We live our entire lives a heart beat away from the most profound personal tragedy. Sooner or later we will have a loved one plucked away so suddenly, that happen-chance did not give us even a single second in which to say our farewell.
At first sight, the atheist seems to have the hardest task of dealing with the resultant period of grief. An empty, cold end has come to a life that, some of them might say, was almost nihilistic in its content. But, as we shall see later, this superficial analysis does not bear close scrutiny.
On the other hand, those of faith should have an easier time of it. The promise of reunion in heaven should be a pretty powerful salve. But their dismay is as deep and profound as that felt by any secularist: it might be that faith alone is not suffice to deal with such intense sadness.
Perhaps it is the insistence of most religions that a life lived less than perfect will result in an eternity of agony. One of the minor fundamentalist cults estimates that only about 1.5 million humans will ever qualify to get into heaven – which does seem a bit odd that their God will make 99.9999% of humanity miss the cut.
Both atheist and agnostic have no fear of hell. The atheist on the grounds that there is no afterlife, and the agnostic on the grounds that if there is an afterlife, one of continuous screaming in agony has no base in logic, natural philosophy or common sense. And to side with both of them, a number of theologies also have no concept of hell in the manner of religions based on the god of Abraham.
The manner in which we face our own personal mortality also seems to dictate the manner in which we accept the moral consequences of our acts and omissions. The theist hope of reward and fear of divine punishment makes, to some of us, a morality that is self serving: which sort of defeats the whole purpose. Having no personal deity, both atheist and agnostic forge a set of moral standards from first, personal, principles. When we err, we have let ourselves down, not some invisible superpower keeping track of all that we do. Letting yourself down seems to carry more need for atonement than letting your God down. (And I say that from once having been a person of faith, and remembering my old way of me looking at my lapses).
The majority of us seem to live lives that are worth living. Even the street urchins of Rio de Janeiro are known to beam with pleasure from time to time in unforced moments of happiness. Those who find life to be intolerable tend to be the victim of circumstance or disease that the rest of us escape. If life is worth living, it seems inconceivable that any afterlife would not be.
For the atheist there is no afterlife. Death is simply a natural state, devoid of all pain. And no one should fear being in a state that is devoid of all pain. For the theist, there is the promise of an afterlife, but the promise comes with so many potential pitfalls, death truly is to be feared. And while we agnostics do not totally rule out the possibility (however unlikely) of an afterlife, we also see that it would be devoid of all pain.
At some deep unspoken level, we all have acquired from experience the knowledge that time will eventually change out helpless despair at losing a loved one into the fond happiness that comes from remembering all the good times shared. The only real issue for any of us is how best to endure the transition from mourning to tranquility. And all humanity treads that slow path at pretty much the same pace