The Solace of Atheism


Religion denies the finality of death, claiming that something else awaits us.

Christianity offers a duality: a glorious heaven filled with lost loved ones or a fiery everlasting hell. Purgatory is a transitional stop where many sinners are made pure through suffering before ascending to heaven. God, the omnipotent ruler, decides who goes where.

Hindus eschew the idea of heaven or hell and believe that souls linger after death for a few days before finding new bodies to inhabit or, if they were exemplary, eternal salvation freed from mundane cares.

The Islam faith holds that the souls of righteous believers are effortlessly delivered from the body and sent to eternal paradise, while the souls of sinners and non-believers experience excruciating pain while being ripped through the body and finally sent to a hell. The Islamic hell is comprised of seven layers, the lowest being the most torturous, filled with fire, boiling water and scorching wind. Allah decides who heads to heaven or hell, and who might eventually be pulled from hell based on their degree of atonement. Those who try to escape hell without Allah’s permission are dragged by iron hooks back into the agonizing abyss.

Buddhists believe that the body dies and disappears, but the mind continues. Rebirth occurs based on behavior in the past life. The finest souls enjoy enlightenment and suffer no more. Human rebirth is the next best option; those inhabiting a new body can make up for their past mistakes. Miscreants born into a hell realm are destined to suffer greatly. But over time, eons if need be, all souls are granted enlightenment.

According to Jewish tradition, everyone has an everlasting soul; the body is given back to God. Souls live on the memories of their loved ones. After a person passes, people close to them will rip their clothing, a biblical tradition symbolizing that person being torn away. There is no definitive answer regarding the existence of heaven or hell, though there is hope that something lies beyond.

Ancient Egyptians were more focused on the afterlife than this one. If the dead were worthy, they were said to enter a splendid place similar to their earthly lives but without the pain and hardship. The soul’s journey was considered perilous, and for this reason the body was carefully prepared before burial and fully equipped afterward. Tombs were filled with everything the soul might need; if some of these items were too large, pictures of them were drawn on the walls.

The ancient Greeks and Romans also believed in the soul’s journey, but their views were more elaborate, involving several deities who meted out reward or punishment. Heroes were sent to sunny Elysium, the bad were sentenced to Tartarus and punished by The Furies. Decent citizens who had not achieved greatness were sent to the Fields of Asphodel to forget all that they knew on earth and live for eternity as “shades.” Those who died unjustly were sometimes forgiven and allowed to return to earth.

Gods were believed to control everything, not just man’s ultimate fate but the luck, or lack of it, he encountered on earth. What the ancients could not explain, they assigned to a god. Bounty or catastrophe, the gods took credit for it and man, awaiting his fate, cowered below.

We can now explain thunder and rainbows and the moon’s effect on our tides, but most people still adhere to the notion of an apocryphal godhead to whom they pray, even if these prayers go unanswered. Perhaps this behavior is ancestral: the desire to belong, to be in a club, to sit shoulder to shoulder with like-minded brethren. Maybe this sense of belonging is amplified, validated, in the new mega churches swollen with righteous believers. How could so many be wrong?

If the world’s religions were self-contained, there would be no problem. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Throughout human history, religious differences and dissension have led to untold atrocities, and the hostility does not seem to be ebbing. Warring faiths, with their stringent dogma and divisive rhetoric, will not teach us how to be good.

Atheism is defined as a lack of belief in gods. Atheism is not nihilism, nor denial, nor is it contentious. It is simply a way of living without belief in deities. One may wish to have faith in a god and still be an atheist.

I find atheism peaceful. Unable to accept the presence of a supreme deity, I have no trouble seeing the holiness in everything from a tiny pebble to a giant panda.

When disasters occur, I don’t have to struggle with my faith; I don’t need to reconcile a beneficent god with a catastrophic hurricane.

And as for the fear of death, so what if there is no heaven or hell, no god pointing a finger? When the body fails and the brain goes offline, we lose consciousness. If we slip into nothingness, which seems the most likely scenario, what is there to fear?

Some cite “life after death” experiences as evidence of a divine dimension waiting for us. These accounts are not incompatible with secular views. Given the mind’s love of stories, flashbacks and images of loved ones strike me as perfectly natural. As the curtain closes, why wouldn’t the whole cast of characters be summoned?

And that mesmerizing white light—maybe it’s consciousness, flaring one last wondrous time before darkness falls, in soft velvet folds, taking us back to the realm of pure possibility, where all that ever was begins and ends.


Published by

Jean Ryan

Jean Ryan, a native Vermonter, lives in Lillian, Alabama. Her stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies. She has also published a novel, LOST SISTER. Her short story collections, SURVIVAL SKILLS and LOVERS AND LONERS, are available online. STRANGE COMPANY, a collection of short nature essays, is available in paperback as well as digital and audio editions.

14 thoughts on “The Solace of Atheism

  1. Good one, Jean. As usual, you have an exceptional grasp on story-telling with plenty of feeling and not too many words. I have a sub-category that I finally came to embrace. I call it pagan Buddhism. Along with many Western Buddhists, it is a way of picking out the useful philosophy of the Buddha’s teachings and leaving the religious aspects behind.

    1. Thank you, Taya. I can understand your attraction to Buddhism as well as Paganism. To live in the now, in constant respect and gratitude, well what a sweet life it can be.

  2. Well consider too most of Christianity stole everything from Pagans and Zoroastrians. It’s quite fascinating to read all of that. Becuase then you understand, all religions were pulled straight from the nether regions of man.

  3. I’ma gonna pray for you, Jean Ryan! (I’m kidding!, I just thought that was a funny way to start my own comment to your brilliant insight.) I love how you break down all the different religions and philosophies. You do that with such grace and efficiency and your inimitable humor. I always feel smarter after I read your books, articles and blogs. You make me want to be more clear and direct in my own thinking. Your writing always delivers me into a new way of thinking about something I thought I had firmly handled. Not so! Here goes….. Sometime back in the late 80’s I recall seeing a show off-Broadway, The Kathy & Mo Show, and there was a scene where both women are driving to a conference on Atheism. During the scene they pointedly and smugly dismiss the religions they both grew up practicing (both catholic like myself so I knew this was going to be good!). At a crucial point in the scene the action dictates that they narrowly get killed by a truck head on. In a nanosecond they both revert to making the sign of the cross and thanking Jesus and God that they didn’t get killed. The audience HOWLED! I suffered through 8 years of catholic grammar school taught by a surly group of angry nuns (well, they’re all married to Christ and he’s always busy at work…….) My Parents died when I was in high school and left to my own devices I applied to any college that would take me despite my age. My first semester I took all the core classes but also took an Introduction to Buddhism class and a Philosophy class. These 2 classes changed my life. I shunned the hypocrisy and disappointment of my catholic upbringing and traded “up” to these new ways of understanding spirituality. And yet all these years later I am still in the mindset that combines the menu of beliefs that make me a christian buddhist jew muslim new ageist. This, unlike a sibling who told me she voted for Trump but said she believed I have equal rights as a gay man to which I said “No, it doesn’t work like that…..this isn’t a Chinese Menu pick issue from Column A and 2 other issues from Column B…….”, sorry, back to my point, I like to think that I arrived at the same place that your beautiful insight has led me. It can all peacefully co-exist, simply. I may still make the sign of the cross — I think of it as dialing God — and a physical action that helps me to center myself and focus — when I pray in the morning but it’s not like the rote and droney sounding prayers like the Our Father or Hail Mary (which always sounds like a scene from Rosemary’s Baby — geezus, that collective audio scares the hell out of me) but my sense of prayer is calmer and more reflective ….or I like to think so. But, see?, this is what your amazing writing does. As usual, I will be sending this out to my Family and close friends to initiate even more conversation. Who rocks?, easy. Jean Ryan does. Have you ever considered making your site a subscription service? Or is that too much pressure to know you have to make deadlines? I happily subscribe to The New Yorker, AD, Esquire, W, etc., so I’d happily add to my subscriptions a weekly or bi-monthly Jean Ryan column. Thanks, JR, for the gift that is your brilliant mind. Brava! XO

    1. Oh John. I am nearly at a loss for words at this beautiful, and beautifully written, tribute. I loved it all, especially the parts that made me laugh out loud–the off-Broadway show anecdote, your clever response to your sister, dialing god with the sign of the cross, Rosemary’s Baby. Thank you for those, as well as your constant appreciation. Writing is a clarifying experience for me, and I’m happy it comes across that way for you.

  4. Wonderful Jean! As a person who grew up catholic, I have come to believe in the Mystery of the Universe. This has brought me peace and solace. I choose to let go into the mystery of life.

  5. I felt that your post was well written, and I hear your points out, however, although religions do tend to cause a great deal of conflict, the removal of them will cause conflict too, and it is uncertain whether or not new conflicts of different kinds will emerge as well. Humans need something to believe in, if it’s not God, then it can also be political beliefs, philosophical belief, etc. I think it is common sense that just in the realms of atheism there will still be disputes. God is not the catapult of conflict, it is human disagreement and their zeal to fight and argue for what they believe in. Do not also neglect organized religion’s power to save lives

  6. I came back to this post and recalled what Carl Sagan said…..He didn’t believe in life after death, and once told his daughter, Sasha, that it was dangerous to believe in something just because you want very badly for it to be true. But he also told her, “We are star stuff,” and made her feel the wonder of being alive.

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