Clinging to Afterlife

Question from Lee:
I just want to ask what do you guys think about the afterlife (after you die), because that’s the only thing that’s keeping me believing in God but I don’t pray to God because why would I pray to someone who is powerful enough to create a world of peace but instead make a chaotic world that’s forcing us to do sins.

Answer by SmartLX:
An afterlife requires a soul, or something similar which lets a person’s identity and personality survive the death of the body and brain. There’s no good evidence for souls, so atheists usually don’t believe there’s any kind of afterlife. From the perspective of someone who dies, the world doesn’t fade to eternal darkness and silence because that’s still a kind of afterlife; there stops being a person who can experience anything, or who anything can happen to. Some atheists do believe in the existence of souls, an afterlife and even ghosts, but this isn’t due to their atheism. They just believe for some reason that souls can exist without a god.

Whether or not you want there to be afterlife is not a good reason to believe or disbelieve in gods, because if one of two possible truths is preferable that doesn’t make it more likely. Thinking so regardless is an appeal to consequences. If you don’t believe in God but you’re not happy about it, you’re still an atheist, you’re just not happy about being an atheist and you should try to make your peace with it.

Sometimes we’re the only atheists to ask.

Question from Cody:
a) What does it mean to be human?
b) What happens after death?
c) Elaborate on who Jesus Christ is according to your worldview.
d) How does your worldview deal with the concepts of evil and suffering in the world?

These are 4 questions that have come up in my class. The goal is to get the answers for each question for a Christian and atheistic view.

Any help is appreciated.

Answer by SmartLX:
You’re not the first person who’s asked for help fulfilling an academic requirement to get an atheist’s perspective on philosophical and traditionally theological matters. We did a big piece here specifically to address the questions in a college course called Christian Worldview. I find it interesting how many people are under the impression that they don’t know any atheists. While in some cases perhaps it’s true, in many cases I bet people know more atheists than they think.

Anyway, to the questions. I’ll give my own views, but I’ll also explain where there is any major disagreement among atheists in general.

a) The human being, or Homo sapiens, is a species to which we all belong. Because our physical and neurological makeup is so similar as members of a species, we have a great deal in common. With very few exceptions, we feel great empathy for each other, and at least some empathy for other life on Earth. Systems of law, ethics and morality have come about not just so we can protect ourselves, but so we can help others in society and achieve justice for all. Of course it doesn’t always work out like that, but we make adjustments and improvements as we go.

b) All known evidence indicates that all behaviour which defines life, humanity and identity is driven by the physical brain and the electrical signals going through it, and not an additional ethereal “soul”. (Consider that physical brain damage can alter or destroy any part of a person’s identity, up to complete brain-death which is equivalent to true death.) When a person dies, the electrical signals stop and the structure of the brain is effectively destroyed in a matter of minutes. Therefore, by all indications there is no longer a person after death for anything to happen to.

c) It’s more a case of who Jesus Christ was, as atheists do not accept that he came back from the dead. And it’s too much to accept Jesus Christ without challenging it, as I understand “Christ” in context means “the anointed one of God” and we don’t believe that God exists, let alone that Jesus of Nazareth had any special relationship with him (that is, more than any Christian claims to have a “relationship” with God). Anyway, there are no contemporary accounts of Jesus’ life since everything we have was written after his death, but on balance I’m prepared to accept that there probably was an itinerant Jewish preacher (or several) on whom the Biblical stories of Jesus were based. Beyond that, not a single event in his life can be established conclusively, let alone his miracles or his resurrection, as historians writing afterwards may have been simply repeating the claims of early Christians. Some atheists don’t think there was any real Jesus and it was all a myth, but this is currently a minority view even among atheists and those who hold it are derided as “Jesus mythers”.

d) Evil is an abstract concept and atheists have all sorts of opinions about it; I try not to label anything absolutely good or evil, only beneficial or harmful to specific people, creatures or causes. Suffering on the other hand is obviously real, and I want to minimise it whenever possible. As for why suffering exists, I don’t have to try to explain it in the presence of a loving god who ought to be preventing it. It occurs simply because people get hurt, deliberately or accidentally by other people, and naturally by the world around them.

That about covers everything. Let me know if you want to drill into any of these topics further, but do search the site first because they’re all pretty popular.

Death and Children

Question from Francesca:
What do atheists tell their children when the children show fear of dying?

Answer by SmartLX:
Much the same as believers, I’d say.

I’d say this because the idea of an afterlife does little to mitigate the fear of death, and in fact appears to exacerbate it. I can claim this empirically, because studies have found that fear of death is positively correlated with religiosity in multiple countries and religions, and anecdotally, because stories of people’s lasting fear of Hell are all over the place. Even if you’re a believer, to comfort a child using your religion you have to leave out parts of the doctrine your religion would consider essential and focus only on Heaven, and you’ll still probably instill lifelong fears.

So once religious parents try the Heaven thing and find later that their children are still afraid, they have to continue to comfort the kids in other, secular terms, which is what atheists do from the outset. There are plenty of approaches to this, including but not limited to the following:

– Emphasise that death is a long, LONG way off for children, and those who love them will help them to live for as long as possible.
– Say that whatever suffering and stress there is in this life stop at death, and the deceased no longer have the same pains or cares.
– Honour those who have died, from close relatives to long-gone war heroes to household pets, to show that those who die are not forgotten and stay with us in real ways.
– Distract, distract, distract. Provide comforts not related to death, like hugs and hot chocolate, and activities and structure to get life started again. It won’t take the problems away, but it will give the kids a chance to work through the issues in their own time without getting too emotionally involved.

The fact of death is a bitter pill for everyone to swallow, and some are younger than others when it first touches their lives. Religion does not make it easier in the long run, it simply allows an amount of temporary denial. It’s not easy for anyone.

Comfort After Newtown

Question from Rhoda:
At the prayer vigil, after the massacre occurred, how would the families be comforted without referring to god and relying on religion for solace?

Answer by SmartLX:
Firstly, even if it were completely impossible to console people after a tragedy without using faith and religion, it wouldn’t mean there was any kind of a god. It would suck, but wanting or even needing something to be true doesn’t make it true (unless we make it true ourselves, and as far as we know we can’t bring a god into existence).

Regardless, and fortunately, secular consolation is possible even in terrible events such as the Newtown mass murder. It’s also capable of being more frank and honest; telling people for example that the victims are all in Heaven goes against many people’s ideas of the requirements for admittance into Heaven, and is a guess at best. Any reason one might give why a loving god would allow the massacre in the first place is definitely a guess, and plenty of Americans in the media have been guessing like mad.

Now then, if the families are at a prayer vigil in the first place then they probably will be comforted by religious platitudes, but let’s say they’re at a secular memorial service instead, or just at home after it’s all over. Here’s a start, but certainly not the extent of possible approaches.
– “Your child is no longer afraid or in pain. No one can hurt him/her anymore. It’s over.”
– “The killer is dead. He won’t be able to cause any more bloodshed. We’re all safe from him now.”
– “We will all remember your child, not just because of what happened but because you had a wonderful child who touched us all while he/she was here.”
– “Because of what happened, the politicians might finally do something which stops the long line of mass murders with assault weapons. That’s something we can help to bring about through political activism, so we can play a part in the safety of other innocents.”
– “I’m here if you need me. I can only imagine what you’re going through, but is there anything I can do to help you out, even if it’s just to get you through the day?”

I emphasise that last one because it’s the most important. The process of comforting the recently bereaved doesn’t only consist of giving them a lecture (or sermon). You have to be there for them, to work out what it is they really need from you at any given moment instead of just assuming. They might want to hear comforting words, sure, but they might just need a hug, or a cup of tea, or for someone to look after their families so they can be alone for a while.

Whether you talk about God and the afterlife or not is only important while you’re talking, which is really only a small part of what’s going on. That said, the non-religious do have things to say when they need to.

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.

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.

Why Do We Die?

Question from Casey:
How do you comprehend death? How do manage to remain sane knowing that someone has been ripped from your lives for what you believe to be no reason?

Answer by Andrea:
Hi Casey,

I don’t see death as being “no reason.” As a science buff/journalist, I see it more as the natural order of things, as far as old age goes (please see the law of entropy).

If death is due to sickness or murder (not that I can speak from experience in latter case), I find it much more comforting to think of it as being a random event that we have no control over, rather than some capricious god who chose to “off” someone “just because.”

My dear grandmother passed away from old age and she often told me she was afraid of dying alone. There was not much I could do, since my life is not in Europe, but what I did do was visit for the summers and write a postcard to her every 1-2 weeks. I think it helped.

Often we say to ourselves, we’ll do this and that with this person sometime. But in my case, I did what I could then, and when she passed away I felt awful and missed her very much, but it made me feel so much better that I did what I could while she was alive.
And that’s all you can do.

I’m not sure what your situation is with respect to this question, but please accept my sympathies if they are warranted, and I’m so sorry there’s probably nothing I can say that time won’t eventually take care of.

Best to you,

Answer by SmartLX:
There’s always a reason why people die. There may not be any purpose to it, but there’s always a reason: they were old, or they were murdered, or there was an accident, or their immune system failed them. When we ask why someone has died, this kind of answer is always available to some extent. Furthermore, this kind of answer is often useful in the prevention of other deaths, for example by catching the killer, fencing off the cliff edge or preventing the disease.

To my mind, knowing that there’s no purpose to a loved one’s death is no worse that believing there is a purpose but having no idea what it is, and no hope of ever knowing. The suffering and death of a good person is hard to explain in a world with an all-powerful, benevolent guardian watching over us (though that doesn’t stop people from explaining it…in many different ways), but it’s really very easy to explain in a world with no such being: it happened because of this and this, and it’s sad that the person is gone but they left their mark on the world.

If you imagine that atheists are completely at a loss when confronted with death then you imagine that our worldviews are simply the Christian worldview with a God-shaped hole in it. (This is becoming a catchphrase with me.) It sounds obvious but it’s worth specifically considering that when one doesn’t believe in a god, one also doesn’t believe that meaning and purpose in life depend entirely on a god. Therefore the common existential challenge of comprehending death, while certainly a challenge (see this earlier question), does not automatically shatter an atheist.

If a recent death affecting your life is the reason you asked this question, I sympathise along with Andrea.

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.

Osama vs Bush

Question from Samuraigamer:
Few days ago finally the man who killed 3000 INNOCENT people *for his religious convictions* at 9/11 was killed in the name of justice. Should the rest of the world expect that George Bush, the man who has killed over a million INNOCENT people *despite his religious convictions*, is to be put to death as well?

Answer by SmartLX:
The policies of the George W. Bush administration that resulted in so many deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond were not entirely implemented despite the man’s religious convictions; rather, it was at least partially because of them. As he revealed to the French president at the time, he apparently thought he was waging a battle against the minions of Satan. Many Christians share his conviction; the broader Middle East conflicts are supposed to drive a series of prophesied events leading to the Rapture and Armageddon, which is a good thing to those who expect to be Raptured. So they escalate the fighting however they can.

The world shouldn’t sensibly expect Bush to be killed anytime soon, if nothing else because Bush is much better protected than bin Laden. As for whether Bush deserves capital punishment, if he does then so do a great many of the world’s leaders, past and present, for initiating other bloody conflicts. The responsibility of individual politicians for the actions of soldiers of the state is a philosophical can of worms, but it’s safe to say that it’s difficult to single Bush out.

Death: Just Curious

“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.