What Would an Atheist Die For?

You see it all the time in movies: a character willingly sacrifices his life in order to save the life of another. In every one of these movies, it is always presumed that the character dying will simply move on to become a soul and go to the next step of existence. In fact, more often than not, the dead person’s soul is somehow shown in that next step of existence, usually announcing its presence to every living person they just left behind.

Of course, as you probably already know, art in this case imitates life. History is full of examples of people giving up their life in exchange for the sake of something they loved, such as a spouse, offspring, or country. Generally, the belief is that the person dying will go on to heaven, or be re-born, or become part of the Universal life force; that basically that person’s existence will not end, but that somehow they will go on.

I’m left to wonder whether an atheist, someone who truly does not believe that there is a God, or that we have souls, and who firmly believes that this life, in this plane of existence is all we have, could ever actually sacrifice their life for someone else, or for an idea. Now, I’m not talking about dying for biological offspring or a spouse, both of which we are genetically wired to protect. I’m also not talking about incidentally dying, as in the case of a soldier getting shot during a gun fight. I’m talking about situations in which the atheist knows that he has a choice as to whether he lives or dies. For example, would a soldier who is an atheist throw his body over a bomb in order to protect a group of people (who he may or may not know) who he is not sworn to protect? What about in the case of a bank robbery, where there are hostages: would an atheist volunteer his life to save the lives of others, knowing full well that they are giving up everything, that there is absolutely no future for them in any way, shape, or form, and that their time in the universe is now at an end? And finally, is this sacrifice more or less noble than the sacrifice made by a theist, or at least someone who believes in an afterlife, who believes that death is not the end?

As a theist, it isn’t all that hard to think about death. Even as an agnostic, death isn’t that hard of a subject: if there’s an afterlife, then there’s an afterlife and you’ll find about it then; if there’s not, then that’s that — everything ends and why should you fear nothing? At least there’s still hope. But if you’re an atheist, there’s no hope? This is it? And having made that realization, the idea of self sacrifice must have taken a completely different dimension for you. I know I don’t get many commenters here, but if there are any true atheists reading this, I would really appreciate your input on this.

12 thoughts on “What Would an Atheist Die For?

  1. I think you got it all wrong. Self sacrifice isn’t gaining something, but, giving your own life for something you think is more worth that your life. Just because you are an Atheist doesn’t mean that NOTHING goes over your own life. It is a common mistake to think that an Atheist holds nothing to have any value. “What is the point of saving you? your life happened by random chance, no point of saving you.”. Atheist are human like everybody else. We have emotions, values and morals. The only difference is that we don’t get it from a book. I care for my loved once because I chose to, not because some man in the sky told me to.

    I think the question is the other way around. If you are sure, a 100% sure, that you will go to eternal bliss in heaven, then I wouldn’t call it self sacrifice. you don’t actually sacrifice something if you don’t lose anything at all.

    Imagen a guy that turned everything he touched into money. If he donated a 1000$ to something, then he isn’t sacrificing something. He has an unlimited supply.

    Now, imagen a guy that only has 1000$. And he donates all of those 1000$ to something. This guy truly made a sacrifice. He gave everything he had.

    An Atheist that sacrafies himself knows that he is giving everything. He is giving he has in the sacrifice. He isn’t going to get any reward in return.

    An Theist that believes in the afterlife and that he will go there wouldn’t (after his belief), give everything. Just as you said, he is “going to a better place”. He believes he is doing good, by the sacrifice, AND getting a reward for it.

    Don’t claim Atheists cares for nothing but their own lives. It is ignorant and hurtful.

  2. First, Dakim, I’d like to thank you for your well thought out response. A couple of issues come to mind, however:

    First, I was not implying that self sacrifice was about gaining something. Indeed, anyone giving up their life will surely know that they are giving up the only existence which they have known, regardless of what they believe comes next. (Everyone wants to go to heaven, yet nobody wants to die.) Nevertheless, there is the comfort of knowing that even if your life ends, that your existence will continue, whether it be through rebirth or heavenly existence, or nirvana. Also, I never wished to imply that atheists held nothing of value. Indeed, they are human, and as such will value the things everyone else does: companionship, kids, nature, love. My question, however, was on the second idea you hit on, whether someone who does not believe in an existence outside that of the “here and now” could truly value anything above their own existence (or that of their genetic sequence if push comes to shove). After all, if you don’t exist, then what is there to value? And if there was something they valued above their own existence, why would that be? Again, I never claimed here that Atheists don’t care about anything but their own lives. In fact, the purpose of this is to hopefuly find out the type of moral imperatives driving atheists, and how far those imperatives would go. Would an atheist die for an idea? Would he die for meaning? Would he die for knowledge? Would he die for a stranger? Why or why not? In each of these cases they are being asked to make the ultimate sacrifice, to a level unimaginable by most theists (and even most agnostics). I wish to understand the drive behind these types of sacrifices.

    (For the sake of this conversation, I’m excluding such items as the “selfish gene” imperative, which could cause an individual to give up his life for the sake of his offspring in order to protect his genes, or for the sake of his species. I am instead looking for moral justifications for such an act in which the person giving up their life really has nothing to gain, such as extended life for their genes.)

    Regarding ethics, if religion stems from natural evolutionary sequences (such as organizational systems, which gave an edge to primitive man over the neanderthal), then the morals and ethics are simply an abstract form of a more primeval set of rules developed over time, so in fact, a religious book is most likely its core based on the same moral guidance system as your set of values. (This is why so many religious folks point to their books and say “look, you can logically justify this, therefore it proves a God,” while all it really proves is that part a certain point in evolution biological guidance isn’t enought to compensate for cognitive faculties.) But, I digress…

    As for your statement regarding the sacrifice, I’m inclined to agree with you: the person who believes life is everlasting does not give up as much as the person who believes life is finite. Ideas are powerful things, regardless of how true they may or may not be. Nevertheless, it is here that the meaning of my question lies: what does it take to give up everything and why would someone do it? An atheist giving up his life is like a Christian giving up his soul, the absolute ultimate sacrifice (even though there is no such sacrifice in the Christian faith save for that of Jesus with his death on the cross and, as some believe, descent into Hell; regular Christians can’t really make that sacrifice — they don’t have an opportunity). Why would an atheist decide that anything (short of by logical biological imperative) is worth dying over?

    (As you can see, my question here stems from the idea of non-existence. How anyone be comfortable with that idea, I don’t know. Accepting that death as a natural event is one thing — which is being combatted by people like Ray Kurtzweil and Aubrey “Galdalf” de Grey — accepting that you will cease to exist is an entirely different matter.)

    Finally, for the record, I never said “going to a better place”. For those who believe in re-birth, they can only hope they’re in a better place — they very well may not be. Others believe in a heaven and a hell. (Of course, only “other people” ever seem to end up in the later.) The point here, however, is that both individuals will continue, regardless of whether they remember (as in the Judeo traditions) or not (as in the Hindu traditions). No reward may be in their future, although most believe one is.

    Again, Drakim, thank you for your answers. You’ve given me a good bit to think about.

  3. Thanks, and you make a good point. If you look at if purely from the existing point, nothing should go over existence. If you have a lucky coin that you price over EVERYTHING, you would still give it up before your life, since losing your life would stop you from having that lucky coin anyway.

    But, let me ask you this question: If a Christian could choose between giving up his ethereal soul, so that he would never exist again, never get any afterlife, just dissapear. OR he could undo God, so that God dissapeared, never exisitng again. Could he chose to save God? He wouldn’t exist anymore to benefit from God existing anymore. The only good thing that could come out of it is that others would still have God.

    It may seem like a silly question, but if you look away from the “God cannot be gone” stuff, and look at the core of the question. Then it is the same question posed by you in your blog.

    (oh, and no cheating like, “God would make the man live again, after his sacrifice” ^^)

    Oh, and sorry if I seemed a bit snappy on my previous post, I was having a bad day.

  4. For most of my life I was an agnostic. At 85, I have become an athiest. Anyone who has read a book by Carl Sagan, such as The Varieties of Scientific Experience:A Personal View of the Search for God, realizes what a tiny dot our earth is compared to the rest of the universe.

    I am grateful for the amazing conception lottery that led to my existence. One misstep in the generations that preceded me (A great-grandad was out of town that month) and my family tree would have been altered. I wouldn’t be here.

    I have no fear of the nothingness that will follow my death. It will be no different from the nothingness of my existence before I was conceived. We each have our turn, some have better luck than others, then we depart into the void. Every time I see on TV a multitude of people from past eras, I think My! Heaven must be terribly crowded if that’s where all the Believers went. Amen.

  5. Drakim: First, my apologies in the delayed response. I’ve had to take some time to both live life and digest your question (which was, again, a very good one). The question boils down to whether I would give up my soul for the existence of God, or whether I would keep it at the cost of God’s existence.

    I actually have been asking people around me that question since Saturday in order to see how other people thought about the matter. The consensus has been what I expected: most people would indeed give up their soul for what they saw as “the greater good,” or saving God. It should be noted, however, that until we began this exchange, I couldn’t have possibly given a proper context to that question: the idea of non-existence could not possibly have penetrated me as powerfully as it has when put against the backdrop of atheism. Indeed, when I asked this question to others, the most common first response was “but God can’t be destroyed.”

    To answer your question, I’m not sure that I would. I’m not sure that I wouldn’t, either. I’m simply not sure how I’d answer that. Even with the idea of a Devil aside (presuming God is good and that He has a counterpart), God has seemingly served a “greater good”, attrocities commited in His name also aside. I suppose giving up my soul for him would be a good thing, since it would be for the “greater good,” much like giving my life for my children, were I to be an atheist. Still, I don’t know whether I would or not, since I’d rather like to keep existing. I know this answer may seem a bit unheroically selfish, but its about as honest as I can get. I’m still thinking about it, and will likely do so until the answer is settled within me, which may be a very very long time. Nevertheless, your point is very well made. Hardly a silly question.

    As for the snappyness, don’t worry about it: Given the usual tone of this type of conversation, my question may well have seemed as if it was stemming from an acusatory angle instead of an exploratory one. I figured the burden of proof to the contrary lay with me.

    (For the record, I have also spent a good amount of time asking myself the God question — whether I believe He exists or not — and have come to the conclusion that while I have not sensed Him with my five senses, I cannot count Him out; I cannot disbelieve in Him. I have also come to the conclusion that it is highly improbable that if He does exist, that there is only one path to him, which I suppose means I’m no longer a Christian, at least according to anyone I personally know. I suppose that this leaves me very firmly in the “agnostic” camp, which may in a sense be the coward’s way out.)

    Barbara Malley: Thank you for your response. I’ll take your mentioning of the books by Sagan as a recommendation, and I expect to act uppon it sooner rather than later. At this time I’ve been rather captivated by the work of Richard Dawkins, whom I did not discover but recently (in fact, precipitating this very question). Also, thank you of your explanation of how you see death. Reading it actually offered another angle to the question, where the idea of non-existence was not followed by a panic, but rather by the comfort of knowing that this is it. Indeed, it makes life seem much more precious to see life through the lenses of an atheist than through that of a deist.

    Regarding Heaven, just remember that there are currently more people on Earth living now than there have ever been in the entirety of Human history. I’m taking a wild guess that Heaven isn’t nearly as full as people might imagine.

  6. You’re probably right that there aren’t many people in heaven. It has been said that out of all the people that claim to be a Christian, only about 30% actually are. The road is narrow and few will find it. I’ve found that if you poke around enough when talking to people, many have no clue what being a Christian is all about.

  7. And, of course, everyone else is going to Hell.

    See, this is where I have a bit of a problem with the Christian faith. (And with the Muslim faith, for that matter.) Not the idea of Hell — even though the idea of being eternally burned and torture for ever and ever because of your actions over the span of about 80 years in the Universe seems a bit absurd — but the idea that unless you’re a Christian and believe exactly in a certain way, no matter how good you may have been in your life, no matter how positively you may have impacted the world you live in and your fellow man, you’ll be burning in Hell with Hitler for ever and ever and ever.

    Pope John Paul II said something one time which totally restored my belief in the Catholic faith: That conversion was not a prerequisite to salvation. That one statement alone, made by the Pope, showed more understanding about the truths of life than almost anyting I’ve heard come out of a church, because it showed that even the head of the Catholic church, God’s messenger here on Earth, believes there are good people out there who are not Christian but are worthy of salvation. Even more, it showed that God might not be as petty and narrow minded as fundamentalists might lead us to believe. Neither you nor I would not consider a parent any good if he tortured a kid for the rest of his life due to unsatisfactory actions or beliefs during the first year of life. (“What do you mean you don’t believe in the toothfairy? SUFFER EVERMORE!!!!!”) Likewise, I cannot believe a God is a good God, worthy of worship, which would torture his children for eternities on end due to their actions — or worse yet, beliefs — during a measely 80 years, when placed against the entirety of the age of the cosmos. (“I healed the sick and saved millions from poverty, and brought freedom to a billion people.” “Right, but you said my name was Krishna. And you only thought My son was a ‘good man’.” “Yes, well, that’s what my parents taught me.” “NOT GOOD ENOUGH! BURN IN HELL!!!!!! Look, your parents are there, too…”)

    Anyway, I don’t want this to be a religious flamewar. This thread was set up specifically for the sake of helping me (and other readers) understand atheists a bit better. With the help of both Drakim and Barbara I can now say I understand a bit better why people would hold that belief, and respect them for it. Frankly I would have liked to hear from more atheists, since I often find more common ground with them than with religious folks, but I’ll take what I can get.

  8. I have a question.

    What about a situation where someone has done much evil or many sins throughout his life but still believes in a god.

    In movies, this person often suddenly switches at the last minute and has this brief moment of noble self-sacrifice saying something along the lines of “There’s only one place for me in the afterlife.” or “theres no saving my soul” or something to that effect.

    Instead of believing there will be nothign afterwords, they have this idea that they will actually go to a worse place, yet sacrifice anyways.

    Does stuff like this happen irl, or is it a pure hollywood thing? Any comments on it?

  9. I’m sorry I came upon this conversation almost 2 years too late! First I wanted to express my thanks to Gnorb for being so respectful and intellectually open. So often, the “Questions for an Atheist” genre takes more of a “Questions for a Godless Heathen Who Shalt Burn in Hell” tone. Thanks for being thoughtful, both in the intellectual and the polite sense of the word.

    As a life-long atheist, the short answer is that I love people, I believe in the overall goodness of people, and I would sacrifice my life if I thought that not sacrificing myself would cause grave detriment to humanity. I’m not sure how much more specific I can get (I’m sure the same is true if you asked a religious person)–but this is a pretty classic humanist point of view. Because I don’t derive the meaning of life from god(s) or from any particular dogma, I must give my life meaning through my actions. My daily life–from reading books to my darling son, to helping people as a reference librarian, to paying my taxes and generally being a concerned, law-abiding citizen–all shape the meaning of my existence. To take it a step further, my actions *give* my life meaning. Like anyone, I would weigh the benefit of sacrificing my life for an idea or a cause, but if the stakes were high enough, I’d like to think I would have the courage to act selflessly in the defense of humanity.

    One important point is that, while I don’t believe in any kind of afterlife for myself, I do believe that my existence won’t stop being important the second I die. The people who loved me, disliked me (I hope no one will have actually hated me!), or who were impacted by the way I lived my life will continue to think about me after my death, even if it is only occasionally. Perhaps they won’t remember me at all, and instead they might have some vague memory of someone who (hopefully) helped them in their past. The meaning that others take from my life will be reflected in the way they live theirs, even if they don’t remember *me* as an individual. In this way, death is not an absolute, even for this staunch atheist! My afterlife is found in the lives of everyone I’ve ever met. And judging by the goodness in the vast, vast majority of the people I’m acquainted with, that won’t be a bad end.

  10. @Daffodil: First, don’t worry about being “late”. Sometimes conversations shouldn’t be confined to the time or place that gave birth to them, which is why the comments are kept open and why backtrack links are featured. If this helps someone look at the subject and think about it in a way the hadn’t before, then my purpose was accomplished, no matter if it was when I wrote or whether’s it’s now, or 10 years from now.

    Your ideas sound much like that of the Egyptian pharaohs, who believed that they would achieve immortality so long as they were remembered, which is why they built those huge pyramid tombs. I find it interesting, yet unsurprising, that you express the desire to be remembered after you die, yet don’t fall into believing that just because you long for an afterlife (of sorts) there is indeed an afterlife (at all). Most of all, I admire the way you expressed it, so thank you.

  11. Hey, back after a long time!

    I find the “immortality though being remembered” a bit misnamed. I don’t know the name of my great great grandfather, and I don’t think my great great grandchildren will remember my name either. Even if I manage to build something as big as the pyramids, it’s simply going to prolong the memory of me for some thousand years, I don’t think any human (fictional or not) has been able to be remembered even 10 000 years. That’s hardly something I’d call immortality.

    Even if you did manage to do something so big that humanity would never forget about you, you’d still not be immortal in memory. Even if humanity manages to escape the solar system by the time our sun is dying, entropy will ensure that there will be no more suns alive in the end. Even if that’s a billion billion years to, it’s nowhere close to infinitive, the destination of the one who wishes to be immortal.

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