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.

Atheism and me: a brief history.


For a while now, I’ve wanted to write about atheism and me- how I became an atheist, why I am an atheist, what is important to me about atheism, and how I relate as an atheist to those of a more religious mindset. I want to start talking about this today with a history of how I got to where I am today, and will move on to the rest in later posts. I was a kid for whom ‘god’ was as much a part of the world around me as anything else I couldn’t see. As real and unquestioned as distant relatives. While different religions were a thing I took for granted, so was the existence of god. Unlike many ex-religious atheists I don’t think it ever occurred to me to doubt back then. Neither did it occur to me that any of the things I believed were in opposition to evolution, dinosaurs or anything else in the world around me. As a child, I was pretty open about what I would believe. I always wanted to learn more, but the idea of skepticism wasn’t one that came naturally to me. I’m not an atheist because of any bad experiences with religion. I was never badly treated, never abused. I knew some very lovely nuns and priests growing up. Praying with my Nan, and having my forehead coated in liberal quantities of holy water before leaving her house, are memories that still make me smile. As a teenager, things did become a little more fraught. At a particularly persuadable point in my pre-teenage life, I ran out of books at the same time as coming across a massive stack of teen magazines by- and here is where I start getting a little mortified- Focus on the Family. Suddenly I was worrying about sin, about living up to Christian standards and about not ending up in hell. That didn’t last too long, though. We moved countries back to somewhere with many conveniently-located bookshops. I discovered the internet. As teenagerhood really kicked in, I found I had many other things to be worried, enthusiastic, and embarrassed about. I had some slight worries around the time I came out to myself, but reasoned pretty quickly that nothing to patently harmless could possibly be sinful. I did, however, become a lot less Catholic and a lot more vaguely spiritual. I didn’t know what was out there, but I was pretty sure that something. There was ‘something’ out there, it was benevolent, and it was why things would be okay. At least, that’s how I remember how I felt then- I’m aware that memories do change and aren’t always completely accurate. The things that led to my becoming an atheist were, in many ways, the things that led to my becoming an adult. For me these two processes are so entwined as to be interchangeable. I’m not saying, by the way, that only atheists are adults. I’m simply talking about my own experiences and how they have shaped me. I can point to two sets of things which changed my perceptions of the world around me. One was one of the best things that happened in my life, and the others were some of the worst. I went to college, and learned to think critically and to question the world around me. People I cared about died (and lived) in gut-wrenchingly horrible ways, and the world around me gave no fuck. Things just went on. After a while, I noticed that the times when I turned to god were the times when I was deeply unhappy or deeply scared. After a while, I wondered if I did that because we all turn to others when times are hard, or because that was the only time when I could convince myself that any gods existed. For the first time, I began to ask myself why I believed in any gods. Aside from fear and grief, I couldn’t come up with a reason. I still can’t. I spent a few years calling myself an agnostic before admitting, somewhere in my mid-twenties, that I had no belief in anything supernatural. For me, becoming an atheist was part of accepting that I live in the world that is, not the world that I would like to live in. It was part of learning to look at the world sceptically, and to question my own beliefs as much as I question the claims of others. So what do you think? Can you relate? How did you come to your own beliefs or lack of such? Check back here for the next post in this series!