On Death

I recently attended an atheist/nonreligious parenting seminar in which the speaker (Dale McGowan) raised the topic of how to depict death to nonreligious children.  His approach was to describe it as returning to nonexistence, as before one’s birth; a few seminar participants agreed with this construct.

I found this depiction far too materialist.  In the atheistic fervor to deny the existence of a soul that transmigrates after death, the approach reduces an individual or the Self more or less to a physical person.  

For me, the Self is mostly a combination of experiences and interactions with an outside world, including other people, with the acknowledgment that my physical body is the venue through which those reactions take place.  A similar type or tone of experience or interaction with an outer world would presumably continue for other individuals after I die.  While those individuals may be very different from me because the world/environment that they inhabit is quite different from the one I lived through and left, I myself in the same physical body have become a very different person than I was in the past, partly because the world has changed and partly due to new experiences of existing realities.

 Returning to the commentary at the parenting seminar, one participant objected to the depiction of death as returning to non-existence, by pointing out that those individuals who have children continue their physiological existence through their offspring, who would not have existed “but-for” the existence of their parents. 

 Certainly our ability to reproduce does appear to be Nature’s answer to our physical mortality, but I found this construct far too materialist and simplistic also.  Again the Self is reduced to a physical person, just adding acknowledgement of our physiological reproductive functions. 

 The idea raises more questions than it answers.  Do we continue our own existence through a child because that person is our physical offspring, or do we continue our own existence through a child because we have raised that person consistent with our own values?  If the latter, why aren’t we continuing our own existence every time we impart our values, e.g., as teachers, peers, and so forth?


3 Responses to “On Death”

  1. October 14, 2009 at 8:38 pm

    My wife and I are not having children. So we will have no biological immortality for our DNA, and I accept that. I feel that current population growth trends are such that they put enough pressure on the Earth’s ecosystem, so no one should feel under pressure to reproduce.

    But I would like my values and ideas to survive into the future. So if I’ve chosen not to do that through reproducing biologically (and indoctrinating my children), I would at least like to see my values expressed in a public form like this one where people would be exposed to them and perhaps voluntarily adopt them.

  2. 2 James Croft
    October 15, 2009 at 12:02 am

    I love and support the idea that we should think of our transcendence of death not just in terms of the biological material we pass to our children but also in terms of the effects we have on others’ experience – I call teaching “thimblefuls of immortality” for that reason.

    But I’m not sure that to describe death as a return to nonexistence denies this possible interpretation – the description is, after all, only true of that individual’s experience, and not true of their physical body. So I don’t see it as a “materialist” position at all.

  3. 3 David Kimball
    November 19, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    It sounds as if the term “materialist” is a dirty word. It doesn’t have to be. But rather than considering that we return to nonexistence as “materialistic”, like a stone, perhaps we should consider us humans as being sentient creatures rather than “just material”. I have two kittens at home who wait excitedly at the door every time I return. They love to play with me and they love being loved by me. But I don’t consider their dying any more than their returning to nonexistence. They will live on in my memory, but that’s because of me – not their trying to live on. Why would I do anything different than my kittens do? To love and to be loved until I can no more. That, to me, is enough.

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