by A. Uiet Bhor
I am often confronted by those who ask me whether I think about death, especially as I regard it as the final curtain. Some theists find the idea quite terrifying, I personally think about it very little if at all, I fully intend to die when I am old enough, but until then I see no reason to dwell on the subject.
As a total atheist on these matters, the afterlife just seems like naive wishful thinking, but in talking with theists I've discovered that not only do they take the idea seriously, but as a result they think about death a great deal. Also it's consequences have a profound effect on their theology, and even how they live their lives. (Of course, I regard this as an example of the creators of religion taking advantage of people's fear of death and inability to accept mortality, in order to create a series of exploitative behavioural restraints, but that's beside the point.) This has caused me to think about how my views on death, such as they are, affect my lifestyle and compare the way the acceptance of my mortality, makes me who I am, to the way that the lives of theists are shaped by the idea of an immortal "soul". This is the first time in my life I have contemplated death, I have always thought it a rather morbid subject but now that I've looked at it in greater detai,l in light of my thoughts on religion and reason, I have developed a very positive view of it.
For a start, death keeps us from outstripping this planet's resourses, it is the inevitable result of existing in a material form that is the sustainer of our consciousness. If anything could make us immortal, i.e. indestructible, I am sure nature would have utilised it. However nature could not do this, as that is beyond the limitations of matter. Maybe that is what nature is aiming for, as it could not do it in one step, the best thing it could do is increase the chances of any creatures or species survival. The only known way to do this is through the combination of genes that have the capacity to mutate, thus creating improvements through natural selection. In other words, nature took advantage of the inevitability of death to improve itself, without such a condition, life would not have led to us.
We would not have evolved if the first life was forever, we'd still be a bunch of amoeba in a pond, just flouting around for billions of years, bored to tears. With no need to replicate to increase the chances of life continuing, and no need for our genetic makeup to develop through breeding, and competing. In other words the nature of all life forms is defined by its need to survive, not for the individual, not even the species, but for life itself. If life did not need to struggle in order to survive the constant threat of extinction, complexity would not have arisen, as it is a by-product of life's quest for the improvement of it's chances. The survival imperative is defined by the threat of death.
As human life is the result of nature trying to compensate for the inevitable reality of death, this shows that although we may believe in an afterlife, nature certainly doesn't. If there was a permanent existence to be found, nature would not have to bother with variations, and life would be dull grey and uniform, like a church congregation. This is a perspective that makes death the driving force that we owe our lives to as humans. It may suck for the individual, especially now that we are sentient, but we cant be selfish and wish to be exempt from the reality that makes all life on this planet so special.
Consciousness puts a new spin on things, as all of a sudden the individual becomes so much more important. One life can achieve so much more than an entire species of normal creatures, and this sense of ego is combined with instinct. Because are naturally developed minds are based on the need for self preservation, the result is all the many cultural, and eventually theological products of the conscious being's attempt to deal with it's seemingly unimaginable non existence. I think of the first emperor of China, so obsessed with immortality that his life was cut short by taking so many elixirs meant to prolong his reign. Most funerals today are for the living, their need to continue, move on, except the end of another, but maybe also mortality itself.
Religion seems to provide the only consolation for those not able to except a finite existence, maybe that's why belief systems never appealed to me, I still hadn't decided I wanted this life let alone an eternal one. However not all faiths have such comforting after-lives, so how did other pre or none xtian cultures cope? For a clue we look at the pharaohs and the lengths they went to guarantee the right outcome in the afterlife. They weren't obsessed with death, as some assume, they so loved life that they simply wanted it to continue, the life to come was no higher existence but consisted of precisely the same things enjoyed by the nobility, but continued ad infinitum. However all this was contingent upon following the pre-requisite priest-led burial ceremonious, and leading a good life, the alternative do not doing so was oblivion.
The Nordic as well had a afterlife that was just fighting all day and feasting all night, which clearly, although not every ones idea of paradise, was certainly seen as a preferable existence to those who enjoyed doing that sort of thing in this world. I know many who would choose Valhalla out of all the afterlives offered, myself included sometimes. However all this was contingent on dying in battle, according to the standards of the Odin worshipping warrior, any misdemeanours and you ended up in one of the lower levels of the underworld.
These two examples showed that the local religious institutions and traditions used the next life to impose their authority, and impose certain standards of behaviour. These techniques are similar to the monotheisms today, as well as Hinduism and Buddhism. But if you remove the institutional and moral elements of afterlife mythology, you are left with what people really yearned for, life. In the aristocracy, royalty or among honoured warriors what they clearly wanted was a continuation of the life that they had. However, at certain periods in history, usually in areas less abundant and lush, where life was harder, an ideal after-life developed. Not just a polished off version of everyday life, but a blissful paradise, far removed from this life of suffering As more complex theological elements entered into the religions in question, oneness with God, or some Nirvana like higher state became how such conditions were described. The idea that the afterlife would be better than this one was clearly a later development, a more attractive alternative to the original.
So many afterlives are simply a continuation and show the desire for life to never end, understandable, but I have never asked for more, I am contended simply to read, think and write. Yes I'd like to have a nicer coat, faster computer, and deliverance from this very painful repetitive strain injury that hampers my work, but life to we is about making the most of what you've got, getting more, if you can without hurting others, but excepting what you can't have. Yes I have ambitions, I'd like a job that doesn't suck, and maybe a place of my own one day, but if I can have just 60 more years in which to make my mark, that is all I wish. I'm not after fame and fortune, or world domination, (but I wouldn't say no to it either), all my ultimate ambitions and even the wildest dreams are centred on this world, because this is where it counts. An afterlife would be as meaningless as absolute death as either way I would have no more effect on the world that I care and think so much about. The Christian afterlife particularly, (leaving out the ethical problems of obeying the xtian requirements in order to get to heaven), sounds to me like it consists entirely of hanging around your relatives, and praising god all day, which just sounds really, well, gay.
I'm happy because I except life as it is, finite, and non-refundable. This gives me focus. Does it make me materialistic? Does it make me want to have it all, while I still can, and hang the consequences? Well, no, but I'm not that type of person, if you don't care about others, you'll be a prick regardless of whether you believe in an afterlife or not. And before you throw that "acknowledgement of heaven and hell makes you a better person" argument at me, I pose this theological query. If a person only does good out of a fear of going to hell, then the good done was for selfish reasons, and not out of a genuine compassion, or sense of altruism, and thusly; that person should be judged unfit for paradise. If god is just and intelligent, then hell would be the result of evil, not a threat used to negatively reinforce good behaviour, as that would assume that we were incapable of decent behaviour without crude external pressure, which is a devaluation of mankind's inherent moral capacities. Hell then should have been kept secret, a just punishment, but not such a crude and brutal threat.
Heaven would not be the reward of those who do good deeds, as this would amount to bribery, but the destination for those worthy of god's presence. Preachers may be unintelligent enough to use heaven and hell as merely promise and threat, however we can hardly expect such thinking from a super intelligent "higher" being. Especially one that is supposed to truly understand us better than we understand ourselves. Ergo even if heaven and hell did exist, there's no correlation between it and decent behaviour, as it is not about hell as punishment, but whether you earn the right to heaven, and avoidance of hell, the fall back position. As the only way to earn the right to enter god's presence is to become a believer, then you can count me out. The satisfaction of actually being able to ring some sense out of him is not worth the cost of my self-respect and free use of my mind.
Better off without it…
A sense of urgency is created out of the recognition of ultimate mortality, but it is for those who wish to achieve something that this is most apparent. Focus on this world may make you devoid of spiritual concerns, but I have yet to hear a convincing explanation of why this s a bad thing anyway. I mean, if we are right and there is no extra dimension to life, then not wasting our time on fantasy is surely a wise thing to do. You cant criticise us for not doing what according to our understanding is irrelevant and meaningless, without first proving that a spiritual dimension does exist. That's just criticising people for living a life that reflects the fact we don't buy your claims, what are we supposed to do, act like hypocrites, and go along with what we don't agree with?
I prefer to be true to myself, money and pleasure is not more important to me just because I see nothing beyond this world, as I have what I regard are higher concerns, including intellectual exploration, or blasphemy as you'd call it. Also my ethical values have far more immediate and relevant applications as they are focused entirely on humanity rather than on achieving a spiritual goal, the positive effects of which, in this world, are indirect, if they are positive at all.
A.person who has a shallow unproductive life, then a spiritual life, will still be as much of a waste, as neither selfishness nor a focus on non-worldly things contribute to humanity. What we should do is encourage other to think of ways they can "transcend" death by putting themselves into the rest of us. Though effort, words, providing an example to follow, raising happy and considerate children. If even if god exist, he can surely not object to you improving life for others, and he may well disapprove of a spiritual life which neglects others. If all he cares about is you servicing his ego through prayer, worship, preaching, bible study and hymns, then he's a selfish dick and not the guy you keep going on about. You can't keep claiming god is good and just, if the end result of the things you think he wants you to do are not just and anything but good. Either god is an unworthy deity, or Christianity and Islam have got it all horribly wrong.
A wasted life is a wasted life regardless of what comes after. I've always had the sense that altruism was the highest ideal, my atheism never had any effect on it, as my philosophy is what I developed before my attitude to religion. Hence my conviction that morality is the key to discerning theism's flaws, as I have a firm ethical background from which to attack it. My certainly of naturalism is a recent thing, and it has made me think about the things theists say about us. I never encounter prejudice here in Britain, and I haven't given religion a second thought outside my academic studies, I've always observed it with detached interest, but going deep into xtianity, I have found so many ideas alien to me, the afterlife is one of them. Yes I've been aware of it, as well as the holy spirit, gods judgement and other things theists seem to fixate about, but the idea of actually thinking these things were real, seems a bit odd. Yes as a kid I entertained some spiritual ideas, ghosts, gods etc, but I grew out of them, as did most of my friends, and by my mid teens, had left Noah's ark, and Adam and eve behind along with transformers and fantasy's about time travel and turning invisible. To actually meet adult who actually still believe in these things was quite a shock, I don't know whether it's an just American thing, but they do seem a bit behind the standards I usually attribute to sensible adults.
So here I am, actually considering what until recently was simply who I was, but know its a label, "atheist", its a term with virtually no meaning here, but it seems to have a particular significant in the land of the supposedly free. Anyway, of the many aspects of my life that apparently seems to odd to these theists, death apparently becomes a big deal, or maybe I'm just getting old, and as I approach my late twenties I start to feel the grim reaper catching up with me. Maybe I'll make will, visit old friends, give more to charity, but apart from tidying up of yourself, there is little any of us can do about death. Accepting this would certainly reduced distress and worry that theists seem to suffer from.
As an atheist, (and how!) I regard death, like many before me, such as Asimov and Sagan, to be an opportunity to get as much done, said, and achieved before the end. It is also a great deterrent against laziness. What we do in this world is till what we do, regardless of whether there is an afterlife, and the atheist sees the contribution to be made as paramount, as it is all that survives us, intellectually, or materially if you like. The afterlife is of zero importance to us; too many die due to its non-existence as far as wee are concerned. Belief in its existence does tend to distract one from reality, a person may do good, usually charity for an xian, as a way of improving there lot in the afterlife, and that is doing good, although for the wrong reasons. Others attempt to repent, confess, convert, or do acts for a faith, non of which are productive, and some harmful to the occupants of this world. And therefore to have an afterlife at all is a detriment to the world, to regard it as important is asking for trouble and saying it is more important than reality, is a terrible crime as it renders people often indifferent to material needs, or natural concerns.
Like life, and silly worldly thing like that.
A dying atheist, realising it is his/her last opportunity for what we regard as our immortality, may do much good, as altruism is the outcome of the recognition that we are finite. We are soon to become nothing as a conscious personality, so selfishness for the sake of the individual is ultimately pointless. What benefits only us, dies with us, while others around will still be. This makes the importance of life far greater, the one soon to be without need, gives to those who will still need. To see are legacy residing in the memories of others, makes us want to make our memory all the more positive, and to leave as much of our selves behind has possible. All this results in the enrichment of this world and our race, at the hand of the dying atheist. And this principle can be easily applied to an atheist at the beginning of life, who realises that no matter how much time is left, it is still ultimately for the world that we should live.
Saying the after life is important is one thing, denying the importance of this world, is the greatest act of irresponsibility a religion can commit.
Heaven and hell does not amount to anything in the context of this world, whether I go to hell makes has no effect on anyone here. No one will know my ultimate destination, or the reason for it. What they would have is a load of different denominations claiming different things, with no evidence either way. I might as well have simply died, as talk of afterlife is just that, talk.
Claiming that without heaven and hell nobody would behave themselves is an immensely cynical attitude and demeaning to any civilised human being. Theists say "give me examples of countries that do not have a god or heaven and hell and that are not tearing themselves to pieces" and when I name the many nations of the world that are becoming increasingly secular that are not developing any problems, especially not those in America that right-wing Christians capitalise on to spread their power, they simply shrug these off as anomalies. They do not acknowledge that many nations, no longer religious are becoming inherently humanistic and that people are accepting the virtue of morality and human life in itself without reference to their deity, or eternal punishment or reward after death. The need to get it inot their heads that there is no direct correlation between being good and submitting yourself to what you perceive as a higher power, we do not need to be on our knees to be moral, there is no connection, all religion does is destroy civilisations, and make a primitive, backward, superstitious, oppressive and hypocriticaly stagnant "culture".
They cannot imagine a life without God, or being able to behave themselves without heaven or hell because they are the ones that are obsessed with such concepts, they are so conditioned that such thoughts run around in their minds continuously, so they can't imagine we could live without, or be decent human beings. This fits in with Christianity's constant demonising campaign against all outside itself, or even within. To them there is only one reality, godliness versus devilness, and if anything does not fit that narrowminded worldview, it simply doesn't exist, it is very difficult trying to persuade the deluded theists that humanism has any moral worth, that death does not need to dictate a person's behaviour, that a finite existence can lead to altruism, because these concepts run counter to the falsehoods that make up their core doctrine and psudo-ethical principles that many religions are built on.
They need to realise that you cannot have morality with god, and that the fiction that you cannot have morality without God is just one of the many mechanisms religion uses to attract and trap it's victims. Reality does not bear out these claims, they can't give an example of Christian nations that do good, but throw up examples of Communism, as if that had anything to do with ethical principles based on the truth, that we are all going to die, and we must accept this fact and act like responsible human beings, not live in a fantasy world that has such a strong hold on them that reality is harmed for the sake of it.
There is no such thing as an absolute moral standard, it is a meaningless word when applied to ethics. What you do have is the objective reality of humanity, therefore the ethics which are applied to mankind must be objectively beneficial, and not derived from subjective religious experience or delusions of absolutism.
AUB - Yesterday was a nightmare, tomorrow is a dream.
Online Reading List
- An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish by Bertrand Russell (1943)
- Bible Teaching and Religious Practice by Mark Twain
- God is Imaginary
- Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams (1998)
- Skeptics Annotated Bible
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (1795)
- Which Way? by Robert Ingersoll (1884).
- Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)