Death, atheism and middle of the night belief: being kind to ourselves.


I’m an atheist. I try to be a skeptic- I’m hesitant to identify as A Skeptic, because I think that skepticism is something that we do, not something we are. I believe in things that we have evidence for, like apples and kittens and spaceships and love. While accepting that I live in and am a brain optimised for staying alive and making more brains over logic, I try to not believe things without evidence. I don’t believe in gods or homeopathy or decent books by Stephanie Meyer. Because my beliefs are based on evidence, they are always conditional and subject to change. Which is why I now accept that Lovely Housemate can, in fact, cook pasta without burning it, and I am coming around to the conclusion that there are advantages to not sleeping in until lunchtime every day, and that there is such a thing as too much chilli.

My skepticism is one informed by the real world. My skepticism is based on valuing truth and empathy together. It is based on an empathy informed by truth, an honesty about the world, and a belief that we are at our most honest when we are also compassionate. And an understanding that honesty requires that we accept who and what we are. Sometimes, that means that we accept being brains that do things that aren’t logical. We are brains that are optimised to see agency in the world around us. We can personify and empathise with just about anything. It’s part of how we empathise with and love others. We create images of those we love in our minds. Those we love, in a way, live within us.

I read this yesterday.

Libby’s impending mortality has reminded me that even that belief is one in which I can—and probably have—become just a little too certain. Sometimes, I think—I hope?—there is a value to a belief, even an irrational one, whose main purpose is to comfort. Sometimes even a rigorist may admit a moment of cognitive dissonance if doing so salves a wound that makes life, at that moment, too painful.

If at this moment I allow myself to believe, more or less unquestioned, that Libby has something in her that’s immortal, it doesn’t mean that I will stop accepting as valid the conclusions of modern science…

My critical discipline is good. I will not disparage it. But I will also try to learn that I can distinguish between the consequences of particular irrational claims, and to affirm that there are some that I am morally allowed to hold.

Go read the rest. It’s blisteringly honest and sweet and compassionate, acknowledging the irrationality of believing that those we love go on and yet accepting that sometimes it’s what we can’t help but do.

I don’t believe in an afterlife. I believe that we have this one, short, wonderful life and that there isn’t really any way to tell what happens after. Except that our brains stop working. And that it looks like our brains are where our consciousness and our selves live.

There are times, though, when I wake up in the middle of the night and I can’t believe that those I love who have died are truly gone. I hear their voices in my mind, remember what it was like to talk to them, hug them and hold them close. I can feel their closeness, love and compassion deep within me, as if they were next to me. In those moments, the belief and understanding that they no longer exist just isn’t there. It’s not that I don’t want to believe it. It’s that the parts of my mind that came into being through my relationships with them are still there. Those mirror neurons haven’t stopped firing. My mind wants, with everything it has, to feel that they’re still there. Somehow. Somewhere.

I don’t believe my mind. But sometimes I do let it be. While accepting logically that there is no known way by which anyone can survive beyond their death, I let my mind feel that the people I love still exist. Not because I think it’s true. But because this thing that I know not to be true is comforting. Because of this. Emphasis mine:

When I call the vet in to euthanize Libby, I will do so because I want to spare her a degree of pain that will make her life more of a torture than a joy. Perhaps her tacit lesson in that moment is that it is also acceptable for us humans, psychologically and spiritually, to extend a small amount of that same mercy to ourselves.

I feel that it is essential that we are as compassionate as we are honest. That compassion, if it is to be truly genuine, needs to be extended to our selves as well as to others. When I let a part of my brain feel (not believe) that my departed loved ones still somehow exist, I’m not denying reality. I still know that they are not. I know that my memories of their voices and presences are just that- precious memories that I hope I will carry with me all my life. But allowing a little conscious cognitive dissonance into my mind is a comfort. It’s a way to let my mind bring those memories to life. A way to let the relationships continue past the lives of one of their members. A way to let the people I love continue to influence my life beyond theirs. A way to get back to sleep in the middle of the night.

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4 thoughts on “Death, atheism and middle of the night belief: being kind to ourselves.

  1. I’m really glad to read this. I had sometimes wondered if I was the only person (ah, foolish thought; no one is ever the only person who anything) who sometimes, for the sake of feeling better, decided for a while to think like I believed in something comforting. Sometimes I do it for the sake of entertainment- ghost tours, for example, are so much more fun without my sceptic hat on. I can stick it back on after and dismiss the tour as lots of stories, but while I’m listening to them I think like I believe them to get the full benefits of chills down my spine.

    I think that even when I would have described myself as believing in the afterlife, or the supernatural, or a deity of some kind, I was mostly making a conscious decision to believe in these things because it seemed interesting, or comforting, or like the acceptable and morally right thing to do, or like the only way to explain the universe. I never found my spiritual/supernatural beliefs to be more deep or unshakeable than that. Which is probably why I stopped bothering with them after a while. (It helped that I learned about better ways to explain the universe.)

  2. I am Christian . I believe in life after death. A life we won’t be in these bodies we are in now . A spiritual life, where you Soul lives forever . So I believe the dead really don’t parish . They are with us . They see us. They watch over us. When we die we shall meet them.
    I believe there is a world out there..for the dead.

  3. Pingback: Whose are you? Marie Fleming, assisted dying and the right to one’s self. | Consider the Tea Cosy

  4. A wise witch, Margot Adler, once said that the challenge of our time is reconciling the rational and the mystical. Maybe it’s a personal challenge too.

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