Question from Josh:
Do you have a purpose in your life without there being a possible god? If so what is it and what good is it without an afterlife?
Answer by SmartLX:
Andrea wrote about purpose in a previous answer, but I don’t think I’ve had my chance yet.
First, I’ve never said there can’t possibly be a god. There might be one, there’s just been no substantive evidence for one so far so if anything it’s too early to believe it.
Anyway, there’s an underlying assumption in your question that the only purpose in life for anyone who does believe in a god and an afterlife is to please the god and achieve the best available afterlife. I doubt this very much, because there have got to be non-atheists out there who do great works out of genuine altruism and not just to win points with the big boss. One’s desire to help one’s friends or family could actually trump one’s own hopes of heaven; if a friend was determined to commit suicide, as a last resort one might murder him first, endangering one’s own soul to save that of one’s friend. For another example, a good man might steal to feed his family, and not be at all sorry that he has done so despite having sinned, because his children can eat.
I’m trying to demonstrate that even for believers, their purpose in life is a personal choice. It’s the same for non-believers but, since they don’t think they have an afterlife to prepare for, it doesn’t factor into their options.
Believers often take for granted the idea that they will be able to savour their rewards forever, and are horrified by the idea that they might not. Well, if that’s the way things are, then tough. Whatever we achieve in life, we may have a few good years to enjoy it, and we can be content in the thought that it will persist after we’ve died, but then that’ll be it for us.
It’s in this spirit that many non-believers take up the popular pursuits of happiness, helping others and making the world a better place. Since we only accept the existence of one finite life and one world to live in, our priorities tend towards that life and that world. Those who are more self-centred will concentrate on their own lives, while those with more empathy are more likely to go out into the world and work to improve others’ lives. My own purpose, like most, is a mixture of the two.
Question from Emma:
I am not sure if I am brave enough to be an atheist. I am pretty cowardly and I fear death, however the only logical explanation I can reach is that God doesn’t exist, at least not in the way people think. Are most Christians only Christians because they are scared?
Answer by SmartLX:
If you’ve reached the conclusion that God doesn’t exist then you’re an atheist, whether or not you like it or you think you’re brave enough. Nobody said atheists had to be happy about the absence of gods; some actively wish there were a god, while others are relieved that there apparently isn’t.
Some Christians really are Christians because of fear, or at least they continue to believe in God because they want God to exist. They don’t consider that this isn’t a good reason to believe something, or that it makes it no more likely to be true, because they have become emotionally dependent on the idea of a personal god. I know this from personal experience – not my own former beliefs, really, but the beliefs of some of those close enough to me to admit the nature of their belief. (It’s simple enough to ask, “Why do you believe that?” but someone might need to be very open to answer it truthfully.)
Of course it’s not as simple as belief assuaging one’s fears and atheism leaving one defenceless. Christianity is itself as much a source of fear as any religion. The adjective “God-fearing” is usually meant as a compliment, for crying out loud. The idea of nothing after death isn’t the only reason to fear it; fear of Hell is part and parcel of the core doctrine of Christianity, and the Church’s main method of keeping and controlling its adherents. This is why so many ex-believers feel a huge sense of relief when they let it all go.
If you leave your religion, your fear of death probably won’t change much. Your real worry will be guilt, and the added fear of retribution by God, during and/or after your mortal life. It’s an irrational fear for someone who doesn’t think there’s a God, but it happens all the same. It’s a symptom of what I call “faithdrawal”, the psychological fallout of the loss of faith. Believe me, it fades over time.
Finally, you’re not cowardly just because you’re afraid of something. Bravery is about facing and overcoming fear, so if you weren’t afraid you’d have no way to be brave. You’re well on your way to courage if you’re delving into this issue, working to make your peace with the concept of death.
Question from Dane:
I’m just wondering, what if after all these years of not believing in God (Yaweh) then when you die you find out that there really is a God? What will you do?
Answer by SmartLX:
If that happens, what I do will depend entirely on which god it is.
If it’s one of the popular, jealous gods like Yaweh/Yahweh (the spelling isn’t that important when it’s approximating a different language) or Allah, then I will protest that there wasn’t any available, substantive evidence to justify believing in him or her. I’ll point out that at least I didn’t believe in any of the false, rival gods, and indeed worked to dispel those false beliefs in others.
If it’s a god or a collection of gods from ancient times before organised polytheism, when people fought over who had the best gods rather than the only real gods (see henotheism and folk religion), I will again stand upon my opposition to every other god, and see whether the actual god(s) could use another late convert. Given that the Mormons think the dead can even convert to their form of Christianity, an early tribal god should have no problem with taking me in.
If it’s a god I’ve never heard of, or some strange godlike energy or creature of a type I haven’t anticipated, I’ll have to play it by ear; work out what it wants, whether I can still be of use to it, and whether it even cares what I think or do as a spirit.
If I’m right and there’s no god at all, there most likely won’t be any afterlife, and I won’t be in this sort of predicament.
There’s no point swearing allegiance to any particular god while I live, unless it’s got better than a 50% chance of being the real god – instead of any of the tens of thousands of major deities humans have apparently invented, and the infinite deities we haven’t thought of yet. Otherwise chances are I’d be picking the wrong god, and would suffer all the more when faced with the real one. This is one of the main reasons why Pascal’s Wager is not an effective reason to worship the God of Abraham.
Question from Heather:
I really appreciate this website, it is quite useful. Early thank you for answering my question.
Most theists often worry about where our ‘soul’ goes when we die. I am more interested about where our ‘soul’ was before we were born. I often ask my theist friends this and most of them are perplexed by the question. Where were we before our existence? Shouldn’t we go back to the same place after our death?
When I asked myself this question I came up with no answer because I don’t know. Why don’t people draw the same conclusions about death?
Answer by SmartLX:
Most people can fairly easily understand and accept the idea of previously not having existed. After all, they normally don’t remember anything before at least a year after their own birth. It’s much more difficult to wrap one’s head around not existing at some future date, because it means directly confronting one’s own mortality. That’s why the fate of souls after death commands so much more of people’s attention than the path of souls before birth. Having an immortal soul gets around the whole mortality thing.
Atheists tend not to place so much importance on the possible types of afterlife, for obvious reasons. Considering the before-and-after question regardless can lead to a level of acceptance, as Mark Twain reached long ago: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”
This famous quote echoes one of the popular theological options, which is that each soul has existed for as long as the universe. Many theists believe in at least some period of pre-existence. Jews and Christians can even back it up with Biblical passages, such as Jeremiah 1:5 – “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee…” The ensoulment of a human body is usually believed by the religious to happen at conception, or at least before birth, so it’s implied that before that point we exist as thoughts or ideas in the mind of God. Given that we’re supposed to be here to carry out God’s plan, whatever that is, it stands to reason that we ourselves were also planned.
Moving beyond the Abrahamic religions, the concept of reincarnation suggests that your soul was in another body before yours, and many more going back through time. A soul has to have its first vessel at some point, though; the world’s population has doubled in about the last 40 years, so anyone under the age of 40 only had a 50% chance of inheriting a soul from another human (assuming that’s the default option). Therefore there’s a good chance that either your body is your soul’s first outing, or you were once an animal. Maybe at one stage you were a single-celled organism.
I think those theists who have given this particular question some thought are the ones who are genuinely interested in theology beyond its implications for their own welfare. Everyone wants to know what will happen when they die and how they can make it easier on themselves, but it takes real curiosity to want to trace one’s personal origins. Whether the pursuit ends up making the concept of souls look a bit silly is probably up to the theists involved.
Question from Leon:
Hey, I’m a 17 year old boy and I can’t seem to get my mind off the idea of God and religion. It all happened during the May 21 end of the world BS caused by Harold camping. I knew it wouldn’t happen but it got me thinking, if I did die what would happen to me?
For the past 4 months I have thought about it every day and it’s beginning to kinda scare me.
I am not religious at all. To be perfectly honest I don’t believe in God as there are so many contradictions and lies and things that have been logically proven against religion.
But I can’t stop thinking about it. Like “What if?”
I think you stated once in another question/answer that you had a similar problem and managed to stop thinking about it.
Any help would be great.
Answer by SmartLX:
Yes, here’s where I briefly discuss my childhood issues with death. All I really said about it was that it’s better for me now.
What happened at the time was what often happens to little boys: I got distracted by other things. A few years later, though, I saw death for the first time; my grandmother died after a failed operation. I barely gave a thought to the afterlife because I was completely shattered by the fact that she was gone from my life. That’s what really happens when you die: you leave a great big hole in the lives of those close to you. While this can be tragic, at least you know you can prepare for it.
A month after writing the piece linked above, I did another one called Death: just curious. There I talk about one of the really scary ideas people have about death (scarier than Hell, I think). The thing to remember is that if there is an afterlife, the possibilities are endless; if there’s something specific you’re really afraid will happen to you, the chances of it actually being what happens are vanishingly small next to the endless alternatives. It’s like the chances that the real god (if any) is the specific one a person happens to believe in. In an infinitely wide race, backing any one horse is a bad bet.
In just under a month you’ll have a chance to get some closure on the whole Harold Camping business. When nothing happened on May 21, Camping revised his prediction to say that the Rapture and the end of the world would happen together on October 21. Camping had a stroke in June and it may not be possible to get his reaction to looking even sillier on October 22, but what you will see is a lot of Christians doing their best to put the whole sorry mess behind them. It will further highlight the lack of evidence that religious predictions are worth the paper they’re written on, even if they’re in a free Gideon Bible.
Question from Anonymous C:
I’m a 15 year old sophomore in a little city right outside of Chicago, IL. Seeing as it’s a suburb, I’ve had more than enough time to think, seeing as there is nothing to do (That’s my attempt at humor, haha). Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of against me and nofx, by lately I mean a year. I’ve always had an apathetic religious view but lately I’ve been thinking a lot more about death. I really just want some sort of reassurance. I’ve been using the simile that I’m like a soldier on the front-lines, or like Darwin. It really is a very disturbing thought to me, and I wish to know why… Why does this bother? There’s no real words for it other than an oblivion of emotion. I’ve been looking at cardiac arrest patients that have been clinically dead and resuscitate for some answers and it’s not very helpful. Well anyways, I hope that your input can help,
Thank you for your time.
Answer by SmartLX:
Death is a disturbing concept for most people, especially when they first begin to realise their own mortality. You’re certainly not alone there.
Since most people are religious or at least raised in religious environments, they have a ready-made concept of the afterlife presented to them which they may then accept or reject. The concepts provided by the major religions can be comforting, but they can also be terrifying; Christians might go to Heaven or be sent to Hell for something they don’t remember doing, Buddhists might reach nirvana or be reincarnated as a tapeworm, Scientologists might leave their bodies to do high-level research or come back in a new body but still bound by a billion-year contract, and so on. Near-death experiences are not informative when judging them, because any real NDEs that might have happened were indistinguishable from dreams or hallucinations.
All of these concepts have one thing in common, and it’s possibly the most comforting thing about them: the basic idea that we have some control over what happens to us, that what we do in life determines what happens afterwards. Death is inevitable, and we feel helpless when confronted by it, but the idea that we can affect the nature of it mitigates this somewhat.
Of course, the fact that an idea is comforting doesn’t make it true. It just makes people want it to be true. You might want to convince yourself of an afterlife story because it will stop you from worrying, but be aware that religion is a package deal. Other beliefs and obligations accompany an afterlife belief, and you risk your whole life becoming centred on them.
As a child, I was terrified of death. The Christian view of the afterlife didn’t help me at all, because firstly I may not have fully accepted it even then, and secondly the ways to get sent to Hell are so numerous that I didn’t think I could possibly avoid them all. I’m much more at peace with it all now because I’m more focused on this life, the only life I know for sure that I’ve got.
You may not resolve your issues the same way, but believe me, you’ll get over it. Everyone finds a way, and time and distractions are a great help. No offence, but that amount of NOFX is not a huge help to your introspection. Play something optimistic once in a while. I recommend most of the musical output of the 80s, or the early 90s before grunge.
“When a lot of people try to imagine death without an afterlife, what they actually imagine is an afterlife without the scenery; continued consciousness in a dark, silent void.”
Question from Austin:
I respect your choice of being atheist and it doesn’t bother me, in fact i’m very open minded as well.
Since you are atheist what do you think will happen when you die? Will there be nothing? Will you turn into a ghost? I’m just curious what an atheist thinks will happen when they die.
There won’t be nothing. There’ll be a body, or the remains of a body. However, the connections in my brain that currently store my memories, personality and identity will be destroyed very quickly as the brain cells die, so “I” will no longer exist and nothing will happen to me anymore.
When they try to imagine death without an afterlife, what a lot of people actually imagine is an afterlife without the scenery: continued consciousness in a dark, silent void. That’s because it’s really very hard to imagine oneself not existing. One’s imagination generally requires one to be there in some form as an observer, in this case as some kind of disembodied soul or ghost. While it’s easier to think of death as a continuation in this way, there’s nothing to back it up. When I die I won’t be around in any form, whether or not I can currently wrap my head around the idea.
So how do I reconcile the concept of final death, and where do I find my comfort? In thoughts of selflessness. The world will go on when I die because other people will live. I’ll have left my mark by simply existing for the short time that I did, but I probably won’t be any kind of focus for the people who come after me. Even if they remember me or follow my advice or teachings or something like that, they’ll do it for their own purposes. I will cease to be important when I cease to be, and that’s fine with me. Further, if I can do things in life which improve the welfare of those who come after, that makes me feel all fuzzy inside.
I should add that I don’t speak for all atheists on this matter. We’ve had a lot of questions from self-proclaimed atheists who do believe in ghosts or spirits, while not believing in gods and therefore remaining a-theists by strict definition. To them I say much the same thing as I say to theists: support your claims.
Incidentally, atheism isn’t a choice. For me it was a realisation. I don’t believe in gods, and I can’t force myself to any more than you could decide not to believe in a god. You could deny your god, but to stop believing in it you’d actually have to be convinced that it’s not there. Likewise, I’d have to be convinced that it is there, and if that happened I’d have no choice but to believe.
“You’ve gone very wide, so I’ll be very shallow initially.”
Question from Matthew:
I don’t have any friends who claim to be atheist and I simply like to understand the position better. If you have any other input in addition to these questions I would appreciate it. Thanks.
1. Do you believe that a personal God exists? Why or why not?
2. Do you believe that Jesus Christ was God incarnate? Why or why not?
3. What is the purpose of human existence?
4. How do you know what is right and wrong?
5. What happens to a person at death?
I assume you know the answers to some of those, but I appreciate that you want to hear it from the horse’s mouth. You’ve gone very wide, so I’ll be very shallow initially. If you want more detail, comment and ask for it, and/or better yet read through some older questions.
1. An atheist does not believe that any god exists, let alone a personal capital-G God. The reason is generally lack of evidence or convincing arguments supporting the existence of such a god, and that’s the case with me. Check out The Great Big Arguments #1-#6, consisting of most of the early pieces on this new site, to see why the well-known arguments you might be in the habit of using have not proved convincing.
2. If one does not believe in gods, why would one believe despite this that Jesus was the incarnation of a specific god?
Leaving the basic position of atheism aside, the claim that Jesus was God does not stand on its own merit. The New Testament was written by people who all wanted people to believe it, whether or not it was true. The prophecies supposedly fulfilled by Jesus were available to his chroniclers, making them candidates for #5. Made to Order (in my terminology) on the list of explanations that must be considered besides the false dilemma of pure chance and true prescience. Surviving extra-Biblical documentation of Jesus, for instance that passage by Josephus, has its own issues.
3. Since the human race developed on its own and needed no creator, there was no external purpose for its emergence. The reason for the existence of humans is that life arose on a planet saturated with its building blocks, and then competed with itself over billions of years. During this demanding competition, more and more complex forms became the standard until we were the next evolutionary step.
If you mean to ask why we bother to keep existing now, it’s because we want to. There isn’t much of an alternative that we know of. As for giving purpose to individual human lives, humans can do that themselves.
4. From many different sources – the law, historical precedent, varying philosophies (including religious ones) formulated over the centuries, common sense, simple concepts such as fairness and the minimisation of harm, etc. – we have built a very good picture of what is right and wrong to humans. Obviously we don’t agree on everything, but we do agree on most things.
Any of the above sources could be wrong, and any could be challenged, but they’re there and each one tends to be consistent. The alternative is to appeal to an absolute morality, one independent of humans, which may not even exist and simply cannot be tested. I don’t need the whole universe to agree with me that what I do is right, but if most of the human race agrees based on real concepts that can be reasoned through, then I literally have a reasonable basis for my actions.
5. At death, a person ceases to exist. The person’s condition is often described using that rare and fascinating antonym of “existence”, namely “oblivion”. What happens to a person after death is therefore not worth considering, because after death there is no longer a person for anything to happen to. There is only a body. We have one life. Good thing it’s an interesting life.
Chew on that lot and speak up if you’d like to explore anything.