Afterlife: When the Science Spoke At Last to Me

Afterlife: When the Science Spoke At Last to Me January 23, 2021

Hi and welcome back! Yesterday, I noted that I struggled mightily with my belief in some sort of afterlife. Today, I want to show you what happened as I slowly began coming to grips with mortality.

afterlife no more
The dog just slays me. He’s looking very cheerfully at a guy in a crown holding a bloody halberd glaive that has presumably just killed the guy on the floor. But he looks SO CHEERFUL! (Birmingham Museums Trust, ‘The Death of Sir Tristram,’ by Ford Madox Brown, 1864. More info here.)

Plunging Into Science.

During that time, 2013-2015, I was devouring a lot of science about the brain — and consciousness itself.

One of the big stories circulating then involved Eben Alexander. He was a neurosurgeon who claimed in 2012 that he’d totally seen the afterlife during his own NDE. He called his bestselling book Proof of Heaven.

Sam Harris is poorly-regarded these days, but back then I considered his debunk of Eben Alexander’s NDE story essential reading. Combined with the Esquire story written a bit afterward in 2013, we get a good mental picture of a huckster whose once-promising career had been sputtering due to his own dishonesty and poor performance.

In 2014, Eben Alexander made the mistake of formally debating the topic of life after death with people who knew way more about the brain and current science research than he did. He teamed up with another pseudoscience huckster, Raymond A. Moody Jr., for this event. Moody himself was a longtime leader in the pseudoscience field of life after death. He wrote the bestselling 1975 book Life After Life and popularized the entire concept of the NDE as its adherents imagine it today. Lending his authority to Alexander vastly boosted the newer star’s visibility and reach.

Together, these two hucksters went up against two absolute powerhouses of skepticism: Sean Carroll (physicist, author, all-around 500-pound gorilla of truth) and Steven Novella (neurologist, founder of Science-Based Medicine, and president of the New England Skeptical Society). OOF! 

Sean Carroll himself has written extensively about the ways that “life after death,” as a concept, simply violates the laws of physics. His 2011 essay on that topic is a must-read.

In that debate as in their other writings, real scientists have generously provided us normies a huge wealth of real, objective, factual information on the topic of human consciousness and death itself. Through it, I began to accept the reality of death.

The Critical Moment.

Toward the end of 2014, I reviewed The End of Unbelief, an apologetics book written by Shane Hayes. I had a lot to say about it! During that review, I found myself returning again and again to his assertions about the afterlife. Most of his apologetics centered on one wide-eyed, disingenuous question:

OMG, YOU GUYYYYYSSSS! WHAT IF HEAVEN IS TOTES FOR REALSIES???

And like most apologists do, Hayes ended up with a hamfisted manipulation of his marks’ fear of death and the unknown. As he repeatedly asserted, belief in an afterlife represents the only real hope people can have. His belief system offered us a chance to live forever with the people we loved most during our time on this planet! Hooray Team Jesus!

And conversely, the lack of a belief in the afterlife meant, to Hayes, a bleak and joyless existence. Believing that our conscious self-awareness might one day dissolve with our deaths? We might as well live on a rock in Antarctica. But belief in an afterlife opened the gates to what he called “a lush Capri of the soul.”

It was ridiculous.

In one post, I got very angry over his rose-tinted warbling. I utterly rejected his disingenuous fake offer. I recognized that this offer amounted to extortion: buy his product, or you’d never see your dead mother again.

Still, even in the middle of an expletive-filled rant, I slipped a “probably” in there.

I’d probably never see my mom again.

I’d probably never get an eternal afterlife full of romps and companionship.

The truth was still too hard to face entirely, though I had at least finally fully accepted that false hopes only make grief and loss harder to resolve and bear.

But the death-blow to my lingering hopes of an afterlife had been struck. In fact, I think Shane Hayes’ false comparisons, blatant manipulation attempts, and nonstop baseless assertions kinda woke me up to the reality of my wishful hopes. 

2015: The Year of the Heavenly Tourist.

I don’t know if anybody noticed, but around that same time I was writing a lot of stories about the general concept of life after death. (One example; another.) It was on a lot of people’s minds. Folks were still talking about Eben Alexander, of course, since his status as OMG A NEUROSURGEON lent a lot of authority to his account. What Alexander sold was PROOF YES PROOF to people who desperately needed it.

The story in Esquire starts by describing Alexander’s appearance on Fox & Friends. They focus on a banner beneath his image onscreen. This banner read:

HOPE IS NOT LOST: NEUROSURGEON SAYS HEAVEN IS REAL.

I still think about that banner and how it describes “hope” as the idea that “Heaven is real.” Without that belief, the banner (and Alexander himself) declares, hope is lost. But now that we have PROOF YES PROOF of Heaven’s reality, meaning an afterlife that is pleasant and eternal. So we have hope again! Hooray Team Jesus!

In addition to Alexander’s story, a genre called heavenly tourism had been gaining popularity with Christian consumers. These stories involved someone dying, experiencing Heaven as a totally real place, and finally returning to life. After their return, the heavenly tourists inevitably embarked on a media career. They always piously claimed that their new, divinely-mandated purpose in life consisted of telling the world not to lose hope: that death was not the end for people. That was what “hope” entailed: eternal life forever and ever.

However, in 2015 LifeWay Christian Resources (a huge evangelical bookstore chain run by the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)) had to eat crow over heavenly tourism. One of their cash-cows debunked his own story of going to Heaven as a little boy. He’d debunked it years earlier, but they’d ignored him for a long time. Finally, his story had reached national awareness, which meant that now LifeWay had to respond more responsibly.

I’m saying all this to say that life after death was a topic on a lot of people’s minds around then anyway.

Head-Knowledge and Heart Fear.

My struggle centered around the knowledge of my head and the fear in my heart.

In my head, I knew that the afterlife was preposterous. It violated every law of physics. Nobody had ever presented evidence for it — in fact, most of the people pushing the idea did everything they could to avoid their burden of proof. (So if someone asserted there wasn’t life after death, the pseudoscience believer would insist that person needed to PROVE YES PROVE to their satisfaction that there wasn’t. That’s not how burden of proof operates.)

In my heart, though, I struggled with the idea of annihilation. Of that which I recognized as “me” dissolving and fading away with my death, never to awaken again.

And to people raised with a lifelong indoctrination in the idea of eternal life, of an afterlife stretching into untold eons forever till the heat death of the universe and beyond, that idea can be really scary.

The truth starts feeling like a bleak, nihilistic wasteland for many. Like what is there to look forward to, if death really is the end? I never tipped into that kind of bleakness, but I’ve known plenty of people who have and I understand why.

A Similar Fear: Hell.

I’m sure not the only person who has ever had to resolve that sort of conflict. For example, a lot of people realize in their heads that Hell is impossible as a concept for a number of reasons. But they still fear it. Sometimes, it takes years to get that fear under control — not to feel it rising up the moment a manipulative Christian decides to yank that chain to get buy-in.

People fear Hell because Christians created Hell to be as scary as humanly possible. Over time, it’s only gotten scarier-sounding. The programming that underlies the notion of Hell gets set into the minds of tiny children before they’re even able to fight against it.

(Of course, many of the people who completely reject Hell don’t tend to move further than that into the reasons why Heaven is similarly impossible.)

Well, the association of afterlife with hope works along similar lines. People get taught almost from birth that the only valid expression of hope as a feeling is as the result of believing that humans live forever. We get taught to greatly fear death as the final end of what makes us “us.” So yes, of course we might feel some trepidation at the idea that actually, this thing we were taught was soooo scary is actually the actual truth of the matter. What makes us “us” does not, in fact, go on forever.

Eventually, our romps with our loved ones will end for good. That’s the reality. It’s the only one that explains all of the objective tests and observations humans have ever made around death. 

Making Friends With Reality.

Every human being who has ever lived has also died. A very, very small number of people manage to get very, very close to death before recovering, and many regard those people as having died and came back to life. But more precisely, they never died in the first place. So far, actually-for-realsies death is permanent. It has been so, or it will be so, for every single human being who’s ever come into this world.

That’s the reality for us. I’ve known for a while that reality doesn’t care about my opinions about it. It just is what it is, every time. It’s up to me to figure out a way to resolve any problems I have with something that’s true — to do the very best I can with what I’ve learned. I don’t have to like the idea of my adventures coming to an end, but denying the truth of their future ending can prevent me from using this life to its fullest potential.

And I don’t want to do that. The Christians who waste resources to avoid a fictional afterlife might be the visible face of that problem, but there are certainly other ways to waste our finite lifetimes on stuff that isn’t true. Coming to one correct conclusion doesn’t mean we’re now free of the risk of error elsewhere.

I’ve that making small steps with the reality of death helped a lot to accept it. And we’ll take up there next, as we check out the various rich dudes desperately trying to avoid reality — and then, we’ll explore the ways that work way better to help those struggling with this fear come to grips with our own mortality.

NEXT UP: We head into the very best part of rejecting false beliefs about the afterlife: how it can help us focus on the here and now. See you soon.


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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