Atheism and the fear of death

Charles 9 Comments

Posted by Vale

It’s natural to fear death and you might think that, just as naturally, religion would help you face and overcome your fears. But it ain’t necessarily so. In a recent book, Society Without God, Anne, a 43 year old Hospice nurse from Aarhus in Denmark is interviewed. The author, Robert Zuckerman records that:

She told me that in her many years of experience working with the dying, she found that it was generally the atheists who had an easier time calmly accepting their fate, while Christians had the hardest time facing death, often being racked with worry and anxiety.

The book is a fascinating read. Zuckerman spent months interviewing people in Denmark and Sweden – the least religious in the world – to find out how secularism on such a scale affects society. Throughout you hear the authentic voices of ordinary people. Leif, a 75 year old, is a Jew and a self designated atheist. Asked what he thinks happens after we die he answers:


‘And how does that make you feel?’

‘Well, not very sorry. It is as it is. Really I don’t feel anything about it especially.’

‘You’re not worried or scared?’

‘No I’m not. I’m not very well in health anyway, but I’m not worried.’

Sometimes we hear the surprise of the author. Reflecting on the number of non-believers who show no fear of death at all, he says that, that:

when sociologist of religion William Sims Bainbridge asks ‘How can humans…deal with the crushing awareness of mortality’ I think he is committing a mistake that many scholars of religion commit: assuming that his own fears about death are universal, when clearly they aren’t.

The effect of the interviews – on every aspect of life and society – is to present a real challenge to the argument of the religious that, without belief, society descends into sin and despair. Is it a coincidence that Danes and Swedes are recorded as the most contented in the world?

Britain, you might want to note, is not far off Scandinavia in terms of our own lack of religion.

You can buy a copy here. And there’s a good review of the book in the New York Times here.


  1. Charles

    This is a very welcome post for me, Vale, thanks. Not because it might be seen as giving “ammunition” to those of us who don’t believe in a Christian afterlife (whatever else we may believe) – the whole atheists vs Christians row gets a bit tedious and unhelpful after a short while, at least, at the level of beliefs. Public policy may be a different matter.

    The real point for me is that it is clearly possible for very large numbers of people to live out their lives without being terrified because they don’t believe in the continuity of a consciousness or a soul.

  2. Charles

    I can’t deny a small spirit of mischief when we I wrote it, GM, but you’re right, this is much more serious than irritating Christians.

    What struck me most about the book is that it offers a compelling example of a secular society that has sustained a compassionate concern with others and which seems to offer a satisfying (and fear free) basis for both living and dying.

    There are ironies too. The author notes that it is the post/non religious Scandinavians who have the most developed and supportive welfare systems in the world, while some of the most noisily religious societies are comparatively uncaring.

    I think that secularism needs to move past the old arguments about god or no god and start to develop models of secular living that stand for themselves as both fulfilling and sustainable. Society Without God is a great starting point.

  3. Charles

    How do you measure the religiosity of a country? Not by the census, if the British one is anything to go by! But I’m willing to believe this island is a lot less religious than many would have us think.

    Of course a secular society can live without fear of death better than can a religious one – doesn’t the author remember all that ‘… but thou oh lord have mercy upon us miserable offenders’ crap? I’d be shitting myself, too, if I believed I’d be going before such an infantile and despotic Judge.

    As for the argument about ‘is there a god or isn’t there?’… surely, surely we’ve gone way beyond the point where we have to even dimly remember those stupid conversations? If you say there are flower pots at the heart of the sun, I don’t even need to trouble myself with a reply; certainly not to argue with you about it. So let’s not bother calling it secular; it stands by itself without comparison.

    And it doesn’t surprise me in the least that religious communities turn out to be the least compassionate.

  4. Charles

    No, surely we haven’t, Jonathan, gone entirely beyond the point of arguments over belief, judging by internet arguments and even, occasionally, by discussions between actual breathing and talking people.

    We might wish we had. And in our various social circles, it’s tempting to think so. But as so often in this context, we may be thinking of liberal-minded atheists/agnostics discussing things with liberal-minded Christians, in a British context.

    Three categories: ultra-conservative Christians in the USA; militant Islamists (to use a rather lazy term); ultra-orthodox Jews, and not just in Israel.

    You may not wish to trouble yourself with an answer to such beliefs, and there may indeed be no point in arguing with people about them.

    But how – other than with the word “secular” – shall we distinguish between such beliefs and practices, and the liberal and open-minded norm we might all want?

  5. Charles

    Worth noting that the book I was puffing off was written by an American.

    Now close your eyes and think of Gingrich or Santorum et al and tell me that modern heathens shouldn’t be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves…

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