Aren’t Atheists Afraid of Death and Dying?

By Ed Buckner | 1 December 2023
Letters to a Free Country

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There are undoubtedly atheists who’re afraid of death and of dying and other atheists who face the inexorable end with calm, peaceful understanding. Same for believers. But if there’s any difference in fear of death based on religious belief, it’s likely that atheists are, on average, at least slightly less fearful.

None of us, however religious we may be, can seriously think that this life does not come to an end and that we in one sense or another cease to exist. Any human being who has lived many years has had people around him or her die—likely including people s/he loved, and therefore knows there’s no getting around it.

Most atheists I know think speculation on an afterlife is as pointless as speculation on a “beforelife” would be. There’s not any real evidence that life exists beyond our natural lives, in either time-direction. And there is also no reasonable basis for fears about it—or hopes about it either—even if it does somehow exist.

I’ve known personally at least five atheists who committed suicide, and no believers (on quick reflection) who have done so. I’m not sure which of two conclusions, A or B, about atheists and death is better supported by this: A) atheists don’t fear death because they honestly believe there is nothing there to fear; or B) if only atheists believed in God and an afterlife, they wouldn’t despair and end their own lives. I don’t really think either A or B are probably true or very well supported.

First, my personal sample of known suicides is unlikely to be representative. Second, the five who I know who ended their own lives did so for, as far as I could tell, quite varied reasons. Third, there’s usually just no way to know what a person choosing suicide is thinking or how rational s/he is being.

A related perennial freethought question is the whole supposed notion that gaining eternal life may just require “wagering” that it might exist—”Pascal’s Wager,” as it is commonly called. I wrote about this specifically back in January, in my fourth Friday reply to these questions—link to that earlier post, in case you missed it, below.

Another related question is the insulting canard, “Why aren’t there any atheists in foxholes?”—a question dealt with as part of Michael Buckner’s essay two weeks ago on whether atheists are unAmerican. Pat Tillman is a well established example, as Michael pointed out. In short, the answer as to whether there are no atheists in foxholes, whatever you mean by the question, is “there are.”

Does that mean I’m unafraid only because I lack the will to live or don’t care whether I do? Of course not. Nor does it mean I lack any fears related to dying—fear of extended or severe pain; fear of losing my mental abilities, etc.—of course I have some of those.

And I have not ever been given an accurate medical “terminal”/death sentence diagnosis, so can I be sure that if I were, it wouldn’t render me a cowering, babbling blob? I suppose I can’t be certain, but I sure don’t think it’s likely. Years ago I had a false alarm serious health scare and didn’t buckle or pray—but I was mighty unhappy briefly.

I do fear death of the people I love the most much more than I do my own.

Ed Buckner is an American atheist activist who served as president of the organization American Atheists from 2008 to 2010. He served as executive director for the Council for Secular Humanism from 2001 to 2003 and was once the Council’s southern director. He is the author (with Michael E. Buckner) of In Freedom We Trust: An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty (Prometheus Books, 2012).

Harmonic Atheist – Interview with Dr. Ed Buckner

ATHEISM AND DEATH

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