Monday, July 22, 2013

On atheism and the fear of death

I base this post on a question on /r/Stoicism, which I answered but will expand upon here. For those who rather wouldn’t click the link (it is Reddit and easy to get lost in), the question was how do atheists deal with the fear of death. Without the afterlife, is it ever possible to put the fear behind us?

Before I get onto my answer, I’ll address the Stoic ideas of the afterlife, to give a better sense of what the original Stoics believe.

The Stoics held various views of what happened to their souls when they died. Some believed the soul waited around until the end of the universe, which when started again, so, too, would our lives. Others felt that souls rejoined a “world soul” of sorts—which would then hang around until the end of the universe, yada yada yada. Yet it seems there wasn’t any belief that we ourselves would survive our deaths. In short, our soul would be out and about somewhere, but it wasn’t aware.

This may seem meaningless to the whole argument. Atheists don’t believe in a soul. But it’s the last bit that we should pay attention to. The Stoics of yesteryear didn’t think our souls would be conscious. Now, what’s the difference between an unconscious soul and no soul? Little. Perhaps the only comfort one could get is they believed they’d eventually come back, living the same life over and over. The Stoics were Nietzsche before Nietzsche was.

But as atheists, few of us—if any—think we’re coming back. This is our only life. What we have is it, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. Can we push past our fears of death? Can we ever be calm in the face of our demise?

I’ll admit it. I can’t always get past my fear. But here’s the thing: No one can ever. Not totally, anyway.

The Stoics knew people aren’t perfect. Seneca knew it. Marcus knew it. I’m sure Zeno knew it, too. While the Stoic Sage—unconcerned with all indifferents at all times—was the ideal, they knew no one would ever be one. The Sage was a role model. We can only hope to get close. So this means that, sometimes, even the most resolute of Stoics had their fear get to them every so often.

Yes, I fear death, but not all the time. Lately, at least after my last bad spell of fear, I’ve been able to look at death with neither hope nor dread. Death is, simple as that.

I know I’ll have that fear every so often. I know it’ll keep me up. But as time goes on, and I remind myself that there is nothing I can do about death and that this fear is preventing me from living my life, I see this fear lessening. It doesn’t last as long. And that feels good.

I also remind myself of another Stoic principle: that Nature entrusts everything outside of ourselves to us. When a Stoic loses something, be it a personal item to a person, we are to think, “Fate entrusted me with this. And fate has taken it back.” Nothing outside of minds are our own and we need to remember that. But what if our minds aren’t ours either?

It should work the same. When we die, it isn’t up to us if we remain conscious or are forever gone. Fate (or Nature or evolution or gods) have given us our minds. We are entrusted with our minds and must either have it taken back or we keep it. But I can’t get upset if I should lose it (not that I could, but you know what I mean).

We should also keep in mind that the belief in an afterlife doesn’t mean death is any easier to face. It should be harder. If there is an afterlife, we might be forced to reflect on all that we could have done and didn’t, should have done and didn’t, and shouldn’t have done and did.


I think I’d much rather not exist than that.

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