By Steve Mendelsohn
From my earliest childhood memories, I remember being terrified of death. I remember crying out to my dad from the dark of my bedroom as a 7-year-old, unable to sleep from my fear of death. “Daddy,” I’d wail, “what happens when you die?” “Your soul goes into a new baby,” he’d reassure me.
But that wasn’t reassuring. That wasn’t reassuring at all. What good is it to me if my “soul” goes into a new baby? If my soul is going to go into some next person, then presumably that means that my soul came to me from some previous person. But I don’t remember being that previous person. So, in the same way, when my soul goes into some next person, that next person won’t remember being me. What good was my dad’s version of reincarnation if my current consciousness doesn’t continue to my next incarnation?
I was terrified of death then and I stayed terrified of death for another 35 to 40 years.
I mean really terrified of death. I mean shooting-up-in-bed-in-the-middle-of-the-night-in-a-cold-sweat-screaming-”No!”-and-turning-on-the-light-hoping-upon-all-hope-that-the-reality-of-my-inevitable-and-ultimate-oblivion-was-just-not-true terrified of death. This was true in my teens, in my 20s, 30s and well into my 40s.
And then something happened. I realized one day that I wasn’t terrified of death anymore. I don’t know exactly when or how or why it happened, but it did. My sister noted that it seemed to happen right about the time that our dad died in 2001. My wife pointed out that it also happened right about the time that our children were born. I don’t know if either had anything to do with it or not, but it’s certainly a possibility, although I don’t for the life of me know why either would.
Perhaps my current lack of terror of death comes from realizing that my consciousness did not exist for the billions and billions of years before I was born. When I wake up in the morning and do not recall being aware during my previous night of sleep, I am not terrorized by the possibility that my consciousness did not exist for the last few hours.
I used to envision my existence after death as constituting my consciousness peering into the black abyss of oblivion. That was truly terrifying. Now, I realize that, after I die, I won’t be conscious and therefore I won’t exist. In addition to believing that “I think therefore I am” is true, I also believe that “I will not be when I am no longer thinking” is also true. After my body dies and my consciousness ceases to exist, there will be no “I” to peer into anything, which is a whole lot less scary than me peering into nothing.
I used to believe that God exists. I didn’t know that God exists, which is probably why I was terrified of death even when I believed that God exists.
But, at some point in time, probably when I was in my 20s or 30s, I stopped believing that God exists. I desperately wanted God to exist, I hoped that God does exist, I thought that it would be better if God did exist and that I would be happier if I believed that God exists, but somehow I came to believe that God does not exist. Even so, I thought it would be prudent to behave as if there were a God, hedging my bets just in case.
So, I continued to do the things that I thought (my Jewish) God wanted me to do and not do the things that I thought (my Jewish) God didn’t want me to do. I went to synagogue. I kept kosher. I observed the Sabbath. I rarely, if ever, bore false witness against my neighbor. And I made damn sure that my ox never gored my neighbor’s bull.
Not only did I think that it would be better if I believed that God exists, I thought that it was a good thing that most of the world did believe that God exists. When Marx said, “Religion is the opiate of the masses,” I replied, “Thank God, who wants a bunch of un-opiated masses running around loose?”
I used to envy people who believe that God exists. I thought that it was good for them to believe that God exists. I did not want to disabuse them of that belief. Except, of course, for those bible thumpers who always came around campus to preach the Word to us. They really annoyed me with their circular reasoning (“proving” the existence of God by citing the bible) and their absolute certainty (failing to admit even the remotest possibility of God’s nonexistence).
Since Oklahoma City and Sept. 11, I’ve started to believe that believing that God exists is not such a good thing. Thanks to Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and others, I no longer believe that we need to believe that God exists in order to be good. And now I am slowly being convinced that, in the overall scheme of things, it would be better if none of us believed that God exists. It’s not the belief that God exists itself that is the problem. The problem is all the bad things done by people who believe that God exists because they believe that God exists.
Oh, sure, there are plenty of good people who believe that God exists, and they may even be good (or at least better than they would otherwise be) because they believe that God exists. But, when you look at the history of our world, and if you look around the world today, it’s hard to conclude that the world was and is better off because of all the people who believe that God exists. You don’t have to take my word for it. Go read Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and others. They’ve done a better job than I ever could to make the case against God.
So, I used to believe that God exists, then I didn’t believe that God exists, but I wished that I did and was glad that others did, then I stopped wishing that I did believe that God exists, and now I’m getting to the point where I wish no one did.
And here I am today, a devout atheist, with no belief in a World to Come, with no expectation of a continued consciousness after this life ends, who nevertheless is not terrified of death. Don’t get me wrong; I’m still not happy about it, but at least it’s not keeping me up at night anymore.
FFRF Member Steve Mendelsohn is a patent attorney, amateur philosopher, and author (see “Freethought Books” on this page) and lives near Philadelphia with his wife Lynn, kids Lauren and Jack, dog Lilly, and cat Leo.