Dealing With Death. Another “Fail” in the Skeptical Community.

These past couple of weeks I have been very busy. My uncle died and during my grieving process I had quite a few situations that resulted in additional stress. People stole things out of my uncles apartment while we were preparing for his funeral, members of the family fought about burial and monetary issues. I ended a romantic relationship. There was confusion around my scholarship between my former high school and current college and this may result in unplanned educational expenses. I am going to stop there because the list goes on…

So now I am back on the horse that I call my life and am ready to explain the harsh title. You see, during my week in emotional rollercoaster land, I called upon my skepticism and critical thinking skills. But sometimes so many things seem to happen and emotion sort of takes over. In times like these it can seem as if critical thinking skills are useless.

My uncle’s death made me think about how the skeptical and atheistic/agnostic community lacks the sufficient emotional foundation to support a person when they are dealing with significant sadness. Other skeptics and I have mentioned this in the past but I am going to mention it again because I believe it is crucial to the growth of this community.

When I talked with many of the members of my uncle’s family and friends I can’t help but feel alone in my view of the world. I looked at all of these people who forced themselves to deal with this loss with the idea that my uncle will go on to a better place and that one day they will all be together happy again in an afterlife of some kind. I, on the other hand, cannot take comfort from such denial. I know that everything that was my uncle was made up of electrical activity in his brain, and when that activity ceased to exist, so did he. The probability of an afterlife is almost nonexistent. Yet, since the dawn of self-awareness, humans have embraced the belief that when someone dies they are never completely gone. These religious views seem to put the mind at some sort of ease when dealing with death.

So what puts me to ease? And how am I supposed to convince people that skepticism and critical thinking is a better way to live one’s life then living it in denial when organized religion gives people comforting answers that provide emotional support in dealing with things like death?

I have always struggled with the idea of death. And I am probably not finished with my struggling with the idea of death. However, I do feel that I am on the right track in terms of coming to peace with it. Let’s face it, it is extremely difficult to imagine one day just being gone and never coming back. The prospect makes most people uncomfortable. I seem to take comfort in my ideas of life and death. I like relating an individual life to a pebble. When a pebble is dropped into the water a ripple effect occurs. Every life creates a ripple in the lake that we call the universe. But in my lake, depending on the pebble, the ripple may continue forever, changing, influencing and affecting all it encounters. And that is my eternal life. I want to create a positive, influential, courageous, inspiring and loving ripple. If I feel that by the end of my life I have done this I will die a good death.

Death is one of nature’s few mercies; if it does anything at all it eliminates suffering of the deceased. Since energy can neither be created nor destroyed, a living organism will always be a part of the beauty that is the universe.

I’m confident that comfort and emotion is available within the skeptical community. I just think it will take a little bit more than infrequent meet-ups revolving around alcohol. 😉

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  1. January 19, 2010 at 2:19 am —

    You know, when I think about death, it is not death itself that scares me. What scares me is how I am going to die. Because being dead is like… as someone before me put it, it is like before being born, you know? Just blank. But dying, man, there is around a million ways to die, and probably only like 5 of them does not suck at all.

    My view on comfort is that it is not comforting to know that I will live forever. Also, getting false hope for something that might probably not exist is something I really dislike. Because if the afterlife does not exist, then you have just wasted time hoping, instead of making sure things on Earth have been taken care of.

    Although my ideal life would be one in which I can travel through time and space, participate in some adventure, and investigate every corner of the universe. After which, having satisfied all of my curiosity, I would be happy to die. I never liked eternal life. It gets old real fast.

  2. jamesd
    January 19, 2010 at 9:07 am —

    Cassie, sorry to hear about your loss and all the stress that’s been arriving at the most inopportune time. Your post brought to mind an article I read recently, and I thought you might find it somewhat comforting. It’s a transcript of an interview with Ann Druyan that touches upon Carl Sagan’s death.

  3. January 19, 2010 at 11:23 am —


    I experienced something similar a few years ago when my dad suddenly died. During the funeral service, there was lots of talk about better places and being called home and all that, and from what I could tell, people were comforted by it. Whether they were comforted because they really believed Dad was better off, or comforted because they expected to hear such peaceful platitudes, I can’t say. But there is very little similar comfort to be had among the skeptical movement, in particular from atheism.

    I know all the allegedly deep sciencey sayings, like how we’re all part of a vast cycle, and how a life is given meaning by having an ending, and things like that. And it’s all true. If you want to rob life of meaning, posit something like Heaven where everything is perfect and eternal and a lowly cherub can hack up something infinitely better than anything Michaelangelo or Mozart or Carrot Top did in their entire lives combined. (Well, the jury is still out on Carrot Top, I guess.) An immortal existence as a non-human in paradise makes Earthly life pointless. I get that.

    And I also get how non-comforting it is when someone says your loved one, friend, or even beloved pet “is in a better place now.” No, a better place is here, alive, with me. It’s demeaning to have our brief time with the ones we love reduced to an infinitessimal flash of pain and horror that is mortal life compared to Heaven. But the people who say it mean well, so I normally don’t kick them in the junk.

    But should we look to James Randi or the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe to make us feel better when we’re grieving for a loss like that? Science and experience and logic tell us that death is one of the few things we all have in common, but can the JREF or our skeptical blogs bring us something more than “the same thing will happen to me someday”? I think it’s unfair to ask that of them.

    Ultimately, any real comfort has to come from within. You won’t hear anything from your friends or family that will make you feel better about your uncle’s death, nor will you hear anything from a scientist, a musician, or a priest. Grief is natural at times like this, and it’s a disservice to your uncle’s memory to look for a shortcut.

    In my opinion, for what it’s worth, you are better off turning to the people you love. Talk about your uncle, share your memories and their memories of him. Focus on how much you enjoyed having him around, rather than how you hurt now that he’s not. You’re sort of putting a cap on his life made up of the happy times you had with him.

    It’s hard. Christ, it’s very hard. Until you go through it, you don’t know how exhausting and raw and painful it is. But I think it’s the only way to really come to terms with your grief without being crippled by it. You eventually grow used to him not being there, and comfortable (not happy, but comfortable) knowing that he’s gone.

    I think being able to write about it like you have is a good sign.

    I am very, very sorry for your loss. I am also sorry that it fell in the middle of other distressing things. But really, there was never going to be a good time for any of that to happen. I wish there was another choice, but you’ve gotta grit your teeth, offer a shoulder to lean on when you can, and accept a shoulder when it’s available.

    Take care,


  4. Cassie
    January 20, 2010 at 12:08 am —

    jamesd- Thank you for your kind words and thanks for the link!

    Christian- Thank you for your kind and wise words as well. I would not ask the skeptical community to give me a shortcut in grief and I fully understand that it is a process. However, I also understand that preparing a person to face death involve both personal growth and understanding. I believe we can help do that psychology is a science and we should utilize that since the leading cause of depression in agnostics/atheists is a lack of meaning. I know that the skeptical community is small but if we wish to grow we need to be able to offer more then logic to people who make choices on emotion. For instance I could explain why the probability of an afterlife is almost nonexistent till I was blue in the face but most people will ignore the truth in favor of what feels good. We need to be able to fill the shoes of the comfort that religion provides if we plan on growing and making any sort of impact. Sam Harris proposes that we should not throw away religion and woo entirely, we should save some of the emotionally positive things and rituals that may help people cope with harsh realities such as death. But, this is a huge process that involves getting more organized, getting people more active, setting up public meeting houses, opening our tent to Unitarians, Humanists and religious people who do not deny science and skepticism, more money and more advertisement. Once again thank you and I hope all is well!

  5. Lyra Lynx
    January 20, 2010 at 6:32 pm —

    I’m really sorry to hear about your loss Cassie. I, too, recently lost an uncle. His funeral was on my birthday.It was at a Unitarian Church. The service wasn’t focused on the afterlife so much as the positive affect he had on the people around him. I really enjoyed that.

    I often find myself wishing there was an afterlife. When I’m missing my grand parents that died when my mother was a child I really wish they could see me somehow and be proud of me. When I start thinking like that I tell myself, “They’re gone. Enjoy the people you have in your life now. Being sad won’t bring them back it will just waste a portion of your brief time here.”

    This might just be me but I find comfort in logic and reason. When I get sad I think, “There are so many things in the universe to be happy about it’s illogical to be sad,” and then I’m not. When I explain my philosophy of logic to people they give me a sideways look. I don’t know if you find this helpful Cassie (or anyone else out there) but it really helps me.

    About the fear of dying, the fear of your consciousness being extinguished, that many non-theist grapple with I have a philosophy of logic for that too. Every time I think about death I remind myself that I could have never been born. Think of all the egg-sperm combination that could have happened. It’s astronomical that, out of all the possibilities, I was formed. I am extremely lucky to have even a single day alive, much more the 112 years I will no doubt enjoy. Again, most people give me a sideways look. I hope someone will find this helpfull

  6. January 21, 2010 at 5:01 pm —

    Hey, I know I’m a little late to the game here but I “starred” this post in Google Reader so I would remember to come back and post a comment when I was able.

    Cassie, I’m really sorry about the death of your uncle. And about all the other chaos and stress that hasn’t been giving you the space to breathe! I wanted to share with you something that I heard while at Unitarian Universalist memorial services — and, I wouldn’t say this about all UU communities without question, but this particular one certainly was one that jives with atheism and skepticism with no problem. (I guess it’s a good follow-up also to Lyra’s comment above, which references a Unitarian memorial service.) They said: “To live in hearts that love is not to die.”

    Nobody thought, or anyway nobody promoted the thought, that this meant that you literally don’t die at the end of your personal life. But the spirit of the statement is that, as long as you have friends and family whose lives you touched, you will be remembered, and you will, as they say, “live on” in them. And even though those people you knew will die someday too, they will touch the lives of others. We all learn and grow from each other, and we are all part of humanity, and in that sense we are like many cells in one enormous organism.

    It made me feel a bit warm and fuzzy even at some of the worst times, and I don’t think there’s anything supernatural or mystical about it. Unless you count poetry and beauty as mystical, which perhaps you do. I don’t know. I just think of it as a secular statement that still feels reassuring in the face of a legitimately scary and sad reality.

  7. Billy Clyde Tuggle
    January 21, 2010 at 10:32 pm —


    I am sorry to hear about the loss of your uncle. I think a possible explanation for why you see Skepticism as failing in the arena of grief is that it is really the wrong tool for dealing with grief. Grief is at its heart an emotional experience whereas skepticism is at its heart an intellectual discipline.

    No matter where on an intellectual level you think someone goes when they die, it still hurts to lose them. Devoutly religious people still cry and feel grief even if they think they may rejoin the dearly departed person at some later time in an afterlife. Likewise an atheist may still feel connected to a departed loved one even though they strongly doubt they existence of an afterlife. The reason for this is that some essence of the departed loved one is still alive in the memories (both conscious and unconscious) of the grieving family members.

    My younger brother died 15 years ago, but I still sometimes feel his presence. This may just be my imagination at work (the most likely explanation), but at an emotional level it doesn’t really matter. I still miss him. I would still bring him back if I could. Heck sometimes I talk to him when nobody else is around.

    I am no expert, but I think there is science out there that shows that working through grief is important towards to maintaining good mental health. So regardless of your intellectual beliefs about the physical process of your uncle’s death (where he goes or does not go), you have still suffered an emotional trauma that will take time to heal. If your Skeptical friends are being too Mr. Spock about the grieving process, you can probably find scientific data to waive in their faces that demonstrates that they need to get with the program and give you a sympathetic shoulder to cry on.

    PBS has been running a great series here lately called “This Emotional Life”. They show all kinds of cool scientific data (e.g. MRI scans of the brain) to demonstrate how our emotional state can impact our physical brain. Prolonged bouts of clinical of depression will for instance manifest as physical atrophy in the Hippocampus. Depression can disrupt our intellectual capabilities (its hard to think clearly when you are depressed), so ironically retreating into dry intellectualism to escape our emotional lives can actually put our intellectual lives in peril.

    For me, the grief over my brother’s death ebbed and flowed for a long time (over several years). It was a process. I cried a lot. Sometimes I got mad, sometimes I got sad, and sometimes I smiled or laughed as I reflected on a fond memory.

    Take Care!


  8. Cassie
    January 22, 2010 at 10:50 pm —

    @New Rebecca and thoughtcounts-Z – That stuff satisfies me but it does not seem to satisfy others. I am not sure if it’s because they may not understand it or if some people are more emotional and afraid of death then others, which is possible.

    Billy Clyde Tuggle thank you for your kind words as well. I Maintaining a good mental health is psychology and psychology is science. I think we sometimes forget that. Having good mental health is a huge part of being a skeptic, as you said, it keeps a person thinking clearly. Also, thank you for the info about the PBS program I will have to check that out!

  9. exarch
    February 18, 2010 at 8:22 am —

    [email protected]: “My uncle’s death made me think about how the skeptical and atheistic/agnostic community lacks the sufficient emotional foundation to support a person when they are dealing with significant sadness. Other skeptics and I have mentioned this in the past but I am going to mention it again because I believe it is crucial to the growth of this community.

    I remember James Randi bringing this up at TAM2 way back in (what? 2004?)
    He said that while people might not have a need for the religious aspects of the church, but there are many valuable services the church provides (and which it’s had about 2 millenia worth of experience to put together).

    Celebrating joyous occasions (birth, baptism, coming of age, marriage, etc…), and providing comfort when things are less cheerful (death, confession, etc…) are essentially just human psychological tools, not inherently religious tools. You can still celebrate the birth of a friend’s child or comfort someone who just lost a loved one without resorting to the hellfire-and-brimstone preaching bible. You don’t suddenly become a christian simply because you’ve toasted at someone’s wedding.

    In fact, and this is actually paraphrasing Randi: The church doesn’t own these things. We can have a funeral without the religious aspect, because people need the closure this provides.

    Being an atheist doesn’t mean you have to chuck all the ceremony. Rather, it means taking the ceremony back from the religious. There’s a high likelyhood that this is the biggest reason the fundies don’t like gay marriage. Because it’s taking back marriage and performing it once again as the ceremony it was meant to be, rather than the tool of oppression it has become within the church.

  10. tudza
    April 3, 2010 at 4:26 am —

    So basically, you are disappointed that most of the people you know are not trained grief counselors. I don’t see how this can be interpreted as a failure in the skeptical community.

  11. Cassie
    April 3, 2010 at 11:31 am —

    No I am disappointed because people who participate in organized religion have more of a community base then skeptics. These communities are better set up to help people who are dealing with emotional situations like death. As skeptics we should realize that we are social animals and function better when in communities.

  12. exarch
    April 3, 2010 at 5:41 pm —

    I don’t think the problem here lies with the community or the people who make up that community. Like I said before, the church has got a 2000 year head start on us. Many atheists still need to realise that not everything the church does is religious. Not to mention the church has a much stronger organisational base. As far as community goes, we’re still taking our very first steps. We just can’t be afraid to copy stuff that work from religious organisations. On the contrary.

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