Monthly Archives: February 2013

Death, loss and unbelief in the afterlife

Death. It’s awfully final, isn’t it?

It’s something that those with belief grapple with, but take solace in their promise of an afterlife. However, it seems to be a problem for some unbelievers. For example, in a debate hosted by Cambridge Student Union, the motion “Religion has no place in the 21st Century” was defeated on the strength of the contribution of Douglas Murray, an atheist, with arguments he restated in The Spectator:

“We do not have many vessels for truth-carrying in our age. While of course not being an organised body of thought, atheism might one day speak to all those things religion once answered. But at present its voice is faint. It is faint on human suffering and tragedy. And although it does not have nothing to say, it barely speaks about death. It has little if not nothing to say about human forgiveness, remorse, regret or reconciliation.These are not small ellipses. Until atheism can speak into these voids, desiring to ban religion entirely seems a push not only to deprive individuals of a consolation at which Professor Dawkins scoffs — though he would do better to address it — but also to strip many discussions of profound dimensions.”

I was enraged by this because this is not the domain of atheism; atheism concerns belief in deities, and nothing else. It is not a religion, philosophy or belief system, only a conclusion, so to represent it as a direct replacement of religion is a gross mistake. Questions about death, loss and grief are more the domain of secular humanism, the most common philosophical position adopted by Western atheists, and indeed Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association would have had much to say on this, had he not spoken first. (Edit: Andrew pointed me towards a response he wrote afterwards.) Continue reading