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- Atheism & Agnosticism
The Death of the Afterlife
Not too long ago I came to the understanding that I do not believe in any gods. I am a very logical person, and the belief in something as extraordinary as a deity requires extraordinary evidence. So far I have seen no concrete evidence for the existence of a deity, and so I continue to reject the belief that any exist.
When I came to this realization, it meant I had to rework my world view and reexamine things that I had always held to be true. I had to figure out what beliefs I had because they had been taught to me and what beliefs I had because they hold up to the scrutiny of reason.
This process alone is an amazing positive side effect of my personal awakening. It allowed me to clean house, so to speak, in my mind, and rid myself of many excess thoughts or ideas. The first one to go was the belief in an afterlife.
I’ll admit that letting go of the belief that I would live forever was a difficult task. All of my life I had believed that when I die I would go to heaven, or that there was some form of spirit world where my soul would go when I died, and, in this world, I would find all of the people I had loved throughout life. We would all be able to sit and talk to each other, and we would live free of pain. There would be no work or need to work; we would never suffer and no one would ever die; we would live a life of absolute bliss and euphoria, and this would continue without end.
Who wouldn’t want that? It sounds so beautiful and wonderful, just the thought of such a place can bring comfort when we are struggling to survive in life. When the bills are due and your car is falling apart; doesn’t it feel good to think that someday all those worries will be over and you will never have to worry about them again? Well that part is true; when you die you will never again have any cares. You will never feel pain or fear, because you will simply no longer exist.
Just think about the story I laid out; think about how amazing the afterlife sounds. It sounds so amazing that, if you take a step back, it actually starts to sound ridiculous. It sounds like a fairytale. It sounds like something that early humans might have made up in order to give comfort to a child that was grieving the loss of her parents or a widow grieving for the loss of her husband. The thought that they could one day see their loved ones again was a thought born out of compassion, but manipulative people soon saw the power that such a belief could have. What if you add to the story of the wonderful place a story of a terrible place, a world so terrible as to bring fear into your heart just hearing of it? Once you tell people these places exist, all you have to do is tell them that if they do what you want they can go to the good place, and if they don’t do what you want, they will go to the bad place.
Unfortunately, very few people have ever stopped to ask how so much is known about two places that no living person has ever seen. Visions and out of body experiences are very easily explained as being completely in the mind where nothing external actually happens. There is absolutely no evidence that there is an afterlife, and there is no scientific proof that ghosts or spirits are anything more than a figment of an overactive and superstitiously programmed mind. Why is it that no one who “dies” and sees heaven and then comes back to life ever sees Valhalla, the Viking version of heaven? Why do people always see whatever version of the afterlife that they have already been taught about?
How is it that so many legends of the afterlife are dismissed with a wave of the hand and a chuckle? Christians dismiss the Buddhist’s afterlife as silly and absurd. Every sane person alive today dismisses the Viking’s belief in an afterlife. Of course there is no Valhalla; of course you don’t have to die in battle to go to there; that’s just silly. The fact is, there is the same amount of evidence for belief in Valhalla as there is in the Christian heaven, and therefore, it is absurd to reject the belief in one and accept the belief in another. What do you base that on? What you’ve always been told? Have you ever been told something that was wrong?
There are volumes of medical journals full of false beliefs about the human body that have been debunked or revised in the past century alone, and yet people will cling desperately to a tale that was handed down to them, because they trust the person who told them even though there is absolutely no evidence to back the belief. We don’t use a medical book from four thousand years ago; why are we still clinging to a book that was written at a time when people thought the earth was flat and that the sun revolved around the earth? How is it that any human’s belief system has persisted this long without any evidence? Why would anyone trust science when they need surgery or want to drive to work but require no scientific evidence for their belief in a deity or an afterlife?
The truth is, most people want to believe that heaven exists, because they want to see their dead loved ones again. They want to believe that the good place exists, therefore the belief in the bad place must be accepted as well. Now bad people have the ability to hold dead loved ones captive and manipulate their living friends and loved ones to do what they want. This is what the belief in heaven and hell does: it gives someone power to sway the people with the reward of heaven and the threat of hell.
So what happens when you don’t believe in an afterlife? When I stopped believing in life after death (just saying it that way doesn’t even make sense) I realized I only get one shot at this. The cliché you only live once became a reality for me. I realized that life is short, and the moments we have here are precious. I determined to be the very best person I can be, because all we leave behind us is our memory. I want people to remember me as someone they could count on, as someone who they laughed with, and as someone with honor.
I can remember when I was a theist, I would step on the bathroom scale and it would climb very close to three hundred pounds. I felt no sense of urgency to fix my weight problem because, as I rationalized in my mind, “I’ll be thin when I get to heaven.” Now I understand that I only get one attempt at life, and in order to make the best of it, I want to be in the best health possible.
Since I realized I will only live once, I have determined to be in good shape, and I have lost sixty-five pounds. I feel so much better about myself, and my outlook on life has changed. I want to eat healthier and realize the temporary reward of a double bacon cheeseburger is not nearly as great as being fit and healthy long into my golden years.
I look at people with far more compassion than I used to. These people will only have one life, and so I want them to have the best possible life too. I want to do whatever small things I can do to promote a better life for people all over the world. If we only have one life, then I do not have time to see people as Americans, Mexicans, black or white. I see all people as humans, and when they need help, I want to help them if I can.
In my personal experience I have found that rejecting the unsubstantiated claims that we live after we die has made me a far better person than I ever was when I believed in a merit based afterlife. I am more compassionate, worry less, take better care of myself, and I care about people globally and not just the people in my circle of friends and family. So far, one of the greatest experiences of my life has been the death of the afterlife.