Shortly after graduation, I went to visit my mother for a week. During this time, we each had a couple beers and discussed religion—I say discussed, but we barely broke the surface out of mutual desire to avoid an argument. At one point, my mother asked me, “If I died right now, you’d be fine with never seeing me again?”
I was a bit shocked because I hadn’t ever thought about it. I answered honestly: “I don’t know what I would do. There’s no way for me to guess. But wanting there to be an afterlife doesn’t make one exist.”
Being a Hard-A atheist, I don’t believe in the afterlife. To me, this isn’t up for debate. There could possibly be some sort of heaven—or hell for that matter—but it is ultimately irrelevant. We must live as if this is our only life because it is the only one we’re guaranteed.
I’ve often joked that if there is an afterlife, I’d like it to be Islamic heaven or reincarnation. Islamic heaven is much more clearly defined than Christian heaven (which, despite what many people will tell you, there isn’t much scripture about what heaven is like). Muslim heaven is supposed to truly be a paradise: perpetual bliss, every wish coming true, pleasure, and joy beyond compare. Reincarnation personally appeals to me because there are so many lives I’d like to live, and I have such a short amount of time to do it.
Wanting these things doesn’t make them real
I think this is a point of contention for many atheists and religious people. The religious often see our lack of belief as a rejection of belief, which is true, but not in the way they say it. I reject the concept of heaven because I think it’s untrue, not because I know it’s true and I just don’t like it. When I say I don’t believe in heaven or souls or the afterlife, I don’t say that out of anti-religious spite. I don’t believe in it. There’s nothing to believe in. Even when I was a Christian, I wasn’t very concerned with the afterlife; I figured, if God gave us this one life on earth, we ought to make it count as much as possible. This wasn’t exclusively a personal call to martyrdom, although it did have roots in it.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t even entertain the idea of an afterlife. Similarly, my mother told me about a patient she keeps in contact with from a previous job; he’s elderly and he’s dying. She mentioned that he wasn’t a believer and expressed her concern. I told her, “I have words I could say, but none that are comforting to you.”
When he dies, I think he’ll be at peace. Not because he’s in heaven, but because there’s nothing else. He can’t be upset and miserable in nothing; there’s no consciousness driving him anymore. He’s gone. The story is written, the book is closed.
My youth blinds me in a way. I simultaneously think I’m invincible, but do not fear death. I know it could happen at any moment—especially as I binge watch Game of Thrones for the first time—but I’m not too overly concerned. My life is so much more than its end. That said, I buckle up and avoid obvious danger; that’s human-nature rather than zealous life-clinging precaution.I don’t fear death because death can’t hurt me. I’ll be a compendium of memories and scattered writings and, ultimately, my existence will have been unimportant. No matter how many Facebook friends tell me I’ll change the world, I’m comfortable with the lack of legacy I’ll leave. Perhaps I’ll create something of note, something that will survive through the ages. Probably not. Either way, it won’t matter, I’ll be dead.
The only time I give the afterlife consideration is when I’m hoping someone receives justice they did not on earth. Far too many awful people die with relatively clean, happy lives. If there is a divine, I’d rather they intervene on earth and stop horrific abuses rather than just punish the abusers, but I suppose I could settle for the latter. I think I could only be intellectually satisfied with an afterlife where those who deeply wound others are punished, or at least annihilated. The idea of sharing bread with people whose actions have permanently damaged others doesn’t sound like a moment for rejoicing to me.
But, moving on from my short revenge fantasies, I don’t really care. There’s nothing after, there’s no reason to think there’s anything else. Stories about heaven being real don’t compel me anymore than Greek mythologies do. No matter how much I’d like to picture evil people burning for their injustices, they aren’t.
That isn’t how the world works
That’s a harder truth. The world isn’t just. There is no cosmic equilibrium where the good are rewarded and doted upon and the cruel face their sins with great agony. There’s just now; good things happen arbitrarily, tragedy hits tyrants, peasants, good, and awful people randomly.
I guess to answer my mother’s question: no. I wouldn’t be fine with never seeing her again. But reality doesn’t care what I’m okay with. It hasn’t bent to anyone else’s desires, and I doubt it’ll start with me.
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Holly Baer grew up in Flowood, Mississippi. An alum of the Mississippi School for Math and Science, she studies religion and gender studies at the University of Mississippi and writes her own blog at HollyBaer.com. Feel free to contact her by emailing Questions@HollyBaer.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @hawlibear.