Thursday, October 25, 2007

Life After Death

One of the joys of being the campus heathen is that from time to time my classmates will come to me with their questions about being an atheist (the most common question being, "Why do you want to go to Hell so badly?"). Just last night, a girl from my school sent me a message via Facebook and because it's a very common question that theists have, I thought I'd share our correspondence with you.

[Note: I've chosen not to include her name because, frankly, I didn't ask her permission to do this. I've also cut out salutations and various other niceties because they are none of your business.]

Her letter:

This is really random but I was arguing the other day with someone about religion -- and we were talking about atheism (and I think that is okay and everyone is entitled to their OWN beliefs) and the person I was arguing with is a close-minded jerk and he said atheists go to hell.

BUT I was wondering -- and I hope that I do not offend because that is NOT my goal -- its just when my "friend" and I were talking about this I thought about YOU and thought I would/could ask you.

Anyways, I was wondering where do atheists believe/think they go when they die?

Cuz to me, and I could be wrong, correct me if I am, if a person doesn't believe in god then they probably dont believe in heaven and hell but then I wondered where do they think they go after they die?

I am really worried/scared about asking you this because I don't want to offend you in any way ... so if this is offensive or you just dont want to answer me -- that is completely fine!!

My response:

Please, don't ever be scared about asking me anything, especially a question like this. Your message actually kind of made my day. I love that you care enough about this to find out the truth and I'm flattered that you thought to ask me.

Alright, let me break the answer down for you . . . I'm probably going to give you more information than you want or care about because, frankly, I'm verbose, but here goes:

Atheism is not a system of believe, it's just the absence of a belief-- specifically lacking a belief in a god or gods. That's really all the label of "atheist" tells you. So, it's hard to really say "this is what atheists believe about . . . " because there's no rules, and there's no kind of creed that we all follow. For example, Buddhism is a non-theistic religion (which, to me is the worst of both worlds) so while most Buddhists do not believe in a god or gods, they generally do believe in reincarnation of some sort. Most other atheists, however, don't believe in reincarnation.

While atheists are free to believe whatever they want about what happens after death, generally speaking, those people who identify themselves as Atheists (or Materialists, Naturalists, Humanists, Rationalists and a good majority of self-identified Freethinkers), believe that when we die, we die. The End.

Atheists, by definition, don't have a god belief and by extension of that, most of us also don't believe in anything supernatural-- ghosts, angels, demons, miracles, etc. etc. and yes, even souls. And by soul I mean an aspect of the self that exists in some supernatural realm and that continues to live after the body has died ( offers 14 definitions of "soul" only four of which have anything to do with the supernatural). Because I don't believe in souls, I believe that when we die it's pretty much like when everything else dies. Sure, some people believe that animals have souls (lesser souls, but still souls) and get to go to heaven when they die (or be reincarnated) but most people regard an animal's death as the end of its life and not the beginning of its afterlife.

Humans are animals too. While we're differently evolved, have more advanced culture, the ability to reason and wear pants, we're still just animals. Luckily as humans we also have a highly developed sense of self-importance so we can tell ourselves that we're different, we're special and by golly, even though everything around us just dies we can somehow outlive even death because we're just that important. I think that's kind of arrogant of us and all the evidence suggest that, in fact, our deaths are just as final as the deaths of every other thing on the planet.

As I understand it, in Buddhism, the ultimate goal is to achieve Nirvana, which is not like Heaven at all, but is actually an experience of nothingness. Buddhists live life after life in order to attain that which we Atheists are pretty sure we're all going to get after just one go 'round. And please, don't take anything I say about Buddhism as gospel truth, my understanding of
Buddhism is shoddy, at best.

So, long story short, when we die our brain activity ceases. There's no more pain or pleasure. We're not conscious, we don't go anywhere, we don't experience anything good or bad. Which is kind of a bummer because Christians can always say "On Judgement Day you'll see we were right!" but Atheists never get to be proven right, because if we are right, there's no afterlife in which to gloat.

I know I've probably exhausted your attention and interest by now, but I want to say just one more thing, because it's really important: the idea that when we die, we're just dead can be seen as very bleak, very depressing. Especially for people who have lived their entire lives believing that this life is just training or a testing ground or a weigh station or whatever for the better, longer life to come. People think it cheapens this life, makes it meaningless ("Why not just kill yourself, then?" is a question religious people ask us non-believers all the time). But I think the opposite is true. I think that believing that this life is the only life we'll ever get to have makes it far more precious. Life matters so much more when we're not spending it looking forward to something afterwards.

There may be something after death-- I don't know, you don't know and anyone who claims to know is a liar because we simply can't know. But I know for certain that I have this life. And because this is the only life any of us is guaranteed to have, I think we need to do as much good with it as we can in what precious little time we have.


Brent Rasmussen said...

Very nicely done, Fletcher!

Jeremy said...

You're a little off on the nirvana thing (though you humbly acknowledged that). Buddhists describe ultimate reality via negativa (by what it is not). Since no one can see the world without a point of view (self) or without conditioning (karma or cause-and-effect)or the dualistic categories we interpret the world through(big/small,good/bad)we cannot describe a reality that would contradict those qualities. So Buddhists describe what is Nirvana is not like, its not like living, but its not extinction, its not like joy, but its not like suffering, really its not like anything, its empty of any idea we might put on it. But nirvana is certainly not death and extinction as we would believe. In fact many Buddhists believe one can achieve nirvana while alive so life the world and everyday experience are all compatible (in their view) with the unreal and empty experience of nirvana.

Dennis B Murphy said...

Good response to her questions!

I often have a similar argument-theists want to equate atheism with a(n) ACTIVE belief in nothing- which is incorrect

Robert W. Collins, PhD, PC said...

Well done, as was your description of NYC and the CFI-New York conference. I describe myself as an old grey hair and one of the most gratifying changes I have seen in the Freethought Group is seeing all of the youth coming in to carry on hope and reason for the future. Lord knows (oops), we need you as a legacy to carry on our DNA and to experience an optimistic, awsome view of our future. It lends much comfort to this one and only existence that I am experiencing. Thank you! Bob Collins