What makes atheists feel better about death
When you tell people you’re an atheist (tip: don't tell people you're an atheist) one of the most common questions you get is, “Well, what do you think happens after death?” This is tricky, because we’re people too, and so we have some interest in the second bookend of our life. This bookend, unlike the first bookend, after all, has the distinct benefit of involving no placenta, and placenta is the reason that around 82% of us became atheists in the first place. So maybe, we hope, death will explain the whole placenta thing, or maybe at the very least it’s a slightly more pleasant experience.
I bring this all up now because my Uncle Andy died this weekend, and when someone dies who, during your childhood, represented all of the best parts of life — off-color jokes, storytelling, cartoon-watching, boating — it’s hard to not look at death and think, “there better be more to that than a placenta-free exit from existence.”
I’m generally of the mind that people should be allowed to find what they can to comfort them in times of death. So I never argue against an afterlife. It strikes me as improbable and actually pretty discomforting, but if it works for other people, it’s not my business to refute it. What the fuck do I know about death, anyway, and who am I to make people feel worse because of my beliefs?
Here’s what comforts me, though.
“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.”
“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”
“You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.
“And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.
“And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.
“And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they’ll be comforted to know your energy’s still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly. Amen.”
The final thing that comforts me is the scientific idea that time, basically, may be an illusion that humans had to construct because of their physical limitations. It may be that all moments are happening simultaneously, and we just perceive life in this way. If that’s the case, then death simply doesn’t matter, because it’s only one moment among many, it just happens to be the one we’re experiencing right now.
Regardless, we know that the dead aren’t gone. It may be that their soul went to an afterlife. It may be that they live on in our memories. It may be that death is required for the continuance of life. Or it may simply be that the energy and matter that made who they were hasn’t left at all. They’re still here. They’re still here.