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In my previous post, I reflected on my recent infliction of death and destruction upon the inhabitants of my garden, observing that in our world, there is no life without death. It seems kind of appropriate, I suppose, to follow up with some of my thoughts about death - which is something I have also written about before but not for quite some time.

One thing that appears to trouble religious believers particularly upon finding out that someone is an atheist is the question of what's supposed to happen after you die. Being an atheist doesn't automatically require one to abandon belief in the concept of some kind of afterlife; but any serious consideration of such evidence as we have does tend to point towards the actual, terminal finality of death, the cessation of consciousness, the obliteration of the self. Rejecting belief not just in gods but in all supernatural entities, including souls, eventually and inevitably leads to confronting the fact that when we die, we cease to exist.

I didn't always think this way, of course. As a child, I was very thoroughly indoctrinated with the concept of an immortal soul, of heaven and hell, and the idea that one's behaviour in this life was the primary determiner of one's ultimate fate in the next. It was a long and meandering road by which I eventually walked away from this belief but in many ways, it has been a road to freedom.

According to those who feel that life has no meaning or purpose if we're not working towards some kind of ultimate reward, what should have been my response to rejecting the idea of an afterlife was to sink into a deep, dark melancholy, to become paralysed by the pointlessness of living if I'm only going to die at the end of it. Well, I'm certainly no stranger to the deep, dark melancholy; but it's not the fact of death that brings it on, not even when I am directly confronted with it; and if anything, reflecting upon the sheer absurdity of life is something I actually find deeply comforting. Much has been written about the liberating joy of embracing this life as the only one we have, rather than relegating it to the subordinate position of a mere proving-ground for an eternal afterlife; what I will say from my own experience is that accepting death as final has led me to a more careful contemplation of my behaviour - there's no judgemental god to tally my sins and virtues, only myself and those affected by my actions.

There was a time when I was afraid of death, when I thought that dying was the worst thing that could happen to someone. That time is long past. It's true that I do sometimes worry that the manner of my death will be unpleasant; but with the prospect of ceasing to exist, I am largely unconcerned. If consciousness does indeed stop when we die, I will not be around to experience not being alive - so what's to be afraid of? As Epicurus put it, "Where I am, death is not; where death is, I am not." What fear remains is indistinguishable from the fear of change - losing a loved one is, after all, a permanent change that I am forced by my beliefs to accept as such; not for me the superficially comforting thought that I will meet them again in the next life. Knowing that I will never see someone again once they cease to be can be a hard truth to swallow; but it does remind me to treasure every moment of the time I do have with them and take nothing for granted.
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dormant_dragon

October 2013

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