Heaven’s Cold Comfort

Question from Tsahpina:
If the religious really believe there is an afterlife and/or paradise, for those who believe in such, why do they cry when someone dear to them dies and why are they afraid of their own death?
I do not mean this as rhetorical question, but since Ivery much doubt any religious person is capable to answer this sincerely, then let it be, for such religious people, rhetorical only. but i would like a real reason, if there might be one, like, they are leaving their dear ones or a dear one is leaving them, but then, they are going to their loved ones who had already died and the ones that remain here will sooner or later join them. so, why not rejoice for the going to paradise, big deal, i mean.

Answer by SmartLX:
The short answer is that an afterlife doesn’t make everything about death okay even if it’s real.

We’ll leave aside the idea that some believers don’t really believe we go to Heaven or nurse serious doubts. if you don’t really accept the doctrine then of course it won’t help you when you’re faced with death, so that’s that. We’ll consider the case for people who really do believe instead.

No matter what happens after death, the person is gone from this life and this world. In an undeniable sense the person is separated from us and lost to us. If you love the person, this is a great loss which you will mourn no matter where you think the person is going, because you’ll never see or talk to them again for the rest of your life. If you knew someone you loved was going to live quite comfortably but not contact you in any way for several decades, would it make it perfectly all right that you’d see them again afterwards? Of course not, while it might provide some consolation it would still be a huge wrench in the here and now. Likewise, if you’re the one going away, you wouldn’t see anyone you knew potentially for years.

The Christian afterlife, similarly to many others, is a double-edged sword. You find out right at the beginning whether you will spend eternity in Heaven or Hell, and there is no assurance to be had before that point. You just have to follow the rules as laid out by your particular denomination, and hope you got them right AND they’re the right rules. Sins are remembered even if you’ve forgotten them, so you doubt your own mind. All men and women are sinners by nature and tainted with Original Sin, so you keep your fingers crossed that you’ve cleaned it all off with your piety and prostration and didn’t miss a spot. It’s truly nerve-wracking, even if you think you’ll be okay in the end. And if someone else is dying, you have no way of knowing whether they’ve confessed every sin, performed every rite, crossed every T and dotted every i.

So if someone is fearful and sorrowful of death I don’t doubt the steadfastness of their beliefs. I feel great pity that their beliefs aren’t helping as much as they were probably led to believe they would.

Ghosts On TV

Question from Chris:
What would you say about ghosts and paranormal activity?
It is hard to deny the existence of ghosts or haunted places. There are many videos like this –
– that show ghosts on tape and such.
How can you as an atheist explain this?
There are many documented cases of ghosts. Assuming that there is no God then how are there ghosts and spirits?

Answer by SmartLX:
There are many documented claims of ghosts, but not one confirmed actual ghost. Shows like Ghost Adventures in the video above do everything they can to convince viewers that that supernatural experiences occur, but with all the “evidence” they supposedly accumulate after multiple seasons they never bother to take their case to mainstream scientists for analysis. You eventually have to wonder whether the hosts and producers are at all sincere. (To their credit, the Ghost Adventures guys essentially filmed a retraction after their night vision camera caught a guest very obviously faking a poltergeist event. Whether or not they’re honest ghost hunters, that had to be embarrassing or at least annoying.)

There are indeed many videos purporting to capture ghosts or ghost activity, but they fall into two categories: those which have not been proven to be genuine, and those which have been proven not to be genuine. There are so many of them because not only are there many ways to fake such a video, there are many reasons to fake such a video. Many of these reasons, though not all, have to do with money. I’ll let you work out what they are. In the end there is just no available, substantive evidence for ghosts, so there’s no more reason to believe in ghosts than in gods. If you know of a particular video or story which you think does constitute substantive evidence, link to it in a comment and we’ll discuss it.

We actually have had a few people write in who claim to be atheists and yet believe in ghosts. Most of the time it’s because they’ve had an unexplained personal experience which convinced them, which is no good for then convincing anyone else but is very effective for creating belief in one person. The resulting rationales tend to posit that souls and an afterlife do exist but they’re not created or controlled by anything resembling a god, instead relying on supernatural energies and other non-divine phenomena. These atheist spiritualists therefore have a very decentralised concept of the afterlife, and of whatever non-ex-human spirits may exist in addition to ghosts. I say the same thing to them as I say to believers in gods: produce your evidence.

Answer Me These Questions Three

Question from Stephen:
Dear who ever is reading this,

I am a Christian, now before you get all mad and make judgements please hear me out I just want to ask you a few questions so I get what you believe. Okay so…
1. If you don’t believe in “God” do you believe in a “higher power?” And if you do who is that “higher power?” Would you consider yourself to be “God” over your own life?
2. If you don’t believe in heaven then where do you go when you die?
3. How do you believe the world came to be? Though the Big Bang theory? Or did the earth always exist?

Please respond back with your answers I just want to know more about atheists.

Answer by SmartLX:
No problem Stephen. If I got mad when someone simply identified as Christian, I wouldn’t be able to think straight when answering their questions. I’ve numbered your questions for easy reference.

1. Plenty of entities are more powerful than me. The sun makes me look completely insignificant, when considered in all its enormity. The nation of the Commonwealth of Australia has power over me, since I’m a small part of it. Gravity, while not necessarily an entity, has achieved more than I ever will. The thing is that none of these entities are concerned with the intimate details of how I live my life, so they’re not the kind of “higher power” I can appeal to for practical help in all things. (My country does concern itself with some broad aspects of my life, of course, but fortunately not all.)

Therefore I don’t think there is the kind of “higher power” you’re thinking of. In the absence of this, I certainly don’t feel like the God of my own life because I don’t have anything like that kind of absolute control over it. I do have some control, obviously, but that just makes me a functioning person with my own will, not a god. It suffices.

2. I described my position on death in an earlier piece. Read it here, and comment (here or there) if you have any questions.

3. All the evidence points to a Big Bang, or a similar expansion of all existing matter and energy from a single point in space about 15 billion years ago. The Earth formed about 10 billion years later, coming together from materials orbiting the Sun (which had formed a few hundred million years earlier). You don’t have to be an atheist to think this, and in fact many Christians believe that God caused exactly this to happen. Where atheists differ is that they don’t believe a god was required for it to happen.

Death And What Probably Doesn’t Come Next

Question from Sarah:
We all have to go somewhere or will happen to us when we die. If you do not think or believe in God or heaven where do you think you will go or what will happen to you when you die?

Question from Jessie:
What are you living for if nothing happens after you die?

Question from Rachel:
I know you don’t acknowledge a God, but do you believe that we have a soul or that there is some sort of afterlife?

Question from Emily:
What do you believe will happen to your soul after you die? Christians believe that we have a purpose beyond death and that our souls will be in heaven. If you’re not going anywhere but the ground what comfort can you or your family find in death?

Question from Elizabeth:
Where do you think that you’ll go after you die?

Question from Brooke:
What makes you think that God doesn`t exist, and if he doesn`t what comes next? What is there to live for?

Question from Heather:
I know you do not believe in heaven or hell, but where do you believe your soul goes after you die?

Answer by SmartLX:
Looking again at this sudden deluge of questions, I notice they all arrived within ten minutes of each other, so I reckon the questioners are in a group somewhere. Welcome to you all, and I’ll get to everyone before too long.

I’ve answered the main thrust of the above questions once before in Death: Just Curious, but as I’ve said I’m happy to retread old ground for newcomers. (Brooke, for the first part of your question, see the post immediately before this one.)

An afterlife would require something of a person’s identity, mind, memory and so forth to persist after death. All evidence indicates that these things operate entirely within the physical brain, which is completely irreparable mere minutes after it loses its supply of oxygen from the bloodstream. Even while people live, physical damage to the brain can rob them of their memories, drastically change their personalities or turn them into complete “vegetables”. A “person” does not appear to be a separate entity from the tissue and bio-electrical activity in his or her head, as suggested by the concept of a soul, so there’s no good reason to believe in souls.

That said, I have heard from a few atheists who believe in an afterlife and even in ghosts (as you can see here, on the old archive). This is not a contradiction as their explanations do not require the existence of gods; they tend to focus more around energy. I say to them just what I say to others: present the evidence.

I’ve just said that there’s no good reason to believe in souls. A not-terribly-good reason to believe in them would be that if they don’t exist, there is no comfort to take from death or nothing to live for. Even if both were true (and I’ll get to them presently), you would be reasoning that souls are real because it would be better if they were real. This is wishful thinking, and it has no power to determine what really is or isn’t. Formally, it’s known as an appeal to consequences and is recognised as a logical fallacy. More simply put, it just doesn’t follow. Fortunately, things aren’t quite so bleak.

Death is always a loss to the living. There can however be different sources of comfort in death, even tragic death, for those left behind. For those who willingly sacrificed themselves for noble causes, such as the lives of others, we can celebrate their bravery and selflessness even as we mourn. For those who led full lives, we can reflect on their legacies. For those who died with important work unfinished, we can take up a cause in their names. Most obviously, the deceased will no longer suffer whatever pain and anguish led up to their deaths, so at the very least there’s that. If horrible people die, people we wish had been punished more for their misdeeds, at least they can’t hurt anyone anymore.

As for why we would want to live if there’s no life after this, why wouldn’t we want to make the most of the one life we know we have? I’m sure you value this life too; Heaven is meant to be all that and a bag of chips, but are you all constantly wishing and hoping that any moment a car would kill you instantly and send you straight there (indicating that God’s plan had finished with you)? I doubt it. We all have things we want to do before we die – romance, kids, careers, travel, charity, art – and the possible existence of a subsequent (but likely very different) life doesn’t change that. Even the religious are in the dark about their gods’ supposed plans, so apart from doing their bit to propagate their religions, they choose their own purposes in life as well. Atheists just leave out the religious bits.

No Afterlife, No Purpose?

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.

The God Contingency

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.

The Journey of a Soul

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.

Death On The Brain

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.
Thank you.

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.

Death and NOFX

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.