I’m a public speaker. One of the many topics I speak about is death—atheist philosophies of death and how atheists can find comfort and meaning in the face of our own mortality and the deaths of people we love. My talks about death are among my most popular: the questions and comments during the Q&As are always compelling and heartfelt, and the conversations afterward are always intense and greatly appreciated.
They’re among my most popular talks—when I get a chance to give them, that is.
My talks about death are also among the least requested. In the five years that I’ve been a public speaker, I’ve been asked to speak about sex, about anger, and about coming out as an atheist more times than I can count. I’ve been asked to speak about death maybe half a dozen times. It seems that once the conversation gets started, atheists love to talk about death—but it’s really hard to get that conversation started.
This article isn’t about my public speaking career. (I am now done talking about that.) This is about a larger question: How can we get atheists to talk about death?
Of course, I get it. Death is a weird, hard subject, to put it mildly. Of course, I get that when people are casting about for a conversation starter, the opener is not usually, “Hey, we’re all mortal and doomed, and the people we loved who are dead are really gone forever and we’ll never see them again!” It’s not exactly light cocktail-party banter.
It’s also a hugely important subject, especially for atheists. When people are questioning their religion, or when they’re in the process of leaving it, the fear of death is often one of the most difficult things they have to face. Accepting the reality that death is truly final when you’ve believed for most of your life that it’s just a temporary interruption of existence—that’s rough. Helping to make this process a little less rough, helping to ease the transition and show some possible ways through it, is one of the best things we can do to make atheism look like a viable, welcoming option.
But death is a subject that atheists often concede to religion without needing to. I’ve written about this before, in this very magazine (“Do We Concede the Ground of Death Too Easily?,” June/July 2012). Many of us assume, without really questioning, that religion is always going to win on the death issue, and that secular views of death can’t possibly comfort people the way religion does.
I think this is a mistake. It’s a mistake in the sense of just being . . . well, mistaken. I think when it comes to death, religion is comforting only if you don’t think about it very carefully—which ultimately makes it not very comforting. And it’s a mistake in the sense of being bad strategy. Death isn’t going anywhere: it’s not like people are going to forget about it if we don’t bring it up. It might be nice if everyone considered the question of whether religion is true based purely on whether there’s good evidence for it, but that’s not the reality we live in. Plenty of people stay in religion for reasons other than whether it’s true or not. Showing people that atheists can cope with life’s big questions is a great way to help them open up to the possibility that God doesn’t exist.
So I’d like to see atheists talk about death more. I’d like to see us do it in public: in talks, at conferences, in workshops, on blogs, and on social media. And I’d like us to do it in more private settings as well. Talking with each other about death will make our own views on it clearer and stronger—and it’ll give us more and better ways to talk about it with the believers in our lives.
But it seems like this isn’t going to happen on its own. Once we start talking about death, it’s like opening the floodgates—the topic is so important and yet so taboo that once that gate gets opened and the conversation starts, the sense of relief can be palpable. But getting it opened in the first place can be tricky. How can we help make it happen?
I don’t have any big answers. I’m thinking this one through myself. But right now, my main thought is that since it’s clearly hard for these conversations to start on their own, we need to set up some structures to get them going.
If you’re in a local atheist group, you could organize a discussion group about it. If you’re in an online atheist forum, you could propose the question: “As an atheist, how do you cope with your own mortality and the deaths of people you love? Here are some of my thoughts. . . .” If your city has a Death Cafe (look it up!), you could show up and share your atheist/humanist/skeptical views of death. If you just have a Facebook page with a lot of atheist friends, you could post your own ideas and views about death without God or an afterlife, and ask people to share theirs. If you have other ideas, I’d love to hear them.
Death is difficult enough, and frightening enough, on its own. Let’s not make it more difficult and more frightening by staying silent about it and keeping it taboo. Let’s start some conversations.
Greta Christina’s new mini-book, Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, was published as an e-book and an audiobook on December 11. She is also author of Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why and Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless (both from Pitchstone Publishing, 2014 and 2012, respectively).