Around age four I began experiencing a recurring terror at the thought of death. It was the certainty that made it so awful. With anything else, you at least have the option of wishful thinking. Sure, Mom says you’re going to get it when your Dad comes home and sees what you scribbled in permanent marker on the wall, but there’s always the chance that Mom will clean up the mess and decide not to tell him, or that Dad will see the wall but not get mad afterall, or my personal favorite, that he won’t get home until after you’re in bed (I wagered heavily on my father’s consideration of my need for sleep as a child). But with death, there’s no way out. It’s inevitable.
When I would run crying to my mother, clutch her around the legs, plead with her that I didn’t want to die, she would hug me and put on her most optimistic smile and say, “Oh, honey, you aren’t going to die for a long, long time.” This only made it worse, knowing death would always be up ahead, waiting for me. I knew someday I would be an old man. The “long, long time” line wouldn’t be so reassuring then.
“Mom,” I often said through sobs and tears, “I’ll miss you when I die.”
I always died first in these morbid death fantasies of mine. I’d picture myself up in Heaven, which was about ten feet above everyone’s heads, peeking over the edge of a cloud, calling down to my family. Mom would mix up a glass of chocolate milk and toss a spoonful of it up so I could have a taste. God was around, too. He dressed in brown polyester slacks and a crisp light blue shirt, and looked like the Professor from Gilligan’s Island.
Going to Hell never frightened me. My parents, particularly my mother, are Christians, and brought my brother and I up in that tradition. But, except for a few months when I was in first grade, we never attended church. And they never stressed the prospect of eternal torment and damnation much. It wasn’t dying before my loved ones that scared me, either. I told Mom I would miss her when I die, but what I was really afraid of was not being able to miss her. This article is the first time I’ve ever publicly, explicitly identified myself as an atheist, but in my heart I’ve been one since I was a child. I’ve always known — it’s this life, then oblivion.
God is a story we tell to make ourselves feel better. We made him up when we were in our infancy, when the world was a frightening and incomprehensible place, to explain the inexplicable, and to soothe our fears. He made sense of things, and he told us it was possible to survive death. He told us there was a place to go after this, a world where suffering and death would never be able to find us, a place that was everything this one wasn’t: just, peaceful, and eternal. It’s a beautiful idea, and a comforting one, and one I’ve never been able to believe.
I’m not angry at God. I just don’t tell myself the comforting story anymore. It’s not that I’m any more comfortable with my looming nonexistence now than I was as a bawling child. I just don’t imagine another world to soften the deficiencies of this one. I’d rather come to terms with the universe as it is than waste my life pretending it’s something else.
And, shit, it’s not all weeping and howling indignantly into the void. Theists paint a picture of the godless universe as this bleak, hopeless place where joy and meaning are impossible, and of atheists as these dour mopes who sit around sipping coffee and quoting Sartre and Nietzsche back and forth at each other. That isn’t my experience. When you live with the assumption that the natural world is all there is, your meaning, your purpose, your worth aren’t handed down to you from authority; they’re derived from your life, the people and things you love. When you look around and realize that all this wasn’t constructed by a man in the sky, that it — and you, and everyone and everything you have ever known — is the result of a process that unfolded according to natural laws, and is still unfolding at this very moment, the universe becomes a place of overwhelming wonder.
No religious myth has even approached the true magnificence of the world. The cosmos is greater, and older, and more mysterious than our priests have told us, or our ancestors could have imagined. Think of the vast, ever-expanding universe science has revealed just in the last hundred years or so.
Think of the hundreds of millions of galaxies and other objects within range of our telescopes, some so distant that to look at them is to look back almost to the beginning of time. Think of the cosmic microwave background radiation, the echo of the big bang, distributed evenly across the sky, detectable no matter where you look.
Think of the cells that constitute your body, the DNA molecules that you share with every other living thing on the planet, descended, gene by gene, from a shared ancestor. Think of the atoms that comprise those molecules, that were forged in the furnaces of stars.
Consider that everything in the universe, from the farthest quasar to your cat, is made of the same stuff, and then see how profound the supposed truths of the Bible, or the Qur’an, or the Vedas sound.
I’m still afraid to die. I still wish there was a God, or at least an afterlife. But there isn’t. And there are times when I look up at the sky, or out across a field of trees, or into Ashley’s eyes, and I think, “What more do you want?” None of this is owed to me. To even be here is an unfathomable privilege. I wish it could last forever. But the fact that it doesn’t only makes it more important to cherish it, and enjoy it, while I’m here.