Death from an Atheist Perspective

I ditched my belief in God long ago. But then my dad died suddenly







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I am a scientist. I am also an atheist. I grew up in a devout Catholic household, my memories marked by never-missed Sunday masses and crucifixes above doorways. I once considered myself a strong believer. I even did the whole altar boy thing. But that was a long time ago.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my childhood, and about religion these past few days. My otherwise healthy 68-year-old dad got sick recently. It all happened so quickly. In the evening, he said he felt under the weather. Typical flu symptoms. By morning, he lost his ability to speak. Four hours after that, he lost all consciousness; the only form of movement an eerie rhythmic pulsing of his body from recurring seizures.

For the next seven days, his condition worsened and still we had no answers. The specialists were stumped. From the ER to the ICU, to infectious disease and finally to neurology, doctor after doctor came to us without any clear explanation of what was happening to my dad’s brain. As one neurologist said to me, “This is one of the most striking cases I’ve seen in my entire career.”

As my dad’s mystery illness shut down his brain one bit at a time, the family around me – my mom and brothers and extended network of aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, and cousins – took to their religion to try and make sense of the unsensible. While they did this, I wrestled with my own personal dilemma: What does the atheist do when confronted with death? Some believe that there are no atheists in foxholes, or in ICUs.

The day we learned about his official brain death, one week after he was admitted to the ICU, a priest gave dad his “last rites,” praying over his body so that his spirit could pass through the kingdom of heaven, or so the story goes. We stood around his bed. Off to the side, I observed almost like an anthropologist does when studying the foreign practices of some ancestral hunter-gatherer group. My Mom and two brothers crossed themselves, thumbed their rosary beads and recited prayers, their faithful echoes a barely audible mumbling choked back by tears and medical masks.

They did this to find some peace. I was glad they had something to hold onto. Having studied the cognitive science of religion in my PhD, I know firsthand just how powerful religion is in helping a person find meaning in the greatest of life’s mysteries, in trying to come to grips with the ultimate anxiety: that one day we will die and so too will our loved ones; an anxiety amplified when the death and dying is as sudden and inexplicable as my dad’s.

But, what about me, the poor atheist of the family? The world was taken out from under my feet, too. What greater purpose did I have to stand on? Where was my ancient holy story that I could turn to?

It was there. But the story reads differently.

Darwin, Newton, Galton and Galileo. These are my Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. On the Origin of Species, my Bible. What religion does for my family (and for much of the world), science does for me. And, given the rise in secularism, especially among young people, I suspect I’m not alone in feeling this. We, the secularists, believe we can fill our cups as well. It’s a line of thinking that is well-supported by recent research.



In the past couple of decades, the psychologists and neuroscientists in my field challenged the notion that religion and religious belief had a unique psychological underpinning. As psychologist Justin Barrett says, “It’s really your basic, garden-variety cognitions that provide the impetus for religious beliefs.” Religion is just one more chapter in the long, twisted story of our hominid evolution.

There are other things to believe in, other ways to look at the world, other ways to cope with the harshness of life and death.

I don’t believe that a spiritual, non-material version of my dad is out there in some sort of fluffy cloud afterlife. I bristle at the idea that he is looking down on me from heaven. I find consolation in the fact that my dad’s case will give the gift of scientific insight to those who study his death.

As the answers begin to come in from his post-mortem tests and autopsy results, the specialists involved will begin to piece together the story of what happened and where their gaps in treatment failed to keep him alive. The thing that caused my dad to die will, at last, reveal itself to the medical team, and to us. The plan is, that the knowledge we gain will become a published manuscript as a formal medical documentation of my dad’s case. When that happens, I know that his tragic ending will not be in vain. He will “continue on’” not in the afterlife, but in the annals of science. It brings me peace, and a sense of purpose to think that maybe, just maybe this medical knowledge will help ease the pain of others in the future.

According to astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the basis of all science is to “lessen the suffering of others.” It’s here, at this point of compassion, where science and religion blend into one another. Because the inherent desire to care for our fellow humans is an undeniable truth that rises above it all. If I have faith in anything, it’s that.

Nick Hobson lives in Hamilton, Ont.


Letting Go

A little wise advice for living now and letting go of the past.

I can't believe it!

Approaching the later years of life, I realise more and more that life is all about letting go. We spend the first part of life building up an ego, a bank of experiences, attitudes, habits, patterns of behaviour, traumas, relationships, material things. Over the second half of life, essentially we have to let go of our attachment to all of these, as we go through the process of preparing for our approaching death. If we do not, the ego dies with the sudden traumatic loss of all those attachments – surely the reason why death is so feared by many.

Why do I come up with this theme at this point in time? Because I have been touched by the experiences of those going through this very process, suffering illness, problems with memory, suffering from attachment to past relationships, suffering from anger, suffering from stress ‘because of’ the behaviour of…

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How About Never?

Powerful governments have no intention of preventing climate breakdown. By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 18th November 2022 The chances of any one person being born were calculated by the life coach Dr Ali Binazir. He multiplied the probability of your parents meeting, mating and conceiving by the chances of a particular sperm and…

Source: How About Never?

Advent calendars and reverse advent calendars

I love the idea of reverse advent!

Robby Robin's Journey

Anyone who knows me well might be wondering why I’d be writing about advent calendars. Words like Advent, or thoughts about Advent, aren’t part of my usual routine. But when I came across a poster of a reverse advent calendar the other day, I took notice. I was impressed.

I admit to having to look this up (aka google it), but Advent is the 4 week period leading up to Christmas. Advent calendars were first used by German Lutherans in the 19th century as a method for keeping track of the number of days until Christmas. Families would light a candle for each day of Advent.  This I can understand. People started making more elaborate calendars, with a little door one could open each day, where the family would find images and/or religious phrases anticipating the arrival of Christmas. This makes sense as well.

Neither Advent or advent calendars…

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Nice to know the origin of the term Gaslighting.

I can't believe it!

Although gas lighting was used in China 1700 years ago, the first gas lighting in England was on Westminster Bridge in 1813 (Wikipedia). By the 20th century gas street lighting was ubiqitous in England. We even still had gas street lamps in Lincoln when I was growing up in the 1950s – I remember each lamp cast a small circle of light, and there were huge gaps of darkness in between them. Today, gas street lamps no longer significantly exist and gaslighting has a totally new meaning.

In 1938, Alfred Hitchcock made the film Gas Light, where a manipulative husband makes his wife think she’s losing her mind by making subtle changes in her environment, including slowly dimming the flame on a gas lamp. He disrupts her environment, making her believe she’s insane, and controls her by cutting her off from family and friends.

Flash forward to…

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Male-Female Communication 101

I have read similar stories in the past and for people I am sure this rings true as males and females are truly wired differently!

Robby Robin's Journey

Let’s face it, there are times in all of our lives when we wonder just where our opposite-sex partner is coming from during a discussion … or not coming from, as the case may be. It’s part of their charm, right? Well, their mystery, anyway! A fictional scenario that fellow blogger DM at I Also Live on a Farm shared on his blog post yesterday says it all. It’s simply too good not to pass along. Let’s see if you can relate to it!


Roger and Elaine

Let’s say a guy named Roger is attracted to a woman named Elaine.  He asks her out to a movie.  She accepts.  They have a pretty good time.  A few nights later he asks her out to dinner, and again they enjoy themselves.  They continue to see each other regularly, and after a while neither of them is seeing anyone else.  And…

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Our Path

Because Twitter threads aren’t working at the moment (thanks Elon!), I’m republishing a chain of tweets about how we should rise to the challenge of democratic collapse. By George Monbiot, published on, 9th November 2022 Here’s where I think we now stand, and how we should respond. A thread. 1. There is a global…

Source: Our Path

How do we find purpose in our lives, even when we’re considered “medium-old”?

Well thought out approach to living well especially in retirement.

Robby Robin's Journey

Recently an item appeared in my email from a national retirees association, definitively labelling my age group as “medium-old”. I ask you?! According to this retirees’ newsletter, the senior years are broken down into “young-old” age (65-74) and “medium-old” age (75-84).  The author left out what comes next; perhaps he or she figured that the next group, presumably “old-old” age (85+), no longer reads newsletters!  I have to admit to not liking these labels very much; I prefer the softer – and remarkably accurate – go-go, go-slow, and no-go categories. And without specific age limits attached. But however you label it, there’s no doubt that this phase of life starts out for most of us as exploring new or renewed interests with few if any limitations, then slowly but surely those limitations start creeping in.  And, of course, that’s why it’s so important to…

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