What Is The Atheist
View Of The Afterlife?
Kristen Fraley

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine"
To: "Kristen Fraley"
Subject: Questions
Date: Thursday, May 31, 2001

Asking for an atheist's opinion of what happens after we die is not unlike asking an adult do discuss the ethnicity of Santa Claus.

All we know it this: The conscious, aware "Self" is established by the structures and processes of the nervous system. If the structures (cells and other tissues) become destroyed and those processes cease, there is nothing left to establish the conscious, aware "Self," and we become once more like we were before we were born -- non-existent.

This "Self" is part of all mobile organisms: it is rudimentary in most, consisting of the ability of the organism to orient itself in its environment and usually to distinguish itself from what is not itself and friend from foe. More complex organisms evolved a full array of senses and balance. Just like vision, hearing, touch, smell, taste, and mobility, the conscious awareness evolved from the rudimentary to the complex because it enhanced our prospects for survival. The most complex organisms have the ability to foresee their own death and to ponder what happened to a loved one who has died. Neanderthal burial sites, complete with flowers, have been discovered; Neanderthal is a cousin species of the human, as are the bonobo and troglodyte chimpanzees: all four had a common ancestor, but none descended from the other. Contrast this with the recent study that says that by the time a goldfish swims from one end of the tank to the other, it has forgotten that there is a glass wall there! A goldfish's awareness, though sufficient to keep it alive, is nonetheless quite dim compared to ours. But in all cases, the awareness is a process that is established by the nervous system and vanishes into non-existence upon the destruction of that nervous system.

People have explained the notion of afterlife as having originated from the trauma of the loss of a loved one combined with the tendency to dream and to even hallucinate the voice of that loved one after the loss. My grandmother kept hearing her husband's voice long after he died, but remained an atheist, realizing that it was just a hallucination. When my cat wanders off and I go looking for him, I often "hear" the tinkle of the bell on his collar or even "hear" his cry -- only to discover that he had been nowhere near where I "heard" the bell (sleeping in the closet, etc.). Once when I parted company with a beloved girlfriend, I not only "heard" her voice but also would "see" her in a crowd -- only to look again and see that it was some other woman altogether. I don't fault anyone for thinking their loved ones are trying to speak to them from beyond the grave. When one of the cats, Smokey, died, the other cat, Shadow, his bosom companion, kept looking for him for several days. I've seen both dogs and cats sit on the grave of a departed sibling -- for years -- and heard of a dog who would always bring a new bone and drop it on the grave of his departed brother.

Organized religion, especially as it is entangled with the government, has discovered a very effective (though in no way moral) way to keep the masses in line: teach that the afterlife is very real and threaten people with punishment or entice them with rewards after death. All of the Muslim "suicide bombers" marched to their deaths convinced that they would be ushered straight into the Muslim Paradise, with 72 virgins all to themselves. Their conscious, aware "Self" never lasted long enough to even become disappointed.

Nobody can show that the claims for the existence of an afterlife are true. Nobody can detect the so-called soul or describe how it interacts with the body. Descartes was the last one to make a concerted effort at doing this, and all of science since then has pointed away from this notion. The idea of resurrection is replete with problems. First, if we get resurrected with our original molecules, what happens if I get eaten by worms, a bird eats one of those worms, and someone else eats that bird? Are not some of my molecules now part of someone else's body? If I get reconstructed from new molecules and implanted with new manifestations of the same memories, how can I still rightly be called the same person? Where is the continuity?

And if I can be reconstructed anew once, I can conceivably be reconstructed anew twice -- or a hundred times, for that matter! In fact, if I can be reconstructed later, I can conceivably be reconstructed today, while I am still alive! Can you imagine being two different conscious entities at the same time? No. My conscious awareness grew as I grew up, just like my muscles and skeleton. It was dim and weak at first, and now is completely matured and fully functional. It took years for my "Self" to get to where it is today -- it wasn't just "there" and it wasn't just implanted. It took years.

Even though we cannot go to the afterlife and come back with reports to verify what it's like, we can examine the sources of reports of the afterlife. The Bible, the Koran, and all the other books which tell us of an afterlife also tell us of things on Earth. When we compare the Bible's reports of things that we can go check out, we find that it makes many, many errors and cannot be trusted. If it makes mistakes that we can verify, why should we trust its reports regarding things that we cannot test?

Several times I heard my grandmother say, "When you go, that's it! You're gone!" I believe her, and have learned nothing since then to convince me otherwise. My grandmother is gone. She is not watching over me, she is not with Jesus, and she is not burning in Hell. I miss her, and sometimes it seems like I can actually hear her voice -- not my imagination but a real hallucination. (But then, I often hear my Mom's voice, and she's still alive. Go figure1) For a few years after she died, I occasionally felt a strong urge to pick up the phone and call her, especially when something important had happened or when I was feeling sad. This happened when she died: I kept wanting to pick up the phone and call my grandma to tell her that my grandma had died. Maybe she could at least help comfort my pain -- she always had before. But alas --

No. I don't blame anybody for thinking that there is an afterlife. But I have no reason to believe that there is any such thing as an afterlife. As dearly as I wish that this were not the case, as much as I wish that I could continue to live, these appear to be the cold, hard facts of reality.

Death is the very reason we even get to live at all. Only through the deaths of countless billions of organisms has natural selection been able to bring us to the point where we are not able to ponder our own deaths. Death is as much a function of our survival as was the development of conscious awareness. If I had made this universe, things would be much different, you can be sure: no mother would ever have to bury her own child, for one. But nobody made this universe: everything about natural selection points to the absence of foresight. We were built, spiecemeal, as changes occurred, and those changes that did not impair our prospect for survival stuck around. Since there was no creator, death has been the one key element that allows us to even exist.


Though we may wish that death were not a reality, the very ability to make that wish was given to us by death herself. If what created life is rightly called God, death surely is that God. For this reason, I refuse to think or say that God exists.

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

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