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"Honest Atheism"

By WizenedSage (Galen Rose) ~

In the article “Honest Atheism” by D. Cameron Webb, in the Dec. 2014/Jan. 2015 issue of Free Inquiry magazine, the author concludes that atheists are unlikely to win many converts so long as their description of death is “certain annihilation.” And, he argues that since we cannot be 100% certain that annihilation awaits us at death, then the honest answer to what happens to us when we die is, “I have no friggin’ idea.”

Overall, this is a great article which I heartily recommend, but I must take issue with his conclusion. I don’t think it’s being honest to hold out a scrap of hope that annihilation can be avoided, given the overwhelming evidence to the contrary; nor do I think it necessarily makes atheism less attractive to theists, so long as “certain annihilation” is packaged in the right words.

Okay, I can’t prove with 100% certainty that death brings annihilation, but let’s take a look at the evidence. The evidence is everywhere and uncontroversial that when the brain is not functioning at a high level, we are unconscious, unaware of our existence. We prove this every night when we sleep. Below a certain threshold of functionality, we lose awareness and lose it totally.

And dreaming? Well, dreaming has been shown to be just one step higher in brain functionality. That is, when we dream, we are not always fully unconscious, we just don’t have a firm grasp of reality. Sometimes, we can even be aware that we are dreaming and can consciously affect the plot of the story we are dreaming. At other times, we can be aware that we are sleeping, at least dimly, and consciously struggle to awaken. But these sleep states involve brain activity that is almost conscious and semi-aware. Most of the time that we are asleep, and operating at a lower level of brain functionality, we are totally unconscious and not at all aware.

There are several other conditions which provide evidence that “certain annihilation” awaits us at death. If one is struck in the head one may go unconscious. That is, the brain ceases to function at a high level and awareness is lost. The same thing happens to us under general anesthesia; the drugs we are given cause brain function to reduce to a low level and we become unconscious, unable to feel pain. Sometimes, as in a car accident when massive injuries are sustained, as a protective mechanism the brain will cease to function at a high level and one becomes unconscious, and may even slip into a coma, a very low level functionality involving a state of unawareness where there is no pain. Modern medicine sometimes makes use of this property of the brain by intentionally inducing a coma to eliminate pain awareness in the patient.

Thus we see, over and over, in many situations, that unless the brain is functioning at a high level, it loses consciousness and, with it, the ability to feel pain. Now, when a human dies, his brain ceases to function at a high level and this is proven by EKG analysis. In fact, complete lack of brain activity is a functional definition of death.

Now, what about near-death experiences (NDE)? Many people have related all sorts of details of what purportedly lies beyond death in NDE’s. The most obvious objection to these stories is that near-death is simply not death; in fact, they are two totally different states, like water and ice, and there is no reason to expect near-death to tell us anything useful or accurate about death.

And what of those who have claimed to actually die and then recover (and sometimes written books about the experience)? The answer is pathetically simple: memories cannot be formed in a dead brain. If all electrical activity in a brain has ceased, and the EKG has flat lined, then memories are not being made. Thus, whatever the claimant is relating is not a memory of a dead state. Dead eyes do not see, dead hearts do not beat, and dead brains do not think or make memories.

Near-death is simply not death; in fact, they are two totally different states, like water and ice, and there is no reason to expect near-death to tell us anything useful or accurate about death.Now, does it really make sense to say we don’t know what happens when we die, given that there is a mountain of evidence that shows that when the brain ceases to function at a high level we lose consciousness and, at very low functionality, the ability to feel pain? Now, since death has been proven beyond a shadow of doubt to involve loss of brain function, isn’t it pretty certain that what happens to us is we lose awareness? Is there even the slightest reason to suspect that awareness can survive brain death, that annihilation can be avoided? Where is the evidence? True, I can’t prove my argument conclusively, 100%, since none of us can die, truly die, and then come back to report on it (not even Jesus). But, by any reasonable standard of proof, such as the American courtroom standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” when you’re dead then you have no awareness. It’s as simple as that.

Now, the question becomes, is this a reason to be afraid of atheism? Should “certain annihilation” be a deal breaker for a theist considering atheism? Mr. Webb argues that it is; that atheism will win few converts if all we can offer is “certain annihilation.” But is annihilation really so bad?

True, a fear of death is built into us by nature. Without the will to survive a species will not endure the struggles of life to propagate and rear its young. But, this doesn’t need to be a constant fear. Let’s face it, unless we are very old or sick, we spend a very, very small percentage of our time thinking about death. And does it really make sense to fear “certain annihilation” if all that means is loss of awareness, something we experience practically every night of our lives? With no awareness there is no longing, no regret, no sadness, no fear, and no pain. So what’s so bad about that?

So, how does this honest atheist answer the question, “What happens when we die?” I answer that ALL of the empirical evidence suggests we simply lose awareness, and a deep sleep involves no discomfort. Now why should that, in itself, turn a theist away from atheism?