Sunday, January 16, 2011


One of the most appealing ideas of religion is the idea that we will live forever. Death surrounds us all and touches everyone. We can all think of a loved one who has died - whether it is a friend, a parent or grandparent, a sibling, or maybe even a spouse or child. Death is as much a part of life as is birth. And yet, the fact that all of us will die, and cease to exist someday, fills us with the greatest sense of dread. 

How comforting it must have been when humans first began to believe that death was not the end - that some sort of life existed beyond the grave. Evidence of a belief in an afterlife can be found in ancient burial sites, dating back 30,000 years into our human past, in which religious symbols adorned the bodies of the dead. Indeed, it seems that as soon as symbolic language evolved, one of the first ideas to spread among humans was the notion of an afterlife for an immortal soul. It must have been a terribly infectious and comforting notion to our ancestors, who, like us, were also natural animists and dualists

The idea that through certain beliefs, behaviors, and rituals we can appease God or gods, and thereby earn immortality in an afterlife is a fundamental driving force in religion. Without the notion of a soul, along with a good and bad place for this soul to live forever, religion would lose much of it's appeal. 

But is there any evidence for an afterlife or a soul? In short, no there is not. There is simply no reliable objective evidence of an afterlife, despite the fact that nearly 80% of Americans believe in it. If we think that the sheer number of believers is a good reason to believe, remember that 30-50% of Americans also believe in ESP, ghosts, hauntings, telepathy, UFO's, witches, and astrology. Belief in weird things, for which there is not any evidence, is ubiquitous because it's human nature to do so. 

So given the nearly universality of belief in an afterlife, the question atheists get asked is "If you don't believe in an afterlife, then what do you believe in? What do you think happens when we die?" The implication is that if you don't believe in an afterlife, then how can we be happy, or how can we be motivated to be productive members of society? Or, as the most ignorant sometimes ask, what stops you from committing suicide?   

First, the fact that atheists believe this life is the only life they have, serves as a daily motivator to make the most of it. Emily Dickinson wrote "That it will never come again Is what makes life so sweet."

In a similar vein, Carl Sagan added: 
I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking.
The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides. 

Second, letting go of the idea that a vindictive God awaits you on the other side (with the potential of eternal punishment) lessens the fear of death. Although not stressed in Mormonism and other mainline religions (with the exception of Catholicism and fundamentalist Protestantism)  the idea of eternal hellfire is a cruel and false motivator. Yet, nothing motivates quite so well as fear (something Priests and politicians both tap into on a regular basis). But even if you are one of the lucky ones who make it to heaven, what are you going to do for an eternity? Frankly, I think it sounds incredibly boring: well, at least after the first 10,000 years or so. I mean, what are you going to do after 10,000 years? A million years? A trillion years? I'm sorry, but that doesn't sound very motivating.

More appealing to me is the idea of death being a long and permanent sleep of total oblivion. If we are not conscious (and there is no reason to believe we would be without our brain that creates our sense of consciousness) then we don't have anything to worry about. Isn't that part of the appeal of heaven: a place where all our fears and worries come to an end? Sounds like oblivion to me. When I induce general anesthesia on people during surgery, they are oblivious to their surroundings (and a good thing too, given all the sharp scalpels and burning electrocautery knives about to be used on them). Oblivion during surgery is exactly what my patients are after when they come to me for my anesthesia services. What is so scary about the thought that death is an oblivion, similar to general anesthesia, that you don't wake up from?  Mark Twain said "I was dead for millions of years before I was born and it never inconvenienced me a bit." The same can be said when we are dead after we die: it won't inconvenience us a bit.

But if the idea of immortality is still appealing to you, and the thought of annihilation terrifying, then there are real ways we live on after we die. These ideas of immortality were not invented by superstitious soothsayers in our ancient past, but are based on current and objective scientific facts. When I think that someday my life will end, these facts can take a little of the sting out of death. But it is not from a denial of death that I draw comfort as the religionists do, but through an acceptance of it.

I was comforted the first time I learned about the event that created every single atom that exists in my body. It was also the event that created every single atom inside your body, the bodies of every living creature that has ever lived on this earth, and every single atom in the entire solar system. I am talking about the incredible
supernova explosion that occurred over 4.6 billion years ago. It was in the hot furnace of this supernova that the atoms within me and you were created. As Carl Sagan said, "We are all star stuff contemplating star stuff." This is an incredible idea that helps me feel connected with all life on the planet. What is even more awe inspiring - is that it's true. 

I am currently reading Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene. Like Sagan, Dawkins is a master of using scientific facts to invoke a sense of wonder and awe within the reader.  In addition to Sagan's supernova born atoms, Dawkins teaches us that our genes can also be though of as being immortal. Genes are small segments of DNA that ultimately determine the structure, function, and behavior of all living creatures. Our own genes that make us who we are, can be traced backwards in time billions of years to our common evolutionary ancestors which preceded us - just as you can trace each twig on a tree or bush back to a common trunk. Also, our genes (or at least the information they convey) will live on, nearly inviolate, through our progeny, and their progeny after them, etc, etc. Even though our chromosomes (which are just long strands of individual genes connected to each other) will repeatedly be shuffled up like a deck of card during the process of sexual reproduction, the genes themselves, like the cards in a deck, will remain constant during this shuffling process. Individuals and populations will come and go since we are, in a crude reductionist sense, fleeting gene-replicator machines. However, our genes will remain constant as they copy themselves, with incredible fidelity, over and over and over again. These genetic information packets can therefore be thought of as being immortal. And since genes, unlike atoms, can influence the actions and behavior of my own living progeny, I can therefore think of myself living on forever: immortality, science style. 

I think that is pretty amazing. 


  1. Lawrence Krauss has a nice little saying that reinforces your thoughts...

  2. When do you write all this?!! So tonight Jonas walks up to me with this really sad look on his face and says "I don't want to do die!...Why do we have to die when we get old? Why did Jesus make the world like that?"

    He was pretty upset about the whole temporary arrangement of mortality..and he directed his grievance right at who else? Jesus? :)
    Even at four years old--his view of death made him uncomfortable enough to question the religious component of this "story".

    I didn't really think it out long and hard before I replied and I didn't want him feeling the weighty feeling of death as he was getting ready for bed holding his "shark vs train" book, so I just said: 'Well...maybe he didn't make it that might not have to die." That was a pretty stupid answer--flat out lying to him. But I think what i was aiming at was more of your point: wether we live on as little genetic packets of DNA being replicated or as a soul that actually lives again, or if he is reincarnated as a butterfly....really: it's not going to "inconvenience him a bit"
    ...unless of course he has to go to the Telestial Kingdom. The lowest heaven. that might be inconvenient. Or even worse: outer darkness. Should I tell him about that yet?
    Could it be.....Satan?!

  3. Jonas asked a very good question and is wise beyond his years. Maybe being four is a difficult time to face the reality of death. If you are too young to know the truth about Santa, then maybe you are too young to face death also.

    I haven't had too many conversations about death with my kids. But in the few that I have had (when a pet dies or when we drive past roadkill), I tell them I don't know for sure what happens after death (because I don't). I also tell them that I don't expect anything will happen; that it will just be like a long long sleep that I don't wake up from, or what it was like before I was born. They don't seem troubled by this at all. I also tell them that other people believe they live on after death. It's a good conversation starter about religion. In the end, I tell them they can believe what they want. IMO, it's good to let them process it at their own rate, and make up their own mind when they are ready.

  4. Why are we filled with dread about death? I think mainly for two reasons: 1. a natural instinct for self preservation 2. Our cultural and commercial focus on youth. There are many peoples and cultures that do not fear death as we seem to, because they do see it as a natural process (which it is).

    While I agree that there is no evidence of an "afterlife," is there clear evidence to the contrary? There's nothing definitive either way. I like it this way: it keeps things interesting.

    The earth, trees, the stars, our bodies, our brains are composed of atoms--and these atoms are in a constant state of transition. Everything physical is constantly shuffling, in a state of growth or decay. Even the cells in our bodies are constantly dying and reproducing, etc. But what is an atom? When we get right down to's energy.

    What happens to anything when it dies? It eventually changes form, the atoms eventually reshuffle into something else. Granted, this can take millions, billions, or more years to occur, but eventually that is what happens. So I think that's what happens after we die, eventually we'll reshuffle/reform into something's just a matter of time.

    Our consciousness is created/manifested by the particular coalescence of atoms that compose our brain, but is also impacted by our environment and experiences.

    If the evolution of our brain is behind our intelligence, does this also adequately explain our concept of wisdom? We process information and understand what we know through the filter of our current perceptions, and this too is always in flux.

    My 8 year old son, Andrew just asked me what I'm writing about. I said "I'm writing about what I think happens after we die." He says, "I think when you die, you just get born again to a different Mom."

    I guess that pretty much sums my view too.