"Bulgarian military graveyard, Tsapari" by Протогер / CC BY-SA 4.0

How Should an Atheist Think About Death?

Oct 22, 2020

By George Yancy

In five previous interviews in this series we’ve explored the Buddhist, Jain, Taoist, Jewish and Christian views on death and the afterlife. But what about those without any religious faith or belief in God? Why not, some readers have asked, interview an atheist? So we did.

Today’s conversation is with Todd May, the author of 16 books of philosophy ranging from recent French thought to contemporary ethics. His books — including “A Significant Life,” “A Fragile Life” and, most recently, “A Decent Life: Morality for the Rest of Us” — investigate meaning, suffering and morality. His work has been featured in episodes of the television show “The Good Place,” where he served behind the scenes as a “philosophical consultant.” This interview was conducted by email and edited. — George Yancy

George Yancy: In your book “Death,” you very clearly state, “For the record, I am an atheist (which is why I don’t believe in an afterlife).” Cornel West is fond of saying that we will eventually become “the culinary delight of terrestrial worms.” So I assume you believe life ends right there, without any consciousness beyond the worms. Do all atheists subscribe to that belief?

Todd May: First, George, I owe you a debt of gratitude for this series. Confronting death is one of the most important and difficult tasks that we as humans face. It’s been inspiring to see the ways different traditions grapple with that task.

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6 comments on “How Should an Atheist Think About Death?

  • How does this atheist think about death?
    First, if I may, a couple questions.  Is the theistic concept of life after death something which is exclusive to modern humans, or is it something we share with all of our ancestors and their progeny, across all the branches of the proverbial tree of life?  If it’s only us, at what point, on the continuum from self-replicating molecule to modern human, does life after death become possible?           
    I realize that religions, Abrahamic or otherwise, were conceived in a pre-scientific age and/or in primitive places, before people had any way of knowing anything about common ancestors, pi, electromagnetism, Darwinian evolution, quantum physics, and all the other things that have been discovered, much in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.  Just think what we will know in another hundred years when many people’s grandchildren and great grandchildren will be graduating from college.  I’m confident that within a short time, religions of all sorts will be obsolete and irrelevant, interesting only as a few chapters in the history of homo sapiens.  People will no longer look to supernaturalism for either cosmological explanations or for psychological comfort.  There are better explanations and more satisfying solutions, all of which are becoming accessible to everyone on this planet, regardless of the grip religion has heretofore had on the minds and bodies of its victims.  Even in the most reactionary of cultures, my own included, the grip of religion is loosening and the light of reason is beginning to shine.
    How should an atheist think about death?  The same way an atheist thinks about everything else – honestly.  Death is a fact for everyone and everything.  Death after a life well lived – as opposed to tragic injuries, illnesses, etc. – is only to be feared by those who are afraid of the dark, (wasn’t it Steven Hawking who said that?).  How fortunate we are to have been born into a species that has the ability to live a life consisting of more than eating, avoidance of being eaten, and reproduction.  Yes, we like everyone, as well as everything else in the cosmos, will die, but between birth and death what a plethora of experiences to be pursued.
    What is the purpose of life without religion? As Secular Humanism advances across the globe, hopefully everyone will enjoy a peaceful, economically secure, long and healthy life enriched by learning and culture to the fullest extent of everyone’s abilities and curiosity.  But at some point, entropy will prevail – the party will be over, individually and collectively.  Sic transit Gloria mundi, as it were. 

    That’s how this atheist thinks about death.

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  • Michael/Laurie

    As I get older, I do find myself thinking more often about the sands of the egg-timer running down, and they’re not particularly pleasant thoughts. That said, I’m far more concerned about the number of active, healthy years of life I might have in front of me: the thought of years of pain and infirmity and limitations and the need for care disturbs me far more than the prospect of death.

    And even though I’m not quite as sanguine about the prospect of death as I used to be when I was younger, the thought of eternal life horrifies me FAR more. I just don’t have the attention span for it …

    And I am reminded of the wonderful scene in Barchester Towers, the classic Victorian novel by Anthony Trollope, in which the malevolent chaplain Obadiah Slope, finally given his marching orders by the Bishop and his wife, turns to them with an evil glint in his eye and says, “May you both live for ever” – a curse, if ever there was one.

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  • After dealing with my parents in and out of nursing homes and assisted living facilities for some years now I live with a substantial dread of having to be in these places myself someday. I don’t want to linger in a frail helpless state while draining the financial holdings of the family.

    On the other hand, I am a sci fi affictionado and at this point biased in favor of staying at that party well after Ive been tapped on the shoulder and told to leave (from Hitch’s video above). I realize that the happy travelers in the universe who have no age related parameters to concern themselves with is a complete fiction but it’s irresistible to me at this point. Blatant wishful thinking.

    If anyone happens to be taking Psych 101 at this time then I’ve served you up a perfect real life example of what’s called cognitive dissonance at this time.

    You’re welcome.

    I would also volunteer to go back to any number of space/time coordinates for the purpose of investigation into a few fascinating questions I have. There’s a low probability of surviving these investigations but I really could not resist trying.

    Moving ahead to the future is also irresistible. What will life look like in the next century and those to come after that? What successes will we have and what will the failures be?

    One of the dates I’d like to visit is the day after Apple starts to trade on the stock market. Nothing high minded about this one. Just purely selfish money grubbing. 😀

    I intend to leave this party kicking and screaming. Grrrrr

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