Earlier this summer, I had a kind of near death experience. But it didn’t involve a bright light or divine presence—instead, it reminded me of how atheism fuels my appreciation for being alive.
I was days away from moving from Massachusetts to Connecticut and had previously agreed to do a couple of speaking engagements that week. I wondered if I would regret committing to them while living out of boxes, but when the day of the first event came, I was grateful for a break from packing.
I picked up my rental car, drove several hours, checked into the hotel, and got ready for the event. When it was time to leave, I pulled out of the hotel’s parking garage, drove one block, and stopped at a red light. The light turned green, a few cars ahead of me went, and then I entered the intersection.
Halfway into the intersection, a car sped through a red light and smashed into my rental car, ripping off the front of the vehicle before hitting another car.
The car was going incredibly fast, but fortunately everyone involved in the accident was okay—just sore and very shaken.
As the crash happened, I experienced many of the clichés people describe after similar incidents. I experienced the sensation of my “life flashing before my eyes”—in hindsight, my life seemed much shorter in that moment—and the accident somehow felt as if it happened both in slow motion and in a blur all at once.
There was, however, one cliché that wasn’t true for me.
Some people like to say that there are “no atheists in foxholes“—that, when confronted with her or his own mortality, even the most ardent atheist suddenly becomes a believer.
But that wasn’t the case; instead of turning my thoughts to ideas of God or divinity, I thought of my loved ones, felt fear and acceptance, hoped that I and the others involved would be okay, and finally, when it was over, felt grateful to be alive.
I also felt gratitude for the many people who stopped to ask if we were okay, and especially for those who waited with us until the police arrived. I had meaningful conversations with a Muslim woman, with a woman who was eight months pregnant, and with a man who was already late for a shift at work but stayed with us anyway.
The conversations reminded me of my first car accident, when I was 16 years old, which was also due to someone else running a red light and smashing into my car. That accident was far worse, leaving my face cut up and my whole body bruised—but the thing that stands out most strongly about it in my mind today is how many people stopped to help. It’s certainly not the only time in my life that I’ve benefited from the kindness of strangers, and incidents like it continue to fuel my conviction that we have to rely on our fellow human beings.
It’s been said that the only guarantee in life is that eventually we all will die (another cliché). As a child, my wonderful mother used to tease me whenever I asked if I could hang out with a friend later that week by saying, “I don’t know—you could die before then.”
While she was just being playful, she instilled in me an appreciation for life and an acceptance of its finitude. Today, knowing that life could end at any moment encourages me to live each moment as fully as I can.
I was still quite shaken, but I ended up making it to the event just before the panel I was speaking on was scheduled to start. While I wasn’t sure I was up for speaking immediately after the accident, I was so glad that I went because I got to spend the evening doing something that brings my finite life so much meaning and joy: Being in conversation with incredibly thoughtful people who hold different beliefs than I do, being challenged and finding surprising areas of agreement, and taking refuge in the process of listening to and sharing stories. It was another reminder of why I am so grateful to be alive, and why, as an atheist, I know that I can’t take life for granted.
Now that a few months have gone by, I am trying to hold on to that gratitude. It’s easier to be grateful for something when we come close to losing it. But being a nontheist challenges me to be as present as possible in each moment, because nothing is guaranteed beyond this moment.
There are atheists in foxholes, and in car accidents, feeling grateful for our one short life.