Is It Rational To Fear One’s Own Death?
(This piece was turned into a podcast; check it out)
Crane accidents. Go-kart racing mishaps. Falling pedestrian bridges. Cancer. Earthquakes. The fear of death has to be the most natural human fear ever. I think, though, that it may be among the most irrational i.e. nobody should fear death’s outcome for one’s self.
We can (and should) fear the deaths of other people, but there should be nothing to worry about after we die. And this applies to both religionists nor atheists. Let me explain.
If you’re a Muslim, you know what you have to do. Malaysian Muslims, in particular, will have no shortage of reminders of the criteria for living a life acceptable unto God. There’s a ‘checklist’, simply follow it and you’re (more or less) assured a path to immortal life after death.
Likewise, Christians have their salvation ‘criteria’. There is no secret here. Indeed, one concern about Christians are that they are overly hung up of ‘what happens after death’ (or, to use a less charitable term, on buying hellfire insurance). Still, the point is that no Christian need fear death.
In fact, if any Muslim or Christian remain afraid of dying they would either be a) confusing death with the process of dying or b) extremely doubtful of their own faith.
The path from, say, the first detection of cancer to our last breath can be very painful and filled with suffering. Likewise the idea of being a victim of a terrorist attack is certainly frightening. Nevertheless, if one believes in God then logically there needn’t be any fear about what will transpire to us after we pass. Upon death, the Muslim believes (or at least she should) that the soul will go back to Allah, as how the Christian believes (or at least he should) that his soul will be with Jesus.
It is a paradoxical truth that (usually) anyone who believes in hell do not view themselves as being eventual residents of it. We are most likely to pronounce others, as opposed to ourselves, as ‘going to hell’ (and, hence, having to fear death).
[Serious exceptions are those who feel they have done a deed so terrible that God will never forgive or accept them. I would imagine, though, if you and your friend belong to a certain religion and you’re aware of your friend feeling this way, you should educate and restore the person back to faith. The bottom line, again, is that there is no need to be afraid of dying if you’re part of a monotheistic faith-community].
My remarks about Muslims and Christians also apply broadly to Buddhists and Hindus, too. There are ‘Specified End Goals’ for the faith─e.g. Enlightenment, moksha, paramatma, etc. (see Note 1 and 2)─and the faithful know how to achieve these. As with monotheism, there may be debates and ambiguity among different interpretations of the religion, but within a particular interpretation there is no ambiguity about ‘how to reach heaven’ (or its equivalent).
For those without a faith-community, the ‘free-thinkers’ or atheists, things are somewhat tricky. But I think the result should be the same: no fear over one’s own death.
If I’m an atheist, this means I reject the teleological ends offered / promised / ‘threatened’ by all religions. I reject the idea of heaven or hell. In most cases, I would even reject the idea of a soul. In fact, to hold on to the idea of a personal soul (or a soul-like thing) whilst discarding the thought that a Meta-Person or Meta-Consciousness had created (or generated) this ‘soul’ would be inconsistent.
Generally, death for me — as an atheist — logically involves the cessation of consciousness. That’s it. Because I reject all ideas of the afterlife as unwarranted intrusions in a universe which is reducible to science, this position — that I simply cease to exist — is the only rational conclusion.
Philosopher Todd May remarks:
When we die, we are on longer capable of experience. We either are, or we are not…if we die, we are no longer (and) if we are no longer, then there is nothing left to be able to fear from it.
Death is, in this sense, just a stop. A full stop to what my life has been.
It does not promise reward and does not menace with damnation. There is simply nothing — so why should I fear nothing? Note that death (on this view) is very different from, say, visiting an alien place. If I visit an alien place, it’s still me visiting (with all my feelings, vulnerabilities, fears, etc.) But in death I no longer am, I no longer feel anything. So not only is there nothing to fear, there is no fearing person involved anymore.
I raised this on Facebook and there were a few pushbacks.
First, someone said that the fear is precisely due to the fact that we don’t know what will happen after death, even if we don’t subscribe to any religion. But, as I see it, to claim (as an atheist) that I face an unknown post-life experience would cast doubt on one’s atheistic credentials, for what ‘room’ is there for anything remaining after life? If there is no God, if there is no Impersonal Cosmic Consciousness or ‘Nirvana’ (see Note 3), if this life is ‘all there is’, is atoms, electrons or super-mini ‘strings’ encapsulate existence, then how can there be anything ‘after’ I pass away?
And if there is nothing to face, if there is only the nothingness of non-consciousness, then why should I fear? Or, do I fear because I have never experienced the ‘feeling’ of feeling nothing? If so, how is this not irrational given that there can be nothing bad or fearful to feel, since there is no more ‘feeler’ let alone anything to feel?
Secondly, there is the suggestion that we all fear death (regardless of our beliefs) because of our animal-ish survival instincts. But this is irrelevant and doesn’t address the rationale for being afraid. To continue being afraid (of nothing) due to our biological nature, merely states the fact of fear, not its justification. It is, to put it bluntly, irrational.
To reiterate, it makes perfect sense to fear the death of others, especially family and friends. When others pass away, our pain remains. This is understood. But─to ask the question again─why should we fear our own death when there is no (apparent) logical reason to?
Either our souls go back to our Makers whom we believe will take care of us, or we stop existing and thus stop feeling — and thus cease to fear.
Note 1: In Hinduism, salvational ‘ends’ come in at least three forms: impersonal liberation (very much like Nirvana), localized supersoul primordiality and personal blissful relationship with God (e.g. with Krishna). Buddhism, as I understand it, has similar concepts with different names, although Buddhism places a greater emphasis on enlightenment and the cessation of desire than Hinduism.
Note 2: The odd one out, in my view, is Chinese ancestor worship in which the souls of the departed need to be ‘escorted home’ failing which they may wander in a state of restlessness and sorrow. Nevertheless, this is still a huge improvement from ancient Greek views of the afterlife in which upon death I become a phantom spectre spending a shady existence in Hades, a kind of never-ending sub-immortality.
Note 3: As I understand the doctrine of Nirvana, it is basically when the droplet of the soul merges back into the ocean of the cosmos, finally ending the illusion of self, consciousness, desire. In other words, as a person I also cease to exist — not unlike atheism.