Monday, July 26, 2010

Atheist Perspective On Death

The Helix Nebula is being created by a star ev...Image via Wikipedia

Obviously I cannot speak for all atheists, but these are my personal thoughts based on what I have researched. I chose the wording of the title because although some atheists may have a few differing opinions, I think they have the same general idea. I was just going to go through some specifics. I was also going to try to put my opinion on how this view of death makes our overall outlook on life different than theists. Spiritual atheists may have different opinions. Please note that my thoughts are always subject to revision if I encounter scientific evidence suggesting otherwise (which is why this is not dogma).

"I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it." — Mark Twain

Mark Twain has some great quotes, and I think this is one of them. What I particularly like about it is that it not only shows his view on death but also his view on what it was like BEFORE he was alive, which to him appears to be the same thing. From a cosmic perspective, considering the movement of atoms throughout the universe and the cycle of life, one can make the conclusion that we used to be a part of stars and that after death we will some day return to that position, until those stars finish their life cycle.

I don't know about you but I LOVE this thought. And the best part is it's not some theistic wishful thinking without any evidence, but currently supported by the laws of physics.

Most of the atheists probably know exactly what I'm talking about, but for the theists who may not understand what I'm getting at I will try to elaborate on this thought as best I can.

You've lived your life, and for whatever reason (hopefully from old age!) you are dead. You get a lovely funeral, or not if you starved to death in the Sahara, but it doesn't really matter, as long as your bodily functions cease to support your brain activity. Your body starts to decay, either above the ground or below it in a casket, you have bacteria making a buffet out of your remains and insects are laying eggs in your flesh, there are probably worms exploring your eye sockets too. Thank God you aren't alive while this is happening. After a while all of your flesh has decomposed and is used as food for plant life (unless you starved to death in the Sahara). So far this should be pretty consistent with the Christian belief of what happens to your body after you die.

You're pretty much literally "one with the earth" now, you're just more than likely not conscious to know it, and it should remain that way for quite some time. Billions of years in fact it is estimated, or at least until the earth is destroyed before the sun is able to engulf it. So the earth is somehow destroyed, for the sake of simplicity let's say the sun turns into a red giant and grows to include earth's orbit, swallowing the planet. I could end here, but for some reason becoming a part of my own star isn't that awesome to me, so I will continue. The sun quickly burns off its fuel and suddenly shrinks to become a white dwarf. During the white dwarf stage, the sun gradually releases its outer layers into the universe, in doing so also releasing some (possibly all) of your atoms with it. The planetary nebula formed should look something like the picture shown above, I'm just taking a wild guess here since I have no idea if there are different types of nebulae for different types of stars.

So your atoms are shot out into the universe. Eventually they will help start a life cycle of new stars born from the huge colorful dust clouds. The atoms in your body will eventually be in different stars billions of light-years away from each other, which is just the way you started out as. Imagining this is very poetic to me, and leaves me at peace. As far as whether or not your conscience remains after you die, probably not, but I'll leave that to the spiritual atheists. However, we have little evidence, if any, to suggest that our consciousness does continue after death, so we will go with the null hypothesis. With the thought that your conscience dies with the cessation of your brain activity, there is nothing left to consider other than the fate of the atoms inside your body, and that is what I think will happen to them.

The wonderful thing about not thinking that you're going to either eternal bliss or eternal torture after you die is that it lets you focus your efforts on making the earth a better place to live in many different ways, instead of spending your entire life preparing to go to some cloudy place and thinking that the earth was created to be your playground. The Christian view of life is dangerous, I was talking to one of my Christian friends via facebook and part of their message was the following:

"...things that will not last. Things that are, in the end, meaningless..."

She was referring to the earth, this current life, and everything that these things consist of. She's a good person and means well but from an atheist point of view there's not a much more frightening thing than knowing that there are billions of people around the world that have this mindset about the planet and this life, and that really needs to change in order for us to advance as a civilization. With thinking after you die, you're dead, and that's final, it really motivates you to make the best out of your own life and be happy. It also gives you a sense of humility, throws away the arrogance of thinking the entire universe was created just for you, and makes you realize that there are things that are important besides anything that has to do with humans. The preservation of Earth and the protection and caring of species is another thing that comes from this view. We should preserve Earth not just because the longer it lasts the longer we can survive but also because it is our home, and we should love it with all our hearts. The same can be said for wildlife and vegetation, they have every right to live and be free as we do, we are in no way special other than that we are the most advanced species on the planet. With great power comes great responsibility.

To my knowledge that is what most atheists think happens after we die, and that is what I think about how we should act towards our planet. Many atheists have differing views as far as environmentalism and such goes, but I hope this will help you guys think about how we should treat our home and the inhabitants of it.

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  1. I don't know how it happened so fast, but I'm 61, which means that I have about 20 years to go if I live up to the expectations of the actuarial tables. They're not likely to be really good years either because my body is already falling apart, and my mind isn't holding together too well either. Even so, I had much rather think I will go on living with my dear wife than to simply return into non-existence.

  2. I understand that. I once read an article where scientists had been researching near-death experiences and one thing they noticed was that the patients had consciousness even after their brain activity had ceased. I honestly have no idea how they were actually able to tell if the consciousness was while the brain was still alive or after it died, because from what I read it seemed like it was just the patients telling them what happened. Of the 1,000 or so patients they all had extremely similar stories though, so anything is possible.

  3. Hi Cameron,
    That was an interesting post, and welcome to the world of blogging! It can be a lot of fun.

    Something I have noted about the other atheists I know personally is that they tend to be committed people who act on their beliefs about what is right or wrong. I think that lacking a belief in a big sky-daddy who will come and fix things someday can lead us to action, because if we don't act, who will?

  4. Thank you!

    I agree. Another thing that bothers me is that many of the Christians I've known think all they do is with the help of God and not of their own accomplishments, I can't imagine anything so belittling as that. Thinking you can't do anything on your own is a terrible way to go through life.

  5. "the patients had consciousness even after their brain activity had ceased"

    My understanding is that death comes to the brain incrementally with some senses ceasing before others. By the time all brain activity had ceased, I should think the brain would be so oxygen deprived that the patient would have profound damage even if he were revived.

  6. I see what you mean, those studies did seem a little odd to me.

  7. Hi Cameron,
    Yes, I know what you mean. I am not one of those atheists who says that religion has never done anything good. Obviously it has, the Christian churches and leaders were important in the civil rights movement in the US, in the anti-slavery movement in the UK, and the churches do a lot of good social work. And the time off given by religious festivals and days of rest have probably helped prevent many people being worked to death.

    But when it comes to deciding what is right or wrong, consulting the "big book of multiple choice", which can be used to justify anything from genocide to pacifism, just doesn't cut it.

    We make the decisions, and we must take the credit or the blame depending on how things go. This is both exciting and terrifying. But it is the way things really are. And I think the more people realize this, the better off we will be.

  8. Yep! I very much agree. However I also feel that religion is an unnecessary factor when doing good, an excellent example would be the Red Cross, which is a secular organization.

  9. The Civil Rights movement was either opposed or ignored by most white Christian churches so where you see clergy in those films of Civil Rights marches, they were nearly always acting against the wishes of their congregations if not their church superiors. If positive social change were dependent upon Christianity, it would never occur. Negative social change such as the dumbing down of education in the name of protecting the inerrancy of the Bible, keeping people alive when they are terminal and their pain can't be relieved, etc. is another matter. Then there is the matter of all the tax breaks churches receive despite the fact that they are appallingly inefficient in terms of how much of their money is spent on anything but salaries and structures.

  10. And they justified all of it with the Bible, which can be interpreted to mean just about anything, which is something that makes it so dangerous.