If you consider that for Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists (pretty well everybody) a belief in some form of personal existence beyond life is an article of faith, it follows that people like me, who hold that there is nothing on the other side, are a pitiful minority. You cannot separate the fear of dying from any argument about life after death. The will to survive is universal for all life forms, but only we, self-aware humans, can project ourselves into a future in which we will be no more. And the thought is terrifying.
It cannot be!
Luckily, in all of nature we alone have also the imagination to counter that depressing certainty with an alternate reality in which our individual existence somehow continues beyond our corporeal one.
And there is nothing wrong with that. Our capacity to conjure up hope against all evidence to the contrary is the saving grace of a consciousness usually employed to fabricate misery. “There is nothing good or bad”, says Hamlet, “but thinking makes it so”. Given the choice between two projections, two artificial constructs of our mind, that of a future annihilation and that of an eternal afterlife, why not pick the more pleasant fiction? The strongest argument for a belief in an afterlife is that it is harmless. Once you’re dead you are sure to find out either that you were right or else there won’t be a ‘you’ to find out otherwise.
So, why do I not grasp at this convenient palliative?
The reason has nothing to do with what happens or doesn’t happen after I die and everything to do with how I live my life while I have it. You see, everything has a price, even hope. A belief in a white-robed Jesus welcoming me with open arms, or a belief in some rearrangement of my molecules to form another human being is a sedative. It makes the dread of extinction seem more bearable. But in doing so it devalues the uniqueness of this life. By believing that death is not an end, only a transition, we cast this physical as just a prelude, a preparatory phase for something else, something better, or as merely one chapter out of many. To me, any such belief denigrades my existence. It robs my life of its uniqueness, of the remarkable realization that this me, good, bad, or indifferent, is a one-off, an experiment never-to-be-replicated, ever, anywhere.
I am not saying that believers are more cavalier with their lives (excluding suicide bombers and other psychopaths). Believing that death is not final does not necessarily make life less precious. But holding the opposite view, that there is nothing beyond, makes living every moment that much more intense. The awareness that I am dying irrevocably with every breath I take, moving inexorably towards complete oblivion makes every passing moment a once-only experience.
Things end. Stars die. Sure, their stuff survives, but they, as they were, are gone for good. We don’t concoct a myth of survival for the sun after it will go out in a few billion years. We accept the darkness that will follow as a fact.
As I float on my back in the middle of a pristine lake, the sun rays warming my belly, the experience, no -- the bliss, are that much intensified by the realization that we are both dying, the sun and I, albeit at different rates, and that this specific moment is irrevocable. The black nothingness that looms at the end of our respective times has no bearing on the magnificence of the experience. There is no need to make up stories about another life.
The sun has no afterlife.
The Kvetching Factory
"Start every day with a smile and get it over with" (W.C. Fields)