What Do Atheists Think Happens When We Die?

As I said yesterday, I’m working on a project with a local professor called The Atheist Voice in which I tackle some burning question people often ask atheists.

The video below answers the question: What happens when we die?

We’d love to hear your thoughts on the project — more videos will be posted soon — and we’d also appreciate your suggestions as to which questions we ought to tackle next!

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Ian Reide

    We cease to exist. Hopefully, we will be well remembered by those who knew us, and leave behind a legacy that is overall good.

  • Jeff Simons

    Personally I believe we live 2 lives, 1 ends when our body and mind die, the other ends when the last person stops talking about us. In the end the memories and stories about us we leave behind is our afterlife.

    • Greg G.

      Doesn’t that make Hitler immortal?

      • Travis Myers

        No. Eventually the entire universe will be just photons moving farther and farther apart from each other, traveling through an infinite void forever.

      • http://www.examiner.com/atheism-in-los-angeles/hugh-kramer Hugh Kramer

        Hitler is immortal; as an object lesson about the worst side of mankind for most of us and as an object of veneration to a delusional few. Either way, it’s a far cry from the kind of personal immortality that might have meaning to “der fuhrer” himself.

      • Jeff Simons

        Yeah but that actually plays into it, you’re remembered for what you did, and Hitler is not remembered for anything good, it’s sort of like hell

      • Artor

        And Gilgamesh succeeded in his quest for immortality.

        • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

          Who’s Gilgamesh?

          Heeheeheehee. Existential entropy might be slow in some cases, but obscurity is inevitable.

  • pete084

    As organic matter we return to base elements when the neurons cease functioning and bodily functions fail. When someone can prove the existence of a soul I might go along with idea of eternity, but until then we’re just worm food.

  • Mike De Fleuriot

    It makes sense that there is no after life, because no god would want to have to spend the rest of eternity trying to explain his cock ups to a bunch of nones, who are orders of magnitude smarter than his best apologists.

    • Good and Godless

      Too true – After even a fraction of an eternity in heaven (say a million years) what would an eternal soul be doing? Even in their stories the angels got bored and had sex with humans, but post Judgement day that option is off the table. How would you even enjoy playing Ultimate Frisbee when no one, ran slower, or got tired, or missed a catch, or missed a throw or even lost?.

      Being just dead is way way more palatable than the torture of eternal life.

  • jcm

    We cease to exist. *Our* atoms and molecules will simply be recycled.

  • http://absurdlypointless.blogspot.com/ Tanner B James

    From the stars I was born and to the stars I will return.
    When I die I am born again, not as my self, but as the essential components of other life and earth. The atoms and energies that I borrowed for a brief period of time are immortal. They live on in other lives, the earth and the universe.

    • Sedasa

      The way you have stated it gives me comfort and solace. Thank you.

  • Christopher Salihe Payne

    There’s the blunt and simple explanation: Nothing. Nada. We go in the ground, people cry (if we’re lucky), and we rot and decay.

    Or, the eloquent, poetic explanation: We return to that from which we came to transition back into the vast everything, tiny bits and pieces of ourselves moving through millions more living things, helping shape and mold them until they themselves die, and the process begins again. This continues to infinite as we eventually rejoin the stardust that created us all to begin with, once again reunited with the infinite space after just a blink of an eye that was filled with horrible and great and amazing things.

    I like the latter ^_^

  • Colin Harwood

    Really I don’t know since I haven’t died yet.

    • C Peterson

      How do you know?

      Even so, it’s helpful to recall that while you may not have died, you were most certainly dead for nearly all of the last 13.8 billion years- apparently without creating any distress at all.

  • Mick

    This will be on my tombstone:

    “Now the rot sets in”

    • C Peterson

      “Rot” is such an ugly word, though. And overall, a rather short-lived process. How about “Now the recycling begins”… a process that will never end (and even includes your tombstone!)

    • Carmelita Spats

      Mine will say, “I TOLD them I was sick.”

      • Hat Stealer

        “I thought those mushrooms tasted funny.”

        There ought to be a rule that your last words are automatically transcribed onto your gravestone. It would make walking through a graveyard much more entertaining. Allthough I suppose there would be a lot of “Shit!”-s

        • allein

          “Hey guys! Watch this!!”

          • http://nomadwarriormonk.blogspot.com/ Cyrus Palmer

            ‘YOLO’

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      Mine will say, “Why are you wasting time staring at a tombstone? Get back to living your LIFE!”

    • Michael W Busch

      I was planning on cremation myself, for the parts that the transplant team doesn’t have any use for.

      I haven’t come up with a suitable one-liner for a marker, though.

    • Artor

      The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out…

      • DavidMHart

        …You can’t explain it.
        [/O'Reilly]

  • Vin Rohm

    I recall that Einstein once said that time is what keeps everything from happening all at once. If time is not the arrow we perceive it to be, then I suspect that our little piece of it is an eternal loop that we travel thru, over and over again. When we die, when our perception of time ends, I believe we loop back to that point when our brains first began to experience time…to our experience in the womb, and to birth, to live that life all over again. I don’t know that we can choose a different path for our life….but maybe we can, and thus be able to loop thru many parallel universes where in we exist.

    • El Bastardo

      Citation required.

    • Renshia

      Pretty words, meaningless, but pretty…

      • Hat Stealer

        I think that the meaning of his words is pretty self evident.

        • Artor

          Yes, but their application to reality has not been established.

          • 3lemenope

            Applicability to reality is not a requisite of meaningfulness.

            • Renshia

              Sure it does. If there is no application to reality, pretty as they maybe, they are useless.

              • 3lemenope

                Useless is not the same thing as meaningless. Even if it were, I strongly disagree that it is useless. Speculation is the start point for any empiricism (a consequence of the theory-observation paradox), as well as other activities like play and construction of fictional narrative. It is actually pretty damn difficult to find a phrase more important, over the history of our species, than the local translation of “What if…?”.

                • baal

                  I agree with you but Vin Rohm’s view is substantially divergent from known knowables.

          • Hat Stealer

            This is not a scientific discussion. This is merely asking people “what do you think think will happen when you die.” It is pure speculation. Citations are not needed.

    • Michael W Busch

      There is no evidence of time travel, and many different lines of evidence against it. So according to all currently-verified models of physics, time travel is impossible.

      Please do not promote pseudoscience.

      • 3lemenope

        Speculation is not the same thing as pseudoscience, which is, specifically, speculation dressed up as science with the intent that it be mistaken for science. Speculation is an incredibly important thing, while pseudoscience is rather terrible. “I suspect…” and “I believe…” are pretty clear indicators that Vin Rohm is not intending for readers to take his speculations as settled science.

        I mean, do you really have the same problem with Doctor Who or Star Trek as you do with Vin Rohm’s personal speculations?

        • Michael W Busch

          Vin Rohm is making assertions about the real universe that are provably false. That is the problem.

          No one pretends that Doctor Who or Star Trek are real. People quite rightly recognize those as fiction / fantasy.

          • 3lemenope

            Provably false? No. The best you can do is “very unlikely given what we know now”.

            We used to think that all waves had to pass through a medium. Hence, light could not possibly be a wave unless luminiferous aether. We know how that worked out. I don’t think I have to list all the other extant and/or discovered things that were declared at a prior time, using the best knowledge available, to be impossible.

            • Michael W Busch

              “We thought X was impossible” is not reason to say “Y is possible”.

              In this case, Vin Rohm asserted that people live the same life over and over again in some sort of Groundhog-Day loop. There is abundant disproof of that – no one can predict the many random events in their life.

              And, as I said, time travel of any kind is impossible in all currently-verified models of physics. Those models could be wrong, but there are many reasons why time travel is impossible that are based on observation: going back in time would be equivalent to going faster than the speed of light, which has never been observed; The laws of physics aren’t time-symmetric (although they are charge-parity-time-symmetric) – time has a direction; and entropy must increase with time along all world-lines.

              • 3lemenope

                ‘Asserted’ is far too strong a word. I think that’s where you’re going wrong here.

                • Michael W Busch

                  ‘Asserted’ is far too strong a word.

                  What else does “I believe X” mean?

                • 3lemenope

                  “I hold X to be true”. Which does NOT necessarily mean “I hold that all rational beings must hold X to be true”. This is especially true in cases where there is no access to facts. Such as in the establishing of the axioms of any system.

              • DavidMHart

                For what it’s worth, given that we have no good evidence for past lives, a universe in which each of us lives exactly once is functionally indistinguishable from a universe in which each of us lives the same life infinite times but carries no memory from one loop to the next … and therefore even if it were true, it should be no more comforting to us than a universe in which death is the end.

  • Aegis

    We’ll burn, one day. Just not in the way the religious bigots hope we will. The boiling fury of creation will envelop the stardust we become, form us into new atoms, new light, new life; we’ll become whatever the universe sculpts from us.

    (I’ve got to remember all these gorgeous turns of phrase people are putting up here! My girlfriend’s mother is devoutly Muslim (but hypocritically, too, she gambles online a lot) and has been making noises at her about converting me. We’ve got to find some way to defuse her, and people are providing some wonderful proofs here that ‘beauty’ doesn’t equal ‘mysticism’.

    • Michael W Busch

      The boiling fury of creation will envelop the stardust we become, form
      us into new atoms, new light, new life; we’ll become whatever the
      universe sculpts from us.

      The last is true, the former is uncertain. The Earth will most likely fall into the Sun when it hits the red giant phase in 4 billion years and change. The outer layers of the Sun will later be shed back into the interstellar medium, and be potentially available for future star formation. But how much of the Earth ends up in in those outer layer depends on the details of where in the Sun the debris from the planet ends up, which is unclear.

      • Aegis

        Clarity is *awesome*. Still, enough of it’s true that it works as an explanation.

        • Michael W Busch

          Addendum to what I said:

          Many of the hydrogen atoms in our bodies will go more directly to interstellar space. In ~800 million years, absent geoengineering, the Sun will get hot enough that the oceans will boil and turn into steam. Then the Earth will become like Venus and over a few hundred million more years the hydrogen atoms will boil off the top of the atmosphere, get entrained into the solar wind, and are off into into the interstellar medium.

          • Kodie

            I find this the most comforting outcome. I mean, what I hate most about thinking of death isn’t that I end but that the world goes on without me.

    • DavidMHart

      My girlfriend’s mother is devoutly Muslim … We’ve got to find some way to defuse her

      .

      Careful now, you don’t want to be mistaken for one of the ‘all Muslims are potential suicide bombers’ crowd :-)

      • Aegis

        No chance, she’s too selfish for martyrdom even if she believed on that level. She’s got emotional blackmail on a hair trigger – she’d never die for her god, just ruin other people’s lives for it.

  • Greg G.

    My life is the border between two eternities – the one before I was born and the one after I die.

    If I’m right, I won’t be able to tell the difference between them. If the Christians are right, they have to spend eternity with an omnipotent being who either chooses for there to be suffering or is not omnipotent enough to prevent it.

  • Hat Stealer

    I have no idea. We might just stop existing. We might get reasigned to another conciuensness. Something weird might happen. The former strikes me as the most likely, but also the most terrifying. All in all, I find it’s best not to think about it too much.

    • Artor

      You managed to not exist for billions of years before you were born. It won’t be too hard to get back into it once you die. It’s like riding a bike; you never forget how.

      • Hat Stealer

        I might have existed, I just wouldn’t remember. Not very likely, in my opinion. But given what I’m able to perceive of the universe, that’s the only other possibility besides ‘we stop existing’ that seems even remotely realistic.

        And you’re right that while the thought of death seems terrifying to me now, once I’m dead I’ll hardly think about it.

        • Tainda

          I have the same problem. Being dead doesn’t scare me, dying does. I do NOT like pain lol

  • Lurker111

    We shall join Polonius at dinner.

    • Greg G.

      Will we wear Polonium haloes?

      • Lurker111

        Hmmm. Not sure I get the association, except insofar as the word-likenesses go. I was referring to Hamlet’s response to where Polonius was (Hamlet had killed him and Polonius was now with the worms–”at dinner”).

        • Greg G.

          I began commenting on Usenet in the mid-90s, mostly on talk.origins where we did pun cascades. It’s a hard habit to break when the opportunity presents itself.

          I had always assumed that the element Polonium was named for Polonius. It turns out that Marie Curie named it for Poland for political reasons. It’s a good day when you learn something.

  • C Peterson

    We are all immortal. Not our ego, of course, which dies with our body, but from the moment of conception we start altering the Universe itself. Every one of the countless interactions we have with it throughout our lives leaves a permanent trace- a cause-and-effect cascade that will persist as long as the Universe. Each of us indelibly alters existence. Who knows… trillions of years from now entire star systems might be the way they are simply because we slept in this morning, or chose eggs over cereal.

    • Travis Myers

      Maybe our entire solar system would never have existed if Han Solo hadn’t shot first.

      • C Peterson

        I like to think that God was a gay Xrglth named Humbert who lived 8 billion years ago, and farted in a bubble bath, starting the Universe along a path that inevitably led to the human race.

        • The Other Weirdo

          Are you saying we’re someone’s gastric emission?

    • duke_of_omnium

      Wait a minute. You chose eggs over cereal?!? I knew SOMEONE was responsible for all this!

    • baal

      A butterfly flaps it wings.

  • TLibasci

    Like everyone else, I don’t know. I believe it’s no different than before we were born, but I don’t know. The main thing is that “I don’t know” isn’t license for “I’ll make shit up.”

  • Beutelratti

    My grandparents recently died and they received a humanist funeral. I quite like what was said during the funeral speech: “They are no longer at eye level, but rather they are now at heart level. They did not really die.”

  • advancedatheist

    This atheist has become an early adopter of a materialist neuroscientific attempt to turn my death from a permanent off-state into a temporary and reversible off-state by arranging to have my brain cryopreserved. And some mainstream neuroscientists now consider this an explorable proposal.

    Study the material on the website of the Brain Preservation Foundation:

    http://www.brainpreservation.org/

    Specifically, read the Open Letter to the Medical, Scientific, and Government Communities Regarding Brain Preservation:

    http://www.brainpreservation.org/sites/default/files/Open-Letter-On-Brain-Preservation.pdf

    Michael Shermer (yes, that guy) serves as one of this foundation’s advisers, so he apparently considers the idea scientifically legitimate:

    http://www.brainpreservation.org/content/advisors

    • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

      In case it doesn’t work, make sure you are done with using your brain before you get it preserved. For example, don’t proactively do it before you die because you get a good deal on it. It is hard to predict success rates at this time. It might be .01% or .000000000000000000001% or 10^-100 %

    • Michael W Busch

      attempt to turn my death from a permanent off-state into a temporary and reversible off-state by arranging to have my brain cryopreserved.

      Shermer is wrong.

      There is currently no way to freeze a human brain into anything corresponding to an active state. With the best available techniques, only the outermost few microns of tissue can be preserved without structural damage to the cells from ice crystal formation. Yes, they try loading tissue up with cryoprotectants that would kill a brain if it weren’t weren’t already dead, but even that doesn’t let us freeze a human brain in a way such that it could ever be thawed it back out into a functioning mass of neurons. And the state of your brain is far more complex than just having the cells and the connections between them – a successful suspension would need to preserve much of the neurotransmitter activity.

      Arrange for your body to be donated for cryonics research after your death if you want, but do not expect to be revived. Nobody who has been frozen so far is anything other than very thoroughly dead.

      If you wish a reference, I direct you to PZ Myers and his expertise at strategies to try and preserve the structures of zebrafish brains: http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/07/14/and-everyone-gets-a-robot-pony/

  • ejoty

    I go along with A E Housman, in his poem:

    Be Still, My Soul, Be Still

    Be still, my soul, be still; the arms you bear are brittle,
    Earth and high heaven are fixt of old and founded strong.
    Think rather,– call to thought, if now you grieve a little,
    The days when we had rest, O soul, for they were long.

    Men loved unkindness then, but lightless in the quarry
    I slept and saw not; tears fell down, I did not mourn;
    Sweat ran and blood sprang out and I was never sorry:
    Then it was well with me, in days ere I was born.

    Now, and I muse for why and never find the reason,
    I pace the earth, and drink the air, and feel the sun.
    Be still, be still, my soul; it is but for a season:
    Let us endure an hour and see injustice done.

    Ay, look: high heaven and earth ail from the prime foundation;
    All thoughts to rive the heart are here, and all are vain:
    Horror and scorn and hate and fear and indignation–
    Oh why did I awake? when shall I sleep again?

    Alfred Edward Housman

  • Renshia

    well when I die my atoms are going to join a long line of now unemployed atoms until they get called back into service, quite possibly as a tree or a flower. Maybe somewhere in those atoms energy signatures, a small record of my existence will remain forever imprinted and my experiences will become part of the energetic knowledge base of our universe.

    Then again maybe I will just be dead.

  • Joe Montoto

    Metabolic processes stop. Anti-entropic energy creation and utilization will stop. Consciousness will stop. Entropy will finally win its patient struggle against us. Our atoms and molecules will go on to fulfill a role in some other chemical process. And so on, and so on, and so on…

  • Space Cadet

    I look forward to my death
    Excitement has me short of breath
    Catholics have me mystified
    When they’re good, they’re afraid to die
    Ma Petite Mort by Karma To Burn

    It’s fun to romanticize what might happen when we die. While I think it’s much more likely that we are recycled, so to speak, with no identifiable afterlife, the idea that death might be one step on a greater journey is appealing to many humans, atheists included. IMO, of course.

    One of the most vivid dreams I’ve ever had dealt with my own death, or rather what happened after I died. I continued to exist, in some form, and spent my time walking along transparent pathways inside of Jupiter, mesmerized by the swirling gases. For me, the idea that after I die I might live on in some form, able to explore the Universe in ways we simply can’t as humans, leaves me looking forward to my death.

  • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

    Many here have talked about their atoms being recycled into the cosmos after they die. It is interesting to note that we are not just a collection of atoms but a materially open system in which atoms are continually coming into us and leaving us while we are alive. If you were to somehow “tag” all the atoms in you today and then do an atom-by atom comparison a few years from now you would find that your body does not contain all the exact same atoms. Viewed in this way, you are not the person (atom by atom) that you were some time ago even while alive.

    After you die, your metabolic processes that maintain your physical form cease and other critters or processes will start to re-use the atoms that you had at the time of your death.

    We live on in the memories of the people we touched and by the influences we had on the world around us. Try to make them good memories and positive influences.

  • Karen

    Ashes to ashes, dust to dust; or better, star stuff to star stuff.

    I’ve asked to have my body cremated and the ashes scattered in a subduction trench. That way, in a few or maybe several million years, I can be part of a volcano. I won’t really be around to know about it, but I still like the idea.

  • raerants

    Hey, now I know how to pronounce your name! (I’d been saying it wrong in my head for the longest time.)

  • TomS

    There is a rather large philosophical literature on death, much of which in recent years has explored whether or not death is a bad thing, given that death is the end. Steven Luper’s book from a few years ago covers the ground of most of the contemporary issues quite nicely. I mention this, Mr. Mehta, because you seem to suggest that there is no harm if death is the end. That’s not entirely clearly true; there are more and more complex issues lurking here that one might think, and some contemporary philosophers have lots to add to this discussion. :) In any case, bravo for this video. Nicely done! http://www.amazon.com/The-Philosophy-Death-Steven-Luper/dp/0521709121

  • ribaric

    From a personal standpoint, my death will be the end of me in all ways which matter to me. For others, there’s the dreary job of disposing with my corpse and, apart form the stuff above atoms morphing into something else or turning into heat energy, that’s it.

  • WallofSleep

    I plan on donating my what’s left of my corpse to science, so I guess it’ll be up to some researchers somewhere to determine what happens to “me” after I die.

    • http://springygoddess.blogspot.com/ Astreja

      I’ve also bequeathed My remains to the local teaching hospital. It seems like a waste to bury or cremate a body before some medical students have a crack at it.

      • WallofSleep

        I don’t care what they do with it. Medical school, forensic science, crash test dummy, diabolical re-animation experiments, as long as someone can potentially learn from it.

        Double bonus? They’ll be the ones on the hook for the cost of disposing of my corpse.

        • baal

          “diabolical re-animation experiments”
          HP’s recounting of such efforts suggest substantial subjective subject pain is involved. You may want to reconsider.

  • The Other Weirdo

    Dude, pass the munchies… You look so stoned…

  • Anna

    Frankly, I’m confused why this is even considered a burning question. Does anyone seriously believe that every organism continues on after it is destroyed? When you step on a caterpillar, the caterpillar ceases to exist. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that the caterpillar is still conscious is some undetected invisible realm. It seems absolutely ludicrous to me to believe that. Human beings are no different from caterpillars, so I don’t understand why so many people seem to plead a special case for our species.

    • meekinheritance

      Yes. Some religions believe reincarnation occurs for every organism. I don’t participate in those either. Maybe I have finally gained enlightenment, and this life will be the pinnacle of all of my prior reincarnations. What a relief that will be. ;-)

  • Keulan

    What happens when we die? The acids and lifeforms living inside your body eat their way out, while local detritivores eat their way in. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ARlTV1ZGJk8

  • Bdole

    Zombie.
    I can hope can’t I?

  • Spuddie

    My will shall be read and my estate divided among my surviving family members

    With any luck a family squabble will ensue over who gets various useless knicknacks which have such sentimental value to my survivors. I certainly don’t plan on leaving a lot of things of actual real worth lying around before I go.

  • lizardofahaz

    I want what Niven called the “Belter’s ceremonial drunk” from the “Known Space” books where everyone sits around getting soused telling stories about me…. Then since I no longer need my body as far as I am concerned the cannibals can all just throw me on the BBQ and eat me…

  • Funruffian

    I like the matter of fact approach he has to such a perplexing and profound question man has asked through the ages. Gee, uhh, he’s really wise.
    Is it really that simple. There’s a saying, “There aren’t any atheists in foxholes”. This means that when they have just a few moments to live often times they will seek God and ask for his blessings based on what they may have inadvertently learned about god or a higher authority.
    It’s something to think about.

  • Funruffian

    Trying to explain the concept of a soul to an atheist is like trying to explain the color red to a blind person. They just don’t feel the urge to understand it. They haven’t any compulsion or desire to learn about what that entails. This guy is a math teacher in Chicago. That doesn’t tell me much about him, but it speaks volumes about his apathy to anything outside math and his confined views of logic.


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