Afterlife? I’d rather not.

Atheism Death

I was very sick when I converted to Mormonism. I like to joke that I wasn’t getting enough oxygen to the brain, but the more mundane truth is that I was confronted with the reality of my mortality, and like many people, I panicked. I couldn’t really die, right? I’m too solid, too complex to disappear completely. What a crime that would be, that someone so unique and essential could be gone forever.

Religion offered me a respite from this fear. Church members answered my questions about death quite satisfactorily. If our bodies must be subject to the humiliating mortification of slippage, we need some sort of consolation prize. Heaven is that consolation prize. Even Hell is its own sort of gift. The promises and threats of Mormonism reinforced my desperate hope that I’d continue on, even if I didn’t.

Now that I’m not a believer, I’m extremely skeptical that there will be an afterlife. Beyond this, however, I don’t think I’d even want one. The only thing I should need to do after I die is decompose properly. My strongest desire for myself after death is to be eaten and digested and turned into soil. I came from the earth, I feed from the earth, and I must feed the earth myself. That is the totality of my life cycle. And that is enough.

Far from being disgusted by the biological processes of decomposition, I feel, instead, awed by the power of the earth to destroy. Every enzyme in our organs will ultimately be the agent of our physical destruction. Every inhalation of oxygen creates compounds intended for ruin. This is awesome to me – worthy of awe. By contrast, the concept of an afterlife is disappointing. That’s not the way I want to go out. Who needs God when we have oxidation?

There’s a dead sheep in the underbrush on one of my favorite hiking trails, and whenever I see her, I think of myself similarly, laid out under the grape vines, slowly disintegrating, feeding the microorganisms and animals and insects. I’m moved to consider this end of myself, and I’m reminded of the need for celebration and authenticity in my daily life. This is all I’ve got: that crumbling sheep is my destiny.

And though it would be a simple thing to consider my spirit divested from this grotesque biology, I don’t believe in an eternal soul. My consciousness arises as a result of my advanced biological systems and when those systems inevitably fail, my personality will collapse as well. My self will leak out of my limbic system and neural memory as surely as my intestines will uncoil into putrefaction. I will be gone, wholly. My body will be recreated into a million things and thoughts.

At one time, I slavishly followed after conceptions of the afterlife that filled me with fear and self-loathing. I lived with the sure knowledge that I would be stripped from my family because of my ethical weaknesses. Some other woman would parent my children while I puttered around in a lower kingdom. God would have no desire to know me. It was this belief that kept me active in the Church long after I’d lost faith. Eventually, though, I realized that living under the thumb of fear, that whorish old slave driver, is no way to live at all.

But what of the remnants of that cruel motivation? Well, this is what I’ve got so far.

How about you? What do you believe about the afterlife?

(I regularly leave outrageously long, tangential comments at MSP, and I also blog at chicken tender. Many thanks to the MSP crew for letting me post today. This is a great community and I’m pleased to be a part of it.)

27 thoughts on “Afterlife? I’d rather not.

  1. Chandelle, I love your comments and often think they’re worthy of being posts themselves! So glad to see you blogging here!

    I don’t think there’s an afterlife either. I think consciousness switches on gradually in utero and switches off when we die, and I too find the idea or returning to the earth whose elements make up our bodies to be beautiful.

    Fear of being ripped from my husband if I didn’t make it back into full fellowship in the Church was one thing that kept me hanging on. But then I couldn’t imagine a god who would do that being deserving of any devotion from me, or anyone else. That house of sand crumbled.

  2. I feel the same way. The Mormon heaven never was terribly alluring. Like you, what kept me in was the fear and the guilt and the self-loathing. I enjoy my life so much more as an atheist with no belief in an afterlife. Also, I always thought that punishing someone for ETERNITY because of their ignorance and whatever mistakes and “sins” they committed while human was the height of dickishness. I never believed that God was love. He was a judgemental, vindictive, petty, cruel asshole – and an imaginary “friend” I’m glad you be rid of.

  3. Craig, I never understood what was so appealing about the Celestial Kingdom and godhood either. I even told my bishop once that I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a goddess and he replied that if I were more righteous, my desires would fall into line with what Heavenly Father had planned for me.

  4. I even told my bishop once that I wasnt sure I wanted to be a goddess and he replied that if I were more righteous, my desires would fall into line with what Heavenly Father had planned for me.

    Ugh. And your bishop knows exactly what god has planned for you. That’s one of the most condescending, brainwashy, and intellectually void ideas I’ve ever heard. And I heard it a lot when I was Mormon.

    The thing is, you’re not putting your faith in god. You’re putting your faith in the hierarchy, because if you believe that god told you something different from what the hierarchy teaches, then you’ve been led away from the Real Truth by Satan. It is not ever possible for the hierarchy to be wrong, or if they are, they pretend they never were, and you’re just being contentious and proud if you bring up instances where they were wrong. Also, they may have been wrong then, but they’re absolutely sure that they right now. ABSOLUTELY! And don’t you ever question it.

    Just thinking about the way the hierarchy manipulates people and suppress all dissent or criticism makes my blood boil. It’s so Orwellian.

  5. The Mormon heaven never was terribly alluring.

    that’s an understatement. On my mission, I would regularly think, “I can try to make it to the celestial kingdom and hang out with God, and general authorities, and a couple of really pompous stake presidents here and there, and maybe some people from my family”–because I didn’t really think my family was all that righteous; I thought the CK was just for the really top-notch brown-nosers–“or I can go to hell out and hang out with artists who drank and fornicated and were sometimes gay like Michelangelo and Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf and Isak Dinesen.” It wasn’t much of a contest, but I kept figuring there must be some addition perq in heaven I just had yet to hear about that made it so great. I finally decided that even if there was some additional perq, the other company up there would make it too hard to deal with. Why hang out for eternity with people I don’t like in the short run?

    Chandelle–re: your desire to decompose and turn into soil–me too! I don’t want to be embalmed or put in a fancy casket or a vault; I just want to be wrapped in an old sheet and buried somewhere where I can become tree food. I’m really glad that there are cemeteries now where you can do that.

  6. maybe it’s because I’m a guy and maybe it’s because I play a lot of SimCity and Civilization, but worlds beyond number was alluring.

    but if you have to be married and populate those world manually, then that’s really a bummer. I recognize I’m just not a very celestial kind of guy after all.

  7. “Im really glad that there are cemeteries now where you can do that.”

    Yes! I took mortuary science classes in college and I was absolutely horrified by what is done to the body after death. Not only in terms of dignity (if it’s all the same, I’d rather not be publicly displayed with a plug shoved up my rectum), but the sheer awfulness of the chemicals and so forth. Green burial is the way to go.

    “…but if you have to be married and populate those world manually, then thats really a bummer.”

    I always thought the whole “manual” thing sounded pretty great for a guy – predictably, the ladies get a raw deal. I’d take Outer Darkness over eternal pregnancy any day.

  8. The only thing that ever made me want the CK was the eternal family bit.

    Other than that, I felt i’d be just as happy elsewhere. Never did want to be perfect or have that much work to do, thx.

  9. Celestial orgasms for all eternity? Sign me up!

    Re: burial. I’m torn between donating my body to science (they’ll definitely pump you full of preservatives) or being allowed to decompose naturally. BTW, I believe you’ve always (or a very long time) had that option since Orthodox Jews prepare the body simply and bury it as soon as possible.

  10. When my wife’s grandmother was cremated I was allowed to participate in the traditional Taiwanese goodbye that involves sifting through the ashes for a piece of bone to take home as a keepsake.

  11. As I’ve said, I’m not totally comfortable with the idea of not existing. But I’m starting to accept that it will happen.

    As far as my remains are concerned, I don’t care all that much. But just from an aesthetic (and maybe eco?) perspective, I’d rather have my remains cremated than rot. OTOH, I guess I should probably donate my body to science.

  12. Interesting thoughts. I’m still personally tied to my belief in the afterlife, but I can see where you’re coming from. For me, I have my own thoughts on what “heaven” will really look like as far as what we are doing, but I don’t think it’s what the church lays out as a default. I don’t think we can comprehend it, so we have some mental placeholders to help with the visual, but I don’t think the restrictions that some hold on to when they interpret the “kingdoms” will even be an issue either. I just feel strongly that part of who and what I am will continue to progress and grow and learn and multiply in some form, but that it will not be akin to earthly life. If I thought it was just going to be a glorified continuation of the same as here, I would be happier blinking out of existence at some point too.

    But I completely agree with your thoughts on decomposing naturally and giving back to the earth that gave me life, and at one point I even went searching for the nearest green burial sites and tried to get my husband on board with the whole thing – until I began to think about my own death a tad too much and had to stop. I do hope it catches on though and becomes more available and accepted.

  13. +1 on the decomposition thing. I love the idea of simply dissolving back into the earth. Becoming “one” with it again, if you will..

  14. More than anything, I think of the people who would be left behind me. It’s one thing when someone has lived a long life, a good, fulfilling life – it’s another when the person lost is far too young. It is very hard (for me) to imagine some people no longer existing. I find it hard to think of myself no longer existing.

    Yet, I don’t find much comfort in the faithful mormon concept of the afterlife either. Life seems more of something to be savored if you are not focusing on an eternal reward. I’ve realized that these are questions that people have contemplated for ages, I don’t feel the urgency to have an answer to them.

  15. What do I believe about the afterlife?

    I believe that no one knows for sure if there is or isn’t an afterlife, and that it is silly to say you “don’t believe” there is one.

    It appears your disdain for Mormonism has led you to think that any thought or wish of a joyful afterlife is a sign of weakness. And you speak as though any afterlife would necessarily be the one Mormonism portrays.

    I think that it is far more probable that there is an afterlife than that there isn’t. What we don’t know about existence far exceeds what we do know. We have so much more to learn that giving up on the idea that our consciousness continues after our body dies is an exercise in shortsightedness.

    To wash your hands of the concept of an eternal consciousness is just plain silly.

  16. Michael,

    If, as you say, “no one knows for sure if there is or isn’t an afterlife,” then it’s equally “silly” to believe in one as it is to disbelieve it. It is certainly not more probable that there is an afterlife – there is no evidence either way. I wouldn’t call it silly that you do believe in eternal consciousness, so why be condescending to my equally unfounded belief?

    In case you didn’t notice the description in the header, this is a community for people interested in Mormonism. So certainly my discussion is related to the Mormon concept of life after death. But I think I make it clear in my comments that I don’t believe in any sort of afterlife where one’s individual consciousness is intact.

    Do I perceive it as a weakness to believe in an afterlife? You didn’t ask it as a question, which would have been nice before accusing me thusly, but I will answer it as one nonetheless.

    Here’s some background. I grew up secular, with parents who were non-practicing believers. I received no religious education. So all of my earliest experiences of awe came via the material world. When I converted to Christianity, I sought such experiences through spirituality. I read the scriptures, attended church and the temple, prayed, and served others in an attempt to experience what others have referred to as spiritual ecstasy. I never found it. But in observing the human body, nature, the living universe within and without, I have that sense of mind-blowing, child-like awe that I remember from my pre-religious days. When I forage or watch a woman give birth or study cosmological concepts, I am overcome with that sense of profound smallness that is, I believe, similar to what some might call religious ecstasy. It’s just that I would not characterize it as religious, because it isn’t singular or divine but instead mundane.

    So do I think it a weakness to believe in an afterlife? I will say this: it seems a bit like an childish demand. It seems like a kid who is surrounded by the mess of Christmas morning, who looks around and says, “What else you got?” Even if there is a god, I think it more appropriate to look at this amazing, amazing world and say, “Thank you, this is enough.”

    That’s why I say, in my post, it’s of no consequence to me if there is an afterlife. I think there’s not, but that’s not really the point. My point is, this is enough. How could we possibly expect, much less demand, more than this? I might say, that’s just plain silly.

  17. Michael,

    Chandelle has already addressed you, but I had some questions and thoughts as well.

    If no one knows for sure about an afterlife, then why would it be silly not to believe there is one? When we don’t know for sure about things, we tend not to believe in those things. We lack belief. That is exactly what people are trying to say here.

    But even you mention in your comment the difference between “knowing for sure” and trying to come up with “probabilities.” I would say that not only do we not “know for sure” if there is or isn’t an afterlife, but we (and as a result, you too) do not know if there is “probably” an afterlife.

    So, in all of the ignorance, we only have beliefs…or we may not have a belief. This isn’t silly. This is all we can do in such ignorance. Our mental states toward given propositions do not bear the weight of knowledge…they can only bear the lightness of belief.

    When people here (or elsewhere) say we do not believe there is an afterlife, don’t confuse this as a belief that there is not an afterlife. What we are saying is that we lack belief that there is an afterlife, not that we possess belief that there is not.

    Our lack of belief may be precisely because we don’t know. You say that it’s probable that there is an afterlife, because there is so much we don’t know…but I find this questionable reasoning. Just because there is “so much we don’t know” (how could we even quantify this..?) doesn’t mean that it is probably that what we don’t know exists probably does exist.

  18. Chandelle,
    Cc: Andrew,

    You’re right, it was wrong of me to be confrontational and call your beliefs silly. I apologize. It was a knee jerk reaction to all the folks (especially atheists) who mock anyone that even bothers to ponder the “meaning” of existence.

    Actually, there is far more evidence that there is an afterlife than that there isn’t. That is why I think that there is a higher probability that there is indeed an afterlife. My thinking is based on the preponderance of the evidence, which includes personal experiences that point in that direction.

    I try my hardest to look at life objectively and to come to my own conclusions. This includes not allowing my bad experiences with organized religion to taint my ability to fairly weight the evidence for an afterlife.

    Too many people have bad experiences with organized religion and then become atheists, as though it’s an all or nothing proposition. In my mind there is a difference between manmade religions and God. More often than not they are not connected at all. So why dismiss our creator because of bad experiences with manmade religion.

    From the standpoint of gut instinct and logic, it is unreasonable to me to think that we are the highest intelligence in existence. It is perfectly rational to consider that our biology was created by a higher intelligence, and yet reject all the manmade religion we see all around us that supposedly represent our creator.

    Again, when you spoke of an afterlife it was in connection with the Mormon church. The impression I got was that you also see it as an all or nothing proposition. And therefore you reject the idea of an afterlife because you reject Mormonism.

    You say that you look at the universe and are in awe, and experience what others might call a religious experience. I also experience this. I love hiking and enjoying the natural beauty of Mt. Rainier while contemplating how small it really is in the context of the universe.

    But the thing that most evokes a “religious experience” is my feeling of love for, and closeness to, friends and family. We can admire the universe and everything in it but the thing that makes it all worthwhile is love. Love is something that is beyond simple biology, imo. It just seems to me that love is the thing that is at the heart of existence. That is the ultimate expression of the universe.

    I’ve heard what you’re saying from other people, also — that it’s childish or silly to “demand” or “expect” more than this mortal existence. I’ll never understand that kind of thinking.

    It’s not a matter of expecting or demanding more than this. It’s a matter of simply recognizing the patterns that point to higher things. That point to the probability that we are more than just biological organisms. That our consciousness and love continue forever.

  19. Michael,

    The reason it was wrong of you to call my “beliefs” silly is because in doing so, you didn’t even address a belief. Rather, you addressed one of my lacks of beliefs. You said it was silly for me not to believe something, even though you recognize that there is no certain knowledge. I don’t get the strong impression that you understand the difference between a “lack of belief” and a “belief.”

    I find it curious that you think atheists don’t ponder the meaning of existence. But I suppose than when you say “meaning of existence,” you really use this for a code word for something specific, and I can understand that atheists wouldn’t ponder the meaning of existence in whatever way you are using this phrase as a code.

    I find it even more so curious that you apparently know enough about the afterlife to KNOW that 1) no one knows for sure if there is or isn’t an afterlife and 2) that it’s more probable that there is than there isn’t.

    This seems to be a jumbled set of knowledge vs. lack of knowledge claims…and all of these don’t seem entirely consistent with one another.

    If you want to instead note that you *believe* there is more evidence for an afterlife than not, then that’s an entirely different matter. I won’t grudge you for you belief; the only thing that many of us here are saying is that we are not convinced, so we do not believe similarly.

    For whatever it’s worth, it’s not “bad experiences with organized religion” that disincline me to believe in an afterlife. It’s my knowledge and awareness of neurology and psychology that strongly suggest that human consciousness is directly tied to the brain and is affected in predictable ways when the brain is manipulated. If you remove the brain completely from the equation, then it seems like there is no “where” for a spirit to *be*.

    Heck, my atheism didn’t even arise from “bad experiences with organized religion.” It arose from my having no personally compelling reasons to believe in a deity. I am aware that others’ mileages may vary. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m wondering why you feel you “know” enough about atheists to assume that all atheists became that way for the same reasons. Because your characterization just rings completely off and it destroys your credibility. Just tryin’ to provide some tips for conversation, is all.

    From the standpoint of gut instinct and logic, it’s important to realize that 1) gut instinct can differ from person to person and 2) logic depends on the premises one makes. Different premises yield different conclusions. Since 3) your premises are likely to be affected or determined by your gut instincts (e.g., what makes sense to you, what sounds right to you), we can sum up entire differences in worldview to gut instincts.

    For me, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think we are the highest intelligence in existence, given that we have seen no evidence of higher intelligence. For me, it doesn’t seem perfectly rational to consider that our biology was created by higher intelligence, given that we can better explain our biology through naturalistic processes; given that, once again, we don’t have evidence of these higher intelligences; and given that if we assume our biology was created by higher intelligence, we have to try to explain why our biology appears to be such that was created by natural processes. To rephrase: we know that our biology has several “inefficiencies.” Why would a higher intelligence develop such inefficiencies? This is a tough question to answer, but it’s easy to explain why naturalistic processes would have inefficiencies.

    I guess part of your response is more directed to Chandelle, and I don’t speak for her…so I’ll look forward to her response. The important thing to keep in mind is that we may have very different views, and that’s OK…we are not cut from one mold, you see.

  20. Andrew,

    I was primarily addressing Chandelle’s comments.

    So much of this discussion is muddled because we use the same terms differently, which is evidenced by the many incorrect assumptions you’ve drawn from what I’ve said. It takes a lot of back and forth to clarify what we mean. I don’t have the time or energy for that.

    My basic point is that there is something going on in space and time that is beyond our scientific understanding.

    I’ve had two experiences where my life was literally saved through intervention by something outside of “normal” experience.

    I hesitate to even mention it because I am usually mocked and derided when I do. Especially by those who put undue faith in the limited scope of human observation (science).

    I work in a business where I am routinely analyzing probability. In my opinion it is absurd to assume that we are alone in the universe, and to think that we are the highest form of intelligence. Probability itself cringes at the suggestion.

    Let me address the reason I posted in the first place. It has to do with the central question which is summarized in Chandelle’s article title:

    “Afterlife? I’d rather not.”

    If given a choice why would someone not want to live after this life.

    That’s a rhetorical question, hence the lack of a question mark.

    My response is simply:

    “Afterlife? Yes, thank you.”

  21. Michael,

    Andrew addressed it already, but I’ll add my voice that “bad experiences” with Mormonism did not turn me into an atheist. In fact, bad experiences with Mormonism didn’t even turn me into an ex-Mormon. Certainly a bad opinion of religion in general did not turn me aside from concepts of God. I’m sorry, but it simply is not a startling, unique opinion that religion and God are separate. I’d venture to say that most of us here had a journey away from Mormonism that was entirely separate from our journey away from belief in a supernatural deity.

    Love trumps all. Of course. And to think of being separated from my family brings me intense pain. But because I believe that consciousness winks out at brain death, I don’t think I’ll be missing anything after this life. So it simply is not important to me, as I say, whether there is an afterlife. I’m far more concerned with this life. Specifically, I’m far more concerned with loving people in this life, because despite what you say about “personal experiences” (which are not quantifiable), even our limited understanding of neurobiology lends credible favor far more heavily to there being no afterlife. So I don’t want to waste this one.

    I believe in cycles, and the cycle of life is such that we are born from the same material from which every living thing was ever born, we live, and we die to be recreated into other living things. That is our only definitive eternity. However much we might desperately want to believe that we, our individual selves, are too great to die, that our love is too important to be tied to our biology, there is absolutely no quantifiable, logical, rational reason to believe that this is so.

    I’ve spent a great deal of time volunteering in hospice; I’ve been with many people as they’ve died. It’s a gift to be with a person as they die. It’s as profound as a birth. Most of these people have believed that there was another life waiting for them. Most of them clearly needed that belief as they faced down their impending demise. I, too, may someday cling desperately to that idea.

    Humans are unique in that we perceive the passing of time in ways that animals almost certainly do not. Animals, when faced with their death, will generally be seen to accept it. They’ll find a private place and take no food or drink until they pass. Humans, on the other hand, fight like hell. Our advanced neurology is a curse for us in this way. We can’t believe that there could be an end to ourselves. We can’t accept dying. Our brains literally will not allow it. So when you say that “gut instinct” leads you to believe in an afterlife, it’s far more likely to be an instinct from your head.

    I am no different for all my efforts: I’m horribly afraid of cancer treatments, and terrified at the thought of losing my partner or my children or leaving them behind without me. But I see no reason to believe that we’ll be reunited on a heavenly cloud, or in a resurrected body, or as a reincarnated personality. I will love this little life with everything in me, and try not to waste it. I’m still afraid of dying, but I see no reason to fear death.

    My title was pithy; my point was that I find this life to be sufficient after seriously discarding the concept of an afterlife. I stand by that statement. A relative once said to me that without an afterlife, all of this is pointless. I was honestly shocked that she could say that. Of course, she’s also said that without a divine system of punishment and reward, we’d all be out killing each other in the streets, so I can’t say that she’s right in the head all around. Either way, I couldn’t disagree more. There is a point here, and it is, as you say, to love. Is love not profound if it cannot continue after death? Not so – it is enough.

  22. “If given a choice why would someone not want to live after this life.”

    I didn’t address this question, but I will (quickly, because it’s late). First of all, this question is definitively NOT rhetorical. You assume that anyone would say yes to an afterlife. I’m not so sure. I would have some doubts about the form of that afterlife.

    If we are to be divided into Heaven or Hell, as most Christians believe, then I’d rather not (even if I’m to be in Heaven, which sounds terrifically boring).

    If we are to be separated into various kingdoms, as the Mormons believe, then I’d rather not (even if I’m to be in the CK).

    If we are to be reincarnated with no knowledge of our prior existence, I’d rather not (seems exhausting).

    If we are to be dissolved into the Universal Consciousness… well, that sounds okay.

    And so on and so forth. My point is that there absolutely is NOT an automatic yes to the question of an afterlife.

    This post was written after I did some serious meditation on the nature of existence and this question. I say again: in my personal philosophy, it’s irrelevant to me whether there is an afterlife. It’s not an important thing, all things considered. When I say “I’d rather not,” what I mean is that I’ve come to so fully embrace the natural cycles of the natural world that the concept of an afterlife seems smaller than that. It seems less wondrous. Maybe that makes no sense to you, but as Andrew said, we come in all forms.

  23. Chandelle – You should copy-and-paste your latest comments and turn them into a post here at MSP, as a sequel. I think we’d all enjoy seeing more of you on the front page here at MSP.

  24. Chandelle,

    I guess we’ll have to agree to be mutually baffled by our respective views. 🙂

    Have a good weekend.

  25. So, heaven’s not sitting around in lacy white (high-necked) dresses on Victorian sofas? Yeah, sounds pretty boring to me, too.

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