Greta Christina on Coping with Death, No Afterlife Required

December 22, 2014

Our Guest this week is Greta Christina, popular atheist blogger, speaker and author of several books on atheism including her newest, “Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do With God.”

Christina discusses with Lindsay Beyerstein the tendencies we have to avoid and deny death and how it affects our abilities to cope. Christina explains how the concept of an afterlife may actually be failing to prepare people for the end of their lives, and how we can use our humanism and skepticism to find comfort in the midst of mortality and grief.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Monday, December 22nd, 2014. 

Hello and welcome to Point of Inquiry. A production of the Center for Inquiry. I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein. And my guest today is Graddick Christina, the author of the new book Comforting Thoughts about Death that have nothing to Do with God. She’s also the author of Coming Out Atheist. Why are you atheists so angry and bending dirty, kinky stories about pain, power, religion, unicorns and more? 

Gretta, welcome to the program. Oh, thank you so much for having me. 

What inspired you to write a book about comforting thoughts on death? 

Well, there’s my own personal story, and then there’s the story of just what I see around me in his community. My own personal story is that when I was leaving my religious and spiritual beliefs, adjusting to the idea of life with no afterlife was by far the hardest part about it. And it was very upsetting. It was very traumatic. And that was before I really knew that there was an atheist community or a skeptical community. And I didn’t know that there was any writing or thinking that had already been done on this issue. And I kind of had to reinvent the wheel. I kind of had to go through it alone. And it was very traumatic having to come up with my own ways of dealing with my own mortality and the death of people I love. It was very painful and I don’t want anybody else to have to go through that. And so I wanted to write this book so that people who are leaving religion or have already left religion, you know, death is often a big issue. It’s often why people stay. And religion is because they’re afraid to deal with the idea of of mortality. And I want to get these ideas about how we can cope with mortality and how we can cope with grief out into the world so that people who are adjusting to an atheist life or even who have been atheists for a long time can have some ideas on some ways to cope. 

It’s interesting, we live in a pretty religious society on average, but at the same time are also kind of notoriously denying society and a lot of ways. How do you reconcile those two things? 

You know, it’s interesting that you ask that because I did a little bit of writing and research about that very issue. And there’s this what seems like a paradox, but I don’t think it is a paradox. There’s some research showing that people who are very, very religious and who use religion to cope with death, that when they are very close to death, they are more likely than secular people to have extreme medical interventions in the last week of their life. And they’re less likely to be prepared for death. They’re less likely to have wills. They’re less likely to have advanced directives about their healthcare in case they’re unconscious or near death and can make decisions for themselves. There’s all these different ways where they are. They’re less likely to have discussed the question of what to do when they’re very ill, what to do when they’re dying, less likely to have made these preparations for death. And that seems surprising. You know, you would think that, oh, well, they think they’re going to heaven. They or they’re going to be reborn or whatever. They got death solved. Right. They think they’re immortal and that death isn’t real. So why wouldn’t they be able to face it? And why wouldn’t they be able to deal with it with a fair degree of planning and calm? But I think that actually makes sense if you think of religion not as a way of coping with death, but as a way of denying it. And it’s a sort of a way of putting it on the back burner and you just don’t really have to think about it. And then when these issues actually come up, they’re not really prepared because they haven’t really thought about it. And I don’t know if this is universally true, but I think it’s very common. It was certainly true for me when I was a religious believer. I think there’s a lot of religious believers who kept their religious beliefs about death, but they kind of know in the back of their mind that it’s bull. You know, they kind of know. So we’re in the back of their mind that there’s no real good reason to think this, that they don’t have any really good evidence, that they kind of just believe it because everybody else around them believes it. And it’s sort of wishful thinking. And so I think that when that’s true, when your beliefs about death, when you know on some level that they’re not supported, that makes it harder to really face death. It makes it harder to think about, you know, yes, I’m going to die some day. And so here are the things that I want to have happen when I’m dying and when I do die. Whereas, you know, what this research showed is that people who are more secular are more likely to have thought about these issues. They’ve made plans ahead of time. And when they are in their last week of life, they’re less likely to seek out extreme medical interventions. So, yeah, it’s kind of a paradox, but I think it’s important to remember because I think atheists tend to concede the ground of death. We tend to think, you know, religion’s got that one. You know, there’s lots of things that are great about Athie ism, including the fact that it’s true. And, you know, that are supported by, you know, evidence and reason and all that and lots of other advantages to an atheist and humanist and skeptical life. But we tend to say, yeah, yeah, death. It would be much better if we. Believe that we’re not really going to die and we’re going to live forever. But when you look at this research, you kind of realize that’s not necessarily true. There are some real advantages to a secular way of viewing death, one of which is that you’re actually facing up to it and you’re not denying it. And so you can face it with some degree of reality. 

In the book, you talk about how religious beliefs, like classic theological beliefs about what the afterlife is like seem reassuring if you don’t look at them too carefully. 

But if you actually start contemplating them, it turns out that they have their own loaded emotional baggage and stuff to worry about. 

I think that that’s definitely true. It’s not universally true, but I think it’s often true. It’s one of the things about religious beliefs, about death is that they’re comforting on the surface. But then when you start thinking about them more carefully, they’re not that comforting. I think heaven is a perfect example of that. You know, you think. Oh, yes. How? It’ll be a blissful afterlife and everybody else will be there and they ought to say goodbye to anybody ever. And everything will be awesome. But think about what that means. I mean, if you are who you are in heaven, how can you be who you are and yet not have conflict with other people? You know, it’s like one of the things that makes us who we are is that we have differences and we have different, different ways of looking at things and differences of opinion. And it’s like I fight with my family all the time. I think most people fight with their family. And if we are who we are, there’s going to be conflict. And so you can’t just magically wave that away by saying, well, you’ll be in heaven. So there will be any conflict. It’s like either you’re going to have conflict or you’re not going to really be who you are. I think another really good example of it is if you believe in any kind of hell, you know, Christians don’t really have a very good answer for how can heaven be blissful if you know that people you care about or even just strangers are being eternally tormented. And this is a very real problem for a lot of Christians who are very upset by this and their family members who have left the faith. And they are just really tormented and really upset by. I know I’m going to heaven, but my kids aren’t going to heaven. My kids are going to be tortured in hell for eternity. How can haven’t you haven’t. And there’s not really a good answer to that. There’s some theological answers. William Lynn Craig, I think this horrible thing, which was that you just won’t think about it. You’re gonna be so blessed at blissed out by being in the presence of Jesus. You’re not even gonna be aware of your family and your friends who are being tortured. Well, what? That’s horrible. One of the major things that makes me who I am is that I love the people in my life. 

Also, it’s something you have to worry about right now if you’re not in heaven, that you have to think, well, am I going to heaven? Are always other people that I care about going to heaven. You still have to think about that. That’s gone because of anxiety in the here and now. Even if it turns out that somehow heaven is actually a bliss down state where you don’t worry about that stuff anymore. 

Yeah, exactly. And that’s very traumatic. When you talk with atheists who are former religious believers, there are some who say, yeah, I feel the sense of loss. It’s like I used to believe in this comforting afterlife and now I don’t. There’s a lot to say. This is a huge relief because I was tormented by the ideas. I constantly had fear. I constantly had anxiety about it. And now I don’t have to worry about that. 

Possibly there’s some things built into Christian theology, but how you’re not supposed to speculate about who’s not going and who’s going to heaven, you think that they’re trying to sort of backstop against people getting caught up in these sort of loops? 

You know, it seems to vary from set to sect and to some extent from person to person. There are some religious some varieties of Christianity where they’re obsessed with who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell. And they’re very certain that they know the answer. They know if you had an abortion, you’re going to hell. If you’re gay, you’re going to hell. They’re really fixated on it. Then a lot of their preaching is about who is going to hell and who’s going to heaven. There’s other sects and also just other individuals that don’t focus on it at all. I mean, I think that there’s some very progressive versions of Christianity that don’t believe in hell at all. And then there’s other sort of more moderate versions where they will basically make exceptions. They will rationalize themselves to pieces about how the people that they like are going to happen with them no matter what it’s like. Well, my kids don’t believe and they left the faith, but they’re going to get in there somehow because they’re good people. You know, that’s that’s actually really common. Is that kind of wishy rationalizing of how everybody, like, is going to go no matter what? 

And do you make exceptions, including pets? A lot of people. 

Definitely. Which is funny because I think if I recall correctly, Catholic theology is very clear that dogs and cats don’t have souls and don’t go to heaven. And yet people are very convinced that they’re going to see their beloved pets in heaven. So so that’s I guess what I’m getting at is, I think one of the main reasons that religion is less comforting in the face of death than we often think it is, is that you can’t really think about these questions very carefully, that once you start thinking about them, you start realizing, well, this doesn’t make any sense. And that’s ultimately not very comforting. If you have a foundation for how you cope with death and mortality and grief and you can’t think about it very carefully because the minute you start thinking about it, you start going down the rabbit hole of it doesn’t really make any sense. That’s not very comforting and certainly my experience has been that as a humanist and a skeptic and an atheist, that when I was confronting my own mortality, when I was diagnosed with cancer a couple of years ago, and fortunately, I’m fine now if you’re listening to this. They got it all, but good to hear. But those really terrifying. And, you know, and it happened literally two weeks after my father died of a stroke. So I was really chilling with mortality and death and grief all at once. And I did find that my humanist and my skeptic views of death were very comforting. And they were comforting because I could think about them and because they could examine them and they could meditate on them. And I knew I wasn’t lying to myself. I knew that there was based in reality. And that’s a tremendous comfort. 

What were some of the thoughts that you and philosophies that you found helpful in coping with that really difficult time? 

I mean, this view and obviously this is a lot of what the book is about and it’s too many to really get into. But one of them is the idea that death is just that it’s a part of life, that it’s part of nature, of the thing where it connects you in a weird way with the universe, even as you’re disappearing from it, because it’s just it’s part of physical cause and effect. It’s how life works. And I actually found it sort of strangely comforting to think that there was no reason for it. So I think that’s one thing where religious believers really get tied up in knots if they’re facing serious illness, if they’re, you know, mortally ill or authority they love is sick or dies. They often get an especially sick die in some terrible way. It’s like a terrible, painful sickness or an accident to the young or something like that. They often get very caught up in either guilt because they think that they’re being punished or anger at God. You know, with like, you know, or just confusion about why is God doing this to me and knowing that what was happening to me? Look, this is just how the world works, its physical cause and effect. You know, we evolved as animals. And evolution doesn’t give a damn if we eventually dies. What myths which survive and reproduce. And if we don’t survive and reproduce well, somebody else will. And just knowing that meant that I could just cope with the situation as it was that I didn’t have to be tortured with either guilt or anger, trying to figure out why is this happening to me? It’s like, why is this happening to me as life happens like that sometimes? 

I mean, if you have a sort of soul based, God based view of things. Death almost seems aberrant that we have immortal, enduring souls. And the idea that it could all just stop seems like a breach of the natural order. But if you think of it in more naturalistic terms. Death was always part of life. That was a given. That’s not something that’s upsetting the way things should be. It’s not an injustice in and of itself. 

Yeah, exactly. And then so there’s not that sense of it being unjust or unfair. Obviously, there are some deaths that are unfair in the human sense. You know, young black people getting shot by cop for no good reason. You know, that’s obviously horribly unjust. But it’s sort of the larger sense and especially talking about illness or age. That’s how life works. So that I found very comforting. And I was also very comforted by the idea that I was really lucky to have gotten born in the first place. But when you add up the odds against that sperm and that egg happening to need at that moment, then multiply that by the odds of my parents being born and onto their parents being born and going. That’s the odds that I’m even here at all. It’s beyond astronomical. And so complaining about the fact that I’m going to die feels to me like winning a million dollars in the lottery and complaining because it wasn’t a hundred billion. I was just lucky to be here. And it feels weird to be complaining because I don’t get to live forever. And so that’s something that was very consoling. 

What do you say to people, atheists who say, well, nothing matters because we’re all going to die? 

What I think is what do you mean by matters? If we’re atheists and we’re humanists, we create our own meaning, you know, in our meaning is here in this life. And certainly one of the ideas of philosophy that I find very comforting is that things don’t have to be permanent to be meaningful. And they want to. And you can think about that in our own lives. You know, we have these moments where you you lock eyes with a person you love and it’s just for like 10 seconds. And that moment means more to you than almost anything else to these moments of joy. The fact that they’re fleeting doesn’t make them not meaningful. I think we do, especially in Western culture, have this idea that permanence is the measure of importance. But I think that it’s worth letting go of that. You know, and I also say that, honestly, one of the most comforting ideas that really has helped me deal with mortality and with grief is the idea that it’s OK for it to suck. I think that a lot of religious believers, they feel like they should feel better about it because, hey, this isn’t really death. This is just a vacation. And I’m going to see this person for a few years, but I’m going to see them in the afterlife. So why am I grieving? Like I’m never going to see them again. And people feel this sort of guilt and this cognitive dissonance about this. They do feel grief and the fact they do feel fear and I feel like as atheists and naturalists, we can say this sucks. It sucks to lose the people that we care about it. It is sad and scary to be immortal and to think about death. And that doesn’t make us bad people. We’re not bad atheists, even though it’s because, you know, we understand that death is natural. But fear of death is also a natural. 

We descended from a long line of animals who really, really wanted to live things that didn’t die. We had to really have to die. 

And I think accepting that that that’s sort of in a weird way is comforting that you don’t have to tear yourself up wondering why am I afraid? Why am I grieving? 

You can just kind of feel your feelings, which are in many ways natural biological processes, too. Exactly. Do you feel that transhumanism is kind of the atheist answer to religious denial in terms of our own mortality? 

Oh, transhumanism. That’s a large, complicated question. I mean, the short and I won’t go on about it too much. The short answer is yes. I do think it’s a form of denial. So for people who aren’t familiar with it, transhumanism is the idea that we not only can, but that we someday will and probably fairly soon will be able to understand enough about neurology and understand enough about computer technology to be able to transfer our selves, our consciousness and our identity into computers. And that that way we’ll be in computers, we will be in these mortal bodies, and we’ll be able to just live forever. And I do think this is a denial of reality in a lot of ways. 

I mean, for one thing, we don’t know whether consciousness relies on that specific biology of brains. 

We don’t know enough about consciousness to be able to say whether that’s true or not. It’s possible, hypothetically, I suppose, that computer then computer programs could have consciousness, but people are sort of acting as if that’s a done deal and we don’t really know the answer to that. And then you have the question of is who we are based on being sensory beings? You know, is it based on having sight, having sound, smell, touch, taste? Is that central to being conscious? And would we even be conscious if we’re just a computer program that’s not perceiving? There’s also the issue that, you know, computers crash. It’s I that would be a computer makes you immortal. Being a computer program makes you immortal. Computers do crash. Add to that the larger problem. I guess that put that in air quotes problem that a few billion years the sun is gonna go red giant and everything on earth is going to be boiled away. And then a few billion years after that, you’ve got the ultimate heat death of the universe. So even if transhumanism were true and we really could transfer ourselves into computers, it would be similar enough to being conscious that it would be some sort of continuity of identity and somehow there will magically never crash. 

Still, that doesn’t really solve the problem of mortality. It just kind of puts it off a few hundred or a few thousand years. 

But that’s kind of a more appealing vision, I would think, because if you posit immortality in terms of magic, there’s no way to get off this train. I mean, it might be rational to want to terminate your existence at some point and have all these Greek myths of people who wished for eternal life and not eternal youth and stuck. What people really want to just live a lot longer? 

Well, it’s again, you know, we evolved from a long line of animals who really didn’t want to die. And that survival instinct is very strong enough. And that makes sense and it makes sense to some extent from a philosophical standpoint. You know, life is precious and we should value it. We should morna when it passes. But I do think that denying the reality of death and denying the reality that nothing else this planet is going to die in the universe is going to die, that that’s not, I think, a very hopeful way of dealing with the reality of death. 

Do you feel that acknowledging the finality of life helps us live better and more meaningfully? 

Well, I think that that depends on the person. Certainly, I’ve found that to be true. And there’s many other atheists who have found that to be true. A way that I sometimes think of it is I think of death as a deadline and a very deadline driven person. I don’t do things until the last minute. And one of the things that I say in the book is that I would love to think of myself as the sort of person who, if I were immortal, I would do wonderful things with that immortality. You know, I would spend one century learning to be a doctor and a researcher and curing all these diseases. 

And then I’d spend another century reading everything, reading all the great literature that I’ve ever wanted to read and that I’d spend another century traveling the world. I know myself. I would spend immortality sitting on the sofa watching television, and I would put off all that other stuff that I want to do. I would put off the becoming a doctor and reading all the literature and traveling the world because I’m immortal. 

I’ve got all the time in the world. I can do that whenever. Right now, why don’t I just put my feet up and watch TV? And I think that there is this sense in which when we accept that life is finite, it. Makes it more precious. And I know that for myself. And again, this isn’t universally true, but for myself, it makes me really want to savor this life. It makes me want to like how all the amazing experiences that I can have and really experience them richly and not just kind of spaced out on them. And it makes me want to help other people, you know, knowing that other people also have finite lives. It makes me want to make those was better. The fact that there are people who words is born into poverty and misery and despair and they only get one life and it’s a really short and it’s really miserable, that really drives me to try to make the world a better place in a way that if I did believe that all those people were going to heaven, I might not be as driven. I might just be. Well, yeah, they thought, you know, poverty, despair, misery. But they they get to live forever and be in heaven. So why should I do anything about it now? 

One thing that fascinates me is the fact that some atheists are so resistant or almost hostile to a positive or economical view of our own mortality that they seem to think it’s some kind of self-delusion in and of itself. 

Yeah, that’s something that really surprised me when I started when I first started writing about atheists and humanists and skeptical views of death and started talking about there are ways that we can view death that are comforting, that are more positive. I didn’t get this sort of weird pushback and it really took me a back. And I’m not sure I know what exactly it’s about. I think some of it is there’s a lot of atheists who they really strive to not be self deluded. And I applaud that. I try to strive to do that myself. You that they really strive to just see the world as it is. But there’s this tendency, I think, to think that realism means seeing the world as being crummy. You can hope and then and I don’t think that’s necessarily true. And I think that as long as the ways that we frame our experience are based in evidence and based on reality, and we’re willing to change them if new evidence comes in that framing the world and framing our experience in a way that we do find comforting or useful or inspiring or that gives it meaning. I don’t see that as a form of denial. It’s just we have experience and we can have some choices in how we frame it. So I think some of it is sort of this equation of realism with pessimism. And I think to some extent, I think that a lot of atheists have what I can only call internalized atheel phobia. 

Maybe to some extent we all do. We all have this. We were brought up in a culture that despises atheists and that treats religion as the only way to experience joy and meaning in life. And it’s hard not to internalize that, you know, the same way that women internalize ideas about sexism and the same way that gay people internalize homophobic ideas. But I think that we can sometimes buy into the very cultural ideas that oppress us. And I think that sometimes that’s true with atheists and atheists do sometimes buy into the idea that religion is better religious ways of living, religious ways, a view in the world are better, and sometimes we do it in ways that we’re not even aware of. 

There’s also a kind of chauvinism, too, that’s really very unfounded. The idea that choosing to find meaning in your own life is somehow less intellectually rigorous than denying the possibility of meaning. And they’re both pretty easy arguments to make and they’re both defensible. But one seems to result in a much better life. 

It’s like this hyper intellectual ism and, you know, and is not at all to dismiss intellectual ism. I consider myself an intellectual and I have great respect for the intellect. But there’s sometimes this tendency to treat intellect as if it was absolutely the be all and end all of human experience. And as if emotion, as if passion, as if a sense of wonder, a sense of all sense of being connected with the world as if experiences of art either creating art or appreciating art and other forms of culture. You know, there’s this saying that we sometimes see in Isiah’s culture. I think it’s starting to change. But we do sort of see this idea that if it’s not just about brains, it’s not just about brains and logic and reason, that it’s not strictly rigorous. Did you ever see the talk that Julia Gale of gave that skeptic on a few years ago on the straw Vulcan fallacy? Oh, yes. Yes, that was great. And yeah. There’s sort of this idea that what it means to be a rational person is to be so logical that you’re essentially ignoring or shutting out emotional and sensory experience. And that’s in itself not logical. It’s because the reality is that we are we are animals. We are sacks of meat with emotions and sensations. And denying that reality is, I think, a form of irrational reality, denial. 

And even if you want to be as rational and collected and cerebral as possible, your own fears and anxieties get in the way of coherent thought. So you think that cultivating a life beauty allows you to manage those emotions is in itself a perfectly rational and rigorous goal to set for yourself? 

Yeah, I think that’s a good way of putting it. Actually, I that going back to the religious believers who showed. Fears about death onto the back burner until it’s staring them with the face. I think we don’t want to replicate that. We don’t want to be pretending that we’re just brains in a jar. Then there were superduper irrational until all the sudden death and grief is upon us. And what do you know? We act like animals. We act like social animals who want to live and who want the people we love to live. So, yeah, I think it makes more sense. It’s more rational to accept that this is a part of our lives. Then also there’s this tendency among people who do sort of claim this mantle of hyper intellectual ism, which is that they’re not always very good at seeing their own biases. I think we see that a lot in the atheist community, people who are so convinced that because they got the answer to one very important question, right, that they figured out that there was no God, therefore, because they’re familiar with cognitive biases, therefore, they’re not subject to them. Right. And that because they’ve figured out the answer to this one very important question, therefore, they’re smarter than everybody else. So, yeah, I think that there’s a tendency to think that we are above bias and that we’re above emotion and our thought processes are above be influenced by that. And that’s never, ever, ever, ever true. 

Well, that’s all the time we have. Thank you so much for coming on the show. 

Oh, you’re so welcome. Thank you so much for having me. 

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.