Mystical Ponderings of an Atheist: Death

Giulio Romano, Allegoria dell’immortalità via Wikimedia Commons


















One day I will die, awake
and fall upward.
I will reach out to touch as I descend through my soul.
I will fall.
Descending straight through you, mother, filtering my time’s relevance.
– Kyle Taylor, 2011

A dear mentor of mine once told me that I often sound more like a mystic than an atheist. I have embraced this observation and in many ways I define my religious identity as a ‘mystical atheist.’ This means, simply, that I find myself struggling with many of the same questions that entangle my theistic counterparts.

Just as there are certain challenges to asking these questions within the framework of a particular religious tradition, there are numerous challenges to asking them as an atheist. In both cases, there are many shortcomings in the proposed answers. And, so far, neither the standard theistic nor atheistic answers feel emotionally or intellectually satisfying.

So, I want to try my hand at composition rather than recitation and propose some musings of my own. I will save arguments and proofs for a future project. For now, I only want to share some of my mystical musings with you in the hope that our answers to these impossible questions continue to evolve and deepen.

An aunt, who I was very close to, died a few years ago and her death was quite premature and sudden. I remember feeling so angry and frustrated at attempts by some of my relatives to console me with trite religious idioms – “she’s with God now”, or “she’s in a better place.” Part of me hoped, really and genuinely hoped, that they believed those words and were thus granted some measure of peace. But, mostly, I felt lost and unsure…and envious of their seeming contentment with those answers. More than anything, I felt ill-equipped.

Grieving is a group project. My cousin, who has always been more like a big sister to me, was my partner in mourning. The night after our aunt’s death we stared at the clear night sky, which only shows itself in its true majesty in rural areas, and laughed through tearful hiccups as we shared our memories of her. After we sank into a moment of thoughtful silence she turned to me with a peaceful smile and said, “You know she’s laughing at us right? She knows now….She knows what happens and we don’t.”
We both grinned at the thought. Our aunt, who was only about ten years older than us, had a mischievous sense of humor and loved being the first to know, loved knowing a secret that we didn’t.
Though I continued to smile and talk with her, I was struggling. What if she didn’t know anything…Because there is nothing. What if all that’s left of her, truly, are fading memories and the remnants of a body that betrayed her?

There are as many cliché atheist responses to death as there are religious ones and they are equally unhelpful. Facing a theist who confrontationally asks, “well, what happens when you die?!” I will admit that I sometimes feel a self-righteous satisfaction in snapping back, “NOTHING! Nothing happens! Lights out!”

But faced with death, with the loss of the humor, the love, the mistakes, the triumphs, the sorrow and the joy that made up this person who I loved so dearly…When faced with death, the theistic and atheistic responses – the stale and shallow knee-jerk condolences and assurances, the smirking and sardonic refutations – left me feeling nauseous and hollow.

It’s been years since that night under the starts, grieving with my cousin, but I continue to be shaped by it. And now, as then, I am as uncomfortable with the typical atheist response to death, and more specifically the question of life/existence after bodily death, as I am with the typical religious response. And I’m sorry to disappoint, but I have no clearly defined belief or proof to offer you about death. Rather, I have my musings and a continually changing perspective that I humbly offer…

There is no soul as we popularly conceive of it – no essence that contains all of our experiences, memories, knowledge and attachments, like a “black box” that persists after our body dies. Who we are is a product of the mushy gray matter between our ears and what we feed it. When we die, that mushy gray matter decays and our experiences, memories, knowledge and attachments go with it. Whoever we are and whoever we might have been dies with our body.

But human beings are so much more than the sum of our biological parts, so much more even than those experiences and attachments that make us uniquely ourselves. Theists often speak of a Divine Spark, or a reflection of divinity, that elevates human beings out of a purely material existence and imparts upon us a unique destiny and connectedness. I think there is something profound to be learned from this theistic way of thinking – we are inextricably part of the destiny of the universe and, more importantly, of one another. Our journey does not, cannot, end at death anymore than the death of a star marks the end of its impact on the universe.

The things we do and the lives we touch impact the world and shape the future, even when we are no longer present in the world. This is true for the loneliest and least powerful among us because human beings, even when we try, are never fully autonomous, disconnected creatures.

So, as an atheist, I choose to see death not as a persistence of life after death, but as a continuation of connectedness. Death does not disconnect us from one another. True immortality does not lie in a metaphysical soul, but in the relationships we create and nurture in life. It’s in the stories we create and pass along. It’s in the imprint, however small we may think it is, that we make on each other and on the world.

So make a deep one….

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7 thoughts on “Mystical Ponderings of an Atheist: Death

  1. That immortality you speak of is also what I use to respond to theists who question the morality of atheists. If this is my one shot at existence, I want to make the best impression possible, because the only afterlife I will have is in the thoughts of those I leave behind.

    1. So true! I’m glad you mentioned morality because that will actually be the next topic of this little series!

  2. “What if all that’s left of her, truly, are fading memories and the remnants of a body that betrayed her?”

    Sometimes our minds seem so separate from our bodies, but as an atheist I’m coming to see my divine spark being made of the same matter as my physical flesh. How has being an atheistic mystic shaped your perspective on the mind-body connection?

  3. Thanks Allana, for this beautiful testimony of your life and continued journey through all of the twists and turns in life. As a Unitarian Universalist, I am compelled by these questions, too. And as a religious leader who continues to grow into what that means, I resonate with how important these questions are, and I suppose the beauty of the story you shared about your aunt is that perhaps she is laughing or not, but what is beautiful is that you laughed with your cousin and that looking back on that night you find meaning. What beautiful gifts may come from death, even though sadness accompanies them as well.

    I would like to say it is easier to just fill this life to the brim and cross that bridge when we get there, but perhaps it is important to have an occasional reflection on these metaphysical questions. I believe sharing these together makes the whole journey easier for all of us. And for that, I want to say thank you.


  4. My grandmother (one of many athiests in my family) would always say, before she died, that when we die, we just go back to the earth, that we become food for worms. And through the bluntness, the idea is sort of the same: when we leave this life, breathe our last breath, we enter the cycle of life again by becoming food for other living things.

    When she died, everyone told me: she is in a better place now, it’s better that she’s no longer suffering. These things made me furious. It was not good that she was no longer alive, even though the cancer that killed her so quickly racked her body and left her weak and frail. It was terrible that she was dead – it still is terrible that she is dead. It did not make me feel better to think that she was in a heaven I don’t really believe in. It made me angry that someone presumed to know what happened next. How could we know?

    What I learned most about death when my grandmother died was – exactly – that “Grieving is a group project.” I wasn’t Jewish yet when she died, and my family is not religious and have no mourning rituals. I had no one to mourn with. A friend’s grandfather died two years later, though, and in sitting shiva with her, I learned quickly how important and powerful community is to grieving. Every year since, I have marked my grandmother’s yartzeit, though she’s not Jewish, because I need a way to mark her life and her death, in my own community. We mark these moments to bear witness to the people who have come before us, to the lives who have made us who we are. Grieving is a group project.

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