Around this time last year, I buried my cousin. Ian was a vegan, atheist, and environmentalist so dedicated to the cause of caring for the earth that his principles extended even to his death. After a physicist gave a science lesson on what would happen to Ian’s body, and how he would nourish the tree that would be planted over him, we took shovels and buried what was left of Ian. He was wrapped in purple linen, and the cancer had reduced his frame to a frail shadow of his former fit, powerful, athletic self.
The ceremony was void of any spirit, symbol, or God. I was disquieted by the that, and yet I was moved. I was moved by Ian’s commitment to science, and his care for the earth. I was tempted to call the funeral hopeless, but realized that wasn’t right. The funeral was full of love, conviction, and hope, and didn’t need to say anything about an afterlife. That wasn’t the point of Ian’s life – Ian was about the here and now, the earth, the injustices that plagued the planet now. He didn’t believe in the afterlife, and that lack of belief thrust him headfirst into the present. Plus, it wasn’t my funeral. Who was I to cast judgement on Ian’s wishes? That would be tasteless.
Other people had different views. One person who was not in attendance, but heard of its godlessness, raged about it. “That’s what causes things like the Holocaust!” He fumed, “It’s so stupid – that your purpose in life is to become food for the tree. That’s the sort of hopelessness that destroys the world.”
This is a theme that has come up again and again since my religious deconstruction: the notion that we need belief in the afterlife because without it this life is meaningless, hopeless, and horrific. Just recently, another friend of mine looked at me and said, “Stephen, you need to believe in an afterlife. I don’t care how you get there, but as long as you believe in some kind of God and some kind of afterlife, that’s good. Because I just can’t understand how anyone can look at this world and have any sort of hope without believing there is something else.”
I have a hypothesis about this, and it is just that: a hypothesis. Unproven, unverified, just me thinking out loud.
It makes intuitive sense, for many religious people, that life without an afterlife is hopeless. But intuition is often wrong, and my personal view is that we need to be skeptical of *all* our intuitions.
My first question is whether it is true. Are people who are atheists, agnostics, secular Jews and Buddhists, truly less hopeful, fulfilled, etc? In my experience, no. The more “nonbelievers” I meet, the more I find them to be some of the most ethical, thoughtful, fulfilled people I’ve ever met. I find them deeply moral, upright people. I find them giving little thought to the next life, and a great deal of thought to this one. My foray into the Satanic Temple – a community of religious atheist, agnostic, and nontheist activists (oxymoron? Ugh. I don’t have time to cover that one) has been eye-opening, and incredibly refreshing.
This is what has always confused me about this religious claim: the claim and the reality just don’t match. We religious have a hard time seeing how agnosticism and atheism can give anyone hope or meaning. And yet, like terrifying puppets animated by some nonexistent force, many nonbelievers do have meaning, and are deeply fulfilled. The animating force of faith is presumably gone from their lives, and yet they have hope anyway.
This has been true for me. I don’t call myself an atheist – I prefer the term non-theist, and I still consider myself deeply religious. However, I’ve let go of the idea of a personal, all-knowing God, and I’m happily doubtful about the afterlife. I think an afterlife is unlikely, though not impossible. In the words of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Not impossible, just highly improbable.”
My personal levels of fulfillment and happiness have never been higher. While acknowledging that correlation does not equal causation, I think this in part has to do with taking responsibility for my life and my morals. When death is no longer a rite of passage to an eternal afterlife, this life becomes immeasurably valuable. An afterlife cheapens it – makes me treat this life with less care, less thought. I’m prone to cosmic procrastination.
I also think we might be likely to treat others badly if we believe this life is all there is. If this is our one shot at consciousness, then a life spent in misery, torture, or poverty is an unimaginable tragedy. There is no recompense in an afterlife. One life means justice, equality, and humanitarian efforts have to happen now. We don’t get to ease our conscience by saying that the poor will be loved by God. We have one shot at a good life, and one shot at creating a better life for others.
And yes, I still have questions. While I’m kind of accepting my own mortality and grieving for my own unlikely eternity, I have a harder time accepting that my partner (or even my cats) won’t live forever. I still deeply yearn for an afterlife, a God, a supernatural realm. I want it all to be true, and I will leap at the first bit of evidence that shows it to be true.
And yet, I somehow find happiness and purpose more readily.
But that’s just me. What do you think?
Love my work and want to support it? Please consider becoming a patron so I can continue to bring you interesting content every week. Also, don’t forget to sign up for my mailing list so you don’t miss another podcast, blog post, or cat picture.