Atheist Explains What Happens When We Die
As an atheist living in Tennessee I find myself discussing my lack of beliefs with Christians I have known most of my life. After an initial shock these believers are usually intrigued and have many questions about my views on various topics that their religious dogma answers for them. One of the most common questions I get asked is “What do you think happens when you die?”
For Christians the answer to what happens when people die is pretty simple. If you have accepted Jesus as your saviour and asked him to forgive your sins your soul gets to go to a paradise called Heaven and if not you get to spend eternity being tortured in place called Hell. A very simple and very disturbing idea if you think about. In order to believe this you must assume many things. There is a god, what the bible says is true, people have souls that transcend the physical world and there are magical places like Heaven and Hell. What initially appears simple has blown up into some pretty large and highly improbable assumptions based on the lack of evidence for any of it.
Atheism being a lack of belief, naturally has no doctrine or dogma associated with it and therefore makes no claims nor speculates on what happens to a person when they die. All I can explain as an atheist is what I personally think happens when a person dies and cannot not speak for anyone else, atheist or not.
When asked the question “What do you think happens when you die?” my first response usually is, “I die and am dead.” This is usually followed by the asker giving a confused look and ask then asking but what about after death and what happens to my soul. I then go on to explain what I think happens when people die and a little about why I think this.
The uniform determination of death. The National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws in 1980 formulated the Uniform Determination of Death Act. It states that: “An individual who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem is dead. A determination of death must be made in accordance with accepted medical standards.” This definition was approved by the American Medical Association in 1980 and by the American Bar Association in 1981.
The above is what the medical field uses as a definition of what death is and how to determine when someone has died. In simple terms when someone’s heart or brain has permanently stopped working. I do not think people have souls or anything supernatural that transcends our physical selves therefore when a person dies that is it, they are dead and nothing else. Even though the body is still around the person has essentially ceased to exist any longer as they previously did.
No longer existing is sometimes not a very easy concept for people to grasp. I am not talking about the the physical body of the person or other’s memories of the person. Rather, I am talking about what I feel truly makes up a person and makes them who they are, their mind. Since the brain has died so has the mind and the person is no longer there. A dead person isn’t sitting in their body thinking, “Oh shit I’m dead,” or hovering around in the third person looking over their dead body as is portrayed in many books and movies, but no longer exists. Nothing left of the person but a dead body that will begin to decompose like anything else that has died.
Many people, especially believers that feel that they are going to live for ever in paradise say that not having an afterlife and no longer existing is a very bleak and sad future and I always wonder how so? To me to think that when I die there is nothing afterwards and I simply no longer exist is a very easy concept once one starts to imagine what it means to not exist and the sheer peacefulness of it. I can think of nothing else that can compare with this peace and tranquillity, no pain, no regret just nothing whatsoever. Nothingness and not existing is a true paradise of solace.
Some would ask, “Then why not just end your life and experience the peace of no longer existing right away?” and the same question could be asked of Christians but of course this was added to there dogma long ago when it became an issue. Initially this might look like a good point however since there is nothing after death it makes living even more important and special because it is the only life one will have and once it is over it is over. Therefore it is reasonable and rational for one to want to stick around and make the best out of whatever circumstances life has bestowed them.
For me, I want to live and make the best out of this one shot at life because I want to be there for my family and friends that I care about, especially for my 10 month old son. I want him to be able to experience what I have enjoyed during my life so far and more. In order for this to happen I need to be there for him and to take care of his little butt until he can take care of himself. This is my main reason to sticking around when there is such an easy out but it is most likely different from many other people’s. There are an infinite number of practical reasons for people to make the best out of their chance at life that are far better than fearing being tortured forever in hell.
There being no afterlife and nothing happening when people die is a conclusion I have made based on the lack of evidence to the contrary . Even though this brings me peace I am still aware that there still is a very remote and improbable chance I could be wrong. I’ve never found any empirical evidence to support that there might be an afterlife but I am still open to the slim possibility that there could be one.
In conclusion, my belief that humans do not have souls nor an afterlife is a very comforting idea for me. Even though it is a naturally parallel concept to atheism shared by many rational people it is not necessarily a common belief to all atheists and is no way a claim of atheism itself. I admit I could but wrong but there is no rational reason to think otherwise. I hold life to be a very wonderful thing that, against overwhelming odds. somehow became a certainty. I encourage others to quit worrying about what happens after death and enjoy and make the best out of the lives they have.