Why Do We Die?

Question from Casey:
How do you comprehend death? How do manage to remain sane knowing that someone has been ripped from your lives for what you believe to be no reason?

Answer by Andrea:
Hi Casey,

I don’t see death as being “no reason.” As a science buff/journalist, I see it more as the natural order of things, as far as old age goes (please see the law of entropy).

If death is due to sickness or murder (not that I can speak from experience in latter case), I find it much more comforting to think of it as being a random event that we have no control over, rather than some capricious god who chose to “off” someone “just because.”

My dear grandmother passed away from old age and she often told me she was afraid of dying alone. There was not much I could do, since my life is not in Europe, but what I did do was visit for the summers and write a postcard to her every 1-2 weeks. I think it helped.

Often we say to ourselves, we’ll do this and that with this person sometime. But in my case, I did what I could then, and when she passed away I felt awful and missed her very much, but it made me feel so much better that I did what I could while she was alive.
And that’s all you can do.

I’m not sure what your situation is with respect to this question, but please accept my sympathies if they are warranted, and I’m so sorry there’s probably nothing I can say that time won’t eventually take care of.

Best to you,

Answer by SmartLX:
There’s always a reason why people die. There may not be any purpose to it, but there’s always a reason: they were old, or they were murdered, or there was an accident, or their immune system failed them. When we ask why someone has died, this kind of answer is always available to some extent. Furthermore, this kind of answer is often useful in the prevention of other deaths, for example by catching the killer, fencing off the cliff edge or preventing the disease.

To my mind, knowing that there’s no purpose to a loved one’s death is no worse that believing there is a purpose but having no idea what it is, and no hope of ever knowing. The suffering and death of a good person is hard to explain in a world with an all-powerful, benevolent guardian watching over us (though that doesn’t stop people from explaining it…in many different ways), but it’s really very easy to explain in a world with no such being: it happened because of this and this, and it’s sad that the person is gone but they left their mark on the world.

If you imagine that atheists are completely at a loss when confronted with death then you imagine that our worldviews are simply the Christian worldview with a God-shaped hole in it. (This is becoming a catchphrase with me.) It sounds obvious but it’s worth specifically considering that when one doesn’t believe in a god, one also doesn’t believe that meaning and purpose in life depend entirely on a god. Therefore the common existential challenge of comprehending death, while certainly a challenge (see this earlier question), does not automatically shatter an atheist.

If a recent death affecting your life is the reason you asked this question, I sympathise along with Andrea.

The Basics

“You’ve gone very wide, so I’ll be very shallow initially.”

Question from Matthew:
I don’t have any friends who claim to be atheist and I simply like to understand the position better. If you have any other input in addition to these questions I would appreciate it. Thanks.
1. Do you believe that a personal God exists? Why or why not?

2. Do you believe that Jesus Christ was God incarnate? Why or why not?

3. What is the purpose of human existence?

4. How do you know what is right and wrong?

5. What happens to a person at death?

I assume you know the answers to some of those, but I appreciate that you want to hear it from the horse’s mouth. You’ve gone very wide, so I’ll be very shallow initially. If you want more detail, comment and ask for it, and/or better yet read through some older questions.

1. An atheist does not believe that any god exists, let alone a personal capital-G God. The reason is generally lack of evidence or convincing arguments supporting the existence of such a god, and that’s the case with me. Check out The Great Big Arguments #1-#6, consisting of most of the early pieces on this new site, to see why the well-known arguments you might be in the habit of using have not proved convincing.

2. If one does not believe in gods, why would one believe despite this that Jesus was the incarnation of a specific god?

Leaving the basic position of atheism aside, the claim that Jesus was God does not stand on its own merit. The New Testament was written by people who all wanted people to believe it, whether or not it was true. The prophecies supposedly fulfilled by Jesus were available to his chroniclers, making them candidates for #5. Made to Order (in my terminology) on the list of explanations that must be considered besides the false dilemma of pure chance and true prescience. Surviving extra-Biblical documentation of Jesus, for instance that passage by Josephus, has its own issues.

3. Since the human race developed on its own and needed no creator, there was no external purpose for its emergence. The reason for the existence of humans is that life arose on a planet saturated with its building blocks, and then competed with itself over billions of years. During this demanding competition, more and more complex forms became the standard until we were the next evolutionary step.

If you mean to ask why we bother to keep existing now, it’s because we want to. There isn’t much of an alternative that we know of. As for giving purpose to individual human lives, humans can do that themselves.

4. From many different sources – the law, historical precedent, varying philosophies (including religious ones) formulated over the centuries, common sense, simple concepts such as fairness and the minimisation of harm, etc. – we have built a very good picture of what is right and wrong to humans. Obviously we don’t agree on everything, but we do agree on most things.

Any of the above sources could be wrong, and any could be challenged, but they’re there and each one tends to be consistent. The alternative is to appeal to an absolute morality, one independent of humans, which may not even exist and simply cannot be tested. I don’t need the whole universe to agree with me that what I do is right, but if most of the human race agrees based on real concepts that can be reasoned through, then I literally have a reasonable basis for my actions.

5. At death, a person ceases to exist. The person’s condition is often described using that rare and fascinating antonym of “existence”, namely “oblivion”. What happens to a person after death is therefore not worth considering, because after death there is no longer a person for anything to happen to. There is only a body. We have one life. Good thing it’s an interesting life.

Chew on that lot and speak up if you’d like to explore anything.