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Life, death, and yearning for survival

By Jeff --

This week a Christian friend of mine asked me to explain what I believe about death and the afterlife. I was a Christian minister for 40 years and now am essentially an atheist. I put together something informal and sent it to him. I thought I'd post it here, just to get your reaction.

Death is a beautiful sunsetImage by Unitopia via Flickr

Death is the inescapable consequence of birth, the singular destination of all living organisms. Therefore, we who are conscious organisms and able to reason are advised to come to terms with the ineludible eventuality of our own personal deaths. Life has built into it a tenacity, a drive to keep on living. Those of us who are conscious see as a primary objective the maintenance of biological continuity (i.e. life.) We are physically constructed and genetically programmed to avoid pain and danger, to protect our life organism at almost all costs. Survival is our constant focus, consciously and subconsciously. A very large proportion of our time, energy and resources is spent directly or indirectly in this maintenance process. We often dress it up in sophisticated costumes, but it boils down to survival mechanisms.

So, with this ingrained and genetically-based fixation on survival, death is logically seen as the most feared of enemies, to be avoided for as long as possible. As sentient, conscious organisms, we are unable to not ponder our ultimate extinction and we naturally find the thought frightening, to say the least. The notion of personal annihilation is a horrific concept and totally unacceptable to us. We cannot accept the idea of going from being the main character in our own personal universe to…well, utter nonexistence.

I didn’t exist for all the millennia prior to my birth and it didn’t bother me one bit. I don’t suspect that it will bother me one bit after I die either. This, I believe, lies at the root of all religions. It’s a primary motivation for their existence—to provide at least a comforting illusion of perpetuity, of ongoing existence after the body perishes. Over the millennia that homo sapiens have existed, there have been literally thousands and thousands of different religions, all aimed toward the same end: providing hope for continued life after bodily death. Of course, there are other subsidiary goals—sense of control over life circumstances, comfort, peace, purpose, safety, well-being, health, etc.—but they all serve the ultimate end of a quality life experience and the assurance of continued existence after bodily death.

The atheist lives with all the same genetically-programmed urges to survive and, consequently, the same abhorrence of death. But he/she doesn’t believe in what he/she sees as the “contrivance” of the immortal soul—an invention of religion to facilitate the idea of immortality. The atheist, who doesn’t believe in the existence of anything “supernatural”, rejects the concept of the soul and, so also, the idea of immortality. Death is the end of a person’s existence, apart from any influence he/she leaves behind, in actuality or in the memories of those still living.

This is what I believe about life and death. This life is all there is. We live it once and then we die. The lights go out and we are no more, except in terms of whatever ongoing influence we leave behind. It would be nice to know that death is but a “passage” into another form of conscious existence. But, frankly, there is nothing in terms of evidence that persuades me that such an after-life exists. There are religious myths that speak of such an after-life, but they are entirely fantastical, with no proven basis in fact. Even as belief in Santa Clause makes Christmas all that more exciting and enjoyable for a child, so belief in these myths makes the reality of death a bit more palatable for the “believer.” But both are living in a delusion. For the child, that delusion is relatively benign. For the religious believer it is less so.

How do I “deal with” the reality of my inevitable death? Admittedly, like all relatively healthy human beings, I don’t look forward to it, but I accept it as a natural consequence of living. It’s the price we each pay for the gift of life. Like every good party, it has to end sometime. I believe that when my lights go out that will be the end. Consciousness and the function of the mind, along with the sense of what religion calls a “soul,” are all products of the brain. When the brain ceases to function so does the mind…and the “soul,” if you will. It’s not unlike what happens when the hard drive dies in my computer. At that point it goes from being a functioning machine (“alive” in some senses) to just a box of dead parts. Of course, a computer can be fixed when it dies, whereas a living organism can’t. You can utilize its healthy parts, giving it some value after death, but the life experience for the organism as a whole is over. But, you know, I didn’t exist for all the millennia prior to my birth and it didn’t bother me one bit. I don’t suspect that it will bother me one bit after I die either.

The important thing for me is that my life serve a good purpose during the years that I have. For me, that good purpose is that I leave the world a better place for having lived here. Such altruism won’t impact my non-existent afterlife, so I don’t do it for any such metaphysical reason. But it does impact the pleasure I get out of the time I live. In a certain sense, I feel that I multiply or replicate a portion of myself by investing it in the lives of my children, grandchildren and friends. Altruism tends to be contagious, so my life can have an impact on the world I leave behind, leaving it improved in some small way, leaving at least a small number of my species better equipped to thrive and survive in this ongoing process of the survival of the fittest.

Would it be nice to actually know that there is a life that goes on after my physical death and that this physical life contributes in some way to the quality of that afterlife? Would it be nice to know that there is a Divine Plan in which my earthly life is playing an important role? Well, of course! However, unfortunately there is not one bit of evidence that these scenarios are true, and very good scientific evidence that they are, indeed, fantasies. I could also wish that Santa really existed and one of these Christmases will bring me that Harley Davidson I asked him for. I know that God and Santa are in two very different categories for you. However, if they are, it’s only in terms of quantity, not quality. They are both imaginary figures. It’s just that in the one case the imagination is called what it is: fantasy. In the other the imagination is called “faith.”