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.