My journey toward atheism began in a reform Jewish household—an existential head start, I know—and ended a few years back, with a walk down a country road on an August afternoon. I claim to have had few revelations during such walks; my best thinking is done in the shower, while brushing my teeth, or while waiting for my morning toast. Having grown up in a small Western New York farm town tucked between wooded hills, we walked only when nobody could find a ride. This is all by way of saying that I loathe country walks—there are no restaurants to duck into, no places to stop for coffee—and yet, as the nostalgic adult will do, I eventually bought a house in the country. Thus my walk down a country road on an August afternoon.
On that particular day, I passed a dead fox lying on the graveled shoulder. It was a crumpled, sad little thing, buzzing with flies, its mouth open, eyes sunken and baked dull by the sun. I looked at it for a little while, then found a nearby stick and attempted to push the carcass into the roadside weeds, but the body came apart in clumps of matted fur and crusted flesh.
At that moment, a car sped past: a black Chevy covered in bumper stickers. I hadn’t heard it coming. I realized that I’d been squatting by the side of the road, about twenty yards past a sharp turn, and if the driver of that black Chevy had been on his phone, tuning the radio, yelling at his kids, or lighting a cigarette, I could have joined that dead fox. Crumpled, sad little Micah, lying in a twisted heap, stick still in hand. (There are, of course, far worse ways to go, though I’d prefer my death be in the city, among the civilized.)
But our similarities wouldn’t end there. Both mammals, both killed by a car, both our deaths cosmically insignificant; no matter how well-attended my funeral or how loudly the fox pups cry for a mother that never returned to their den, the living world continues, the now continues. Just as 99.999 percent of the world wouldn’t notice my absence, neither does the world notice that a certain fox no longer hunts for mice in a certain field. We both have skin, teeth, hair, four-chambered hearts, and twin lungs that will pump out one last exhalation. We both bleed red. We might both scream in pain while the car runs us over: an impersonal, gruesome finale, no different than any other death, accidental or otherwise, since the beginning of life 3.6 billion years ago.
I understand the impulse to find an existential analgesic for this hard truth, and I don’t believe the atheist who tells me he or she isn’t frightened of death. I’m terrified of death. I see nothing noble in it—whether it occurs after bleeding out by the side of a country road or lying in a soft bed surrounded by my loved ones, the finality of death offers me no compensation. So while it’s easy to sneer at the faithful for believing fairy tales designed to calm crying children, I get it. Roadkill may rot without ceremony, but we humans—upright mammals with enlarged frontal lobes and opposable thumbs—deserve coffins, song, ritual, and remembrance. The faithful deny this solidarity with our fellow creatures. They alienate themselves from the visceral. Thus my sneers are a form of anger, and that anger is the result of fear. I want the faithful to stop insisting there’s an alternative to oblivion, because it diminishes the necessity of courage, which might be the only cure for the sickness of mortality—or, perhaps more accurately, for the sickness of being aware of our mortality.
Still, as I stared down at that dead fox, pondering our commonalities and proud of myself for doing so, I realized where we differed: were our circumstances switched, the fox would sniff my corpse, perhaps flicking its tongue to decide whether I was worth a nibble, and then continue its day, blissfully unaffected. The flies would buzz, my eyes would dull in the heat, and there I would remain: poor little rotting Micah, a mammal who wasted so much time wondering if the universe cared.