A Similarity Between Atheists and Christians

Let us grant the atheistic assumption that all humans are destined for non-being. There is nothing after death, only the absence of existence. Is it possible for man to conceive of this — non-being and pure absence? Is it possible for man to grasp what it means to be a corpse? Try. Conceive of Nothingness. Think on non-being.

Did you think of a large expanse of black? Try again, for you’ve thought of a large expanse of black, which is something. Of white? Nope, still something. Did you think of the word Nothing? That’s a thing. Did you think of a gap, an abyss or a hole? Perhaps that comes closer, but answer me this — did you think of the sides of the imagined gap? Those are things. Is it possible to think of a hole without its sides? No. Is it possible to conceive of pure absence?

Allow me take a left on red, cross the bridge, and get to the point.

1. Every thought we think is based on experience. (We cannot, for instance, conceive of a horse the color of which we have not experienced. (UPDATE: By which I mean, we cannot conceive of a color we have not experienced.))

2. Every experience we have is an experience of Something — of white, black, this girl, or that boy.

3. If we were to experience Nothing, it would not be an experience. (Nothing, inserted into any sentence, negates action. “I said nothing” means the action of speaking was not performed. “I felt nothing” means the action of feeling was not performed. It follows that the words “I had an experience of Nothing” means there was no action of experiencing.)

4. If there was no action of experiencing, then there can be no thought of the thing experienced, for all thought comes from experience.

5. It is therefore impossible to conceive of Nothingness, or non-being, or the ceasing of existence.

This makes sense, for we are beings. It is within our nature to be. To not be is a mystery, and an impossible thought, directly contrary to our nature. Words designated to indicate non-being, whether “Nothingness”, “Absence”, “Zero”, or “Non-being” itself are simply metaphorical labelings, similar –  but not identical — to the way in which scientists label “dark matter”, giving a name to something they do not yet know.

This is why we are terrified by the corpse. The corpse is always a mystery, for it suggests (and only ever suggests, given that can never know precisely what the dead man experiences) a thought which we cannot think: The non-being of a human person. Thus we are the only animals in existence to react in fear to the sight of our own corpse. The corpse is a contradiction and a shock to the way we perceive the world. This is why we wander around in a confused state of numbness after a death, mumbling that we “can’t believe it happened.”

Really? We can’t believe it happened? We know that people becomes corpses, we know how they become corpses, we know how many become corpses each day, and we know we are on our merry way to becoming corpses ourselves — yet we cannot believe the death we truly experience (i.e. not the death we read about happening to some one we didn’t know existed in the first place.)

Why such disbelief? It’s simple. If we truly cannot conceive of non-being within ourselves, it only makes sense that the apparent non-being (death) of those we treat as ourselves (those we love) is inconceivable.

Thus, when the atheist says, as he is wont to, that after he dies he will “simply cease to be”, he is putting a metaphorical label on a mystery that he cannot — by his very nature — comprehend. He could equally say, with philosophical accuracy, that after he dies he does not know, nor can think of what will happen. For he can neither know nor think of Nothingness.

This is remarkably similar — if qualitatively different – to the Christian’s view of death. To simplify, the Christian says that after he dies he will experience Heaven. Heaven — disregarding supposed earthly experiences of it in beauty, goodness, truth, and love  – is a mystery to him.

Both the Christian and the Atheist stand before death and make an act of faith — the atheist that he knows the unknowable, and the Christian that he expects the unexpected.

The Christian, in that he cannot truly conceive of his own Nothingness, has an innate conception of his own eternal Somethingness — of always being. The atheist, in that he cannot truly conceive of Nothingness, has the same. The Christian says that this innate conception is true, and that the corpse is but a mask of the actual experience of the human person after death — eternal life. The atheist says that this innate sense of always being, which comes from the universal inability to conceive of non-being, and has us scream at the sudden sight of the skull — that this is a lie, and that life ends in Nothing.

It seems to me something both could have beer over.

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  • Paul

    Hey I’m the first comment at last!

  • http://www.facebook.com/maryliziz Mary Liz Bartell

    I am not afraid of death for I have Hope in Christ. What does an atheist hope for? What is to be gained from non-belief in Christ? Atheists miss that hope in the life that so many people long for, free of pain and suffering, merely to encounter a place where the energy of our life may spend eternity in bliss in God’s Love or in eternal torment apart from love and life in Christ. Have I the trust that God in his infinite mercy even has mercy on those who lack faith? Those who could not trust what the senses fail to impart? Belief in God and in Christ Jesus is a wish I have for all human kind, and not just belief, but Hope that there’s more than this world of pain and of death. For out of Love for one another we may be saved… “what ever you did to these least ones you did unto me.” There are atheists who love. There are Christians who hate. Who is to be saved? I pray for the conversion of souls to Christ. May his mercy be upon those who are ignorant of his Truth. May his compassion bathe the souls of this skeptical world in his Mercy. May the eyes of their souls be opened before it’s too late to atone, to repent, to amend their lives to lead other souls to Him ! Amen.

    • r.holmgren

      And that is why the Christian experience is NOT like the atheist experience. We, as Christians can experience existence, being, living. We can contemplate living again after death.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004571885806 John Jones

      “What is to be gained from non-belief in Christ”?

      Not believing in Christ instead of Allah will mean no paradise of virgins and oasis. And not being baptized Mormon means no heaven living as a god. And if you believe in Christ one misses out on re-incarnation, and nirvana, the fields of Aaru, Elysium, and many nice other places.

      But mostly what is to be gained by a non-belief in Christ is living in realty with
      truth instead of faith based on no evidence.

      In other words, one will be living without superstition, fear, racism, bigotry,
      and intolerance.

      • Sammi

        Well who needs all those “nice places” and pleasures when one’s very soul is filled and satified to the brim? Heaven is not an eternal vacation resort: it is the fulfillment and the crowning of our existence. It is us as we wer meant to be.
        Happiness =/= Pleasure
        That would be hedonism, my friend.

        As as for living in superstition, fear, racism, biogotry and intolerance? I know many non-religious people suffering from these states of mind. I know many Catholics, including myself, who do not suffer from them. All human beings are flawed, but that is not the fault of religion.

        • Patterrssonn

          “All human beings are flawed, but that is not the fault of religion.” Not entirely anyway.

    • http://www.larissaheart.com/ Larissa

      Atheism isn’t non-belief in Christ, atheism is non-belief in any God. There are people who don’t believe in Christ who aren’t atheists; these are members of other religions. Sorry to be pedantic but, as a fellow Catholic, I think it’s harms more than helps when you make sweeping generalizations that aren’t true.

  • CatholicChemist

    Perhaps with this post it would be useful to consider the Heidegger-ian ideas about nothing as an Existential phenomenon. It’s interesting because (as I’ve heard it explained), he describes three forms of nothing: the (somewhat ontic) nothing of common parlance, the logical/mathematical Nothing, defined as the empty set, and *Nothing* (<-asterisks denote strikethrough) which is that truest Absence, an absence so profound that it cannot be reasonably conceived of or described, for such a conception or description would make something in the *Nothing*. Wikipedia asserts that Heidegger felt that Sartre misinterpreted this idea, and I've yet to find an easily accessible secondary source that discusses it in simpler terms than Heidegger himself. Still, it's highly material to your discussion. I agree with your assertion that *Nothing* seems no more ridiculous on its face than Heaven does, as both are mysteries that defy human conception.

  • Psygn

    Time stops.

    • Tom

      Is that what you assert that “non-being” means?

      If so, it’s equally impossible to assert. To say “Time Stops” means that time has to exist. But then that would be something, which is not “Nothing”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=738846056 Peter Cranny

    I can think of a pink horse

    • Caitlin

      “the color of which we have never experienced.”

      Have you never experienced the color pink?

      • Paul Boillot

        I am not a flamingo.

        I have deep and meaningful experience of not-being a great variety of things.

        I have no problem conceiving of not-being.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000909947326 Nick Corrado

      Our imagination is capable of mixing and matching concepts that we have experienced, but not necessarily experienced together. I can imagine my teachers in bikinis, but I am sure as hell never going to see that (I hope, at least). That said, you can’t just abstract away everything you’ve ever experienced and then imagine that. It’s just not possible.

  • Isabella

    “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions
    and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the
    slightest inconvenience from it.”

    -Mark Twain

  • Casey

    What an interesting perspective. Thank you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004571885806 John Jones

    It seems pretty easy for me to imagine that I did not exist before I was born. It is also easy to imagine that when my pet dog dies, he will be not exist. So why should it be so impossible to imagine that when I die that is it? Humans believe in many things that that they have never experienced. They even believe God created everything from nothing, which if you follow the logic of this article, is impossible because there is always a “something”.

    Moreover it is not true that every thought we have is based on experience and that it is impossible to have a thought of something that does not exist.

    Many Christians have had NO experience of God yet they can imagine him (all they have is reports of others who claim to have had an experience with God and they have “faith” in those reports).

    Likewise many people once believed in the god Jupiter which most Christians claim never existed. Drunks can even see pink elephants although only Walt Disney has claimed that they have existed.

    • http://www.facebook.com/kickintheface Jacob Timothy Michael Hughes

      >They even believe God created everything from nothing, which if you follow the logic of this article, is impossible because there is always a “something”.

      That’s not exactly what’s being said. The argument here is that we are unable to conceive of nothing, not that it is impossible. That is very true, as he proved above.

      >Moreover it is not true that every thought we have is based on experience and that it is impossible to have a thought of something that does not exist.

      That’s true. You are presenting what is known as a “strawman”. He did not claim that something must exist in order for it to be thought about, merely that said thought must be based on some sort of experience of reality. For instance, try telling a blind man that a room is green. That will help him very little, as he has no experience of “green”, or any other color. He has nothing to draw on. So if I told him to imagine a green room, he could not do so.

      >Many Christians have had NO experience of God yet they can imagine him (all they have is reports of others who claim to have had an experience with God and they have “faith” in those reports).

      Any human being’s way of imagining god is grossly inadequate, because in this finite existence, none can fully experience the infinite God. Our imaginations are never enough.

      >Drunks can even see pink elephants although only Walt Disney has claimed that they have existed.

      Guess what? Pink elephants are grounded in experience, albeit separate experiences, specifically elephants and the color pink. If one had never seen an elephant, it is highly unlikely that they would hallucinate a pink elephant.

      • RickRussellTX

        > The argument here is that we are unable to conceive of nothing, not that it is impossible.

        Indeed. We are unable to conceive of the nothingness of pre-birth or death, yet the chemical structures that make up our brains and bodies did not exist before we were born, nor will they continue to exist after we die.

        We don’t need to be able to conceive of “no consciousness” in order for it to be true.

        • http://www.facebook.com/kickintheface Jacob Timothy Michael Hughes

          And Marc never claimed other wise.

  • http://www.larissaheart.com/ Larissa

    Obviously with a post like this, there is so much you can say so you can be forgiven for generalizing and only sweeping the surface here.

    For me, in the year before I reverted to Catholicism from atheism I remember having a very uncomfortable conversation with my roommate who was also an atheist. The thrust of what she was saying was that she didn’t believe human beings had souls. She felt we were only our minds. And if you think of life that way, then death is the same as the breaking of a computer. It’s permanently turned off and nothing lingers. While I can’t truthfully say this was the catalyst for my reversion, my general disbelief that after death there could be literal nothingness was one of great discomfort to me during all my years as an atheist and I dealt with it mostly by never thinking about death or avoiding the thought completely.

    What John Jones says below about imagining that he didn’t exist before he was born is inconsistent logic as obviously it would be impossible to conceive of one’s own existence prior to one’s own creation but he does not explain how one can conceive that every single elemental make-up of a person can just disappear into the ether.

    Ultimately, I’m not sure if your post title was simply meant to be provocative because I feel like this is not a similarity between atheists and Christians at all but a marked difference. Thought-provoking nonetheless.

    • RickRussellTX

      @disqus_HOyMYCTzf6:disqus You mention that concern about the afterlife was a source of great discomfort when you were an atheist.

      Do you now believe that the afterlife genuinely exists and that it is factually true? If so, what changed? Do you have evidence for this belief?

      > he does not explain how one can conceive that every single elemental make-up of a person can just disappear into the ether

      I’m not sure why anyone would have a problem with this. We’ve seen animals and people die. We know that the chemically-stored information in their brains decays with the rest of them. It’s not hard to “conceive” this at all, or to conceive it happening to oneself.

      Of course, the elements that make up a person don’t disappear (mass is conserved in chemical reactions), only their organization changes chemically. There is no “ether”, whatever that is supposed to be, into which “elements” would disappear.

      • http://www.larissaheart.com/ Larissa

        I don’t debate religion so you’re wasting your time trying to do so with me.

        • Sir Mark

          Yep, nothing like a good old-fashioned closed mind, Larissa.

          • http://www.larissaheart.com/ Larissa

            What? I don’t debate religion because I think everyone has the right to believe what they want to believe and I think my time would be better spent doing something other than trying to convince someone to believe something else. I have no interest in defending my beliefs because it serves no purpose. I’m not in the business of trying to convert people. And that makes me closed-minded?! Are you kidding me? I’m closed-minded because I don’t want to go into details on my religious beliefs with someone who’s intent on debating me? At least I can stand behind what I say, unlike you, who’s decided to post as an unregistered user.

          • http://swt.encyclomundi.org/ shackra sislock

            1 Peter 3:15

          • http://www.larissaheart.com/ Larissa Heart

            Only saw this now.

            He wasn’t asking for the reason for the hope I have, he was challenging me to prove something to him.

            There’s a difference.

          • Christopher Lambert

            Did that fear of an afterlife possibly come from your Catholic background? I noticed you said “reverted to Catholicism” so that’s why I’m making this assumption. I come from a religious background that taught about an afterlife as well, but I no longer believe in one. To me, the concept of eternal life has always troubled me because it seems so contrary to the natural order of our world.

      • http://www.facebook.com/SF224668 Stephen Fogarty

        You’re thinking of what happens in the third person. They’re thinking of the first person. Like the article says, that first person point of view simply not existing anymore is beyond human experience, and therefore, imagination.

        • Patterrssonn

          Perhaps your imagination, certainly not mine.

          • http://www.facebook.com/SF224668 Stephen Fogarty

            Then enlighten me o.o I can’t even come close to picturing non-existence. I’ve never known anyone who could

          • Patterrssonn

            Maybe you just aren’t trying hard enough, or its all that superstitious mumbo jumbo getting in the way. If you really want to know read my post further down.

          • http://www.facebook.com/SF224668 Stephen Fogarty

            No, I’m long past superstition. It’s just a concept I can’t really picture. I accept that your consciousness ends after you die. I stop thinking of people in the present tense when they go. But, I simply cannot grasp what that would be like. You must possess a powerful imagination… or I, a weak one. I was raised Catholic. That’s been an obstacle in the past. Perhaps it still is. Something to think about, I guess!

          • Patterrssonn

            For one thing, I think that the boundary between first and third person perspective only exists in novels. We carry both perspectives in our heads all the time. In fact I wonder if first person perspective isn’t just a lovely illusion. After all what is consciousness except a sense of self, and what is a sense of self but a feeling or a sensation. As I said below, if you’ve experienced the non-existence of someone very close to you, it’s not all that hard to apply that experience or feeling to yourself.
            Perhaps it’s also that I’ve woken up from comas and experienced my consciousness/identity reassembling itself enough times that my perspective is a little different than most peoples.
            And as for imagining something that you’ve never experienced, you must at some point, as a catholic, have imagined a soul.

      • http://www.facebook.com/SF224668 Stephen Fogarty

        It sounds as if she had something she needed out of her world view. In this case, a life after death. It’s based on emotion, not evidence, sadly, but if this is what she needs than so be it, don’t you think?

        • http://www.larissaheart.com/ Larissa

          Actually I very clearly said that my issue with life after death wasn’t the catalyst to my reversion.

          • http://www.facebook.com/SF224668 Stephen Fogarty

            Right, sorry.. >< I've revised my statement. Sorry for being overly presumptuous about it as well.

          • http://www.larissaheart.com/ Larissa Heart

            Thank you, I really appreciate that.

  • anilwang

    I’m not sure I understand. I went through a long period of atheism that ended a half decade ago. As with anyone familiar with Stoicism, death didn’t bother me. Experientially it would have been an endless dreamless sleep. None of us fear going to sleep, so why should we fear death if that is what it was? Admittedly, we cannot grasp non-existence, but we can’t grasp a lot of things that are true. For instance, every few decades, every single atom of your body has been replaced by natural processes, and your understanding and personality changes quite dramatically. Yet people still recognize you as the the same person a decade ago. Does it matter we can’t grasp how this is so? As with death. What is so, is so.

  • jjharm

    wow how judging and unsitful your thoughts and closed minds are. not beliving in a god, “your god” is igg. Who are you to say the none conforms dont have a alternate of the same morals just maybe a whole other way of veiwing a menu. to not belive is to continue to learn who why when and words to mean symbals of alernate veiws, as the lord took adams rib,could imply it was the most promissing of area of the body to collect DNA for reengineering a human to concive eve by something greater than if ultamate creator then why the removal of bone intrade but for cattle, farm, and harvest. Explain past civalizations to me of the dissapearence of so called great peoples of past. illness would of ended all to have come no mater the miles. world event would of went dead as a domino effect. narrow is your site. god is a race commandments are morral rules of a heard to hate is to end growth. one ball amonst thousands unlikely we are it. learning,questioning is not a sin but a gift of good if we are mirrored as his image would that not include thought prosseses within the 10 rights. I can question what i will and still maintain friendly opposition this creates evolution. but some call it gifts from god. to studyis to knowingly question meaning and yet forgetting faith, quite the contro my friends. love is a key not a plea.

  • Religion Is Evil

    “Is it possible for man to conceive of this”

    Yes* – since humanity has already experienced the state of me not existing for millions of years. We know how that looks, and will return to it in less than a century.

    (*and women can conceive of it, too. Assess your typical casual religionist sexism.)

  • Religion Is Evil

    “This is why we are terrified by the corpse.”

    I’m not “terrified” at all. You really are quite imaginative.

    Have you considered the possibility that aversion to dead things offers a survivability advantage because of its utility in avoiding disease? If you have – on what basis have you rejected that proposition and replaced it with your supernatural one?

    • http://www.facebook.com/kickintheface Jacob Timothy Michael Hughes

      DAE ignore figurative language in order to avoid arguments?

      • Religion is Evil

        It’s a clear factual claim, and it appears to be incorrect. I’m not “avoiding”, but challenging directly.

  • Religion Is Evil

    “This is why we wander around in a confused state of numbness after a death”

    On what basis have you rejected the possibilities of shock, adrenaline, survival instinct? You seem to be simply fabricating a chain of suppositions and treating them as true.

    • poundcake

      have you ever had anyone close to you die? i had a friend and his family die three months ago. i might have experienced shock and adrenaline, but when i think about the time after his death, all i remember is walking around numb for weeks. i just couldn’t believe it. i still can’t. that’s just my experience at least.

      • Religion is Evil

        “have you ever had anyone close to you die?”

        Yes. I experienced grief. Nothing to do with “contradiction” about my “perception” this post claims is the cause of the emotion.

        There is a large body of work on the mechanisms of trauma and grief which this article simply ignores in favour of made-up religionist propaganda.

        I encourage religionists to keep behaving in this fantasy-happy way. It will finish off what’s left of their credibility.

  • Religion Is Evil

    “Thus, when the atheist says, as he is wont to, that after he dies he will “simply cease to be””

    Who says that, exactly? Be specific, please – you appear to be boxing shadows.

  • Religion is Evil

    “Both the Christian and the Atheist stand before death and make an act of faith”

    Here’s a possibility for you to consider – this kind of dishonest word game, equivocating on the word “faith”, is part of the reason is losing its credibility.

    • anilwang

      I don’t think its dishonest, its just not clear thinking.

      Replace the word “faith” with “speculation” and this point stands. Both the atheist and Christian, or more accurately non-Atheist. base that speculation on different data. The atheist looks at broken computer and sees we’re not that different so the same thing must happen to us. The non-atheist’s data, on the other hand is more varied and might even include the atheist. Socrates, for instance, reasoned his way to the existence of an immortal soul using other data. Stoics did as well, but if you read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius you’ll see that they were equally comfortable with non-existence after death.

      • http://www.facebook.com/mnowitzky Mark Nowitzky

        Replace the word “faith” with “pretend to know”. Most atheists I know (including myself) don’t pretend to know; we’re okay with saying “I don’t know”.

      • CBrachyrhynchos

        I’d say my beliefs on the afterlife are more an act of doubt than an act of faith. My thought-experiments about just what it means to be reborn or resurrected end up in a mess of paradoxes. If my loved ones are reborn without pain, then they are no longer the pain-forged people they were (for good and ill).

        We can, of course make inferences based on what we know. If there’s a sequence of numbers, there’s both an infinity and zero. (These inferences are mathematical proofs.) If something can come into existence, then it’s reasonable for it to pass out of existence. As you note, none of these are new inferences.

        I will admit an irrational hope that suffering (dukkha) ends at death. It seems to me to be the best of all the alternatives.

      • Religion is Evil

        What religionist “speculates”? They make factual claims based on what they claim to data.

        What atheist “speculates”? The names you cite aren’t “atheists”. I’d suggest “immortal soul” is as flakey a concept as “god” and would not be proposed by any atheist I can immediately think of.

  • http://twitter.com/Reason_With_Me Reason With Me

    After death would be just like before you were born. That is non Being Not hard to imagine. Harder to believe in eternity.

    • Jake

      And you may so easily imagine what it was before you were born?

      • Patterrssonn


        • Jake

          Sir, please don’t be stupid. There’s nothing to imagine when imagining nothingness because no thing that is able to be imagined exists in nothingness.

          • Patterrssonn

            Don’t be absurd, nothing could be easier.

    • badcatholic

      I can’t tell if this is serious. You can conceive of what it was to not be born, when all conceptions presuppose your being born to conceive of them?

      • Isabella

        The point is that there’s nothing to imagine. Remember what
        you were doing on this day, 200 years ago? Yeah, neither do I. Because I didn’t exist. Non-existence is a concept that can be understood, but not imagined. Understanding the concept of non-existence does not require me to “imagine” what it was like.

        • badcatholic

          Total non-existence. Not “the world before me”. That is existence. Total non-existence, or the non-existence of the self from the view of the self, or death, remains an unthinkable thought.

          • Patterrssonn

            Really? I can think about it.

          • Isabella

            I agree that we cannot imagine what non-existence would be
            like. That doesn’t mean we can’t understand the concept on non-existence. I did not exist before I was born, and while I cannot imagine what this would have been like it is not a difficult concept for me to grasp. Our ability to imagine any state of being is limited by the fact that imagination requires a brain. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be a tree, rock, or toaster… but that doens’t mean I have any difficulty understanding that these things exist. These entities are not “unthinkable thoughts”, they’re just unimaginable states of
            being. We cannot imagine ourselves as them, but we can think about them without any difficulty whatsoever.

            Furthermore, I disagree with your claim that all humans have an innate conception of eternalness. I know I am not eternal, and I know this because I did not exist prior to being conceived and developing into an embryo.

      • RickRussellTX

        I’ve seen animals and humans die and decay, their memories and personalities lost to entropically-favorable chemical reactions. How is my own death any different? Obviously it matters more to me personally, but it’s fundamentally no different than the passing of my pet gerbil. My gerbil’s consciousness didn’t continue to exist after it died (at least, I have no observations consistent with such a hypothesis), so how would my death be any different?

        Is there something more to be known or “conceived” about my death than the chemical decay of my constituent parts?

        • Patterrssonn

          Exactly, we’ve all experienced the death of another as a form of disappearance. My father died decades ago. It’s been a long time since I conceived of him existing somewhere else, and it’s not at all a stretch to imagine that I myself will someday no longer exist.

          But that’s Marc for you, he always manages to miss the point, like a bowler who lines up the pins in the gutter, then claims a strike when he knocks them down.

      • Religion is Evil

        If you want to know what conditions were like before you were born, you might consult the experiences recorded by other humans, using language.

        Why should you apply a different standard of belief to your own non-existence as you would to any other historical fact?

  • Matthew

    I think his argument is more simple than what you’re making it.

    You cannot fathom what you have not experienced. Therefore, an atheist cannot fathom non-being and a Christian cannot fathom heaven. Both are equally un-fathomable and thus, leads to commonality in the sense that the perceived after-death experiences cannot even be started in our imagination. If we do begin to imagine them though, we will hopelessly sell the experiences short as our imaginations can only grasp the things we have experienced. Boom. Commonality.

    • RickRussellTX

      > You cannot fathom what you have not experienced.

      I haven’t experienced set mathematics, or the Scottish Enlightenment, or continental drift, or galactic cosmology. Yet, I believe I have both useful and substantive understanding of these phenomena based on observation and study.

      I’ve certainly witnessed the passage of other beings (animals, humans) from life to non-life. Is it so ridiculous to think that I could extend this understanding to anticipate my own death?

      • Matthew

        No, not ridiculous at all. The difference lies in what your understanding is of – the physical (math and history included, but that’s another discussion). Observation and study is merely another way of experiencing.

        Witnessing things die and saying you understand death and the beyond does not do their after-life existence (or not) justice. You cannot comprehend what the nothing-ness is that they are experiencing. You can only imagine what it’s like. And then your imagination falls severely short (i.e. large hole per Marc).

        It’s similar to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. You know it’s there but you can’t gain an understanding of the electron because you can never accurately measure it.

      • Matthew

        No, not ridiculous at all. The difference lies in what you have an understanding of – the physical (math & history included, but that’s another discussion). Through your observation and study, or simply a knowledge they exist, of things not experienced, you have thereby experienced them.

        Observing and studying something die and then saying you understand that thing’s death does its after-life (or nothingness) a severe injustice. You may understand the act of death, but you cannot begin to fathom or understand the experience of its nothingness. Imagining it is a start, but your imagination has limits (i.e. Marc’s example of an infinitely large hole).

        It’s like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. You know the electron is there, but you can never truly understand it because you can never truly ‘experience’ it as is.

        Thus, Marc’s argument that Christians and atheists have a commonality about being unable to ‘experience’ and understand the after-death still holds true.

  • martykayzee

    There is no “there.” Space/time is everywhere.
    The only “is” is Einstein.
    There is no such a thing as “nothing.”

  • http://twitter.com/reneehendricks Renee Hendricks

    My one and only comment on this? Imagine before you were born. That’s what death is like for me as an atheist.

    • ColdStanding

      But you did not exist before you were conceived and there wasn’t nothing before your existed. You exist now which is significant. Your death will be the cessation of a particular instance of existence while the universal category: Existence continues. So using the model of your non-existence before birth as a source domain for reasoning about your (proposed) non-existence after death is problematic.

      You can not prove the complete nullity of existence. You have no reasonable scientific proof of non-existence. Science only deals with phenomenon. You are merely expressing your folk belief of non-existence and death.

  • slipperyjoe

    Most athiests think that nothing happens after death, or that they don’t know what happens.

    Most catholics think that you go to heaven or to hell when you die.

    It’s that simple.

  • Nicole Resweber

    Re: step 3 – grammar != logic.

  • Doctor Octavo

    I can recall a time when I didn’t exist. I went under anesthesia once, and my consciousness switched off. I didn’t dream. I just woke up later. I know that when my brain is dust the same thing will happen, just without the possibility of waking up. Only brains can wake up.

    • Tom

      Your consciousness being “switched off” does not constitute non-existence. I don’t stop existing every time I go under anesthesia (as I have, in fact, done so). That’s just absurd. If it is the case that you stop existing when you are under anesthesia, why operate on you at all? Furthermore, you being able to wake up also shows you didn’t stop existing The end of mortal existence is final, unchangeable. You were under anesthesia, not non-existent.

      • Doctor Octavo

        Tell me, do you have an experience more analogous to death?

        • Tom

          But that’s just the point, there IS no experience analogous to it, at least from a materialistic perspective. In this perspective, death isn’t “You go to sleep and never wake up”. It’s utter nothingness, completely and totally. You won’t be unconscious Your consciousness will cease to exist entirely and will reduce to nothing.

  • Ben @ Two Men

    This reminds me of Professor Ratzinger’s Common Language of Doubt.

  • http://www.facebook.com/blake.edward.adams Blake Edward Adams

    Excellent as always, Marc. Allow me to expound on your words by examining the corpse of my former, atheistic self before that old man was graciously murdered by the Holy Spirit.

    atheist does not believe he becomes nothing when he dies, because he is
    nothing already. You cannot become when there’s nothing to come from or
    to. To him, death is but the continuation of what he’s always been – or
    not been.

    This might be the fundamental difference in our
    worldviews and reasoning. The Christian has never encountered a nothing;
    the atheist has never encountered a something. Draw what metaphysical conclusions you must.

    Of course, no atheist actually believes that. Therein is his whole trouble, because in professing himself a nothing he only proves himself a something. Moreover, he is confronted with somethings all day long. So ultimately, atheism rejects reality and sound reasoning. He throws out the creation with the Creator.

    But again, this does not apply to all atheists everywhere, because nothing applies to no two atheists anywhere. Their religion is self-made. Every atheist you meet is his own denomination. There is not, nor can be, a church for atheists, because there is neither creed nor spirit to unite them. I say only that this was the religion of a single atheist, myself. It’s my two-cents, which is all an atheist’s worldview is worth anyway. They come a dime-a-dozen.

  • Rick DeLano

    ” The atheist says that this innate sense of always being, which comes from the universal inability to conceive of non-being, and has us scream at the sudden sight of the skull — that this is a lie, and that life ends in Nothing.”

    >>Pretty spiffy.

    “It seems to me something both could have beer over.”

    >> If you find an editor who can make you understand how good of an idea it would have been *not* to pull the punch, you could be very good someday.

  • Salmantica

    You can’t imagine things you haven’t experienced? You can, for instance, create a new fictional alien species. We imagine all sorts of things that don’t exist.

    Given that everybody dies, the idea that death is contrary to our nature is peculiar. Dying is one of the more natural things we do.

    About being terrified by the corpse, I think that has more to do with horror stories than anything else. When you go to a funeral, does the corpse terrify you? Again, peculiar. Are you sure you should be writing “we” rather than “I”? These are quite personal quirks you’re describing.

    And you’re putting words on people’s mouths. I can totally believe it happened when people die. Depends on who died. 90 year old with multiple heart attacks who has spent the last 3 weeks in hospital – kinda expecting it, really.

    Finally, saying an atheist has faith for thinking you no longer exist when you die isn’t very fair to faith, is it? After all the body does in fact cease to exist. And brain activity, which is what the atheist thinks his personality and consciousness is, ceases to exist, too. So the atheist is just sticking to what’s there, tangible, susceptible to observation, same as he claims, for example, that feng shui doesn’t work, or that there is no dragon in that garage, or that cats have 4 legs. You’re using a weird definition of faith there.

  • Patterrssonn

    I have no problem imagining my non-existence from a first person perspective, I don’t imagine it would be difficult for anyone who tried, for the simple reason that we have all likely experienced the non-existence of people, who have died. You can argue that that’s a third person experience not first person, but I don’t see why that would matter as we are wired to translate third person experiences into the first. It’s a fundamental part of human consciousness, hence story and myth.

    You are right in that it is impossible to imagine nothingness as that gives it form and makes it into something. Nothingness is simply a term for a concept, that like eternity or perfection, is useful but essentially abstract and beyond human imagination. However, for me the non-existence of the self doesn’t equate nothingness. The world continues to exist, others continue to exist perhaps that’s why it’s easy for me to imagine my non-existence, because it doesn’t depend on me imagining nothingness.

    In one way you are correct though, none of us knows for certain what happens when we die, but since there is no evidence for post death consciousness, and since all the evidence we do have points to our personalities and consciousness being dependent on the physical structure of our brain, there is no actual reason to believe in post death consciousness outside of wishful thinking. And so in the end the contemplation of death points to the fundamental difference between atheists and Christians, how much of what you believe is dependent on evidence and experience and how much depends on wishful thinking.

  • Doctor Octavo

    “Both the Christian and the Atheist stand before death and make an act of faith — the atheist that he knows the unknowable, and the Christian that he expects the unexpected.”

    Saying we don’t know what happens to the mind after brain death is like saying we can’t really know what happens when a hard drive is demagnetized. You can pretend we’re operating on faith, but that is not accurate.

  • http://www.facebook.com/katiekrog Katie Krog

    If at a certain point, you stop existing and your experience stops, then the last moment you experienced would seem like eternity, since you would never experience the end of that moment. Thus, if I were to become an atheist, I would be incredibly frightened of death, for there is no moment on this Earth that I would wish to truly last forever.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joseph.luna.12576 Joseph Luna

    OK, I take the challenge. I would venture to “think” how it was before I was conceived. There was no awareness of my personal existence because I didn’t exist.

    So how different is that from believing one goes back to the state of nothingness?

  • Paul Boillot

    “a thought which we cannot think: The non-being of a human person”

    This is a lie.

    “I” cease to be every night when I fall asleep.