"After sleeping through a hundred million centuries, we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with
color, bountiful with life. Within decades, we must close our eyes
again." - Richard Dawkins
Since I've entered the atheist blogosphere, I've come across a number of posts regarding facing death as an atheist. Some are them are incredible pieces of writing, and I agree with and applaud them for being so inspiring. Yet, I can't seem to accept it as rationally as the rest of you do.
"I expect death to be nothingness and, for removing me from all possible fears of death, I am thankful to atheism.”- Isaac Asimov
I can't argue with the logic of this. It's flawless and profound in its simplicity. Death is the end of my existence, and without existence, I cannot fear. I won't ever even realize that I have died, I may only notice the moments preceding it: I can only miss being alive while
I am alive. I will never actually experience the end since there is
nothing to be aware of, and yet despite this logic, the thought of death still terrifies me. Perhaps it's my greatest irrationality.
It's the thought of not existing that gets me, that all that is me will just flicker out of existence. My memories, my thoughts; everything that I am and have been will just dissolve into a never ending nothingness. And to me, that is a bleak, bleak notion. I love existing. I adore thinking of, observing and experiencing this precious life. I
love hearing the beautiful sounds, seeing the magnificent sights and feeling the overwhelming emotions that make us human. I love having something to to call a me and simply being. I don't like the idea of returning to a void of nothing.
I want to witness the future. I want to watch science unravel the mysteries of the cosmos, conquer disease and sickness and possibly engage in some form of extra-terrestrial contact. I want to exist and continue on existing! But, alas, wishes alone cannot materialize. I must accept the inevitable finality it imposes, however much I dislike the notion. Here, I can empathize with the theists position. I understand the allure of the afterlife and how difficult and unappealing the atheists view can be (for some). But, I will not let my logic succumb to wishful thinking and emotionalism. I cannot, and will not, abandon what I know to be true in replace of my desire for a happy ending. I'll opt for reality over fantasy every time, however dreary the consequences it poses.
"I do not fear death, in view of the fact that I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had
not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it." - Mark Twain
Undoubtedly, this is completely true. Up until roughly sixteen years ago, I never existed. And this hasn't affected me in the least. However, now, I do
exist. And that's where it changes. Now that I've had a taste of this
wonderful existence, now that I've enjoyed the monumental and astronomically unlikely privilege of being, I don't want to leave. After all, parents are never scared of harm coming to their children until they are born. Lovers never worry about losing the other until they meet. Unless you have something, you can't truly understand the
effects of losing it.
I'll admit that this analogy is slightly strained. When one loses something within life, they are aware of it and thus experience the loss. When one loses life, you cannot be aware of it as you are no longer conscious. You lose the capacity to miss and feel anything, and thus, you cannot miss life once death has taken over. But, since we have not yet ceased to be, we can imagine the loss (and of course experience it indirectly) and still hold the desire to live. Now that I have the opportunity to life, I don't want it taken away.
The thought of losing existence is terrifying, because life is all we really have. Once that has been snuffed out, we have absolutely nothing. We are no longer anything. Once our circuiting has switched off; the entirety of you - your memories, personality, habits, quirks and history, is gone. It's like a lamp switch except that there's
nothing to turn it back on. The moment your brain flicks off, you're lost forever. You've faded into an eternity of nothingness, remembered only by the legacy and bones you've left behind. Even if we were able to restart you brain somehow, the mind that is you is still dead. Everything that is you, is gone.
An unbroken thread
There is an upside to this, although I feel that it pales in comparison to the stark realization of death. One day, I will cease to be. My body will decompose and the impulses in my brain that allow for my consciousness will slow down and eventually stop. The atoms that momentarily coalesced to become me, will disperse and return to form other beings and organisms of the Earth, perhaps even reaching the rest of the cosmos. After all, this has happened to every being and structure in the universe. As Carl Sagan puts it, we are merely "star stuff": the sentient, astounding results of nuclear fusion within stars and scattered by ancient stellar explosions. The atoms in my right arm were probably even formed in a different star than those found in my left hand. Perhaps even in a different galaxy. And these stars themselves are the results of a cohesion of Nebulas, those breathtaking cosmic gas clouds people love to awe over. And I definitely think that's there's a beauty in this; us being children of stars, eventually returning home, only without us to realize it.
The time limit death imposes forces us to truly appreciate the rarity and significance of the fleeting glimpse that we get of life. It motivates us to not dwindle and waste time worrying over the unavoidable or the trivialities of life. Its presence serves as a reminder to embrace our temporary awareness; to truly value our brief witness to the cosmos.
There's no point in masking it with promises of eternal bliss and whimsical fantasies. We have a much more awe-inspiring history than any religion can offer. We're "star stuff" after all, and whether we like it or not, we will return to just that.
(From my blog, www.teenageatheist.com