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Two Misunderstandings: The Afterlife

February 15, 2009

I just wanted to write about two common misunderstandings that some people seem to have…this time, it’s about an afterlife.

Some people who do believe in an afterlife seem to have this idea that those who don’t simply don’t care about their lives as a result. It might be projected to a critique of atheism, such as: “What? How can atheists have anything to live for?!” This is the camp that floats the idea that it is impossible to be moral without religion…or that the only morality of a non-theist is materialism or hedonism…or a freakish application of biology and “darwinism” to everything. These people might believe that without a God or an afterlife, humanity can have no value. Life can have no value.

That’s not to say that all theists have this kind of inquiry. Not at all. But where would this kind of misunderstanding come about?

On the other hand, from those who aren’t theists, there is sometimes another misunderstanding to look at theists as people who are afraid to live. Or, if not afraid, who are unnecessarily constraining themselves for the afterlife (which is just wishful thinking). These people might believe that theistic belief in a god or a belief in an afterlife is a chain that makes people not live. Or that humanity has no value, but for a different reason: because we are terrible, terrible people who are sinners and this life is but a speck with respect to eternity.

When people ask me, “How can someone believe that we just…rot in the ground when we die?” I don’t understand, on the contrary, how people can get so steamed over this concept…the finality of death. People seem to have this tremendous anxiety over death.

If there is no afterlife, then when we’re dead, we are dead. That is it. I think people don’t fully comprehend the finality of death. If there is no afterlife, then when we’re dead, it really won’t matter anything that we did in life…true…because we will be dead. We won’t be alive enough to think about it. The fear of an eternity of nonexistence or unconsciousness won’t matter because we won’t be conscious enough or existent enough to think about our lack of these traits. And to be true…it works well enough for people who are truly unconscious…or for people who are even asleep. I mean, sleep isn’t so good an example, since we dream every night (the real question is: do we remember our dreams?)…but even with this…we have nights that we perceive as being dreamless…in these nights, when we go to bed is a gate to a void, and when we wake up is our exit from that void. We have no idea as to how long we were out, where we were, what we thought about it. We don’t dread sleeping. I doubt we’d dread sleep if we happened to never wake up…it’s actually described frequently as a rather peaceful way to die.

But in the same way…death itself is this peaceful.

OK, but if death is final and it nullifies everything we do in life (because we won’t be thinking too much about it anymore), then why do we do things in life? Well…life is the status quo…we don’t live for the afterlife (so those people who don’t believe in the afterlife aren’t directionless)…we live because consciousness is the status quo. So…the process of dying…which is a shock to the status quo of consciousness, may very well be scary. The pain usually involved with dying…that may very well be scary. When we see death in others and then realize that we will never talk with those others in this status quo (our conscious, living one that is so fleeting), that may very well be scary.

So we don’t rush out to death. We still live for the sake of living. If the sake of living becomes meaningless, we might ask for euthanasia or take our own lives.

If there is an afterlife (and we can get beyond all of the mindnumbing probability problems with whose afterlife we are going to), then that’s like our final score report. It is closure. But we don’t necessarily live for a final score report.

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