Atheism and Death:
Why the Atheist Must Face Death with Despair
By Dustin Shramek
The title of this paper may catch some off guard. You or someone you
know might be an atheist and you feel as though you have no despair
when contemplating your death. I don't doubt that there are many
atheist that, in fact, have no despair over death. But, for the atheist
to live without despair, they must do so inconsistently. In my paper, I
will show why it is logically inconsistent for an atheist to live and
face death with happiness.
To do this I want to present two major arguments. The first is from the
theist point of view that life is meaningless without God and thus
death is hopeless. This is derived from two of the world's top
philosophers, William Lane Craig and Ravi Zacharias (both are theists).
It should be noted that this argument will be supplemented with the
thoughts of several respected atheistic philosophers so one does not
think they are being biased.
The second part of the paper will show why death is a necessary evil
within the atheistic world view. To demonstrate this I will be drawing
from the works of a major contemporary, atheist philosopher, Thomas
Nagel. Both arguments are convincing by themselves, but I hope to show
that with the two of them together, it is even more compelling to
believe that the atheist must face death with despair. I don't doubt
that many atheist have been able to boldly face death without fear, but
I do believe that they were being inconsistent in their world view.
Albert Camus said that death is philosophy's only problem. That is
quite the statement. Not only is death a problem, but a it is a large
one. Why is death such a problem for someone like Camus? He was an
atheist and I will attempt to show that death is a problem for all
Atheism cannot offer any comfort in the face of death. You see,
everything we do includes some kind of hope. However, what kind of hope
can the atheist give in the face of death? One may say that death is
the final freeing of all desires and thus is good. Or that one can have
hope in death if they are suffering. These really are just false hopes
that I hopefully will clearly show.
After the death of his friend, Arthur Hallam, Alfred, Lord Tennyson
composed his poem, "In Memorium". This poem show the stuggle he had as
he wrestled with grief and the question of what ultimate power manages
the fate of man. It shows the struggle he had between his realization
of the consequences of his choice between atheism and God. I will quote
a lengthy excerpt to feel the full impact.
Thine are these orbs of light and shade
Thou madest Life in man and brute;
Thou madest death; and Lo, thy foot
Is on the skull which thou hast made.
Are God and Nature then at strife
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems
So careless of the single life,...
"So careful of the type?" but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries a thousand types are gone;
I care for nothing, all shall go.
"Thou makest thine appeal to me
I bring to life, I bring to death;
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more." And he, shall he,
Man her last work who seem'd so fair
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who rolI'd the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayers,
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love creation's final law--
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shrieked against his creed-
Who loved, who suffer'd countless ills
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal'd within the iron hills?
No more? A monster then, a dream.
A discord. Dragons of the prime
That tear each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match'd with him.
O life as futile, then, as frail!
O for thy voice to soothe and bless
What hope of answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil.
Atheism has parented this offspring, and it is her legitimate
child--with no mind to look back to for his origin, no law to turn to
for guidance, no meaning to cling to for life, and no hope for the
future. This is the shattered visage of atheism. It has the stare of
death, looking into the barren desert of emptiness and hopelessness.
Thus, the Nietzschean dogma, which dawned with the lantern being
smashed to the ground, now ends in the darkness of the grave.
Is this true? Is there no hope in atheism? Is there no meaning in a
world without God? William Lane Craig offers a resounding yes.
Craig argues that if God doesn't exist, then man and the universe are
doomed to die. There is no hope of immortality. Our lives are but an
infinitesimally small point that appears and then vanishes forever.
Jean-Paul Sartre affirmed that death is not-threatiening provided we
view it in the third person. It isn't until we face the first person, "I am going to die, my death," that death becomes threatening. Most, though, never assume first person attitudes during their life. So
the question arises, "Why is my death so threatening?"
This is because within an atheistic world view there can be no meaning
or purpose. I'm sure that many will be quick to disagree with me
because they are an atheist or know an atheist who does ascribe meaning
and purpose to their lives. But is this consistent within the atheistic
world view? I don't think so.
If everything is doomed to go out of existence, can
there be any ultimate significance? If we are inevitably faced with
nonexistence can our lives have any ultimate significance?
Influencing others or influencing history doesn't give your life
ultimate significance. It only gives it relative significance. Your
life is important relative to certain events, but there is no ultimate
significance to those events if all will die. Ultimately, your life
makes no difference.
Even the universe is doomed to die (due to the Second Law of
Thermodynamics). So what ultimate difference would it make if the
universe never came to exist at all if it is doomed to become dead?
is thus no more significant than a swarm of mosquitos or a barnyard of
pigs, for their end is all the same. The same blind cosmic process that
coughed them up in the first place will eventually swallow them all
If one's destiny is the grave, what ultimate
purpose is their for life? The same is true of the universe. If it is
doomed to become a forever expanding pile of useless debris, what
purpose is there for the universe? To what end is the world or man in
existence? There can be no hope, no purpose.
What is true of mankind is true of individuals as well. So there can be
no purpose in any individual's life. My life wouldn't be qualitatively
different than the life of a dog. This thought is expressed by the
writer of Ecclesiastes, "The fate of the sons of men and the fate of
beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all
have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for
all is vanity. All go to the same place. All come from the dust and all
return to the dust" (Ecc 3:19-20).
The universe and man are cosmic accidents. There is no reason for our existence. Man is a cosmic orphan.
God the universe is the result of a cosmic accident, a chance
explosion. There is no reason for which it exist. As for man, he is a
freak of nature--a blind product of matter plus time plus chance. Man
is just a lump of slime that evolved into rationality. There is no more
purpose in life for the human race than for a species of insect; for
both are the result of the blind interaction of chance and necessity.
If we are only cosmic accidents, how can there be any meaning in our
lives? If this is true, which it is in an atheistic world view, our
lives are for nothing. It would not matter in the slightest bit if I
ever existed. This is why the atheist, if honest and consistent, must
face death with despair. Their life is for nothing. Once they are gone,
they are gone forever.
Friedrich Nietzsche admitted that with the end of Christianity comes
nihilism, which is the "denial of the existence of any basis for
knowledge or truth; the general rejection of customary beliefs in
morality, religion, etc.; the belief that there is no meaning or
purpose in existence." In "The Will to Power", Nietzsche says this,
I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is
coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism..
..Our whole European culture is moving for some time now, with a
tortured tension that is growing form decade to decade, as toward a
catastrophe: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants
to reach the end, that no longer reflects, that is afraid to reflect.
Bertrand Russel, a famous atheistic philosopher, even admits that life is purposeless. I quote him at length,
Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they
were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his
loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations
of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and
feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the
labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the
noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the
vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's
achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe
in ruins--all these things, if not quite beyound dispute, are yet so
nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to
stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built.
"Only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair,"? What can be placed on such a foundation?
Even Jean-Paul Sartre affirms the absurdity of life when he says,
"Being is without reason, without cause, and without necessity. The
very definition of being release its original contingency to us."
Three of the most important atheistic philosophers, Nietzsche, Russell,
and Sartre, all admitted that apart from God life is meaningless and
absurd. So how do people live happily with this world view? They live
inconsistently. For if one lives consistently, he is unable to live
Francis Schaeffer illustrates this problem well. He says that we live
in a two stroy universe. On the first story the world is finite without
God. This is what Sartre, Russell, and Nietzsche describe. Life here is
absurd, with no meaning or purpose. On the second story life has
meaning, value, and purpose. This is the story with God. Modern man
resides on the first floor because he believes there is no God. But as
we have shown, he cannot live there happily, so he makes a leap of
faith to the second story where there is meaning and purpose. The
problem is that this leap is unjustified because of his disbelief in
God. Man cannot live consistently and happily knowing life is
Of course, atheists don't want to live in this kind of a predicament so
they attempt to ascribe meaning to life and value to death. Walter
Kaufmann does this in his book, Existentialism. Religion. and Death.
The last chapter is entitled, "Death Without Dread". He quotes several
poems from a span of 150 years by poets from many different countries.
He shows that death is commonly viewed without fear and he hypothesizes
that death is only feared as a result of the impact of Christianity on
culture. One of the poems quoted is by Matthias Claudius (1740-1815),
it is entitled "Death and the Maiden," and was eventually set to music
by Franz Schubert.
Death and the Maiden
Oh, go away, please go,
Wild monster, made of bone!
I am still young; Oh, no!
Oh, please leave me alone!
Give me your hand, my fair and lovely child!
A friend I am and bring no harm.
Be of good cheer, I am not wild,
You shalt sleep gently in my arm.
He goes on to quote Nietzsche from Twilight of the Idols,
"To die proudly when it is no longer possible to live proudly. Death
freely chosen, death at the right time, brightly and cheerfully
accomplished amid children and witnesses."
death as the ultimate liberation. He even emphasises the desire he has
to freely choose when he dies. Kaufmann affirms this when he says, "We
should also give up the unseemly Christian teachings about suicide and
accept it as a dignified and decent way of ending our lives."
When Sartre, who agreed with Nietzsche, was asked why he didn't commit
suicide, he replied by saying that he didn't want to use his freedom to
take away his freedom. This is an absurd solution though, because they
say that freedom is the problem with its aimlessness, pain, and despair.
Kaufmann argues that if we live life richly and not expect to live long
lives then when we die we can combat the hopelessness of death because
we won't feel cheated or won't feel as though we need more time. The
problem lies in the fact thay kaufmann makes the jump to the second
story. He wants to ascribe meaning to a richly lived life, which I've
shown can't be done in a God-less universe. When he says that one won't
feel as though they've been deprived of time when they die is wishful
thinking. One of his contemporaries, Thomas Nagel (an atheist) shows
the falsity in this thinking.
Nagel begins his discussion of death with this statement, "If death is
the unequivocal and permanent end of our existence, the question arises
whether it is a bad thing to die."
He argues that if life is all we have, then its loss is the greatest
loss we can encounter. Nagel's goal is to see whether death is in
itself an evil, how great of an evil it is, and what kind of evil it is.
If death is an evil, it is because of the loss of life and not the
state of being dead, or nonexistant. Some say that dying is the the
real evil. But Nagel points out that he wouldn't really object to dying
if it wasn't followed by death. He says,
we are to make sense of the view that to die is bad, it must be on the
ground that life is a good and death is the corresponding deprivation
or loss, bad not because of any positive features but because of the
desirability of what it removes.
There are three
objections that many have raised about the proposition that death is an
evil. 1) One may doubt that there are any evils which solely consist in
the deprivation or absence of possible good, particularly when one
doesn't mind the deprivation (because they don't exist). What you don't
know, can't hurt you. 2) How is the supposed misfortune assigned to the
subject? So long as one exists, he isn't dead, and once he dies he no
longer exist. So there can be no time when death, if it is a
misfortune, can be ascribed to the subject. 3) Finally, the asymmetry
of our attitudes towards our posthumous and prenatel nonexistence. Why
can we view the eternity after our death as bad, but not the eternity
before our birth?
He illustrates the errors of the first two objections
with a simple illustration that is analogous to death. Imagine an
intelligent man being reduced to the mental condition of a content
infant. Even though he is content, we pity him. Yet, he doesn't realize
this tragedy, for he is a content infant. Does the phrase, "What we
don't know doesn't hurt us," apply to him? If so why do we pity him?
Second, it isn't the content infant who is unfortunate, rather, it is
the intelligent adult who has been reduced to this condition.
We shouldn't and don't focus on the content infant, instead we consider
the person he was and the person he could be now. So his reduction to
this state and the premature ending of his adult development is a
catastrophe. Just as death is a catastrophe.
What about the problem of our asymmetrical attitudes towards our posthumous and prenatel nonexisetence?
Lucretius was the one who first pointed this out. He recognized that no
one finds it disturbing to contemplate the eternity before their birth,
which really is the same as the eternity after their death. Thus, it is
irrational to fear death.
Nagel disagrees, he argues that the time after death is the time in
which nonexistence deprives a person. "Any death entails the loss of
some life." So the eternity after death isn't the same as the
eternity before birth, because one is deprived of life. Some may argue
then, that one is deprived of life before birth as well because they
could have been born earlier. But Nagel shows the fallacy of this
thinking by pointing out that if one is born any earlier (except a few
weeks premature), they would not be the same person. So it doesn't
entail the loss of any life. Lucretius, and any one who agrees with
him, is wrong in thinking that it is irrational to fear death on the
basis that we aren't bothered by our prenatel eternity.
Life makes known to us the goods of which death deprives us. Death, no
matter when it happens deprives us of some continuation of life. While
it is tragic for a 17 year old to die, it is just as tragic for a 90
year old to die because both are deprived of life and the good that
comes with it.
in this way, death, no matter how inevitable, is an abrupt cancellation
of indefinitely extensive possible goods. Normality seems to have
nothing to do with it, for the fact that we will all inevitably die in
a few score years cannot by itself imply that it would not be good to
live longer. Suppose that we were all inevitably going to die in agony
-- physical agony lasting six months. Would inevitability make that
prospect any less unpleasant? And why should it be different for a
Not many atheists are as consistent as
Thomas Nagal when they speak on death. Kaufmann says he can face death
without hopelessness because he lives richly and that gives meaning to
his life. But what kind of meaning is it? If Kaufmann never existed,
what ultimate difference would it make? None. If the atheists faces
this honestly, how can he view death with anything but despair?
As shown in these two extended arguments, death apart from God cannot
be faced with anything but fear and despair if one is to live
consistently within their atheistic world view. The only way an atheist
can face death without despair is by ascribing ultimate meaning to
their life, which is a jump to the second story and is completely
inconsistent with atheism.
Certainly it doesn't follow, then, that theism is true simply because
the atheist must face death with despair. If the atheist is right we
must follow the instructions of Bertrand Russell and build our lives on
the "firm foundation of unyielding despair." We must look for the truth
and then logically structure our lives accordingly. Obtaining hope from
the sake of hope, when that religion is not true, is simply obtaining
false hope. False hope is no hope at all.
That is why it is crucial to examine our world views to see if they are
logically consistent and correspond to reality. It does one no good to
put faith and hope into a god who doesn't exist. However, if a god does
exist, we must put our faith and hope into the right one.
We've seen that within the atheistic world view there can be no meaning
or purpose and this leads to hopelessness. The atheist must choose
whether he wants to live consistently or happily. For as long as he is
an atheist, he can't do both.
1. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memorium, (The Macmillan Company: New York, NY, 1906), pp.83-85,
55: 4-5; 56: 1-7.
2. Ravi Zacharias, A Shattered Visage: The Real Face of Atheism. (Baker Books: Grand Rapids, Ml,
1990), p. 105.
3. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, (Crossway Books: Wheaton, IL, 1984), p. 59.
4. Craig, p.63.
5. Friedrich Nietzsche, "The Will to Power," trans. W. kaufmann, in , (The World Publishing Company: Cleveland, OH, 1956), pp. 109-110.
6. Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic. (W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.: New York, NY, 1929), pp. 47-49.
7. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, (Philosophical Library: New York, NY, 1956), p.537.
8. Matthias Claudius, Death and the Maiden. Quoted in Walter kaufmann, Existentialism, Religion and Death (New American Library: New York, NY, 1976), p.228.
9. Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols. Quoted in Walter Kaufmann, Existentialism, Religion, and Death. (New American Library: New York, NY, 1976), p.237.
10. Walter kaufmann, Existentialism, Religion, and Death. (New American Library: New York, NY,
1976), p. 248.
11. Thomas Nagel, Mortal Questions. (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1979), p.1.
12. Nagel, p.4.
13. Nagel, p.7.
14. Nagel, p.10.