This House Rejects the Idea of an Afterlife.This evening I took part in a debate hosted by the Literary and Historical Society in University College Dublin. The motion was 'This House Rejects the Idea of an Afterlife' and I was speaking, unsurprisingly, for the proposition. The motion was defeated, also not unsurprisingly. What I took away from the debate was that people are happy to hold faith-based beliefs with no supportive evidence if that belief gives them hope and succour. For most people who spoke or asked questions, the afterlife was a very personal thing, in many cases separate from religion and they seemed to struggle to understand the harm that holding such beliefs could cause.
This is the text of my contribution to the debate.
This House Rejects the Idea of an Afterlife:
Thank you for the invitation to debate with you here this evening.
As an atheist I reject the idea of an afterlife. I reject the idea that some part of us continues to exist after we have died. I simply see no evidence to support this claim.
Is it possible to be an atheist and still hold a belief in an afterlife? I do not think it is. Belief in an afterlife is usually closely connected to belief in a god type figure. I do not think that the belief in an afterlife is rational or in keeping with the best available evidence. The late, great Carl Sagan said that ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’. The idea of an afterlife is an extraordinary claim and I look forward to the extraordinary evidence that the opposition will be presenting this evening.
We have very little problem in accepting that no part of us existed before we existed, no one is debating the before-life. So why do we cling to the belief that some part of us will continue to exist when we stop existing. Why do practically all cultures and most religions believe in some form of afterlife with varying amounts of related and integrated dogma? We have, over the centuries and continents, tried to conceptualise the idea of an afterlife with reincarnation or being sent to a Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, Limbo, Heofon, Shamayim, Tartarus, Anaon, Uffern, Asura, Peklo, Bagobo, Naraka, Tian, Swarga Loka, Narka Loka, Deva Loka, Mictlan, Sheol, Hades, Omeyocan, Kiko-Rangi, and so on and so on.
I think it is important to bear in mind that the idea of an afterlife is a faith-based belief. There is simply no robust evidence that can be tested to prove the existence of an afterlife. Faith is the word people use when they do not have enough evidence to justify holding a belief, but continue to hold the belief anyway. Faith is pretending to know things you don’t know.
Faith is different to hope. Faith is a claim, you are claiming to know something – for example claiming to know that there is an afterlife. Hope is not making a claim. One could hope there is an afterlife. One could hope that they will once again get to spend time with much missed loved ones. They could hope to exist in a state of suspended bliss, without pain or sadness. One could hope that a life lived under certain circumstances or by following certain rules would be rewarded after death. They could hope that those who have wronged them will suffer for those wrongs for all eternity. Hope can give comfort. Hope can give solace and alleviate distress. But no amount of hope makes something true. Faith, on the other hand is making claims about knowledge.
So what part of us is it that is supposed to continue to exist after we die. Is it our soul? Our spirit? Our consciousness? Our essence? Our energy? A vibration? A spark? The force? The soul is supposed to be incorporeal and immaterial and yet some religions will tell us that it is capable of being judged and, if found wanting, tortured for all eternity.
What about our 'energy'? I’ve often heard people, usually the "I'm spiritual but not religious" new age types who have turned away from religion but who still hold a belief in an afterlife, say something along the lines of “I believe that our energy lives on”. They will usually attempt to rationalise this belief by saying something like “energy cannot be destroyed, it simply changes form, it is this energy that lives on in an afterlife” or “if you blow out a candle the energy doesn’t disappear, it simply becomes something else”.
Professor Sean M. Carroll in his book “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe itself” has something to say on this.
“The trick is to think of life as a ‘process’ rather than a substance. When a candle is burning there is a flame that clearly carries energy. When we put the candle out the energy doesn’t ‘go’ anywhere. The candle still contains energy in its atoms and molecules. What has happened instead is that the process of combustion has ceased. Life is like that: it’s not ‘stuff’, it’s a set of things happening. When that process stops, life ends”.
Let’s go back a bit. Earlier I talked about how belief in an afterlife is a faith-based believe, that is a belief one holds without evidence. And I differentiated between a faith-based belief and a hope. It could be asked, what difference does it make to me what people believe, even if it is a faith-based belief with no evidence to support it, if it gives them hope. The short answer is none, it makes no difference to me. People are free to believe whatever they want. That is the essence of freedom of religion and belief.
The long answer is it makes every difference. The belief in an afterlife is not always a neutral belief. The belief in an afterlife is often tried to a dogma and a set of rules as to how one must behave in this life in order to pass a post-death judgement and receive a favourable outcome in the afterlife. A belief in the afterlife is probably one of religion’s most dangerous ideas. Gaining access to a favourable afterlife has led people to carry out the most awful acts of barbarity. Those who claim to have ‘insider knowledge’ into how the supernatural realm works and on how we can gain ‘eternal salvation' have motivated others to carry out atrocities on their behalf. Con-men and women use this ‘insider information’ to make millions, leaving havoc in their wake. Parents have been convinced not to give their children life-saving medication and have watched them die out of fear of questioning their god. False messiahs and prophets destroy lives with promises of salvation and a promised afterlife. Men and women blow themselves and others up for martyrdom and salvation.
So in the beginning I asked, why do so many cultures and religions have a belief in an afterlife? Simply because we fear death. We fear of our own mortality. An afterlife promises us release from this fear. But religions use this fear against us, it uses fear to control us. Religions have created these complex and convoluted supernatural realms and then placed themselves as the gatekeepers. To gain access you must have unquestioning faith, you must believe, you must obey, you must follow their rules or risk damnation forever.
Those against the proposition will try to convince you that a belief in an afterlife will encourage people to live good lives. That fear will 'keep them in line'. Again, there is simply no evidence for this. In fact the evidence suggests the opposite, for example atheists who make up an estimated 3.1% of the population of the US account for only 0.1% of the prison population. Research consistently shows that the countries with the lowest crime rates and highest levels of happiness are the least religious.
Rejecting the belief in an afterlife isn’t always easy. It means facing our own mortality head on. It means facing the reality that those we love who have died are gone. But it is also freeing. Many atheists will say that accepting there is no afterlife gave then a new appreciation for the one life they have here and now and for the time they spend with those loved ones.