Life on death row

prison window Life on death rowA couple weeks ago I was half paying attention to a documentary about a maximum security prison while folding laundry. They were interviewing a 25-year-old “lifer,” and he mentioned that he used to be on death row but his sentence was commuted to life without parole. The producer asked him to describe what it was like to be released from death row.

He gazed into the distance and responded, “You can’t imagine. When you’re on death row, it’s like you’re already dead. You try to play cards, but you hear that clock ticking in your head, knowing that the date of your extinction has already been set, and now it’s just a matter of days and minutes. You could read a book, watch some TV, but why? You’re gonna die soon and can’t take none of that stuff with you, so it doesn’t really matter anyway.” He got choked up as he added, “I got my whole life back when I got off of death row.”

As I folded a t-shirt I nodded knowingly, subconsciously reacting to his description in a spirit of camaraderie. I instinctively viewed him as someone with whom I had a shared, rare experience, knowing that the producer and the viewers of the show could never imagine what it was like because they hadn’t been there like we had.

I stopped cold with a shirt half folded in my hand when I became aware of my reaction. Where did that come from? How on earth could I, a middle-class girl who’s never even been to the county jail, have the faintest idea what a former death row penitentiary inmate was talking about?

And then I realized: because when I was an atheist, I lived on death row.

I first realized the gravity of my sentence when I was around 11 years old. One night the thought of death randomly popped to mind, and for the first time I fully internalized the reality that I would one day die. Though of course I already knew that nobody lives forever, this was the first time that that veil that blocks unpleasant truths from our conciousness was pierced and I understood down to my bones that it was only a matter of time before a coffin lid closed on top of my body. The weight of that reality was too much for my intellect to bear; it’s like I thought about it more in my racing heart than in my head. My whole being was aware that everything I thought of as “me” — my body, my feelings, my loves, my thoughts, all my hopes and dreams — were nothing more than the products of random chemical reactions that would one day cease, and “I” would disappear.

The human psyche is surprisingly good at blocking out these sorts of unbearably heavy realizations, so I managed to get out of the tailspin of despair within a couple of days and not put any more serious thought into death for a few years. But then high school and college rolled around, I became more curious about life and the world, and the reality of death began to swirl around the periphery of my thoughts once again. Most of the time I could keep my mind occupied with school and friends and parties, but every now and then that veil would fall down again and the reality of death would go seeping down into my bones, leaving me too depressed to cry.

For some reason most of my other atheist friends didn’t seem to struggle with this sort of thing, but I didn’t understand why not. As atheist Bertrand Russell once pointed out, all the efforts of our lives were to be multiplied by zero in a matter of years. With no eternal “self” or even “memory” beyond the grave, it would be as if we never existed. Sure, we would live on in people’s memories, but all of humanity would one day be gone. And measuring by the universe’s timescale, all life on earth — let alone one human’s life — would not even amount to a blip on the radar screen.

The date of our extinction was coming up soon, getting closer by the second. The only difference between a death row inmate and anyone else, in my eyes, was that the prisoner knew the date. I had those same questions that inmate expressed: Why play cards? Why watch TV? Why read a book? Sure, you might have momentary pleasure or gain some knowledge, but it was all fleeting, and it would all disappear — along with you — upon your impending extermination. And the clock was ticking. We were all dead men walking.

It felt wrong — deeply, uncomfortably wrong — to think about all of this. And upon my conversion to Christianity I realized why:

That crushing despair I experienced when I would absorb the implications of my worldview was the feeling of a precious, eternal soul railing against the injustice of being denied. Somewhere in that part of my mind where primal truths too important for words reside was the knowledge that “I” was something more than just randomly evolved chemical reactions, that “I” was both body and eternal soul, that “I” had the opportunity to spend eternity in a place of perfect peace, and that to believe otherwise was the biggest mistake a person could ever make.

When I first came to believe the truth of Christian doctrine, I didn’t think much about the eternal implications. I’d gotten good at distracting myself from thoughts of death and I didn’t want to bias my research into Christianity with a desire to believe in eternal life. So it was only slowly, over time, that I became aware that I was freer than I used to be, that life seemed more complete in a certain way than it had been before. But I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.

Then one day I was driving through an intersection where the stoplights had just lost power, and I barely missed getting into a serious, possibly deadly, accident. It was then that I realized what that new “something” was: fear of death no longer haunted me. I no longer saw the end of my life on earth as an abyss of nothingness; rather, I understood it as an opportunity to finally go home. The sleepless nights, the frantic search for distractions, the restlessness that comes with seeking a constant state of denial were all gone. Though it had happened gradually, when I compared my new state of mind with my old one I felt lighter than air; the foundation of my subconscious was now paved with joy instead of despair.

In that moment I realized that I’d spent my whole life falsely condemned to death row. And now I was finally free.

photo by decade_null

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Enter the Conversation...

58 Responses to “Life on death row”
  1. Francisco says:

    Thank you for another outstanding post, Jen! You truly have the markings of a great writer and apologist. Keep up the good work!

  2. Starrball says:

    Wow.

    This was a profound read. The line that gripped me was “the feeling of a precious, eternal soul railing against the injustice of being denied.”

    I too struggled with death. It would keep me up at night and sometimes the reality would hit home so hard I’d cry sometimes for hours, completely lost in my internal pain. I finally decided I would let myself worry about it when I was 50 or something, and that helped some. Then shortly after I started going to church regularly I had a serious talk about it with my Catholic mother and something changed in me the way you described. he next morning remember skipping down the sidewalk (I was 20) and my soul was singing inside (and probably outside too) because my fear of death was reduced by 90%. It really felt like such a load off my shoulders that I too felt lighter than air. And it’s what led me to the church fully, because even in times of doubt I would tell myself that I was 100% sure this was what I wanted (and I still can’t ever see myself turning away from the church) because if nothing else it gave me this peace and hope about death. I still have the fear because my heart hasn’t fully grasped everything but more and more it’s seeming like this is the real truth, and everyone who doesn’t see it isn’t right, they’re missing out.

  3. Herb of Grace says:

    Beautiful. Thank you.

  4. a square peg (amy) says:

    Why play cards? Why watch TV? Why read a book? Sure, you might have momentary pleasure or gain some knowledge, but it was all fleeting, and it would all disappear — along with you — upon your impending extermination.

    Hmm. As someone who doesn’t believe in an afterlife of any sort, this is an interesting topic. Off the top of my head, my answer to that would be, “Because you are here now.” To me, it is all fleeting, so we may as well make the most of it. I hope that doesn’t come across as flip; it’s not intended that way, but you can never be sure how your words come across to others.

    In my own quest for faith, I find my lack of belief in an afterlife odd, because I do believe (I think) in God. The fear of death seems to propel a lot of people toward faith, but that isn’t what’s doing it for me. I’m glad you wrote this post; it is pushing me to look more closely at what it is exactly that I’m seeking.

  5. Candace Jean July 16 says:

    “We were all dead men walking.” Wow – powerful. Thank you for a beautiful read.

  6. Bender says:

    This is an excellent example of being “saved in hope.” As Pope Benedict wrote in his encyclical of the same name –

    Paul reminds the Ephesians that before their encounter with Christ they were “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12). Of course he knew they had had gods, he knew they had had a religion, but their gods had proved questionable, and no hope emerged from their contradictory myths. Notwithstanding their gods, they were “without God” and consequently found themselves in a dark world, facing a dark future. In nihil ab nihilo quam cito recidimus (How quickly we fall back from nothing to nothing): so says an epitaph of that period. In this phrase we see in no uncertain terms the point Paul was making. In the same vein he says to the Thessalonians: you must not “grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Th 4:13). Here too we see, as a distinguishing mark of Christians, the fact that they have a future: it is not that they know the details of what awaits them, but they know in general terms that their life will not end in emptiness. Only when the future is certain as a positive reality does it become possible to live the present as well. So now we can say: Christianity was not only “good news” —- the communication of a hitherto unknown content. In our language we would say: the Christian message was not only “informative” but “performative.” That means: the Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known -— it is one that makes things happen and is life — changing. The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.

  7. Christine says:

    Your writing flows. I also know the end of the story. It is a good story isn’t it. One I tell my kids every night. Jesus, thank you for dying so I can have life.

  8. Lana says:

    whoa. this is intense. in a good way. it makes me think of that post of yours during Advent where you ask yourself: do I really believe it.
    kind of blows my mind, really.

  9. this One's for the girls says:

    Hi Jen,
    I can’t remember if I’ve commented before, but I wanted to tell you that this post really moved me. I hope it provides a holy compulsion for many to examine what eternity is . . .
    In Christ,
    Nancy

  10. Sara says:

    Beautiful, and thought provoking. Thanks!

  11. SuburbanCorrespondent says:

    I agree with you wholeheartedly. But an atheist would just say that your belief is made up by the inner workings of your mind to shield you from the horrible truth of death. What would you say to that?

  12. heartafire says:

    Thank you so much for this beautiful post. I have done some prison ministry and last time I did a 4-day weekend I went to death row. (I got “chosen” which is funny, because I really did want to experience that).

    It is really a miserable place, even for people who have been there for years, and will probably be there for many more to come, even the ones without the spectre of a “date” looming over their heads.. I truly think that dying might be easier than living like that. They are so truly alone—it’s nearly complete sensory deprivation.

    How I could relate to your “pre-conversion” state of mind, with this in my mental hopper. It truly is a meaningless existence on death row, and also in the “free world”when we don’t have Christ.

    What a gift for you when you caught yourself connecting with the inmate, and allowed the holy spirit to convict your heart. That paragraph raised the hair on my arms. Such a beautiful metaphor.

    [And BTW, Amy, you do realize that when you put a post like that on an overtly Christian blog, that many ,many people will immediately begin praying for you, that Christ will completely capture your heart. I am one of them, sincerely.]

  13. Anwen says:

    Thank you for this post. It is so encouraging to hear your stories. It’s funny, I was just giving my testimony at my blog and talked about despair, too. But words don’t flow as naturally for me as they do for you! It’s a fight every time. Let us know when the Lord gives you leave to finish your book. :)

  14. Marian says:

    Praise God for the truth that allowed you to experience and write this! Wow. This was perfect.

  15. Lisa V - Washington, NJ says:

    Oh sweet joy to know we have a place set for us after our lives here on earth.

  16. Nzie (theRosyGardener) says:

    Beautiful post, Jen. When I was teaching confirmation class, I told my kids Christ turned death from a wall into a doorway. I’m glad you found the way.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Bender..

    perfect complement to Jen’s post
    and helpful insight for a square peg..
    and motivation for me to reread spe salvi

  18. Tami says:

    This:
    “The sleepless nights, the frantic search for distractions, the restlessness that comes with seeking a constant state of denial were all gone. Though it had happened gradually, when I compared my new state of mind with my old one I felt lighter than air; the foundation of my subconscious was now paved with joy instead of despair.”
    was full of meaning for me, and I am grateful to you for writing it. It means more to me than you meant to, probably more than you could ever imagine. Thanks.

  19. Laura Staum says:

    I cannot speak for atheists because I’m not sure I am one anymore, but it occurred to me that there is a way of solving this problem even if you do not believe in an afterlife, per se (or the traditional understanding of an eternal soul). The inmate’s question of “Why play cards?” is a question that he is moved to ask because he knows he will be dying SOON – but he was always going to die, even before he was on death row. Why did he play cards then? He still would not be able to take that with him wherever he might be going after death.

    I think the reason that we DO play cards, even knowing that we are going to die, even if we do not believe in an afterlife, is that having experiences changes us, and we change the world by acting in it. In that sense, we DO all live on after death – the world is not the same and will never return to the state it was in before we lived. Some people may have a more obvious impact on it than others, but all of us have one. This seems like an interpretation of eternity that does not require religion, but could give similar hope and purpose to life – you live on in your effect on others, after you are gone, and that should motivate you to make it as good as it can be…

  20. Anonymous says:

    Wonderful, wonderful post, Jennifer! It really struck home for me. You truly have a way with words, of drawing concepts and ideas together to explain our faith.

    “The sleepless nights, the frantic search for distractions, the restlessness that comes with seeking a constant state of denial…”

    That is so familiar. Not very long ago at all, that was me. I’d seen life as pointless since age 9, and the only thing I could do was immerse myself in trying to make myself forget it. But no matter what I did, under it all was a sense of despair.

    What is the point of anything without eternity? You can say you might as well enjoy life now because now is all you get, but for me it still came down to “why bother?” Why bother helping mankind, or forming relationships with people, or hoping that humanity can go to the stars, when you will never be around to see it or the results of anything you did in life? Any feelings or regrets about life end the moment you die. I tried to have noble feelings and intentions, but ultimately, it didn’t matter, not really. Life really was a death sentence.

    I didn’t fear death before, because I was so apathetic, and I don’t fear it now, for quite another reason. What I fear now is being a disappointment for God. I want to be able to say, “I did not waste what you gave to me.”

    God bless,
    Marissa

  21. Rebekka says:

    This post, perhaps more than any other you’ve written (that I’ve read), really hit home. I was indifferently raised a Catholic and in high school I turned away. I wasn’t interested enough in religion to be an atheist, I just didn’t care.

    I have had problems with anxiety and depression anyway, but this overwhelming fear of death (occasionally to the point of actual hysteria) got worse and worse. I didn’t wake up one day and think to myself that the cure for it would be going back to the Church. My path back to the Church took a circuitous route through paganism, and there was a Catholic poster on a certain forum that explained things from her point of view, and I realised that I had turned my back on something I knew nothing about. Ironically the first Mass I dared attend after years was Candlemas, 2 February, the lighting of a candle in the darkness (now one of my all-time favorite holidays).

    Anyway, the point is, after this, I found peace in the face of death. (So much so that I am now a nurse on a cancer ward.)

    So thanks for this post, for putting into words what I only felt but could never express.

  22. 'Becca says:

    It’s great that you were able to recognize that fellow-feeling and figure out where it was coming from. That’s a profound insight.

    But I feel like you’ve still got it wrong. That “I” whose destruction you feared, that “I” you now believe will be eternal–that’s the self you are supposed to have died to! We all are one in Christ Jesus. The whole concept of “I” is an illusion of separateness.

    At times when I’ve felt fear of death, what I’ve worried about is the gap I would leave in the lives of those still living–they would miss me, or they’d be disappointed that I hadn’t finished what I’d said I’d do–but not about what would happen to ME. God will take care of that, whatever it is, and whether or not “I” survive intact is not really important. I know there is something after/beyond this life, but the specifics can’t be known until I get there, so I’ll just cross that bridge when I come to it and look forward to that adventure.

    I know a number of atheists who are terrified of death, and I think it’s because they don’t have this faith that God will take care of everything; if it’s up to me to control my destiny, then the end of “me” means a total loss of control. I wonder if maybe you’ve retained this sense of self-importance and just lost the fear now that you believe your self to be eternal.

    Or maybe I’m misreading you, and the “I” you’re talking about is not so specific.

  23. Anonymous says:

    “[T]he foundation of my subconscious was now paved with joy instead of despair.”

    What a wonderful post. Thank you so much.

    Alexandra

  24. lyrl says:

    Like a few earlier commenters, I do not believe in an afterlife and yet am not (and never have been) bothered by death in the way Jen and other commenters describe.

    There was a time in the past when I did not exist, and that concept is not fear-inducing. Why should a time in the future when I do not exist be scary?

    While obviously many people are bothered by these fears, they are far from universal to the human condition. If having such fears is hearing the voice of one’s eternal soul, my soul must be mute.

  25. Melanie B says:

    But I feel like you’ve still got it wrong. That “I” whose destruction you feared, that “I” you now believe will be eternal–that’s the self you are supposed to have died to! We all are one in Christ Jesus. The whole concept of “I” is an illusion of separateness.

    becca,

    This is not really in line with Catholic teaching. It sounds more Buddhist to me. We believe in a triune God a Trinity of Persons, three “I”s in one Godhead. When we become one in Christ we do not lose our identity and cease to be separate individuals. The metaphor you invoke seems to be that we all become drops of water in the sea of God. But the image that more closely fits in with what the Bible describes is that we are each unique grains of sand that become part of a great sandcastle.

    When we die to self we do not cease to be unique individuals, rather the opposite, we die to selfishness and sin and in doing so we become more individual, we grow closer to the unique vision that God has for each of us. God makes each person with loving attention, every hair on our head is known and counted and loved. We do not cease to be ourselves when we become one but rather we lose those things that keep us apart from each other. In St Paul’s metaphor, the hand does not become a foot when it becomes a part of the Body of Christ. It remains a hand. But now rather than fighting all the other members of the body, it starts to work in harmony with them, realizing that they are all part of a greater whole.

  26. Eo Nomine says:

    “But an atheist would just say that your belief is made up by the inner workings of your mind to shield you from the horrible truth of death. What would you say to that?”

    If it all doesn’t matter anyway, why should it matter that I think it does?

    “Like a few earlier commenters, I do not believe in an afterlife and yet am not (and never have been) bothered by death in the way Jen and other commenters describe.

    There was a time in the past when I did not exist, and that concept is not fear-inducing. Why should a time in the future when I do not exist be scary?

    While obviously many people are bothered by these fears, they are far from universal to the human condition. If having such fears is hearing the voice of one’s eternal soul, my soul must be mute.”

    Hmmm…I do not mean to impugn your honesty, but I seriously doubt you have no fear of death. Most of the time, people aren’t aware of their terror though, because the human psyche is really, really good at shielding itself. I believe Jennifer already pointed this out. Indeed, she was able to go on for years and years at a time without experiencing the fear of death she had hidden inside.

    One day, you too shall face the crushing despair decreed for all men. Everyone will gaze into the abyss of their demise, and tremble. It is a question of when, not if.

  27. a square peg (amy) says:

    Eo Nomine,

    In defense of lyrl (hope you don’t mind, lyrl, and I hope I’m not off base), what she wrote was:
    I do not believe in an afterlife and yet am not (and never have been) bothered by death in the way Jen and other commenters describe.

    She did not say she didn’t fear death at all, in the perfectly natural, instinctual way all animals “fear” death. The survival instinct is strong, and I don’t think she was denying that. She said she didn’t fear it in the way Jen and other commenters described, in an existential sort of way.

    People may “fear” death as an unknown, we may dread the possible pain involved in death, and mourn the sorrow of those we will leave behind, but that doesn’t mean we all are afraid of death itself–as in the end of our “selves,” “souls,” whatever you want to call it. To me, death is the end of everything I have experienced–the end of joy, yes, but also the end of suffering. That prospect does not fill me with fear, but rather with comfort. It really does not frighten me, and I have a feeling that may be what lyrl meant when she wrote her comment.

    I also want to say I identify with what Laura Staum wrote:

    In that sense, we DO all live on after death – the world is not the same and will never return to the state it was in before we lived. Some people may have a more obvious impact on it than others, but all of us have one.

  28. annie says:

    I guess my question would be, why would you do anything when you know God’s just going to take care of it all? As an atheist, I know this life is all I have, so I must make the most of it in every way. I’m not sure I’m seeing your incentive to do anything at all.

  29. Chris Osgood says:

    What an amazing post!

  30. Eric P. says:

    “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” (Hebrews 2:14-15)

    This is rapidly becoming one of my favorite blogs. Thanks for your story!

  31. bearing says:

    annie, that’s one of those mysterious things we spend our lives trying to figure out. Otherwise known as “that’s a really good question.”

    I am content to believe that one of the ways God is choosing to “take care of it all” is through the active cooperation of the humans He made. In large ways and in small. Which adds a peculiar joy to any good work we take on.

  32. Abigail says:

    What a gripping post, Jen! What a great comparison to our Holy Father’s “Hope” encyclical.

  33. Anonymous says:

    Amazing post Jen.

    One response to those who “don’t fear death” is that it doesn’t have to be an emotional reaction, and in fact can be short-hand for all the cognitive dissonance that one would have in trying to make anything they do really, ultimately, meaningful (Meaning isn’t sense/desire satisfaction).

    “As an atheist, I know this life is all I have, so I must make the most of it in every way. “
    Well, no. It is not the case that you must.

    If we are here for a reason, a purpose, it is to do good – not just ‘for ourselves’, and the only way that makes sense is faithfully serving and reflecting our Creator, whose Image we bear.
    -Steve

  34. Jennifer @ Conversion Diary says:

    Thanks for all the great comments!

    SuburbanCorrespondent -

    An atheist would just say that your belief is made up by the inner workings of your mind to shield you from the horrible truth of death. What would you say to that?

    I’ve definitely heard that a lot. :) I’m never sure quite how to respond, though, since for a long time after I came to belief in Christianity the concepts of eternity, heaven, etc. were rather vague in my mind and not something I fully understood. I accepted them because they fit within the framework of Christian teaching, which overall I found to be imminently reasonable, and intellectually I found that the defense of these concepts made sense, but they really didn’t resonate with me on a gut level. I.e. it wasn’t like it was that those concepts were deeply appealing to me and that that’s what spurred my conversion.

    I guess I would understand where those charges came from if what had propelled me to explore religion was a fear of death, but that wasn’t it. The reason I began to research religions (and eventually converted to Christianity) is only because I came to see that the atheist worldview did not seem all that accurate.

    Annie -

    I guess my question would be, why would you do anything when you know God’s just going to take care of it all?

    Good question. The short answer is that while, yes, God is ultimately in control, he did give us free will, and it’s clear that our use of that free will can impact all of existence (including the spiritual, eternal realm) for better or worse.

    For example, let’s say tomorrow I go out and do something terrible like steal money from my best friend; or let’s say instead I do something wonderful like selflessly sacrifice time and effort to help a person in need. Whether or not I do the former or the latter has eternal significance. Choosing to do the right things — choosing good — at any given moment vs. choosing to do the wrong things — choosing evil — impacts not only my eternal soul but the soul of those involved with me. It has a ripple effect into the nonmaterial world where things are eternal.

    I wrote about this topic a little more here if you have any interest. (Read the comments at your own risk. That one kind of went in a downward spiral.) :)

  35. Anonymous says:

    Beautiful. And while God can certainly bring us to himself using an existential fear of death, he perhaps more often releases us from our unrecognized fear after the fact.

  36. Andrea Frazer - Pass the Zoloft says:

    Wow. Just, wow.

  37. Mitch says:

    Hello, it may interest readers to know that sections of this post have been submitted and posted upon FSTDT.com (no, not by me, if you are unaware of the site type it into google).

    Anyway, as a person I find your post here most disturbing. Why would you want eternal life? Think about it; sure those first few million years or so might be pretty fun, but then you’d have a million more, and a million more, and a million more and so on. Eternal life would be the ultimate punishment! I’d rather die and have that be the end of it than live in the eternal despair of knowing that it will never, never, never end.

    Also your attitude towards principles of how small we are appear to be rather defeatist.
    “all life on earth — let alone one human’s life — would not even amount to a blip on the radar screen.” That is a weak assertion. Most atheists I know draw inspiration and motivation from their smallness. They look around and see that humans are insignificant on the universal events timescale and think “hey I think I’m going to stand up, work hard, become smarter and help change that for the good of the human race!” Not this weak “oh I’d rather believe in eternal life (not so great anyway) and be happy than knuckle down, face reality (that means accepting that things did just happen)and be a the best person possible”.

    We (my friends and I) say that if all humans work together towards progress then perhaps we can be more than a blip, we could be the most significant race in all the universe if we all work long enough, smart enough and hard enough! Scientific research propels the life expectancy higher and higher towards eternity (the difference? With this version you can still end it after a few million years), Scientific research brings us closer and closer to really touching the stars. Science has brought us everything while promising nothing while religion brings us mindless happiness by promising purpose.

    One does not distract themselves from death, one uses their impending death as a reason that they should do more today to help their fellow man and advance our species instead of wasting time praying (when we could be thinking), attending church (when we could be working or sleeping), paying priests (when we could be paying teachers) and denying modern science because it doesn’t line up with something some storyteller or myth claimed thousands of years ago.

    It seems that you sought a constant state of denial when you did not believe Christianity, that’s not something you see a priest for. If you have denial issues and fear of death issues you should see a psychiatrist and get real help and real solutions to cure the problem instead of numbing the pain with belief.

    Now Jennifer, I’m not saying you’re a bad person, nothing could be further from the truth. Nor am I asserting that I am more intelligent (I’m likely not). I’m merely stating that perhaps you haven’t considered the pros of your previous angle as an atheist because you were clouded by despair of or denial of impending death.

    Now by all means, destroy my humble Aussie post. I leave my real name and all replies will appear in my inbox.

    I also read here that the blog author has to approve comments, I would hope that this power never be exercised. Censorship is always so ugly and counter-productive.

  38. Anonymous says:

    OK, I’m sorry, this sounds hurtful to say even in my own head but:
    I do not believe for a second that you were really atheistic. There are subtle cues in your language and choice of words that indicate that you may have been in denial of your religiosity or agnostic. But not totally atheistic.

    You refer to Bertrand Russell as “atheist Bertrand Russell”. Most people who were actually atheistic and indicating the words of such a clever man probably would refer to him as simply “Bertrand Russell” or “great thinker (or other adjective) Bertrand Russell”. The fact that you describe him specifically as atheist reveals an attempt to associate atheism with despair in the readers mind (note: this attempt may not have been conscious, most authors aren’t aware of what their writings reveal about them).

    “For some reason most of my other atheist friends didn’t seem to struggle with this sort of thing”

    This line in particular stuck out to me as something a Christian masquerading as a former atheist might say. The statement indicates a distinct lack of empathy or communication with supposed “friends”. If they were your friends and were atheists they would either explain to you why it didn’t trouble them or follow you into religion. Also the fact that you call them “atheist friends” sticks out. It reminds me of racists who claim they have “black friends” when such statements clearly indicate otherwise. Also despite wondering what caused your friends not to struggle with this problem you don’t seem to have sought to ask them at all, which would be the logical thing to do if your friends were real and not something you invented or exaggerated to support your story.

    “the products of random chemical reactions that would one day cease, and “I” would disappear.”

    This line clearly demonstrates that unlike the majority of atheists you never put much research into the subject of why you are here. Let me clear something up for people trying to pose as atheists: The only thing that is random, is things that we don’t fully understand or grasp in our limited minds! This was the line that told me straight up that you were lying about being an atheist or that you were in denial for most of your life.

    Atheistic persons are not some strange breed of aberrant mind, they require explanations for “what made me?” and “what is my purpose?” like others, but we instead of looking for easy answers that small children can grasp from religion, we go in search of truth no matter how terrifying or gratifying.

    We look at the natural laws and see how intricacy arises from simplicity, how the natural forces that exist (gravity, magnetic, strong force and weak force) arrange the universe and all within it into increasingly complex elements, which form increasingly complex molecules, which form objects, which form so on and so forth until we reach the complexity of biological structures.

    Oh and don’t go thinking that we are more evolved or complex than other creatures, we’re not. Ferns are more goddamn complex than people. Your crippling misunderstanding of how we really came to be here indicates a severe lack of research into being atheistic, as such knowledge is necessary to replace god as the answers to the existential questions of creation and purpose.

    Oh and with regards to purpose:
    Our purpose as described by biology is to advance ourselves as a race unified. Advancing means the survival of our species, achieved through reproduction, the increase of knowledge and helping our fellow people. Not to do Good because the angry invisible nanny is watching.

    “It felt wrong — deeply, uncomfortably wrong — to think about all of this.”
    Because your thoughts on the subject show you did no research on anything besides which religion to flock to.

    “”I” was something more than just randomly evolved chemical reactions”
    Well aren’t we arrogant? Thinking we’re special, that we were created, chosen? Again most atheists substantiate lack of belief in a god by replacing it with real scientific knowledge from reality. You are an evolved chemical reaction, but it’s not random. Mutations are the only part of evolution that is referred to as “random” and that’s because scientists can’t yet fully explain the conditions that cause seemingly random mutation.

    “the restlessness that comes with seeking a constant state of denial”
    Bullshit. You’re in denial now more likely. You seek to convince the reader that atheists wallow in despair searching for ways to deny god, the fear of death, or whatever else. Nothing could be further from the truth (well calling us pink unicorns could be further from the truth).

    “when I compared my new state of mind with my old one I felt lighter than air; the foundation of my subconscious was now paved with joy instead of despair.”

    When I read this, I became afraid. Deeply afraid and disturbed. You’ve sold your grip on reality (assuming you were really a genuine atheist, which I doubt very severely) for mindless happiness. What should have been your search for an answer, became a search for denial and you found it in religion. It disturbs me that one could sell her quest for truth for the easy way out of mindless happiness until death.

    As an end note:
    “In that moment I realized that I’d spent my whole life falsely condemned to death row.”

    No. You, as we all are, were quite rightly condemned to death upon our birth, we just don’t know when.
    And I’m glad, who would want to live forever? I mean sure those first few million years might be fun, but then you’d have eternity ahead with no end in sight. And since you were eternal and therefore could not kill yourself, you would be trapped forever in eternity with no quiet abyss as an end in sight, the thought is enough to make one suicidal. But in the eternal life of Christianity, you’re already dead, so you can’t escape this mental horror of immortality.

    Eternal life is a curse.
    Think hard on whether you’d really want it and be careful what you wish for.

    I hope sincerely that if you were ever an atheist that you remember what real truth looks like (hint: it’s not easy). But either way as a Christian I sincerely hope you see the error of the religious way and what it promises.

    I don’t expect you to approve this comment, that’s why I leave no name. I just want you to read it, and either reconsider atheism or consider stop pretending to be a former one, it disgusts me.

  39. Quotidian Torture says:

    So, essentially, you were frightened about death (something completely normal) and instead of coming to terms with your eventual nonexistence, you fled into a comforting delusion?

    I don’t want to sound mean, but you’re still going to die, and while you may have accepted Christian doctrine, you still don’t have any concrete proof of an afterlife.

    If your belief makes you happy, then go for it. I’m not going to tell you that you aren’t allowed to believe something, but you should realize that from the perspective of an atheist, you are simply engaging in wishful thinking.

    (And for those of you who want to “pray for me”, you’re welcome to, but I’d rather you “think for yourselves” instead.)

  40. ~*Michelle*~ says:

    I think you wrote a beautiful post…and it doesn’t matter to me where/who/what you came from. You are In Christ now….

    There is an awesome series right now at my church going on….it’s all about Heaven. If you are interested, it should be available online very soon. Feel free to contact me and I’ll send you the link. :)

    Peace~
    *~Michelle~*

  41. Lisa says:

    What can I say that someone has not already said, but Wow. This was wonderfully thought provoking. More reason for gratitude.

  42. Jennifer says:

    Mitch, this is in response to your question of why anyone would want eternal life. Jesus said, in John 10:10 “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” KJV. NIV uses the phrase “have it [life] to the full”.
    This life we live on earth is a tiny, dimly-lit glimpse of the life we will have with our LORD Jesus Christ. We have pain, suffering, sorrow, etc.
    Haven’t you ever had a moment that was so perfect you wished you could just stay in that moment forever? That is a lot more like what heaven will be like than just eternal repetition of the life we are living right now.
    That is what Christians live for. The idea that God will come back and turn the world as we know it upside down. You may think that is a fairy tale, and you are entitled to your opinion, but for me the hope of spending eternity with my God and savior has much more appeal than simply being snuffed out like a candle.
    I believe that the reason we question the idea of God and the afterlife is that deep within us we believe we were created for so much more and that there is a reason we are here on this earth. If we just “appeared” then where do we get this idea that we exist for any reason other than sheer dumb luck.

    All I know is that I have inner peace and security in my faith…and I would never trade that for anything.

  43. Kathryn @ Expectant Hearts says:

    Our 6 1/2 month old son passed away 4 months ago. Just this moring, when talking about Heaven and how grateful we are that death is NOT the end, my 10 year old said “Otherwise, mom, I don’t think i’d ever stop crying.”. I’m so grateful we have the Hope of eternity.

  44. Mitch says:

    “This life we live on earth is a tiny, dimly-lit glimpse of the life we will have with our LORD Jesus Christ. We have pain, suffering, sorrow, etc.”

    Uh huh, and what happens when that’s all we’ve got? To me that is the greatest inspiration to work harder, the idea that this might be it. Pain, suffering and sorrow are naught but biological imperatives and motivations for our survival and betterment.

    “That is a lot more like what heaven will be like than just eternal repetition of the life we are living right now.”

    It matters not how great heaven will be, humans are hardwired in the brain to be temporary creatures who aspire to live longer than we do (instinct for betterment). Therefore no matter how great heaven is, you will eventually tire of it, then with still an eternity to go you will wish that it could end. You know the first few million years might be great, but it simply can’t last forever, not for any physical reason, but simply because once you are in heaven your temporarily minded self will tire and you will lack a purpose (what purpose does one have in heaven?) while facing eternity.

    “but for me the hope of spending eternity with my God and savior has much more appeal than simply being snuffed out like a candle.”

    “You can’t handle the truth!”
    -Jack Nicholson

    “I believe that the reason we question the idea of God and the afterlife is that deep within us we believe we were created for so much more and that there is a reason we are here on this earth. If we just “appeared” then where do we get this idea that we exist for any reason other than sheer dumb luck.”

    Firstly, you needed a ? at the end there. Believe all you want, but if you read the Feb 9th edition of New Scientist you would see some interesting facts, stats and theories related to how and why religious belief is hardwired in the brain (it has to do with coping mechanisms, the enforcement of customs and the respect for elders and wise men). You notice every culture comes up with creation myths and afterlife myths. Why? To provide purpose, answers and motivation to a population so they can focus on being productive people. But with science we can develop real, testable answers, even if they aren’t always what we like to hear. That’s why atheism can be hard for many, because religion tells them what they want to hear while science tells them harsh truths.

    Also super-huge science misconception that exists amongst the religious: It was not random chance nor dumb luck that brought us here.
    Think of a grain of sand on a beach, say that grain of sand could think:
    “wow! It’s so amazing and unlikely that all the grains of sand on this beach were created and arranged in the exact order they are in! The chances of that are like 1 in 1 quadrillion!”
    But, we know that it wasn’t chance nor divine intervention that perfectly arranged the sand grains in that order, it was the interaction of natural processes bound by laws of physics, biology and chemistry that created it, much like the universe.

    Let me re-emphasise my last post to help clear up this misconception: (Caps lock on!)
    THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS RANDOMNESS, THERE IS ONLY THE APPEARANCE OF RANDOMNESS, ANYTHING REFERRED TO AS RANDOM OR LUCKY IS ONLY BECAUSE THE PERSON DESCRIBING IT DOES NOT FULLY GRASP ALL OF THE RULES AND INTERACTIONS THAT HELPED IT REACH THAT POINT! ONCE AGAIN: THE UNIVERSE IS. NOT. RANDOM!
    *catches breath*

    Got it?

    The only reason people ever describe the universe/evolution/chemical formation as random chance is because nobody can fully grasp all of the chemical interactions, natural forces, natural processes which over billions of years have lead up to this point. All because in the beginning the 4 forces of physics (Strong, weak, gravity, magnetic) and the laws of chemistry interacted with a point of super dense matter (singularity) causing an explosion of both time (if you know a little relativity this makes sense) and space (explaining why there was literally nothing before this, which is hard for a human mind to grasp).

    and lastly:
    “All I know is that I have inner peace and security in my faith…and I would never trade that for anything.”

    You selfish pig. You know what I have? The utmost confidence that whether God(s) or natural forces the answer that my goal is to better myself and forward the human race (breeding, learning, helping others and making, or at least not impeding the advance of beneficial sciences).

    “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”
    -George Bernard Shaw

  45. Mitch says:

    “Our 6 1/2 month old son passed away 4 months ago. Just this moring, when talking about Heaven and how grateful we are that death is NOT the end, my 10 year old said “Otherwise, mom, I don’t think i’d ever stop crying.”. I’m so grateful we have the Hope of eternity.”

    “Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.”
    -George Bernard Shaw

    A perpetual holiday is a good working definition of hell.
    -George Bernard Shaw, in Parents and Children (1914) “Children’s Happiness”

    You realize by your child’s statement that he/she is repressing their sorrow right? Which is really unhealthy. You should encourage the child to cry as much as they need to in order to overcome their sorrow. That’s not to say that you should tell them heaven isn’t real (at age 10 they’re probably not ready for such harsh truths), but rather you should encourage your child not to bottle up any sorrow or put on fake happiness because the person isn’t really dead, they’re just in heaven.

    Should the child suffer depression from this (a perfectly normal reaction to such tragedy) then a child psychiatrist should be able to help quite easily and the psychiatrist will probably be thrilled you had the courage to bring your child in, as most people deny that their children may be depressed.

    In short don’t use lies to shield your child from basic truths just because you’re too afraid to do some real parenting and let your child experience normal sadness. Trouble is once a child buys the lie (like heaven or santa etc) then you can’t take it away from them until their old enough to deal with it.

    Now you might write back with some offended “How dare you tell me how to raise my child?” but put a sock in that. One doesn’t have to be a genius to realize that sorrow is a normal emotion.

    “Parentage is a very important profession, but no test of fitness for it is ever imposed in the interest of the children.”
    - George Bernard Shaw
    (I know, but I do quite like a lot of Shaw’s works and clever quotations)

  46. sarah says:

    Your writing really is amazing! What a great analogy. Keep up the good, inspired work.

  47. Jennifer @ Conversion Diary says:

    Now you might write back with some offended “How dare you tell me how to raise my child?” but put a sock in that.

    Mitch –

    I am sincerely sorry for the pain that is undoubtedly behind this comment that would lead you to speak so harshly to a mother who just lost her infant son. You’re certainly entitled to your opinion, but the way you phrased it was unkind. Any more comments directed to Kathryn will not be published.

    I will keep you in my prayers. God bless you.

  48. Mitch says:

    “I am sincerely sorry for the pain that is undoubtedly behind this comment that would lead you to speak so harshly to a mother who just lost her infant son. You’re certainly entitled to your opinion, but the way you phrased it was unkind. Any more comments directed to Kathryn will not be published.

    I had hoped it wouldn’t come to censorship. You know what is behind that comment? Anticipation of the most common response I get to sheer “blasphemy”, one where people act all offended with their “how dare you’s” and use it as an excuse to avoid my accusations. Where people like you belittle me because I’m not old enough to know anything.

    Ageism bothers me.

    So do people who use being offended as an excuse to end a conversation because they don’t like where it’s going.

    “I will keep you in my prayers. God bless you.”

    The catch cry of religion. Keep me out of your prayers, spend the time in which you would’ve prayed for me doing something useful instead. And getting to God bless me? Do it yourself, I mean at least we know you exist.

    Oh and FYI I’m fortunate enough to have never had any close relative or friend die. So I guess that’s something else your god forgot to tell you when you took a lame attempt at guessing my motivations?

    Now if you’re quite satisfied I’d like to get back on to this odd fear of death you have. Also I’ve seen little response to my original post.

    And one anonymous fellow raised a good point: Were you Jennifer ever really an atheist? I read the anonymous persons comments on your language and form and while I may have not phrased it as harshly I agree with his assessment that your attitudes are inconsistent with being atheistic. Especially the point about not asking your “atheist friends” how they dealt with the grim spectre of death.

    • Amalia says:

      How old ARE you? I mean no disrespect, but you have no right to tell others what to believe. Your opinion could be just as wrong as Kathryn’s. Nobody really knows. We all have a right to our own opinion…
      On a somewhat unrelated topic, I see no evidence of ‘ageism’ anywhere. Did you even state your age anywhere? By the way, I’m fourteen so I’ve had to put up with a fair bit of ‘ageism’ myself.

  49. Recovering Sociopath says:

    Nice post. Have you read Simone de Beauvoir’s description of the point when she finally “realized” she was alone in the universe? It is quite moving.

    Also, I admire your graciousness in handling unkind comments.

  50. Anonymous says:

    Wow,I'm speechless.I probably need to stop reading such posts or I'm at risk of losing all respect for believers.Regarding Creator and afterlife I'm firm agnostic,but more and more I read such posts,more and more I realise that religion is nothing more than human-created myth to remove the ssting of death.But reality is what it was,not what you want it to be.Don't you realise ,that by writing such articles you actually make good points to atheists,when they state that behing religion there is nothing,but fear of death?We all have it,but how replacing reality with fantasy helps?
    Alexander

  51. Anonymous says:

    This is beautiful. I want to be free.

  52. Michelle says:

    So, telling your child you believe in the afterlife makes you a “bad parent” because you are “damaging” them. But its good parenting to tell them that you’ll be glad to someday die and cease to exist forever because the thought of spending eternity in heaven with them is frightening. I cannot recall any talks about the afterlife with my mother as a child, but I would have been mortified if my mother told me that.

    “Our purpose as described by biology is to advance ourselves as a race unified. Advancing means the survival of our species, achieved through reproduction, the increase of knowledge and helping our fellow people. Not to do Good because the angry invisible nanny is watching.”

    Isn’t ascribing purpose to nature unscientific? Is a kingsnake not following its “purpose” because it consumes its own kind instead of helping them?

    Jennifer, your post describes how I feel now. I’m agnostic and I’ve never really thought about death and the chance of non-existence until recently. The thought of never being able to see my boyfriend, friends and family after they/I die is perhaps the most saddening thing I can think of. I couldn’t imagine it being “torture” to exist with them forever.

    Also, to say someone only believes in the afterlife because it makes them feel better would be like saying someone doesn’t believe in the afterlife because the thought of life after death scares them.

    And suppose one does believe in the afterlife to make them feel better about death. Is that any worse than someone pretending they’re having some sort of meaningful impact on humanity (which will just become extinct) to make themselves feel better?

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  54. Meredith says:

    This comment section was very interesting for me. I am agnostic right now, exploring religion because I find atheism unsatisfying and unhelpful despite a lot of evidence for its truth. Reality is what it is, no matter what any of us thinks about it, whether that reality is Christianity, atheism, or what have you. So that’s where I’m coming from. I just wanted to comment on the anger I’ve seen in this thread. One the things leading me away from atheism is the anger some–certainly not all–atheists display. It seems defensive. I just don’t have the time, energy, or desire to be so angry at people who believe differently anymore. If someone is out there bombing abortion clinics, then yes, I’m going to get angry…but blogs? Surely there is more to life than ranting and raving because Someone Is Wrong On The Internet!!!

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