One of my field techs had been raised as a Christian, but had left the church. While she no longer believed much of what the church had taught, she still retained a belief in some sort of divine being. She asked me about my beliefs, and I stated that I am an atheist.
"So, aren't you afraid of death. I mean, if you don't think there's an afterlife, isn't that scary?"
Although it is less common now, I get asked this question somewhat frequently.
The answer is kind of complicated. When I first accepted that I didn't believe in a god, I have to admit that I was frightened of death. The idea of nonexistence seemed absolutely horrifying to me. After a time, I realized that, really, if I didn't exist, then I wouldn't be around to know that I didn't exist, and so the idea lost alot of its sting. While the idea of death ceased to be upsetting, I still saw it as a loss, something that was to be viewed with dismay, if not actually feared.
That changed a few years ago. At the time I was dating a woman who would describe herself as a neo-pagan. We were sitting on my couch one night talking about religion when she told me about her beliefs regarding death.
"I believe in a sort of reincarnation," she explained, "not that I will personally be reborn some day, but that what we call a soul is actually made out of many parts, and that when I die, those parts will no longer be bound together, but will disassemble and become parts of other entities waiting to be born."*
This struck a chord with me. Not because of the supernatural content, I don't believe in souls any more than I believe in gods, but because it seemed to me to be a beautiful metaphor for something that absolutely, without question, does happen. What am I, after all? Well, I am a body, a consciousness, and an identity. As far as we can tell, the consciousness is a function of the body, so these two can be considered together.
When I die, my body will decompose. When this happens, the chemical compounds and energy that comprise me will feed other organisms. My remains will once again cycle into the environment, and though transformed will not be destroyed. Yes, my consciousness will be gone, but the things that created it will still be in circulation, just in different arrangements.
And this I find very comforting. In a very literal sense, my death will feed new life.
Unlike my consciousness, my identity doesn't have to vanish with my body. Consider the people who, though no longer alive, are still clear and significant presences in the world: Samuel Clemens (AKA Mark Twain), Helen Keller, Marie Curie, George Washington, Henry Tudor, Stephen Jay Gould, Alexander of Macedonia, and on and on and on. To some degree, everyone who has ever lived has had an influence, and many of them are remembered by at least some people, and some by most people. So, in this sense, if I do things that leave a mark (something that I am trying to do by publishing, as well as a few other projects that I have on hand), then my identity remains even after the rest of me is gone.
Again, I find this comforting.
So, no, I don't fear death. I'm not seeking it out, but I no longer see a reason that a lack of an afterlife makes death a fearful thing.
*I know that at least four of the people who regularly read this will at this point start scoffing at her beliefs. I would simply remind these people that they believe in an afterlife including a heaven and a hell that seems pretty silly to anyone who doesn't subscribe to it.