This speech was given on Nov. 1 during the Secular Day of the Dead celebration.
By Dan Barker
On this Secular Day of the Dead, we honor those who are no longer with us. They have not “passed on.” They are not “resting in peace.” They have not “gone to their reward.” They are dead.
I was dead once. Really. And I came back to life.
Well, not physically. I was baptized. After accepting Jesus as my savior, I was dunked under the water and lifted back out. Baptism signifies — as you are lowered beneath the surface — that you have died, just like Christ was dead and buried. When you are brought back up, you are raised from the dead to a new life, just like Jesus was resurrected from the grave. You are literally “born again.” And by “literally,” I mean not “literally physically,” but “literally spiritually.” If you believe in the spirit world, then baptism is not just a metaphorical ritual drama — it is an actual occurrence in the supernatural world.
Of course, that was only possible because of a bloody human sacrifice: Jesus suffered an agonizing death on the cross so that you and I could be redeemed.
So I believed.
Of course, it’s not just the Christian religion that is obsessed with death. Long before the gospels — many thousands of years before the ancient Israelites, and the Mesopotamians before them who first started writing things down — long before that, humans had to face the reality of death. Since they could still dream about dead ancestors, many imagined a spirit world where their loved ones live on.
Prehistoric burial sites contain food, clothing, jewelry and tools buried with the person to accompany them on their journey to the afterworld.
Ritualistic burial happened all over the planet, in various forms. The Aztecs, in what is now Mexico, inherited an ancient tradition — going back at least 3,000 years — that a dead person’s soul would go up — either to the sun, or to a garden paradise — or down to the underworld, governed by the goddess Mictecacihuatl. But first, they had to endure a long journey through Chicunamictlán, the Land of the Dead. This was not a hell of torment — it was the final resting place of the soul. That journey could take several years of arduous travel and difficult obstacles. Similar to the rituals in the Fertile Crescent and Europe, Nahua rituals in the Americas, traditionally held in August, involved family members providing food, water and tools to help their loved ones in their challenging odyssey beyond the grave.
It’s a celebration
This tradition continues in the contemporary Day of the Dead festival, in which people leave offerings on the graves or on homemade altars (called ofrendas) in their homes. These acts are positive and optimistic. The Day of the Dead is a not a mourning, but a celebration. It is not a funeral, but a kind of cheerleading.
Since the Aztec rituals long preceded Christianity, the Day of the Dead is not a Mexican version of Halloween. Halloween came later, in Europe, where there was generally a darker attitude toward death.
Halloween is the evening of the Catholic Feast of All Saints. After the Spanish Christians invaded the Americas, the religious customs were merged and the Day of the Dead shifted to Nov. 1.
In 1755, Nov. 1 literally became a day of the dead in Europe.
That morning, the city of Lisbon, Portugal, was brimming with Catholics who packed dozens of churches for the Feast of All Saints.
Around 9:45 a.m., while worshippers were praying, the city was rocked by a massive earthquake, 10 times stronger than the one that destroyed San Francisco in 1906. Most of the stone churches were demolished, immediately killing thousands of believers who were trapped inside.
Some tried to escape by rushing to the sea. Around 10:20, the first tsunami arrived, drowning many. More earthquakes and tsunamis followed, battering the wounded city, causing great human tragedy.
But that wasn’t the worst. The fires that broke out grew into a roaring inferno that blazed for days through the rubble, incinerating trapped survivors, impeding rescue efforts and destroying structures that were still standing.
Convents and hospitals were ruined. So were prisons. Many of the criminals who were suddenly free began rampaging through the ruins, looting and raping. Some of them broke into homes that had survived the quakes, killing the inhabitants. In the days that followed, vermin and disease plagued the homeless and destitute survivors.
This “day of the dead” incited a huge debate across Europe about the problem of suffering. Voltaire wrote his famous “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster,” savagely attacking trite religious theodicies. Is death the “wages of sin,” he asked, or is it the result of natural forces? Some thinkers began to question the existence of a good god.
Mexico has also had its share of earthquakes, one of the largest of which hit Mexico City in 1985. That shows us that there is one thing that unites all people on the planet, all cultures throughout history.
Death is for all
Death belongs to all of us. How we deal with it varies, but the fact of death is inescapable.
Of course, as an evangelical Christian, I did not believe that. After I was baptized and called to the ministry, I preached that there is indeed a way to escape death. I spent many years as a pastor, evangelist and missionary, including two years in Mexico, preaching that “For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
I was a true believer. I warned that the world was going to end at any moment, “like a thief in the night.” I spent 19 years in ministry, waiting and hoping for the day Jesus would return to take us away from this depraved planet, away from death.
There was only one time in Mexico that I remember getting any pushback to my ministry. Around 1970, I was passing out Christian literature on a sidewalk in Mexico City when a well-dressed man came walking by. I approached him and started telling him that there are more important things in life than money, that Jesus offers true meaning and the hope of salvation. He seemed to be in a hurry, so I quoted Matthew 6:34, where Jesus said “Take no thought for tomorrow. Tomorrow will take care of itself.” He looked me straight in the eye and said, “If I believed that, my company would go bankrupt.”
He quickly walked away, leaving me with nothing to say.
Decades later, when I returned to Mexico for the first time as a nonbeliever, I spoke to a group of atheists in Mexico City and confessed my sin of arrogance and condescension when I was a preacher. I asked them to forgive me — to absolve me of the sin of missionizing — and they did! I can hold my head high in Mexico now.
It’s a journey
The Day of the Dead is not about the end of anything. It is about a journey. A journey from one state of existence to another. I also made a journey — from preacher to atheist — and much of it happened in Mexico. I always felt at home in Mexico, maybe partly because one of my great-great-grandmothers was born in Chiapas, and the next three generations, including my mom, were born in Tucson, Ariz., in the middle of Mexican-American culture.
It was in Mexico, in fact, where I first admitted to myself that I was an atheist. I had just gone through a period of about four or five years of thinking and reading, gradually moving across the theological spectrum from fundamentalist at one end, through the moderate middle for a couple of years, to the more liberal thinking that does not hold the bible to be literally true. If the story of the Prodigal Son is a parable not intended to be taken historically, and if the tale of Adam and Eve is a metaphor, then what else in the bible might be symbolic rather than actually true? Perhaps Yahweh, God himself, is just a literary invention, a huge figure of speech. When I realized there is no way to know where to draw that line, God moved from concrete to abstract. I learned that there is no coherent definition of God, no agreement among believers as to the nature or moral principles of such a God, no good philosophical argument for the existence of such a creature, no good reply to the Problem of Suffering, no evidence for an afterlife, and no need for a god — because you can live a happy and moral life without such a belief. Combine that with the fact that Jesus stubbornly refused to return like he promised, and it looks very much like it is all myth and that the natural world is all there is.
I was lying on a cot one night in the Sunday School room of a Baptist church in a little ejido south of Mexicali where I was spending the night in the summer of 1983. I was looking out the open window at the night sky. Those stars are gathering material and burning it up, shining brightly for a while in the darkness before they burn out and cough their atoms and energy back into the void. For the first time in my life, it dawned on me that I was completely alone in that room.
There was no watchful eye judging my thoughts and actions. There were no spiritual beings competing for my soul. I realized that I, like those stars, am a part of the natural universe. I am a little low-wattage sun, ingesting material, burning it up at about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and will one day sputter out and disperse my atoms and energy back into the universe. I finally met my true self — I am an animal, and that is all, and that is good enough. At that moment, I truly became a “born again” creature of which the scriptures so ignorantly speak. I completed my journey from supernatural to natural, from “life after death” to “life before death.” A life that will end.
My arduous odyssey complete, I looked out that window and said, “Adios a Dios.”
Dan Barker is co-president of FFRF and author of the books Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists, Losing Faith in Faith and GOD: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction.