Believing in the Afterlife

 

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I was thinking about this post I recently wrote in response to some questions from a reader. One of the questions, if in fact not the main question was about talking to your children about death, as an atheist. I personally don’t believe that there’s anything beyond this life but as I responded, no one actually knows.  That’s the best answer anyone could possibly give and anyone that says for sure that the absolutely know what occurs when we die, is either lying or fooling themselves. But that started me thinking about this Pew Research Poll of atheists I read a while back because for some reason, I was certain that within that poll, I had read that there were atheists polled that did believe in an afterlife. I wasn’t disappointed when I revisited the poll.

Let’s start off with a few simple demographics: In the U.S., atheists comprise approximately 3.1% of the population. Now whether you believe the population is 320 million or 350 million (I’ve heard both, as well as figures in between) that places the number of atheists  between 9.92 and 10.85 million. Not an insubstantial number and although people aren’t leaving religion in droves to become atheists, that number may be slightly higher today compared to when the poll was taken. Also, most atheists (77%) are under 50 years old, with the majority of those, 40%,  being under 30 years old. That, to me at least, says a lot about the influence of religious belief – where it’s going – in this country among young people. Next, there are more men than women that are atheists (68% – 32%) which I think we’ve all known for a long time, but it’s interesting to see the actual numbers. Finally, 78% of atheists are white, where 3% are black,  7% Asian, and (this surprised me) 10% are Hispanic.

There are other demographics in the poll as to political leaning, immigrant status, and income, as well as education if anyone is interested. But the surprising part of the poll for me was the number of people that say they are atheists that believe in the afterlife. A full 5% polled say they believe in heaven. No, I didn’t typo that, you can see it in the poll linked above. That means, if we take the higher number of atheists I presented above, some 542 thousand (and change) believe in an afterlife, heaven specifically. Even more surprising is that out of the same number, 3% believe in hell. Do the math.  That’s an amazing number of people that say they don’t believe in gods or find no proof for the existence of any gods, to affirm.

This, in my opinion and it’s only my opinion,  is due to the human ego. We don’t want to believe that this life is it for us, that, since we are the dominant species on this planet, this life, although it may come to an end, is not the end for us. The idea that when we die, there is nothing is troubling to many people, and as shown here, even to a percentage of people that don’t acknowledge that any gods exist. How does a belief in an afterlife, heaven or hell, square with atheism? I’m not sure, but  it’s clear that it exists. It may be that there are those polled that say they are atheists, are not, possibly agnostic, but those numbers are rolled into the overall demographic. The poll however, concerns atheism, not agnosticism, but then, as polls go, sometimes it’s difficult to differentiate those polled based on the questions asked.

The idea of heaven and hell is based upon a belief in some god or another and it’s curious that atheists would answer in the affirmative about a belief in the afterlife. That’s why I think it really comes down to the variable, human ego. None of us, atheist or other, really want to acknowledge the end is the end. But it becomes easier over time and, at least for me, a decision I’ve made peace with because my afterlife? That’s the DNA I contributed to my daughter. As long as she lives on, and (hopefully) her offspring continue, then I’ll always be there. If there’s any afterlife for any of us, that’s what it’s all about.

This is why I continue to attempt to be the best person I am able to be, with my friends and family. I’ll continue on, just not in the way that most people in the world believe.

12 thoughts on “Believing in the Afterlife

  1. My thing is the belief in an afterlife cheapens this life. My belief is that I do not know what happens after death. So it puts me in a position where I need to live right and do things right the first time. Where if I don’t treat somebody right, I might or might not get a second chance in an afterlife to make up for it. So I need to make amends for it now. And dealing with reality on those terms, that are based on truth, and the best conclusions we can make based on the best evidence available is a demonstrably better way to live. Having your internal worldview more consistent with reality is the key in everyday life. Always. Because when we’re talking about decision making and if I’m going to make decisions that affect what I do in reality, then the more consistent my internal review of reality is with actual reality, the better. And the more divergent my internal view is from reality, the worse.

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  2. I know atheists who want to or need to believe that “something” survives after death. I also know atheists who have experienced “weird shit” (and I am included in that) who cannot explain the experience, but know something happened. My take has been other universes that intrude into ours, but some might “believe” that it is left-over energy behaving in what is a familiar form of its corporeal body.

    I admit in the past to sometimes being fearful of what happens when I die, but I haven’t had that fear for a long time. Who knows what my future holds? But, I am as certain as I can be that my body will be no more and that Jeanne will be no more and I will return to the state of non-existence, as I was before I was conceived.

    One life, make it honorable. Doesn’t have to be big and splashy, just honorable.

    -Jeanne

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  3. Very interesting. I think we might be surprised at the kinds of things some atheists/agnostics believe; disbelieving in god is very limited information.
    I think I am beginning (like Anonymous) to see how a belief in an afterlife cheapens this life. After all, if I have ETERNITY with my family, how valuable is our time together? It seems we’d only truly cherish something if it’s finite, precious.
    I just started reading “The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality” by Andre Comte-Sponville, (regarding Hell and nothingness) – “Such, indeed, was the main thrust of Epicurus’s attack on the religions of his day: They give death a reality it doesn’t have, thus absurdly locking the living into a purely imaginary danger (hell), which ends up spoiling all life’s pleasures for them. Against this, Epicurus taught that ‘death is nothing.’ It is nothing to the living, since as long as they are alive it does not exist; and nothing to the dead, since they no longer exist. To fear death is thus to fear nothing. This doesn’t eliminate anxiety (whose very definition, in modern psychiatry, is the fear of the nonexistent object), but it does put it in its place and help us overcome it. What frightens us is our own imagination. What reassures us is our own reason.

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    • If you go to the link, look through the poll, there are some atheists, a small percentage, that even admit to praying. No, I’m not joking. Some attend church. Why, I don’t understand but it comes down for me as just that everyone is different and what I assumed from the poll is that they conflated agnostics and atheists. For instance, my ex-wife declared herself an agnostic, which to me meant nothing because she, on occasion, still went to church (holidays). There are atheists that read the bible. I do, but for me it’s to understand/gather information about Christianity. I also on occasion, read the Quran. It doesn’t mean I believe either. I trust Pew Research more than others because of their methodology, although, as I just said, I think they may have placed agnostics in the category of atheists. They could do better in separating the two.

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    • Hi Kevin. That is not anxiety. What you describe is an irrational fear or phobia. The two can certainly be related, but anxiety is not the fear of something nonexistent.

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  4. Maybe the “Praying Atheists” view praying as similar to playing the lottery. I don’t think anyone truly believes they’re going to win when they buy a ticket, but why not take a chance? I don’t play, because I think it’s throwing money away. But what does a prayer flung into the darkness actually cost? The thinking may go, “there is a 0.10% chance god exists” so I may as well try to reach him/her/it…
    People play the powerball every day on much worse odds.

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    • You’re venturing into “Pascals Wager” in that not believing in God does nothing for you if God actually exists, but if you believe in God, and it turns out he doesn’t exist, then you’ve ventured nothing. It really is, from my experience, similar to what you say about the lottery. “If you don’t buy a ticket, you can’t win”. But then, buying the ticket, as you say, doesn’t guarantee you anything.

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      • Except, Jim and Kevin, we know full well that many, if not most, believers are comforted by their faith and guided by their belief in their god. So, even if their god is nonexistent, they receive a lot from their faith and belief, plus they have the comfort of community from those, who share their belief.

        Just as make believe can comfort a child, believers gain much more than nothing from their belief in a god, whom they have faith has their best interest in all that it does.

        Depends upon what you are looking for when you buy the ticket.

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      • I agree with you about Pascal’s Wager. It’s a Win-Win for the theist, and a Win-Lose for the atheist. If the Xtian god doesn’t exist the believer would have wasted this life chained to a deity that doesn’t exist. Lost valuable resources, money to the collection plate, and emotional investment. Perhaps they were emotionally abused during their indoctrination made to believe that a vicarious redemption through a bloody human sacrifice is something they are supposed to feel guilty about. Or maybe they spent their life in complete horror of eternal torture by this supposedly all-loving entity. Or maybe one out the thousands of other gods invented by other human beings happens to be the correct god, then the xtian will be tortured along with the atheist,…there’s a happy thought right?

        Let’s face it, religion is really just a hedge fund insurance policy into an afterlife that might or might not be there because the investor wants to be immortal.

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  5. Exactly.
    Even when I identified as a theist id sometimes neglect my prayer life. Why? Because deep down I think I knew it was an exercise in futility and I was just talking to myself. Better off meditating.

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  6. I would submit, Kevin, that identifying and believing are different states of being. You neglected prayer, because you felt it was futile. For those who do not think it is futile, but a way of communicating with their god and also of seeking guidance or for allowing their faith to point the way to an answer, it is a way of life upon which they depend.

    Most believers are caught up in their own truth, which matches what their religion teaches and they need that so much that they never think to question or consider what life might be like to not believe. It is as alien to them as believing is to a long-time atheist or one who has never believed.

    But, you guys know this, as you were once believers. I am just reminded any who might forget that what we talk about, is literally the “Gospel” to many human beings in our history and our present, and I dare say, our future. Faith is like breath to believers.

    Technically, atheists shouldn’t care about religion and could, in a moderate church, thrive without ever believing. I think that would be very difficult for a theist, for a true-believer.

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