Why I Celebrate Death
Guest Author: Peter Harrison
I am a skeptic. I will accept any claim, regardless of how insane it might initially sound, if it is supported by robust and valid evidence. And for that reason, I am also an atheist. I have access to the internet and I am fairly outspoken. All of these facts together mean that I occasionally get into discussions and debates with theists on various topics. Recently, I had an email conversation with a theist (with slight creationist leanings) that eventually drifted to a discussion about death and the fact that I’m not afraid to die. To paraphrase, he saw death as a wholly tragic event with absolutely no positive aspects at all except that it acts as the point between this life and the afterlife.
To him, death is the horrifying experience of losing your life and everyone you care about, and an equally horrifying experience for those people still alive losing you in return, and all this pain can only be coped with by understanding that it is necessary in order to make the transition to your next life in heaven. He argued that without an afterlife, death is the single most terrible thing in human existence. He wanted to know how I could believe death is the end of my entire existence and still not be afraid of it. Theists suffer death in the same ways that atheists do, but at least they feel it isn’t the end of their existence. Apparently, a belief in the afterlife is the only thing that can allow us to accept death and come to terms with it. How can an atheist cope with death? Well, I can’t speak for all atheists, but I can certainly explain my own feelings regarding death.
Right now, I’m not afraid of death or dying. But I should point out that any fear I have had in the past was of dying, rather than being dead. Some people don’t seem to understand the difference. Dying could very well be a terrifying experience as you contemplate the fact that you are coming to the end of your existence. Dying is a process that the living go through. I can see why many people would be scared of dying, and having to say goodbye to loved ones. But death itself? That’s the easy part. I can speak from experience as I’ve been dead a lot longer than I’ve been alive. Mark Twain put it best:
“I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”
I won’t mind being dead at all, so that isn’t the difficult part. It’s the living that is difficult, leading up to that death. Since I try my best to avoid holding beliefs that contradict reality, I do not believe that I will live on after death. When an organ is dead, and decomposed, it will not function. I do not believe I will be able to run when my legs rot, and I do not believe I will be able to pump blood around my body when my heart rots. I see no reason why my personality, memories or desires (which are all constructs of the brain) will continue to function when the brain rots. So I have no fear of the experience of being dead and never have. After all, I’ve already spent billions of years being dead and it didn’t bother me at the time.
This leaves the process of dying, and being aware that your life is coming to an end. How could I possibly be happy with that prospect? As my theist friend asked, “Do you care so little of life that it isn’t a big deal? And are you heartless enough to not care about your family?” Actually, I do care about living and enjoying my life. And I do care for my family and friends. I do not enjoy the thought of never seeing any of them ever again. Even though it won’t matter to me once I’m actually dead, the thought of knowing that I am spending my last hours with loved ones is not something I look forward to. And as I said, I enjoy living. I would rather be living an enjoyable life than be dead. Apparently this seemed like a contradiction. How could I not want to lose my life or my loved ones, and yet still accept death?
What he failed to realize was that I can simultaneously think that the experience of dying sucks, while accepting death. If I accept death, it doesn’t mean I’m happy about the whole experience. All the tragedy of dying is very real to me too. I’ve been very upset to see loved ones die, and I know it will upsetting to say my own goodbyes when the time comes. But you can still accept death for what it is without having to actually enjoy or like it. But you may think this is still a far cry away from the title of this entry. If you can merely accept death, but still see dying as a horrible experience, how can such a thing be celebrated? Surely the only people who could celebrate death would be the people believing it is a ticket to a better world? How can an atheist celebrate death? I celebrate death, because I celebrate life.
Everything I care about in my life, I have death to thank for (among other things). Death may be taking away life and loved ones, but it also plays its part in giving them in the first place. You are here today because of many events that have happened in the past. I’m not just talking about your parents meeting. I’m talking about speciation events. I’m talking about continents moving and breaking apart. I’m talking about endosymbiosis. If the history of life on earth had played out differently, you might not be here. If life functioned or evolved differently, you might not be here. Although natural selection isn’t the only process behind evolution, it has been a major player in making us what we are today. Millions and millions of years of adaptations have helped shape us. Without natural selection, you wouldn’t be alive, because humans would not have evolved. Evolution can certainly occur without natural selection, but we are just one result of adaptations on top of adaptations on top of adaptations. No natural selection, no humans. There are some requirements that must be met in order for natural selection to take place, such as variation that can be inherited, and competition for resources. Two of the biggest factors are reproduction and death. Both have been essential in the history of life that has led to you. With reproduction, traits can be passed on to future generations. And with death, traits can be lost forever. Traits that either improve the likelihood of successful reproduction, or reduce the likelihood of death before reproduction, can lead to very powerful evolution. If organisms didn’t die, things would have been totally different. Sure, we could theoretically engineer a population of organisms that do not die (i.e. they are essentially “immortal”) and they would still evolve. But death has played a magnificent role in the evolution of life including ourselves and all our descendants. Think of all those adaptations that help avoid death. Think of your immune systems, think of physical and mental adaptations that helped us and all our ancestors avoid predators and environmental dangers.
Death has helped give us the life you now enjoy living. Death has helped pave the way for your loved ones and your ability to care about anything at all. Yes, I think death sucks too. I don’t want to lose everything I care about. But I know that without death, there would be nothing Icould care about. I wouldn’t exist. How can an atheist come to accept death, even when it robs us of everything? Because if we didn’t die, none of that stuff we care about would matter at all. I enjoy life. I enjoy communicating with other people. I am happy that the people I care about exist. All of these things can only be because of the history of life on earth, including the deaths that have helped shape who we are. If I thought about death and wished that it never happened, I would be wishing away everything that is dear to me. I would be wishing away my chance to exist. I’d be wishing away our species, our genus, and much more. So it’s not about merely accepting death, it’s about appreciating death. The process of dying is bittersweet, because it is exceptionally sad to lose your loved ones, but death must be appreciated for bringing you this chance in the first place. Surely life with death is better than the alternative: no life.
Not only do I celebrate death because it allows life in a literal sense… But also because it allows life in a metaphorical sense, and this is something that atheists generally appreciate more than theists. Put as simply as possible, death makes life worth living. By understanding and accepting death, we can understand that our time here is finite, and that this is our only chance of being alive and making the most of it. This isn’t just a life you can ruin, and then get a second chance after you die. This is it. If you don’t want your last moments of existence to be spent considering your regrets, death should be the inspiration to get out there and live your life. Enjoy what it means to be alive. Enjoy communication with others, and enjoy the ability to think and change the world.
I celebrate death, not only because it is partly responsible for everything I care about (and the fact that I can care at all), but also because it makes life precious, more than anything else can.