Where does our persona (some would say “soul”) go when we die? Science can’t definitively answer that question, but we can make reasonable guesses about our final destination.
Energy can Neither be Created nor Destroyed – What happens to all that energy in our bodies when we die. If it can’t be destroyed, it has to go somewhere, right? To answer this question, we need to ask what we mean by energy. Then we must ask whether there’s a reasonable real world answer for where this energy is transferred (which there is). And finally, we must ask whether it’s plausible that our biological energy could experience an afterlife dimension for all eternity. When those questions are answered logically, we see that the natural scientific explanation for death, that there is no afterlife, makes much more sense than anything proposed by religion.
What About Reincarnation – It’s appealing to believe in reincarnation because we have no memories of when we were infants. What if our hard drives are pre-erased so that our new life won’t be contaminated with memories from a previous life? Unfortunately, there’s no good scientific explanation for how this reincarnation would happen. Our ever-increasing population size becomes a huge problem for reincarnation, and it becomes even worse when you factor in the belief of some cultures that we go through several iterations of reincarnation from animal to human. Should we count bacteria? It’s all very implausible, and we should question our wishful desires for such a theory to be true.
Heaven and Hell – There are a few factors that go into this widespread belief. The most obvious reason that heaven is so compelling is that we need to feel that death is not the end… that we will see our deceased loved ones again. The second reason that this idea is popular is that we would like to think that there is a universal form of judgement for those who escape punishment for their crimes on Earth. But, I think we can all agree that most people live their lives in a morally gray way. Isn’t it sad that some people believe that truly righteous, morally centered individuals will burn in a lake of fire because they didn’t accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior? The crime does not fit the punishment, but more importantly, the reward does not fit the deed. How many jerks and morally depraved individuals are considered to be residents of heaven simply because they asked for forgiveness and accepted Jesus on their death bed? Does this seem reasonable?
The question came up at UU church this past Sunday about how to handle it when your children are confronted by the beliefs of their friends in things like hell. “How can you be an atheist? Don’t you realize that you will go to hell?” Yes, this is a disturbing image for our children to confront, but true religious diversity and tolerance implores us to look at the situation from the perspective of these children who are indoctrinated into their religion. Should it truly be a surprise that these children are concerned that their atheist friend will actually be burned in a lake of fire for all eternity? It’s a terrible image for children to imagine, and we should remember how it must feel to truly internalize the “reality” of hell.
This is why it’s important to make the punishment of hell a non-negotiable for relatives. Grandma wants to share her love of Christ? Fine. Grandma wants to strike fear in the heart of your child by threatening them with eternal damnation? Not fine. And how should kids handle their friends? They should just say that they don’t believe in all that stuff (assuming they don’t), but kids should also be taught to empathize with the reason their friends would be concerned. Accommodation and acceptance are important lessons to be taught to little humanists, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t speak up for their own beliefs when challenged.
So what do atheists think about death? I can’t speak for everyone, but I believe we just die. It’s not the most attractive answer, nor is it the most interesting, but sometimes reality doesn’t match the story in our hearts. What happens when we die? The same thing that happens before we are born… nothing. But, people do live on after death. As cheesy as it sounds, they live on in our memories and they live on in what they’ve created during their short time on Earth. Isn’t that enough?