July 6, 2013

Living in the face of death

Death is probably the most widely discussed topic in all literature, perhaps barring love. It's a difficult thing to deal with—we are the only creatures on the planet that are aware we're going to die someday. Read it again: we're all going to die someday. There's no avoiding it—you live for a few decades, and then your life ceases forever. That's just how it works.

So how do we cope?

Some turn to religion and prophecy for comfort. Although I was raised to be a Christian, I am now subscribed to an atheist worldview. As far as I'm concerned, religion is nothing more than a coping mechanism. I definitely understand the need for such a system—knowing that someday you won't exist anymore is a terrifying thought. However, not only does religion lack an evidential basis, it also does more harm than good as an outlook on death.

I believe that you have one life. There is no afterlife, no heaven nor hell, and you won't continue to live as some kind of disembodied spirit. Death really is the end.

I find this perspective incredibly liberating. I don't lose sleep at night over final judgements—whether I deserve heaven or hell or how long I'll spend in some purgatorial prison. On the contrary, my concerns are grounded within my own lifetime.

Do I fear death? No. If I die quickly and painlessly, I won't even know. If I find myself infected with some terminal disease, such as cancer, I'll probably worry about pain and deterioration. But I won't fear death.

Death is personified in many ways, and when we discuss diseases like cancer, we use words like 'battle' and 'fight' to describe the process of trying to cure the disease. But death is not a person. Nor is cancer a military leader hell-bent on conquering its host's body. Death is inevitable. You can't avoid it, and you shouldn't fear it. You certainly shouldn't concern yourself with superstitious judgements and where your home in the afterlife will be.

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins notes that despite their belief in an afterlife, many religious people are afraid of death. Why? Because no one has a definitive guide as to what qualifies you for heaven, hell, or otherwise.

Personally, I'd rather know that my relatives were dead and buried in the ground than suffering indefinite torment for some long-forgotten misdemeanors before God will allow them into heaven.

Having found the conventional methods of dealing with death inadequate, I have my own way of approaching the matter.

To me, having one life increases the urgency to make the most of it. Go out, have fun, get a successful and fulfilling career, be a good friend, fall in love, get married (or don't), have children (or don't). Whatever. Don't tolerate people, situations, or ideologies that make you unhappy. Life is a blank canvas, and you are the artist: the final picture will be unveiled after you're gone. It better be good.

I love the way one person put it in a comment on the De-Conversion blog:
At this point, I am fairly at ease with the idea that death will be final and that my ashes (I have given instructions to be cremated) will one day become part of the natural matter of the earth. This seems appropriate to me. Ironically, I no longer have to wonder and hope that I really, truly am saved and will get to heaven and avoid hell. The solace that Christian faith was supposed to bring me led to uncertainty and some anxiety. That anxiety disappeared when my faith vanished. In the meantime, I want to live each day to its fullest because life is incredibly precious

I've found a lot of strength in this outlook—certainly more than religion can offer. I hopefully won't be dying anytime soon, but when the time comes, I'll be perfectly content in my nonexistence, just as I was prior to my birth. Until then, I hope to live my life to the fullest.


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