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Thread: Can atheism be as comforting as spiritual belief?

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    Vulture of The Western World Eric's Avatar
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    Can atheism be as comforting as spiritual belief?

    By Greta Christina

    The comfort of religion doesn't eradicate grief. And many people would much rather believe in no afterlife at all than an afterlife determined by a sadistic god.

    What is an appropriate atheist philosophy of death?

    And how should atheists be talking about death with believers?

    As regular readers know, I've been doing a project on Facebook: the Atheist Meme of the Day, in which I write pithy, Facebook-ready memes explaining one aspect of atheism or exploding one myth about it, and asking people to pass the memes on if they like. (BTW, if you're on Facebook, friend me!)

    Some of my Memes of the Day have generated disagreement from some atheists. Which is fine, of course. I don't expect or want all atheists to agree about everything. Quite the contrary: one of the great things about atheism is that we have no central dogma that we all have to agree on, and no central authority that we all have to obey.

    But the memes that have generated the most vocal and vigorous pushback have surprised me. They have consistently been the ones about death: the ones trying to show that a godless view of death can offer some degree of solace and meaning; the ones that begin, "Atheism does have comfort to offer in the face of death." Whenever I write one of these, I can almost guarantee that within a few hours -- usually within a few minutes -- someone will be complaining that the comforting philosophy I'm presenting isn't comforting at all. Or even that atheism can't possibly present a philosophy of death that could compete with the comfort offered by religion... with the apparent implication that it's either deceptive or deluded to pretend that this is possible, and that we shouldn't even try.

    I'm a bit puzzled by this. So I want to explain in a little more detail what I mean by these memes. And I want to try to find out why there's resistance to the very idea of presenting an atheist philosophy of death that provides meaning, hope, and comfort.

    I think part of the problem here may lie with that word "comfort" -- and with some people's expectations of it. So I'll try to make my meaning a little more explicit.

    When I say that some particular view of death offers comfort, I don't mean that it completely eradicates any pain or grief associated with death. Of course it doesn't. Nothing does that -- not even religion. (More on that in a moment.) When I say, "This view of death offers some comfort," I'm not saying, "If you look at death this way, it will no longer trouble you. With this philosophy, you can view death blithely, even cheerfully. The death of the ones you love, and your own eventual death, will no longer suck even in the slightest."

    That's not what I mean by "comfort."

    When I say, "This atheist philosophy of death offers comfort," I mean, "This atheist philosophy can, to some extent, alleviate the suffering and grief caused by death. It can make the suffering and grief feel less overwhelming, less unbearable. It doesn't make the pain disappear -- but it can put the experience into a context that gives it some sort of meaning, and it can offer the hope that with time, the pain will diminish. It can give us a sense that there's a bridge over the chasm: a feeling of trust that, when the worst of the grief passes, we'll have a solid foundation to return to. It doesn't make the grief go away -- but it can make it better."

    That's what I mean by "comfort." It would be nice if an atheist philosophy of death could do more; but given how monumentally frightening and upsetting death is, the fact that atheism can provide even this degree of comfort is not trivial.

    And maybe more to the point: Religion doesn't do any better.

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    Senior Member Ken's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Eric View Post
    By Greta Christina

    .......... It would be nice if an atheist philosophy of death could do more; but given how monumentally frightening and upsetting death is, the fact that atheism can provide even this degree of comfort is not trivial.
    Er, pardon? Can someone please explain to me - a near lifelong atheist - how death is 'monumentally frightening and upsetting? We are born, we live, we die - finis - death is just a fact of life and something we head for the moment we are conceived!

    Ken.
    Die dulci fruimini!
    Ken.
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    Vulture of The Western World Eric's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ken View Post
    Er, pardon? Can someone please explain to me - a near lifelong atheist - how death is 'monumentally frightening and upsetting? We are born, we live, we die - finis - death is just a fact of life and something we head for the moment we are conceived!

    Ken.
    It's that "existential angst" thing that most people are plagued by. I'm with you, but we're in the minority.

    Death is a lot like your state of existence prior to your birth. You weren't worried about anything (and felt no pain) during the reign of Augustus - because you did not exist. Just so, you (your awareness) will - probably - cease to exist upon the death of your body, at which point you will again be unaware of anything....

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    Quote Originally Posted by Eric View Post
    Death is a lot like your state of existence prior to your birth. You weren't worried about anything (and felt no pain) during the reign of Augustus - because you did not exist. Just so, you (your awareness) will - probably - cease to exist upon the death of your body, at which point you will again be unaware of anything....
    As I life long atheist, I can't believe people want to add religion as another burden to life. A useless primitive philosphy. But of course the Pope will be glad to accept your money. Think about it - religion is more of a scam than all the electronic gadgets they pack into cars today. And you get nothing in return.

    I believe death is the end of awareness / consciousness.

    As said in the Ballad of Easy Rider: "Those that aren't busy being born, are busy dying"
    Last edited by dBrong; 01-10-2010 at 02:16 PM.

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    Guys I'm a Catholic and go to the Lords Prayer every Sunday. I got news people Life Begins After Death. How does eternity sound? Eternity in Bliss this is what we will have to look forward too. My advie to everyone is enjoy life but be good and throuw away the bad stuff. Life is Short so enjoy and be more positive.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ken View Post
    death is just a fact of life and something we head for the moment we are conceived!
    As Allan Beswick, the BBC Manchester presenter, says, death is the price we pay for sex.

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    Vulture of The Western World Eric's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Adam View Post
    Guys I'm a Catholic and go to the Lords Prayer every Sunday. I got news people Life Begins After Death. How does eternity sound? Eternity in Bliss this is what we will have to look forward too. My advie to everyone is enjoy life but be good and throuw away the bad stuff. Life is Short so enjoy and be more positive.
    It's a nice thought, but upon what do you base this claim? I know, it says so in the Bible (or whichever book a person might subscribe to). But that's not evidence; it's just assertion. I mean no disrespect, but how does it differ from my saying that I believe in a Flying Spaghetti Monster who serves an endless all-you-can-eat buffet in "the beyond" if you adhere to his Code and believe in his Works?

    Meanwhile, there is abundant evidence that everything we perceive is based upon our physical, biological body and its sensory apparatus. For example, when a person has a stroke, they may suffer memory loss, or lose the ability to speak, to see clearly, etc. When a surgeon probes/stimulates certain portions of the brain, we experience various sensations, or memories are triggered, etc.

    Injure the brain/sensory organs and perception is impaired; destroy the brain/sensory organs and we perceive nothing - which is death.

    Of course, we're not omniscient and it's possible that somehow our consciousness is more than a byproduct of biological processes and can continue after the physical death of the biological body - although I know of no evidence supporting this claim, and it doesn't make sense to me as far as logic and reason.

    That said, I a not an atheist because I just don't know. To say there is no god or life after death is just as much an article of faith as the opposite. So, I withhold judgment and adopt a "wait and see" approach!

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    Senior Member Ken's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Adam View Post
    Guys I'm a Catholic and go to the Lords Prayer every Sunday. I got news people Life Begins After Death. How does eternity sound? Eternity in Bliss this is what we will have to look forward too. My advice to everyone is enjoy life but be good and throw away the bad stuff. Life is Short so enjoy and be more positive.
    I hear you, Adam. The question I would ask (I don't want an answer - just think about it) Were you born and raised as a Catholic (i.e unthinking acceptance) or did you become Catholic after carefully considering the various religions, talking to priests and clerics, Jews, Catholics, Church of England, Methodist etc, believers and unbelievers, and finally, making your own decision? (i/e consideration, evaluation and logical conclusion) That is how I became an atheist after long and careful consideration. As far as your words that I have highlighted, above, go - absolutely right my friend, treat others as you would wish to be treated, help others where you can, respect other peoples beliefs, even where they differ from yours and value even the smallest form of life then you will not go far wrong.

    Ken.
    Last edited by Ken; 01-10-2010 at 03:56 PM. Reason: Clarification.
    Die dulci fruimini!
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    Vulture of The Western World Eric's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dave Brand View Post
    As Allan Beswick, the BBC Manchester presenter, says, death is the price we pay for sex.
    Without death, the species stagnates; evolution ceases. This seems contrary to nature, if the object of nature is adaptation and improvement...

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    Quote Originally Posted by Eric View Post
    Without death, the species stagnates; evolution ceases. This seems contrary to nature, if the object of nature is adaptation and improvement...
    If evolution was true, how come the American voter is by and large a dumbshit compared with the Americans of the 1700's. If evolution was true, why do some people go into coffee shops and blow themselves up?

    I'm not trying to get into a debate here, but am just raising some questions.

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    Vulture of The Western World Eric's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by swamprat View Post
    If evolution was true, how come the American voter is by and large a dumbshit compared with the Americans of the 1700's. If evolution was true, why do some people go into coffee shops and blow themselves up?

    I'm not trying to get into a debate here, but am just raising some questions.
    Simple: We live in a dystopic, dysgenic welfare state that encourages the survival and propagation of the least fit.

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    Well I never died yet so don't have proof either. I believe mostly because if this is it then why so much misery and suffering? I hope there is more after this life. I hate the thought of us dying and not having anything afterwords. I am a cradle to the grave Catholic. One thing Ken and everyone I am tolerant of all beliefs and non believers too. I have respect for mankind except the creatons hiding behind Alah to kill there own. These people are actually with the devil as the devil hates people and loves murderers,sickos and people that strap bombs to themselves.
    My son is dating a Wicca but like I said I look at people for who they are not what they believe in or not. Anyway guys I don't know but I won't stop going to church. Heck today I was leading the congregation in the rosary. I will say this I am more tolerant and open minded to other thoughts and ideas. However I'll keep going to church.

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    Vulture of The Western World Eric's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Adam View Post
    Well I never died yet so don't have proof either. I believe mostly because if this is it then why so much misery and suffering? I hope there is more after this life. I hate the thought of us dying and not having anything afterwords. I am a cradle to the grave Catholic. One thing Ken and everyone I am tolerant of all beliefs and non believers too. I have respect for mankind except the creatons hiding behind Alah to kill there own. These people are actually with the devil as the devil hates people and loves murderers,sickos and people that strap bombs to themselves.
    My son is dating a Wicca but like I said I look at people for who they are not what they believe in or not. Anyway guys I don't know but I won't stop going to church. Heck today I was leading the congregation in the rosary. I will say this I am more tolerant and open minded to other thoughts and ideas. However I'll keep going to church.

    To my mind, the appalling misery and suffering that exists is a strong argument for the absence of any guiding intelligence, let alone a benevolent guiding intelligence.

    The suffering of innocents, children, animals - it all suggests random, implacable and impersonal Nature, which has no heart (or mind).

    Another thing that makes me think there's no chance each of us will continue to exist as conscious individuals for eternity: With a few exceptions, we're pretty vacuous. What would be the point? A thousand years is a long time; a million inconceivable. And an eternity in which a trillion years would be a mere blink of the eye?

    It boggles the mind.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Eric View Post
    Another thing that makes me think there's no chance each of us will continue to exist as conscious individuals for eternity: With a few exceptions, we're pretty vacuous. What would be the point? A thousand years is a long time; a million inconceivable. And an eternity in which a trillion years would be a mere blink of the eye?
    I feel obligated (because I don't want to offend the believers on this forum) to say that as a life long atheist, I have respect for whatever people chose to believe. I don't care if we put "In God We Trust" on money, or use tax dollars for Christmas Trees. Seems like all we ever hear about are the 'angry atheists'. What I'm about to say, is not an arguement against religion.

    Question is: If you drop the life-after-death concept - is there any reason for religion? Will people really behave better if they have the sword of judgement hanging over their heads?

    There's soo many holes in the life-after-death arguement. Just a few thoughts:

    It's pretty much a scientific given that the universe is 15 billion or so years old.

    Considering that earliest man is about 4 million years old - where were those human souls for the first 14.996 billion years?

    There must be some kinda 'soul factory' for all the extra people now on the earth.

    The concept of heaven in the clouds is no longer workable. Hell might be Camden, NJ, or Nuevo Ladreo.

    So when we die the souls go into space? Even at the speed of light - It would take 7 billion years to reach the edge of the universe (heaven??).

    God exists in space? And Jesus is there with him? Living in a vacuum at 0 degrees Kelvin?

    This life after death / heaven / hell is all superstious stuff left over from 5000 years ago when nothing was known. It's pretty easy to quote explanations from books written 2000 years ago. And then to say "well god wrote the book, so that makes it so."

    I think it's a form of abuse to teach children to obey something that has no basis in fact.

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    I tell you these days we do need God in our life. This is tough times to say the least. I'm pretty good friends with Priests and Nuns in my faith and enjoy spending time with other Church goers. I guess one hour in Church isn't hurting anyone and I like the peace and spiritual feelings inside of Church. That being said practically all my friends and most of my family don't go to church much and are agnostic,I don't make my kids go to church but sometimes they do. I wonder if there was no religion would there be anarchy on earth? Would people treat each other better? Geez I don't know but I worked with Muslims,Hindus,Jews and Christians and all seem like good people. I think religion is important part of life for alot of people. I think I would miss it if it never existed. Still I wonder why everybody has there own beliefs and all it's hard to sort it all out. One thing I've learned is judge not and ye shall not be judge. So I won't think I'm better then anyone that I'm Catholic that is one thing you can count on.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Adam View Post
    I tell you these days we do need God in our life. This is tough times to say the least. I'm pretty good friends with Priests and Nuns in my faith and enjoy spending time with other Church goers. I guess one hour in Church isn't hurting anyone and I like the peace and spiritual feelings inside of Church. That being said practically all my friends and most of my family don't go to church much and are agnostic,I don't make my kids go to church but sometimes they do. I wonder if there was no religion would there be anarchy on earth? Would people treat each other better? Geez I don't know but I worked with Muslims,Hindus,Jews and Christians and all seem like good people. I think religion is important part of life for alot of people. I think I would miss it if it never existed. Still I wonder why everybody has there own beliefs and all it's hard to sort it all out. One thing I've learned is judge not and ye shall not be judge. So I won't think I'm better then anyone that I'm Catholic that is one thing you can count on.
    Dear Adam,

    I think you will find many of us Atheists to be aligned with your beliefs. I've been married to the same gal for 38 yrs, supported a family in style, give everyone an even break - no matter what race / religion. All I ask in return is a fair shake.

    Realize people who want to blow up planes (devout Muslims), Pakistanis who perform hounor killings and hide Bin Ladin, all the Central American people who grow Cocain, the Afgani's who grow opium, Christians who assinate dr's who perform abortions, and the Jews (my race of origin) who try and piss everyone off in the Middle East, are the real problem in this world - not the Atheists!

    In general us Atheist's are for common sense and brotherhood! Think about it - you may be more aligned to us than you imagine.

  17. #17
    Vulture of The Western World Eric's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Adam View Post
    I tell you these days we do need God in our life. This is tough times to say the least. I'm pretty good friends with Priests and Nuns in my faith and enjoy spending time with other Church goers. I guess one hour in Church isn't hurting anyone and I like the peace and spiritual feelings inside of Church. That being said practically all my friends and most of my family don't go to church much and are agnostic,I don't make my kids go to church but sometimes they do. I wonder if there was no religion would there be anarchy on earth? Would people treat each other better? Geez I don't know but I worked with Muslims,Hindus,Jews and Christians and all seem like good people. I think religion is important part of life for alot of people. I think I would miss it if it never existed. Still I wonder why everybody has there own beliefs and all it's hard to sort it all out. One thing I've learned is judge not and ye shall not be judge. So I won't think I'm better then anyone that I'm Catholic that is one thing you can count on.
    I share your "live and let live" attitude; I just wish more religious people did, too!

    Most of the world's religions claim exclusive rightness - only they have the truth; everyone else is misguided, wrong (even evil). The consequences of this attitude run the gamut from trying to convert people who don't share the same beliefs to trying to impose "family values" on people to literally killing them.

    But which God is the right god? How do we tell - objectively, rationally?

    On morality and religion: One counter argument I'd make is that if people are only behaving themselves because they fear divine retribution (or expect reward) then they are hardly "good people." Truly good people treat others decently and behave honorably because they want to, irrespective of potential reward or punishment.

    But why should they do so, in the absence of God? For the simple reason that we possess empathy and if we're not mentally deranged, we want to be treated well and therefore try to treat others well. It's also obvious that social cooperation is necessary for the sake of civilization. If every man was only looking out for his own immediate gain, irrespective of the cost to others, society would disintegrate and then everyone is screwed. It is the same instinct that keeps wolf packs together and so on.

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    Vulture of The Western World Eric's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by dBrong View Post
    Dear Adam,

    I think you will find many of us Atheists to be aligned with your beliefs. I've been married to the same gal for 38 yrs, supported a family in style, give everyone an even break - no matter what race / religion. All I ask in return is a fair shake.

    Realize people who want to blow up planes (devout Muslims), Pakistanis who perform hounor killings and hide Bin Ladin, all the Central American people who grow Cocain, the Afgani's who grow opium, Christians who assinate dr's who perform abortions, and the Jews (my race of origin) who try and piss everyone off in the Middle East, are the real problem in this world - not the Atheists!

    In general us Atheist's are for common sense and brotherhood! Think about it - you may be more aligned to us than you imagine.
    Amen...

    Similar deal here. Been with the same woman for almost ten years. I'm an Eagle Scout. I have never (that I am aware of!) committed a major crime, let alone harmed anyone (other than by making rude comments ). I try to treat everyone I meet with respect and fairly - expecting the same in return.

    In general I do my best to be decent - and yet I have absolutely no specific religious beliefs at all.

    Per my earlier post, I have come to believe that a sense of morality consciously arrived at and willingly chosen is preferable to the religious type of "automatic morality" that is based on Thou Shalt Nots and based on fear of divine sanction (or reward).

    But I understand that most people have neither the time nor the inclination nor perhaps the native intelligence to consciously debate philosophical questions in their own minds - and may need this religious automatic morality to keep them in line.

    If so, it's very sad - and it means the human race will likely never rise much above the level of its average....

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    Well I have a better opinion of athesit thanks to you dbrong,Eric and Ken. I like how you don't attack me for my beliefs. I guess as I get older I do think more and more about God and Religion. It does get confusing. There is so much out there to consider and I myself like the simple life and the less cluttered the better. I will think about everything more for sure. I see athesit live by the same values I do thatis treat others with respect and not be judgemental. I think your right we do have plenty in common. I guess I'm mellowing out on this aspect of my life.
    There is a security guard at work who is only living for the next world or life after death. He constently is reading religious books andplaying tapes on how hell is and is telling me I'm doomed because I'm divorce and enjoy shall we say the female company. Old Boy drives me crazy with all that and if anything makes me want to leave it and free myself of everything. However while I go to church I go mostly to help with ushering and stuff because they like having me around. Also I enjoy talking with priest actually there more human then you think. I think your right you either have a moral concionce or not and no amout of religion will help. This is the biggest truth of all. People who do wrong can't hide behind their faith (religion). I think maybe I could live in an unreligious world but like Eric or somebody said it will never happen in our lifetime.

  20. #20
    I believe that death is not the end for a believer, but the beginning of an eternal exixtence.

    It sounds wierd, but not long after my Father's death years ago, I had a vivid experience of him saying to me "it's o.k. It is what we thought it was".

    Comforting.

    And years ago, a friend of mine said, "The tragedy of life is not that we die, but that love dies", meaning that we could control our own life.

    Perfect love casts out all fear.

    And perhaps pain.

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