Are Atheists Scared of Death?

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Sorta transcript:

Researchers at Oxford University have conducted a meta-analysis in which they examined 100 studies concerning fear of death, looking for correlations with religiosity. They found some surprising results about atheists when compared to the very religious.

I’ve always thought of religion as something that is so popular, in part, because it tells us a nice story about what happens after we die. It gives us some hope that after death, we might be able to keep being ourselves, and we can still see all our loved ones. That’s overly simplistic, of course, especially considering the popularity of religions that didn’t even start with much of an idea of any afterlife at all. Even the ancient Jews didn’t have a “heaven” so much as a dark, shadowy pit where everybody probably ends up. It wasn’t exactly a happy story and even then, not every sect believed it. That’s why if you read the Old Testament, no one comforts anybody who is dying to tell them they’ll end up in heaven soon. God genocides the entire planet but no one discusses whether anyone will end up in a “better place,” except Noah because he gets the info he needs to live. And eventually Noah dies and guess what? No one talks about how great it is that he’s in heaven now.

But still, when I realized I was an atheist, the hardest thing to accept was that I am going to die one day and there’s nothing I can do about it and I will completely cease to exist as the person known as “Rebecca.” Forever. A huge part of me wished I could still believe in a god with a heavenly post-death playground, just so I could sleep at night.

That’s why it surprised me that a number of studies in the meta-analysis supported the idea that the people who fear death the least are the extremely religious true believers AND the atheists. The people with the most death anxiety were the ones who were in the middle — people who are religious but mostly because of the social and cultural benefits, for instance.

In fact, not only did 10 of 11 relevant studies support the U-shaped graph of very religious and nonreligious people being the least afraid of death, but 18% of all the studies in the meta-analysis found that nonreligious people are less afraid of death than religious people.

It’s worth remembering that there is a correlation/causation issue, here: maybe it’s not that people don’t believe in god and find comfort in that as it concerns death, but maybe it’s that people who already don’t fear death don’t feel the need to find comfort in religion, so they drop it or just don’t seek it out in the first place.

I also, though, wonder how much of this is grandstanding. There’s no way to get this information without self-reporting, so we have to rely on people to be honest about their feelings. As an atheist, I’ve had religious people mock me for not believing in an afterlife, and goad me with the idea that I’m just going to rot in the ground one day. It’s hard to say, in the face of a mocking majority, “Yeah, it’s actually really scary.” Because if religious people know you’re scared, they might think that’s a weak point where they might convince you to join their particular religion. They can also use it as a way to convince their flock that atheists are sad and miserable.

I’d much rather say, “I don’t fear death because I know it’s inevitable, and in fact the looming specter of death makes me appreciate each day of my life all the more, and I’m grateful for that.” That’s a strong, positive statement but it’s also a bit of hyperbole. My personal truth would be more like this: “I find my eventual non-existence terrifying but inevitable, so I try not to think about it while instead focusing on making the world a better place for me and everyone else, and while I try to remember that this is the only life I have to live I still want to spend a significant portion of it playing video games.

But that’s just me! I’m sure there are plenty of atheists out there who really don’t worry about death at all. I’m interested to know what you think…are you an atheist who really doesn’t fear death? Or a True Believer who is terrified of it? Let me know in the comments!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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  1. Theoretically you could measure fear of death without self report. Psychologists who work in the area of “terror management theory” will be familiar with a variety of ways that our behaviors change when we’re reminded of the fact that we’re going to die some day. You could see if atheists and very devout folks actually respond less drastically to reminders of their mortality than the culturally religious or whatever.

    I realize that’s not what this study is, but it would be interesting to try.

  2. Yeah, I’m a bit scared right now. Some of it is more that I’m just 32 and I have things I’d like to do before I die. Maybe as I get older I’ll be less afraid? I don’t know.

    Death, though, has been a tougher subject since my wife and occasional Skepchick contributor, Amy Buzalsky, died from stomach cancer back in November.

    She was so scared of death, she crapped herself. Literally! This was when she was in hospice care. The hospice nurse had noted that her blood pressure might drop substantially when she would sit up. She became too scared to get up to use the commode.

    Still, I think she took it as bravely as she could. There was no deathbed conversion back to Christianity, for the record!

    1. Oh my god, I’m so sorry! I googled your wife’s name and I realized that I met you both about 6 years ago in the A-Team atheist meet up group. Amy and you were so gracious as you hosted the meeting in your basement. I remember that she was so sweet, funny, and smart. I can’t imagine what you are going through. I moved back to my home state in ’12 and haven’t kept in touch with most, but I hope you are getting support up there. I am so very sorry.

  3. Hi Rebecca, I too am an atheist, and like you, I mostly just divert my thinking about the subject of death, given that it is inevitable. While I cannot contemplate my own nonexistence, and this brings serious heebie-jeebies, I think that what pisses me off about death is that at some point I will not know what happens next! Not acceptable!(Anecdote: I was having this conversation with a young, religious friend, whose advice was “You should think about the possibility of an afterlife sometime.” She was 28 at the time, and what I found funny was that, at age 62, I have probably spent more time with these thoughts, and in late-night conversations, sometimes chemically-enhanced, than she could ever imagine). – Bob Curtis

  4. I’m an atheist who really hopes I’m wrong.

    That whole eternal life thing is the most powerful marketing/recruitment tool ever devised. It’s such an attractive proposition. Damn. Sucks that it’s most likely not true.

  5. I’m an atheist and I’m reasonably scared of death – scared enough to attempt to avoid it as much as possible. I’m also a bit angry about it – because I’m curious: I always want to see what happens next but I know that, at some point, probably before the heat death of the universe, I will no longer be around to have my curiosity satisfied. I might not even live to be a thousand years old and see what life will really be like in the year 2525!

  6. I don’t fear being dead, but I worry about the process of going from being alive to being dead. The last few years of my parents’ lives were not ones I would want, and some of my contemporaries have died after fighting medical problems for years. Pain and loss of dignity worry me a lot. Being alive isn’t great, so being dead is no worry.

  7. I’m not afraid of being dead. I’m afraid of dying painfully and/or slowly, and of the pain my dying will cause my loved ones.

    If I died right now, I’d probably be all “I wasn’t done yet!” But we all gotta go sometime.

  8. It’s a nice coincidence that last night my teenager asked “What’s the point of all this?” He meant life in general. We had a good talk about how I think there is nothing beyond this life. That once your dead you cease to exist. He had a hard time wrapping his head around that concept. He asked if dead people had it better than living people? I told him that no, dead people are dead and they can’t do anything or experience anything and the point of this life is to have experiences and make the world better and hopefully get some joy out of it. I don’t know if he bought that because, you know, homework exists. Now I’m heading over to Grounded Parents for more help on this subject.

    But to answer the question, I’m not afraid of being dead, I’m scared of the process to get there.

  9. I like to joke that I have no intention of dying until I’ve read every book I own, which should take a couple hundred years at least. Longer, as I continue to add to them. But it’s just a joke.

    A few years ago, I experienced a pulmonary embolism (blood clot in my lungs). I had no idea what was happening, and the symptoms are similar to a heart attack, so I knew it was serious. In the ambulance ride to the hospital, I wondered if I were dying, and momentarily mused about the possibility of a deathbed conversion. I started laughing at that notion. So, thinking I might be dying I still laughed at the thought of a god. In time, with proper medication, I was and continue to be fine. (Curse you, big pharma!)

    I was not and am not anxious to die, but I’m not worried about it. Everyone and everything dies. I love the idea of donating organs so other people can live, but have no delusions of it being as if I live on. I would love to fertilize some plants, or have my cadaver be of use in some Mary-Roach-Stiff kind of way. It doesn’t really matter what’s done with my body, I’ll be dead.

    But for a brief moment in the incredible lifespan of the universe, I’ll have been a part of it. I rather like that.

  10. Furthermore, when I was a kid and a Christian, I was terrified of Judgement Day. I used to have nightmares about it and being unable to find anyone I knew, no friends, no family. I remember one particularly vivid dream where there was a last feast and my dog and I searched everywhere for anyone I knew. I was terrified of “the trumpet sounding.”

    In my dreams I had no idea if I were to be “saved” or condemned; there was never an in-dream explanation for being separated from family, just that horrible church-borne threat that “not everyone will be saved,” and you don’t know who will be and who won’t.

  11. What a fascinating topic! I have no fear of death in the abstract, and in fact occasionally think of death, whenever it should come, as a pleasant relief from the anxieties of living in such an unjust and uncertain world. But that doesn’t mean I would welcome death if it were staring me in the face – my animal instinct will probably prompt me to fight like hell when death really looms.
    But like Peter the Mediocre said, I’m really afraid of become sick and helpless and dependent on caregivers who may not look after me properly.

  12. Reading the post and previous commentary has honestly surprised me quite a bit. I have neither fear nor anxiety of being dead. I had simply assumed that this was typical of atheists, but obviously I was wrong on that score.

    I was brought up in the Episcopal church, so there wasn’t really any fire and brimstone fear-mongering to deal with during my deconversion. That both of my parents expressed fairly practical views on the subject probably also helped.

    My daughter expressed some existential fears when she was around 8 or 9. I talked with her about death and my views on the subject (with some discussion of the viewpoints of various religions as I understand them) and she seemed to overcome her fears pretty well. (Or she realized that talking to me about it was dull and unhelpful and sought other counsel.)

    Like others have stated before me, I do not wish my death and harbor some disquiet about the potential pain and suffering related to the transition itself. But mostly I worry about the circumstances of those of my loved ones I would leave behind. In particular my daughter, though I suppose that goes without saying.

  13. I am an atheist and I have panic attacks about death on about a monthly basis. Sometimes it happens when discussing the universe, time, and eternity.

  14. I found this whole blog and reply posts very interesting and a little sad. I am a true believer in God. I am not a bible thumper and really have no quotes from the bible that will make you believe that “I’m right” and ” you’re wrong”. I cant prove anything and I cant say that I believe in every word of the bible. I am also skeptical. I cant answer all the questions as to why God allows bad things to happen and gets credit for all the good. I just don’t know. I can only say that my experience is what led me back to church and that I believe whole heartedly in God. I believe in Heaven, Hell and Mercy. I believe that you can murder, rape and be a horrible person and still go to heaven and that its between you and God. I don’t know what gets us into heaven… I only know that I do the best that I can to walk a straight line, be kind and share the word. I forgive quickly and try not to dwell on things that I cant control… and when I am stuck, I DO give it to God and Let it go. Am I afraid of death — no. I look forward to my time. No, I do not have a death wish… I am not depressed… I am a very happy person. But I think once I get to heaven ( Hope I get to heaven), that its awesome! No pain, no fear, no jealousy, no missing others… all happy… all smiles…all love. I know..sappy. Sorry !! tochs

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