What Does Atheism Really Offer to, Say, the Dying?

I like this quote from Michael Dirda (a writer for the NY Times) writing about agnostic Julian Barnes’s book on death:

“Beautifully done might also justly describe Nothing to Be Frightened Of. A friend once summed up Julian Barnes’s own daily existence: ‘Got up. . . . Wrote book. Went out, bought bottle of wine. Came home, cooked dinner. Drank wine.’ Some might say: Not much of a life. Yet the philosopher Epicurus maintained that quiet routines like this offer our best response to death: Work hard at what you care about and enjoy moderate pleasures. It’s really very good advice, but probably just a little too sensible for the unruly human heart.”

This is about all that atheism and agnosticism really have to offer to counter the grandiose and fantastic claims of religion, combined perhaps with Monty Python-like “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” humor. It ain’t much, but it has some truth in it, and it is something.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to What Does Atheism Really Offer to, Say, the Dying?

  1. Grad Student says:


    I recently read Barnes’ book and you sort of captured Barnes’ approach to death. He acknowledges the incredible benefits of believing in an afterlife, but then admits he can’t bring himself to believe in it.

    However, he clearly doesn’t approach death with the cheeky absurdity of Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” Instead, he admits that he’s scared to death of death, and then proceeds to explain why nothing, short of a belief in the afterlife, can qualm this fear.

    As I’m in the same boat as Barnes, I was hoping for some sage advice about death, but didn’t get it. I still appreciated his candor and honesty though. Perhaps each non-believer must make his/her own peace with the inevitable.

    -Grad Student

  2. santitafarella says:

    Grad Student:

    The historian Will Durant once wrote (and I believe he was quoting someone else): “Life is a comedy to those who think; a tragedy to those who feel.”

    Durant was contrasting Voltaire with Rousseau.

    As for fear of death, I’m suspicious of people who say that they do not fear death. It’s not a rational response. One of my kids started 1st grade and was terrified of day one. I told her that’s exactly how you’re supposed to feel. The jittery horse wins the race.

    And I like Jacob’s Ladder (the film). I love the scene where the guy holds out all these religious symbols he’s hung around his neck and says: “Nothing works.” Nothing’s supposed to work.

    And saying “Nothing works” doesn’t help either.


  3. santitafarella says:

    Grad Student:

    When I was in grad school one of the English professors was dying of AIDS. One of the other professors went to visit him, and then he told my class what had happened on the visit. He asked the dying professor if all his years of studying literature was helping him face suffering and death.

    He said: “No.”


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