What Do Atheists Think
Of Life After Death?

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "bhuvana"
Date: December 30, 2001 7:14 AM

The only atheistic hypothesis of life after death that I know of is naturalistic reincarnation, which some atheistic religions accept.

Otherwise, all life after death hypotheses involve some form of the supernatural, and require that some supernatural entity (a god or deity or similar entity) performs the work necessary to turn a dead person somehow back into a living person. Atheism is the rejection (or the lack of acceptance) of such a hypothesis.

Materialism would suggest that the conscious, aware "Self" is established by the structures and processes of the brain. When these structures are destroyed and the processes cease, the conscious, aware "Self" ceases to exist. Similarly, a television picture requires a functioning television set in order to exist; if the TV is broken, no television picture can exist. In this sense, the conscious, aware "Self" would be akin to the television picture, not the TV set itself. When the TV is functioning, a television picture results; when the TV set ceases to function, there is no picture in that TV set.

Everything we know about biology and neurology and how the brain works points toward the likelihood that this marvelous organ contains everything needed to establish a conscious, aware "Self." In fact, the case can be made that the consciousness is necessary in an organism that survives by its mobility, that organisms which evolved to be mobile necessarily evolved the ability to be consciously aware -- however dim that awareness may be in the simpler organisms such as worms.

Plants are not mobile and thus do not need to perceive, make decisions, attack prey, run and hide from predators, or find and attract (or subdue) mates. We can expect an organism that depends upon its mobility to have a consciousness as part of its ability to detect patterns of information and thereby develop an accurate understanding and awareness of its surroundings. In the mammals, the consciousness is much more sophisticated than in other species; in the human, one part of our brain has developed the amazing capacity to become aware of itself and its destiny (death).

If we could know that a deity exists, who created us and who cares about us, we could reasonably expect His world to be fair. This world cannot be called "fair" by any stretch: Life is good, to be sure, particularly if you get a few good breaks; but life is not fair. My little brother's only chance to live ended shortly after he was born. If there is no God watching after my brother, then those few barely conscious moments were all he gets. I hate even thinking about this, but I cannot bring myself to assent to any of the arguments that have been presented to me which claim that my little brother gets more than those few, brief, barely cognizant years of life. But then, most people who could have existed never did, or never breathed that first breath of air. Life is not fair. If it were, I would be much closer to assenting to one or the other of the god claims that I've heard.

The prospect of personal annihilation is staggeringly frightening to most. Many of us would prefer almost any route other than to be given a convincing argument that death is final. In fact, many people will still opt to find ways to justify believing in the more comfortable and more comforting myth, even if shown that annihilation is extremely likely and that other possibilities are very unlikely. They can see it but they won't buy it. Of course: if a loved one is missing, people will ponder just about any scenario besides the prospect of her demise, clinging unashamedly to any hope of her survival. If diagnosed with a grave medical condition, we tend to think that something will happen and we will become one of those amazing success stories in the annals of medicine. This is so natural to the human that many will tell you that the route of "denial" is healthier if one is given such a diagnosis. But the face of the inevitable watches in pitiless consumption as we whistle in the dark valley of the shadow of death. *

Most of the life-after-death scenarios I've heard are so entirely vacant that they don't make sense at all: sense cannot be made of them. Nevertheless, people tend to say they believe these ideas, to think they believe these ideas, to think the ideas are true, even though, when asked to describe what life after death will be like, they cannot do this. They believe it's true and believe this very strongly, yet they cannot even begin to describe what this state will be like.

But if materialism is right, if the conscious, aware "Self" is established by the structures and processes within in the brain, then what "after death" will be like is what "before birth" was like: not. It will be, for us, as if we had never lived at all.

When I think about that, I can fully empathize with those who would go running to a comfortable myth -- any myth at all -- to avoid facing the full impact of what this means. I have forced myself to face what this means and I will never be the same. Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the famous death with dignity advocate and perhaps the world's foremost student of the dying process, created a painting, "Nearer My God to Thee," ** which portrays a person, green with death, falling into the black pit of death but scratching the sides of the pit in an attempt to keep from entering. He says, "This depicts how most human beings feel about dying ... despite the solace of hypocritical religiosity and its seductive promise of an after-life of heavenly bliss." With Dr. Kevorkian I wonder just how much solace religion brings. I know when I was religious, I could not bring to mind a realistic hope for the afterlife. It was relatively easy for me to think of others in Heaven or even Hell (gaud for bid!), but I could not see this for myself. I repeat: I never saw or felt that I would partake of either. I cannot tell you what I did think, as that concept never got formed. But I did not feel any "comfort" or "assurance" of salvation from beyond physical death. If the Christian religion was about helping me overcome the fear of death, it did not work for me. I am much closer to overcoming this fear by facing it through such means as studying the work of Kevorkian and others who themselves are not afraid of the prospect of annihilation.

Kevorkian concludes, "After all, how excruciating can nothingness be?" The nothingness itself? Not! But ayyyy! the prospect of not being when I happen to be right now! Thus far in my personal journey, I have accepted that there's nothing I can do to hold on to my life. Nothing will let me keep my life and I will have to die. I have accepted that much. I don't have to like it; after all, there are many things in life that I don't like. There are many things in my life that others are not required to endure but I am, and I don't like that. But still I live and function and, at times, even thrive. I have likewise, with Dr. Kevorkian, candidly asked myself how excruciating nothingness can be. Finally, with novelist Anthony Burgess, I have at least recognized that the "vestigial fear of Hell" is, at most, a conditioned reflex from a childhood indoctrination.

Where my "vestigial fear of Hell" came from is anybody's guess: I was raised by atheists who did not talk about the Christian Hell except to tell me, when I asked, that they did not believe in it. I think the prospect of the Christian Hell is utterly foreboding, so much so that I think even a single exposure to this concept at just the right moment can damage certain youngsters for life.

As for justifying our thoughts, I will speak for all atheists in saying that we believe this way first and foremost because we think it is true. We have no reasons for believing any of the claims that there is an afterlife.


I would love to hear from any atheist who believes there is no life after death for any other reason. If I get any responses in the affirmative, I will link them from this document once it gets posted.

Christians (and a few others) accuse us of wanting to avoid the fear of the Christian Hell. If my experience with Christianity failing to relieve my fear of physical death is any indication, it just doesn't work that way: not with me, anyway. If Christians think it does work that way, this becomes, to my mind, a potentially revealing observation about Christianity itself, particularly about its usefulness in relieving the fear of physical death (or, at least, distracting the Christian from having to face this prospect head-on).

Meanwhile, what I see is people and animals having evolved and needing a consciousness to survive. I then see these animals and people die. I have absolutely no reason for believing otherwise than that their conscious, aware "Self" dies with them, the animal or human being fully equipped, complete, and ready to begin functioning once life begins. If an afterlife exists, it is the burden of the person who claims its existence to demonstrate to us that this is the case, that an afterlife exists. In lieu of evidence and strong argument, we are left with only one option: not believing that such a thing exists. This is the only option, anyway, for a person dedicated to following truth wherever she may lead.

Some people do not hold that high a priority for truth: other matters, such as living a peaceful life, being as free from worry as possible, or getting along in the community, come first. Many, if not most, are so busy getting on with the job of living that they never get around to pondering questions such as these: the first "answer" they heard as a child, that very first "Aha!" they experienced, is the same "answer" they use throughout their lives.

I cannot speak for all atheists, because some tell me they have no fear of annihilation. One woman, whose husband was an atheistic activist, quietly deconverted and later told her husband how much of a relief she felt not having to think there was an afterlife. That was not my experience. It is a relief to know that the Christian Hell is a story out of the Christian Bible, which tells me many testable and verifiable (rather, refutable) things about how situations on Earth are. So, if the Christian Bible shows itself unreliable in matters that I can go and verify, then why should I trust what it says about matters that we cannot verify? I shouldn't, and I won't.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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* Note: "Whistle in the dark" means to be oblivious to inevitable danger; "the valley of the shadow of death" is a metaphor for ultimate danger from which the Hebrew deity saves the believer in that most beloved of Psalms, the 23rd. I have combined the two word-pictures into a single stanza.

** This is [mirrored] on PAM in case the original link goes dead

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