Opinion | Life (and Death) Without God

In five previous interviews in this series we’ve explored the Buddhist, Jain, Taoist, Jewish and Christian views on death and the afterlife. But what about those without any religious faith or belief in God? Why not, some readers have asked, interview an atheist? So we did.

Today’s conversation is with Todd May, the author of 16 books of philosophy ranging from recent French thought to contemporary ethics. His books — including “A Significant Life,” “A Fragile Life” and, most recently, “A Decent Life: Morality for the Rest of Us” — investigate meaning, suffering and morality. His work has been featured in episodes of the television show “The Good Place,” where he served behind the scenes as a “philosophical consultant.” This interview was conducted by email and edited. — George Yancy

George Yancy: In your book “Death,” you very clearly state, “For the record, I am an atheist (which is why I don’t believe in an afterlife).” Cornel West is fond of saying that we will eventually become “the culinary delight of terrestrial worms.” So I assume you believe life ends right there, without any consciousness beyond the worms. Do all atheists subscribe to that belief?

Todd May: First, George, I owe you a debt of gratitude for this series. Confronting death is one of the most important and difficult tasks that we as humans face. It’s been inspiring to see the ways different traditions grapple with that task.

In stating my own position, I don’t speak as a representative of atheism. There can be different types of atheism, but they all have in common the denial of a supernatural deity. My own atheism involves a denial of the supernatural in all its forms, for instance the distinction of the soul from the body, the immortality of the soul, reincarnation and so on. However, I can imagine an atheism that believes, for instance, that there is a spiritual bond uniting all people or all living beings. A view like that would not require a deity, but might still be a form of atheism. It’s just not my atheism.

My particular atheism commits me to thinking that those who believe in the supernatural are mistaken. It does not, however, commit me to thinking any less of them for their belief. This is an important distinction to make, one that often goes missing in discussions of atheism.

It is true that there are egregious wrongs perpetrated in the name of religion. Currently, a woman’s rights over her body are endangered by religious zealots. On the other hand, I have been involved in grass-roots political movements for decades and some of the most courageous people I know act out of their religious conviction. To take one example among many, at the forefront of those risking their freedom and their lives for undocumented immigrants are people of religious faith.

Atheism, in short, is a view — or a set of views — about the supernatural; it is not a view about people who believe in the supernatural.

Yancy: I agree with you that atheists don’t have a monopoly on not committing egregious wrongs, but I don’t think that there are atheists who commit such wrongs in the name of atheism. What is your view of that?

May: Whether atheists have committed wrongs in the name of atheism is a tricky question. The Soviet Union, for instance, persecuted Jews and other believers in the name of a doctrine that they at least saw as tied to atheism, and today the Chinese government is committing genocidal acts against the Uighurs for related reasons. Even if we lay those aside, the condescension that some prominent atheists display toward religious believers, although not nearly as grievous, is nothing to be particularly proud of. (Of course, historically we atheists haven’t fared too well at the hands of organized religion, either.)

Yancy: If those who believe in the supernatural are mistaken epistemologically, do you feel that you have a responsibility to tell them that they are wrong or is it fine to allow religious believers to embrace beliefs that you would argue are false?

May: To me, whether or not to argue about the correctness of belief in the supernatural is very much dependent on context. For instance, I do volunteer teaching in a maximum-security prison, where faith among the incarcerated men often plays an important role in sustaining them psychologically. It would be unethical for me to try to argue that they’re mistaken. They adhere to different religions, they know that I’m an atheist, and so we sit around a table (or did until Covid-19 arrived) and discuss philosophical ideas together, often comparing how their different beliefs might incorporate or reject these ideas.

Alternatively, if someone is using religious faith to diminish others, challenging the correctness or coherence of the faith itself might be a justified form of confrontation. And for very different reasons a philosophical discussion of the supernatural would be a proper place to challenge religious belief.

Yancy: In what way is your atheism undergirded by a naturalist approach to the world?

May: As for naturalism, again there are many varieties. They range from a more radical physicalist view — that there is nothing but particles and forces — to something more robust involving minds, relationships and so on. Discussions of naturalism tend to get complicated very quickly. For instance, does a monist view — the view that there is only one kind of stuff in the universe — commit us to thinking that “interpersonal relationships” don’t exist, only material stuff?

My own naturalism doesn’t require anything very radical. It is nothing more, really, than a denial of the supernatural. Beyond that, I would say that I’m committed to the existence of anything that I need to be committed to in order to explain my experience of the world. If that sounds vague and general, it should. It’s just that I don’t need anything supernatural for those explanations. My atheism follows pretty straightforwardly from that.

Yancy: So your denial of the supernatural in all of its forms seems similar to Pierre-Simon Laplace’s response to Napoleon when the latter asked him about the absence of any mention of God to his system of the cosmos. Laplace said, “I had no need of that hypothesis.” For Laplace, at least, his response doesn’t claim that God doesn’t exist. It only says that he has no need for it. So, your experience of the world doesn’t need God or belief in a soul that survives the death of the body.

However, given that your experiences are constantly open and that even scientific inquiry is an open project, do you allow for the possibility that supernaturalism could come to play a more important role in your life?

May: That would certainly be true, although unlikely. Here’s why. Our explanations of particular things or happenings are not just one-offs. They’re part of a network of beliefs. If that network of beliefs is naturalist, then when things happen that I can’t explain I’m likely to look for naturalist ways of explaining them, or alternatively say that I can’t find an adequate explanation for them yet. This is just as true of someone with a supernaturalist bent.

For some Christians, for instance, the prevalence of evils like innocent children dying in poverty are difficult to reconcile with the existence of a benevolent deity. Rather than give up on the existence of the deity, though, one can offer a complicated explanation that preserves one’s faith or call it a mystery.

None of this is to argue that significant changes in the framework of beliefs are impossible. This does happen to people who either gain or lose a religious view. Many Jews, for instance, lost their faith in the wake of the Holocaust. Instead, it is to say that naturalism and supernaturalism are more like scaffoldings within which we usually test and modify our beliefs; the scaffoldings themselves are less often open to change.

Yancy: From what you’ve said thus far, you are not trying to “proselytize” others to reject supernaturalism. Yet, your rejection of an afterlife must be more than a rejection of say, blueberry pie, where this is just a question of taste. So, apart from taste, why should or shouldn’t those who are believers in the afterlife or God continue to believe in such things?

May: Hey, how did you know I’m not keen on blueberry pie? I never told you that.

Blueberry pie aside, however, it’s not just a question of taste. For those who take up a religious view — or at least take it seriously — the presence of the supernatural in their lives helps orient how they think about their place in the universe and how they live. It also affects how they think about their death. It isn’t a question of taste for them. It’s a question of the universe and their place and role in it.

The same is true for me and my naturalism. I believe, with some of the existentialists, that we’re not here for any particular cosmic reason or purpose. We just show up, live our lives, and then die. This doesn’t mean, of course, that I don’t believe in things like morality; rather, I ground morality and values in another way. In fact, I’ve written a book on meaningfulness in life. It also means that my relation to my death is different.

Yancy: So, as an atheist, how do you deal with the fact that you will die, as we all will, at some point?

May: There is a paradox here, one which I wrote about in my book on death. On the one hand, our death threatens to sap meaning from our lives. Why is this? We live oriented toward our future. Our most important engagements — career, relationships, hobbies, etc. — presuppose future development. Death would cut us off from those developments and thus some of the meaning of our engagements. And it is important to note that because we can die at any time that threat is a constant one. We live under the shadow of death.

On the other hand, without mortality our lives would eventually become shapeless. If we lived forever, as some philosophers have pointed out, it would be difficult to sustain our enthusiasm for even many of our most significant engagements. To see why, we need to recognize how long immortality lasts. Here is one scenario that is used to see this: Imagine a desert the size of the Sahara. Every 10,000 years a bird comes along and plucks a single grain of sand from the desert. By the time the Sahara has been cleared not a single flicker of immortality would have passed.

So how do we live with this paradox? I suggest that we seek to live along two registers at once. First, we must engage in forward-looking projects and engagements, because that’s inevitable for almost all human beings. A life without ongoing engagements is, for most people, an impoverished one.

Second, we must try to live as best we can within the moments of those engagements. Instead of solely looking forward, we should enjoy the present of what we do in the knowledge that at any moment the future could disappear. It’s a kind of stereoscopic vision that seeks to orient toward the future while immersing in the present.

I don’t think that doing this is easy. For my own part, living more fully in the present is difficult for me. But I have gotten to the stage in my life where I can see its far shore much more clearly than the shore I set out from, and so I am trying to do that with greater urgency.

Yancy: As an atheist is there something that you “know” about death that the other religious orientations covered thus far in this series of interviews ought to know about death?

May: It would be hard to call it a matter of “knowing,” since I am pretty sure there is no afterlife and some of the other religious orientations in the interviews think they know otherwise. Instead, I would put it this way. Except for the most devout among us, even those who think there may be an afterlife have their moments of doubt. My view offers a way to confront (although not overcome) death in the wake of that doubt.

Yancy: I must ask this: Let us assume that the nature of reality is not exhaustible by an explanatory network of beliefs undergirded by naturalism. What if upon your death, consciousness survives, that is, supernaturalism is true? Any thoughts?

May: If I imagine waking up as something still recognizably me in the afterlife, I think my first thought would be, “I hope there’s no blueberry pie here.”

This interview was conducted by email and edited. The previous interviews in this series can be found here.

George Yancy, a professor of philosophy at Emory University, is the author, most recently, of “Across Black Spaces: Essays and Interviews From an American Philosopher.”

Now in print: “Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments,” and “The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments,” with essays from the series, edited by Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, published by Liveright Books.

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