Overcoming the fear of death
What to do with our uncertainties? Should we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the fear of the unknown and the future? Should we eradicate doubts by clinging firmly to a faith?
The atheist is sometimes asked to explain how he overcomes the fear of death without seeking refuge in a religion.
What do religions offer on their display shelves?
God is not an end in itself, but only one of the possible means to achieve the goal. I take it as proof that religions have given the most diverse answers to the question of the existence of God: a multitude of gods, a few gods, three gods in One, one God, or none.
Buddhism is not concerned with secondary issues such as deities or God, but with what happens after our death, and teaches that the cycle of reincarnations depends on a reward-punishment logic in relation to our behaviour. Comparing this to the Last Judgement, we can see two avatars of the same concept, which shows that deities are not the central object of religions, but a rhetorical means intended to confuse us with the discourse "If you believe in God, then you must practice our religion in its entirety" according to the logic of the "He who takes the finger takes the arm". We must rise up against this rationally unfounded argument, because God is of the order of desire, not of necessity 1.
But what then is the central question of religions? Religion seeks to give credence to the thesis of retributive morality in order to better reign over the faithful. It claims to protect us against misfortune in general, and death in particular, by promising us eternal life, or at least the extinction of suffering, and a certain form of happiness under the condition of being a docile practitioner.
However, since life seems to me to be sufficiently full of dangers of all kinds, I do not see the advantage of adding fictitious dangers situated in the beyond such as occult forces, the devil, the Last Judgement, Purgatory 2, hell, reincarnation in an inferior being, etc., to it. For example, Christianity holds a double discourse: on the one hand the promise of eternal happiness, and on the other hand the threat of the Last Judgement and hell.
[Matthew 22:13-14]: "Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are invited, but few are chosen".
In short, death is a shipwreck in which there are not enough lifeboats. A quotation from [Georges Las Vergnas: Why I left the Roman Church] sheds an edifying light on Redemption:
"If Adam drags all men into his fall, Jesus Christ does not save them all. Adam is therefore more powerful in evil than Jesus is in good".
1 According to Freud [The Future of an Illusion, 1927], religious belief is an illusion that responds to an archaic aspiration of the child. But "an illusion is not the same as an error, nor is an illusion necessarily an error. ...] What characterises an illusion is that it is derived from human desires".
2 Naturally, the dangers of the afterlife depend on religions. Thus, purgatory only concerns Catholics.
3 Let us bear in mind that being saved presupposes that we have first been condemned by original sin: we are born damned and must be redeemed. According to the catechism, to the question "Why are we on earth", we must answer "To save our souls".
To be saved is the hope that gives meaning to life 3 but, as we are all sinners, there is concern. For example, according to the Catholic catechism,
The Bible says that only a few will be saved:
[Matthew 7:13-14] "Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it".
And he insists:
[Matthew 19:24] "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God".
Hell tortures the believer, not after death, but before! Those who are most sensitive to fear are the most exposed.
Fear is useful because, by protecting us from certain dangers, it is a factor of survival. However, it becomes harmful when it is generated by imaginary dangers.
«Am I to believe that heaven, jealous of its glory, explains itself to humans only by making them tremble?»
Louis Fuzelier, The Gallant Indies
The Christian understanding of divine justice
Until the 17th century, the justice of men wanted torments to be inflicted on the guilty: whipping, iron collar, pillory, torment of the wheel, drawing-and-quartering, torture, burning at the stake and other cruelties of all kinds was commonplace. Christianity has this same vision of justice inherited from the Roman Empire. By extrapolation, hell is a normal continuation. Suffering is atonement. Divine justice "sin → purgatory or hell" is built on the human model "fault → prison or death penalty". In this spirit of vengeance, I beg you, dear believers, not to see any theological problem: this is only a banal divine mystery, as there are so many.
"God, who preaches forgetting faults, does not lead by example and asks us to be better than he is."
From the 18th century onwards, as unnecessary cruelty was gradually condemned, the justice system used more expeditious methods, such as the guillotine or the firing squad. Making the guilty suffer was no longer an objective. Today, human justice, at least in Western Europe, has shifted to the "blame → prison → education → rehabilitation" model. Torture and the death penalty have been abolished. This development has, it seems, not yet reached Heaven. On the contrary, by resorting to infernal cruelty, so-called divine justice puts Christianity at odds with society. How human and dated is the face of God! Are we to believe that divine intentions are part of ancient culture? Compared to the Buddhist view that the main problem facing man is the management of suffering, the Christian posture is an aberration.
Everyone can see for themselves that the ordinary course of life has nothing to do with fair and benevolent justice. Dreaming of justice realised in another world serves to conceal this unpleasant truth, even if this justice has merciless features.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church in § 1036:
"Since we know neither the day nor the hour, we should follow the advice of the Lord and watch constantly so that, when the single course of our earthly life is completed, we may merit to enter with him into the marriage feast and be numbered among the blessed, and not, like the wicked and slothful servants, be ordered to depart into the eternal fire, into the outer darkness where "men will weep and gnash their teeth"."
Thus, for divine justice, the murderer who repents is saved, while the usually virtuous man who has committed a mortal sin without having had time to repent is damned. The circumstances of death take precedence over behaviour during life. By dying at a bad time, some are less fortunate than others. Not everyone is redeemed. In spite of this new reason for anguish, why does the Christian accept to give his faith to a random justice 4? The word "Equality" that appears on French town halls is certainly not engraved on the pediment of Paradise.
4 It is not a question of putting God on trial, but of showing that monotheisms, since they contain internal contradictions, do not have sufficient credit to win acceptance. See Is God good or paradoxical?
Overwhelming and anxiety-inducing hope
In order to keep us in its nets, religion cultivates the fear of Last Judgement. Fear induces docility. There is something even worse than Big Brother: the eye of the One who will come to judge the living and the dead. However, the dramatisation of death, transmitted by indoctrination, does not help us to live. If the fear of death can lead one to hope for an escape route, the remedy is worse than evil, and ineffective moreover: faith does not protect us from the fear of death, as I can verify among my acquaintances. Since hope must be accompanied by the fear of losing paradise and the anguish of falling into hell, it is better to live in the perspective of a definitive disappearance. Rather than hoping to gain a hypothetical and anguishing eternal life, it is better to benefit from eternal peace.
The swindle develops in three stages: making people believe in an imaginary danger, then presenting oneself as a saviour and, finally, promising the moon.
One does not protect oneself from nightmares by performing rites, but by becoming aware that they are out of reality. Fear being a bad counsellor, it is better to get rid of it than to suffer it in conjunction with faith.
Moreover, religion cultivates the guilt that can poison our existence. Man's ability to judge himself is called conscience. In an attempt to give an objective reality to this subjective feeling, man has created God and Judgement Day in his own image. Religion can be interpreted as the adult version of the blackmail exerted on children by some unworthy parents: "If you are wise, your mother will give you a big hug. But if you do anything stupid, the wicked witch will come and get you".
In Buddhism, the cycle of reincarnations - which can be likened to eternal life - must be broken: the proposed ideal is to attain enlightenment and the end of individual existence through fusion in the One-all. Eternal life is a hell of suffering from which one must liberate oneself by dissolving.
Wisdom commands us to let go of everything that is beyond our control and to concentrate our efforts on what we can influence. On the contrary, the religious spirit attributes to rites and prayers magical effects capable of changing post-mortem destiny. It devotes all its energy to attracting the good graces of what is outside its sphere of influence. This attitude makes him vulnerable to religious blackmail. I do not believe in the happiness of being a believer, because the illusion of faith only brings artificial satisfaction tainted by the uncertainty of dogma and the fear of damnation. The path to inner peace necessarily passes through the neutralisation of religious anxiety.
In the face of death, the first attitude is to deny it: we are immortal. This is the position preached by the majority of religions. At first, this thought may seem comforting. To flee danger, we take refuge in an imaginary world. But, apart from being totally unrealistic, facing eternity seems to me to be very worrying. Compared to the idea of perpetual sleep, the idea of living eternally seems much more frightening to me: I cannot wish for an uncertain and ill-defined fate in an afterlife full of threats. Think of your loved ones who have died. They were certainly good people, but who can claim to be without sin? Were they able to repent and receive forgiveness? In times of uncertainty, do you feel the consolation of religion? Eternal life is a poisonous gift that can be left to believers without regret. Avoid supporting Churches and organisations that teach or spread unfounded fears.
One way out is not to think too much about death and, for those whose character is not too worried, to stand in religious indifference.
A second attitude consists, in a movement of revolt, in refusing death. But living in revolt or denial spoils the quality of life. As a safeguard, it is vital to overcome the fear of death.
There remains the third attitude which consists in accepting our death as an irremediable disappearance. It is then necessary to de-dramatise death.
The great barter of fears
Religions propose that we replace the fear of death seen as a definitive disappearance with a list of other fears that relate to the afterlife:
It seems uncertain to me that barter is advantageous, as it resembles the method which, to cure oneself of a headache, consists of pinching one's fingers in a doorway. Sometimes you have to refuse a method that works.
While fear protects us from danger, pathological fear exhausts us with false threats.
Accepting to be mortal in order to live without fear
Believing in eternal life because one desires it shows that one has a real problem, not with the afterlife, but with one's desires. The wise man puts himself in harmony with nature: rather than fearing death and demanding immortality, he learns to love life, even in its finiteness. From this point on, the question of the existence of God is an intellectual exercise without consequences.
Resistance consists in understanding that the obligation to believe in eternal life is unfounded. Existential fear therapy involves setting aside the religions of salvation: every indoctrinated person must, during his or her lifetime, mourn his or her immortality. The sacrifice is not great, because it allows, as a compensation, to free oneself from the fear of fictitious dangers, in particular of the Last Judgement. It is a thousand times better to endure existential anguish without a crutch than to be blackmailed by mortal sin that sends you to hell.
Wisdom comes through the acceptance of death as a natural phenomenon. We must agree to stand aside to allow the history of humanity to move forward. Real life" is not in the past, nor in the future, nor in the hereafter, but here and now.
Fear of the end of life
Like everyone else, I am afraid of the suffering that could precede death. But today, in developed countries, we can trust medicine, especially palliative care. Moderated by this perspective, the anguish of experiencing death should no longer prevent us from enjoying life. Fearing the period of life before death is distinctly different from the fear of death.
Death participates in the bubbling of life
Death is, like sexual reproduction, a driving force of evolution. At the level of a living species, natural selection benefits - not longevity - but reproduction. We die because it is advantageous for the survival of the species. Without death, life would have remained at the amoeba stage, and we would not exist. Immortality is too resistant to evolution to be creative and constructive in exploring the possible. Of course we live, but it is above all nature that lives through us and, in nature, death is the beginning of renewal. Contrary to our spontaneous intuition, death is the mother of diversity, culture and adaptation to change. It is therefore not a divine punishment since we owe life to it.
Death, a haven of peace
Concern for the future should be in proportion to the time we have left to live. By being eternal, one can worry without limit. It seems horrible to me to believe that life is a trap from which we must be saved. On the other hand, for those who acknowledge that they are mortal, the object of worry - what remains of life - diminishes irremediably over time.
The symbol "Dissolution in the universe" advantageously replaces the cross.
«For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.» [Genesis 3:19]. To die is to dissolve into the universe and plunge into an eternal nothingness. Once accomplished, death can no longer frighten me because all my perceptions will be extinguished: I will no longer be there. My consciousness will disappear, all my regrets will be erased and all my worries will evaporate. So I have nothing to fear, neither the last judgement, nor a reincarnation in an inferior being.
Do you find it unbearable to disappear forever? We must put things into perspective, because a much worse possibility is envisaged by believers: to roast in Hell for eternity. It seems more reasonable to me to believe in an afterlife that is less risky and less frightening. More than death, it is Hell that should shock.
I very much appreciate that life is neither a competition, nor a lottery, nor an examination, nor a selection test with winners and losers in the afterlife. Atheism is neutral: no reward or punishment. Moreover, there are only winners since each of us has obtained a life, albeit limited in time, but a life nonetheless. Time is counted, but it is given to us. As for those undermined by feelings of guilt, that the slate is wiped clean can be seen as a kind of secular redemption.
Subjectively, I perceive death as a state of total appeasement of suffering, of liberation from anguish, of definitive resolution of all worries, of perfect calm, of peaceful sleep. In short, I see it as a highly desirable state.
It can be painful to leave one's family, to sadden one's loved ones, to leave one's works. But there is no need to be reassured since there is nothing to fear. Atheism is the privileged path to serenity. I feel closer to happiness in atheism than I did in faith.
What remains of a human life?
From another point of view, we do not die completely: we leave our children, our works, the traces of our work and activities, as well as our influences on relatives and society. The world would be slightly different if we had not lived, and each of us can claim to have had some influence on the direction of the future of the universe. Life does not end with the death of an individual, for each has his or her place in the history of mankind, at a specific place on the time scale graduated in hundreds of thousands of years. Our actions have an impact on the future of humanity and, however modestly, influence the course of history, which engages our responsibility towards future generations.
Towards the death of fear
Fear is an instinctive emotion coming from the amygdala. It can be contrasted with consciousness and reason, which develop in the neocortex. It is better to face one's fears than to conceal them.
By summoning God, the devil and the Last Judgement to the bedside of the dying, religion makes death a dramatic event that leads to anxiety about the afterlife. Emotion is a bad counsellor, and mirages are emanations of fear. Those who place faith above reason are condemned to religious anxiety. On the contrary, atheism, by reducing death to a natural event, offers an interpretation that is dedramatised, devoid of stakes and free of fear. The future can be contemplated in peace and quiet.
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