Life after Dying? Absolutely

I and many – not all – of the people I know feel quite sure that life ends at death. And yet we rely on an afterlife of a natural kind: other people’s lives will continue after we have gone. If people did not believe that was so, life would lose much of its meaning.

So argued philosophy professor Samuel Scheffler in “The Importance of the Afterlife. Seriously” in the New York Times back on September 21, 2013.

Because we take this belief [that the human race will survive after we are gone] for granted, we don’t think much about its significance. Yet I think that this belief plays an extremely important role in our lives, quietly but critically shaping our values, commitments and sense of what is worth doing. Astonishing though it may seem, there are ways in which the continuing existence of other people after our deaths—even that of complete strangers—matters more to us than does our own survival and that of our loved ones.

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To make his point, Scheffler offers this doomsday scenario.  “Suppose you knew that although you yourself would live a long life and die peacefully in your sleep, the earth and all its inhabitants would be destroyed 30 days after your death in a collision with a giant asteroid. How would this knowledge affect you?” It is reasonable, he says, to imagine people losing the motivation to research cancer, to reform society, to compose music, and perhaps even to have children.

Scheffler’s discussion has personal relevance for me. I’ve written about my occasional flashes of panic that when I die, not only will my life cease but so will my past, along with the lives of everyone I know and perhaps the entire universe. I described the fear thus:

These flashes of annihilation come at me seemingly out of nowhere. My gut tightens and there is an instant of blur and panic until I catch something else to think about. The suddenness is like the flash of some frightening memory from childhood or like the imagining of a car crash. The odd thing is that the sudden blankness sometimes includes my surroundings along with me.

I compared my experience to that of the child who closes his eyes and thinks that because he can’t see anyone, no one can see him. Except that my reaction is fear, not delight.

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I haven’t had such panicky moments now for several years. A couple of thought streams have helped. The first I mentioned in the  early post. I bring my attention to all the significant people – from family members to national leaders – who have died without the world ending. In fact, I wrote, “Every year we are surrounded by the deaths of plants and animals of every description and beyond counting, death on such a scale there might well be reason to fear an apocalypse. Yet none occurs.” And among the benefits of a funeral, I suggested, is the opportunity for the living to be reassured that the death of one of their own will not jeopardize the existence of the others.

I’ve also been reading about how the activities of any organism, even a bacterium, consist of refueling, protecting, repairing, and reproducing itself. Each living thing is alive by virtue of the fact that it – we all – try to avoid harm, seek out energy sources, reproduce. So it is not just that organisms prepare for the future. It is that being alive in the first place is to be a mechanism for continuity.

Learning about such basics of biology puts the existence of life on a solid ground that I hadn’t quite felt before. And it helps me understand why believers in traditional religions seem so confident about their afterlives.

 

Religion for Atheists

In his 2012 book Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton has this message for atheists: don’t let your outrage at religion blind you to its wisdom about suffering and its contributions to culture. Religions (in the book, mostly Christianity, some Judaism and Buddhism) show us “how to generate feelings of community, how to promote kindness, how to cancel out the current bias towards commercial values in advertising.”

“And even,” he adds, “how to surrender some of our counterproductive optimism.” De Botton is impatient with optimism and cynical about “the narrative of improvement.”

If you want to prepare yourself for the real world, says de Botton, take to heart the mind-set of religion. It is religion that “has maintained a usefully sober vision, of a kind that the secular world has been too sentimental and cowardly to embrace.” The biblical story of Job, long-suffering from undeserved disasters, brings home the hard lessons. “Job is reminded of the scale of all that surpasses him” and is left “a little readier to bow to the incomprehensible and morally obscure tragedies that every life entails.”

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For de Botton’s atheist, the stars replace god as a reminder of all that surpasses him. 
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But for the atheist, with no god to instill this “sober vision,” what credible, secular source could do so instead? De Botton recommends science. Atheists can meditate on the billions of stars in the billions of galaxies. “Whatever their value may be to science, the stars are in the end no less valuable to mankind as a solution to our megalomania, self-pity and anxiety.”

I would also suggest another natural wonder: the history of life. While the stars are magnificent, living things now and in the past are master teachers of struggle, loss, and persistence. And while the galaxies may remind me that my life is insignificant, I find affirmation and consolation in the billion-year-long chain of living continuity. Not a bad bible for the non-theist.

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My thanks to Iain Carstairs at ScienceandReligion.com for sending me this book two years ago. Iain held a contest on what religion can offer the atheist, which I, as the only contestant, won. Iain, now struggling with cancer, has always searched out the common ground of science, spirit and beauty.