: consciousness has forced us into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are—hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones.Thomas Ligotti in “The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror”
Holy shit, right? I mean, I’ve been depressed about life but…wow. Bravo, Mr. Ligotti.