I’m atheist. Not the militant one who goes around bragging to people that God doesn’t exist. In fact I will not go into debate regarding God’s existence at all. I wrote this article about two things that I have my mind on for quite a while: Spirituality and afterlife.
I wrote this for myself — to collect my thought about why I can’t believe in afterlife, why I wish I could, and what spirituality means for me regardless.
I wrote this also as a conversation starter — to connect with other atheists, agnostics, sceptics and open minded religious and spiritual people.
Well then, let’s start with a picture of the ground where I’m standing, literally speaking.
According to the religious demographics of the world: I’m minority
Yup, atheists might be the third largest group in the world of religious demographics, but still a minority. If you add up the amount of followers of different religions you can see that out of the 7.125 billion people on the Earth circa 6.6 billion follows one of the 16 biggest religions. If you add the smaller religions, new age spirituals, tribal beliefs etc. you are not surprised to find out that only up to aprx. 13 % of the population of the world is self proclaimed atheist (by the highest estimations).
Sometimes I feel like I’m missing out a great deal by not standing on the “religious or spiritual beliefs” ground: The reassuring thought of having a Higher Being to turn to in hard times or that connectedness with other humans based on a shared belief for example.
It a bummer to miss out these, but this is not the scary part. The scary part comes when I think about death and what comes after — or in my case: what does not come after it. But before going deep into that let’s take a tour around how religions perceive life after death.
You can spend countless hours reading up about afterlife beliefs throughout the world (I did).
But if I want to make it very very simple I can say that most of them falls into either the “your soul will go somewhere and stay there - most likely some sort of heaven or hell” type or to the “your soul will be reborn all over and over again — reincarnation” type.
What I call “Heaven or Hell” type usually evolve around the thinking that you will be measured after your death and will be sent to either to a Very Nice Place (Heaven, Paradise, Valhalla, World to Come etc.) or a Not So Nice Place (Hell, Underworld, Tartarus etc.)
Some variations includes an in-between place where your soul will be purified or developed in a way that later you can join the Heavens. Christianity call it Purgatory, Judaism call it Gehenna. In Baha’i the Hell part is missing and if you didn’t live up to the standards then your soul will continue to progress until you attain God’s presence. Either way, at the end you will stay in one of these afterlife realms.
Meanwhile in the reincarnation-type of beliefs comes with the thinking that your soul will be reborn as animal or as human. The concept of reincarnation can be found all throughout the globe from tribal beliefs to mainstream religions. In most Asian-origin reincarnation theories your soul can be reborn anywhere, while in many african tribal beliefs you will be reincarnated in your pervious community.
There is no clear-cut in dividing religions into “heaven & hell” and “reincarnation”. Christianity doesn’t really mix the reincarnation concept with the heaven & hell concept but some other religions does: In Buddhism you reincarnate but can also end up in one of the ghost realms or heaven realms. In Buddhism you don’t get stuck there for eternity though.
In Sikhism some people believes in the heaven & hell concept, some others belive in reincarnation. Even in Judaism there are people who believe in reincarnation. Krishna believers has no problems having both concepts. (Krishna believers have the coolest heaven by the way: a lotus-shaped supreme planet called Goloka Vrndavana — it is the destination of the pure devotees after they leave their material bodies. Fascinating!)
Most Native American tribes believed that the souls of the dead passed into a spirit world and became part of the spiritual forces that influenced every aspect of their lives.
Many spirituals i heard from thinks that we are all part of a higher consciousness and after our death our consciousness will return to this Higher Consciousness, or as some call it Universe.
The odd ones out: I must admit I have some difficulties understanding the Taoist concept of afterlife. They say “In one sense: afterlife doesn’t exist in terms of a Taoist belief system. It’s in life that we are eternal in Taoism. The afterlife is within life itself. We are of the Tao when living and upon death are the Tao again. Death is the point where your essence is not you, non being… Yet it’s always you as we are always of the Tao, But your expression of your life is within life” — According to in Taoism Afterlife becomes what you hold as being true. So it can be anything. Get it?
Either way, all of the above mentioned have some sort of concept of afterlife, and that sounds great. Because
Believing in afterlife make death a tiny bit less heavy
There is one thing in common in all of the above mentioned: Pretty much every religious and spiritual belief comes with a built-in comfort chair of some sort of afterlife.
Almost all of them assure your that your consciousness won’t cease to exist when your body dies but continue to live in some form. Isn’t it comforting?
Very comforting. Like that reassuring thought when you are a kid in the kindergarten and you know your parents will pick you up at the end of the day — that feeling multiplied by a thousand.
It might be still scary to die, and if you are among those people who think will be judged after death then it might be a bit unnerving to think about that you might end up in a Not So Nice Place. Still, if you have an afterlife belief then death is just an event, a turning point that will take you to some other level of existence — and if you lived a decent life then you have a good reason to think that level of existence will be a Nice Place.
If you have a spiritual or religious belief then your concept of existence might look something like this:
As I don’t believe in any sort of afterlife, in my view death is the ultimate end of me. There is absolutely nothing after it. No more lives, no heaven, no higher consciousness, no level-ups. So my perception of my existence looks like this:
…and it is extremely unnerving. Really heavily unnerving.
Having no faith in any sort of after life is horrifying
I don’t know how other atheists perceive this but thinking about that my consciousness just cease one day and I stop experiencing anything anymore is extremely difficult to comprehend with. Can you imagine that there is no more seeing, no more hearing, no more feelings, no more thoughts, no more YOU? It’s heavy sh*t and it’s so scary that compared to this the fear of loosing my job and home sounds like mosquito-bite.
For sure, there will loads of things happening after I’m gone. Centuries will unfold, new technologies will spring up and if we don’t end up destroying ourselves we might even become explorers of the galaxy — but I will not be anywhere to see any of this.
It is not only scary but frustrating and depressive. Sometimes I wish I can do this:
Unfortunately one does not just get their spiritual beliefs like a drink in a bar. People develop their beliefs based on upbringing, or through a chain of specific events, or by following gurus, having profound realisations or a mixture of all of these. I was raised in a protestant christian community and later on mingled with different lines of christians, Krishna believers, Muslims, New Age spirituals, Buddhists — just to name some. None of this helped me to convince myself that there is something after death (other than decaying).
Why can’t you just decide to believe in an afterlife?
Afterlife beliefs are closely related to the belief in “soul” or “consciousness” as an independent substance, something that can exist outside of human body (Funfact: in Australian tribal beliefs you have 2 souls).
Usually “Soul” or “consciousness” is the Thing that travels to other realms or reincarnates or levels up to some place after death.
And here I lost it all. Because I don’t think that “soul” exist in such terms.
We have unique personalities that develops throughout the years of our upbringing and further into adulthood. We have feelings driven by brain activities, hormonal changes and other biological processes. We feel connected to things and other beings because of the mixture of our cognitive setup and chemistry working in our bodies. Our consciousness is tied to our mind and there is absolutely nothing that proves for sure that it can exist without it.
That’s right. Nothing.
I spent enormous amount of time finding evidence that our body is independent of our soul. I did not find anything convincing. As to our current understanding everything people experience as soul existing without body is a brain glitch or vivid imagination.
Astral projection? Just a mind trip.
Out of body experience? Brain glitch that can be induced quite easily.
Near death experiences (NDE), you say? As profound as they might be, for all we know they are not more than hallucinations of a traumatized brain.
Did you read all those amazing NDE stories that describe guardian angels, meeting with the loved ones, feeling the presence of a higher power, great connectedness etc.? I read dozens. They are truly fascinating, and I don’t doubt for a second that it has an intense experience on people who go through it.
You also should know that only around 10–20% of all the people who come back from cardiac arrest have these powerful visions. (Cardiac arrest is when you stop breathing, your heart stops beating, and brain activity ceases.)
That means that 80-90% of people who come back from cardiac arrest experience nothing. They die, they come back to life and had no visions of whatsoever.
We are stunned by conclusions based on the vivid NDE stories that describe angels, meeting with the loved ones, higher powers and great connectedness. It gives us that reassuring feeling that there IS an afterlife of some sort, that we have soul, that death is just an event in our eternal lifeline. But what can we conclude of those 80-90% of people who — despite being in cardiac arrest— did not experience anything? What does all those patients’ lack of NDE story indicates about afterlife? That’s a bit unnerving to think about, and I would really need that shot of strong belief mentioned above.
But let’s assume that soul as independent substance do exist. There are loads different beliefs about afterlife. Are all of them true? Is only 1 of them true? Is none of them true? How do I know? Maybe the Taoists are right and you get what you expect that you will get? Some will be reborn, others become one with a higher consciousness, other enter some spirit realm, some will go to Heaven.
By the way heaven: The more I think about it the more I’m convinced that although ultimate death is not easy to accept, passing eternity in one place sounds equally difficult to comprehend with.
OK, so no afterlife, no God and no Soul for me. How do I experience spirituality, you may ask?
How do I experience spirituality
Spirituality without believing in any kind of Higher Being and Soul is kinda tricky, but not impossible.
I work on to be a better version of me, and view this as a Journey— I feel spiritual.
I meditate, and view every session as one step on the Path of this Journey. I feel spiritual.
I do yoga — a practice that is done for several thousand years by hundreds and thousands of people — I feel that I connect to something bigger than me. I feel spiritual.
If I think about all the millions of possibilities that would result in me not being born I discover that the chances of me being here writing this article is close to zero — yet I’m here writing this article. When I think that against all odds I got the chance to live I feel gratitude in such extend that I feel kind of spiritual.
“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.” /Carl Sagan
I’m part of never ending cycles of life: I’m born out of the connection of two living beings who were born out of the connection of other beings who are the product of million years of evolutional progress. I live, die and my body will give possibility for new life to grow: grass, trees, worms and such. I get recycled in this extremely complex ecosystem that has been on Earth for hundreds of millions of years, and hopefully will be here for several hundreds of millions more. I AM part of something bigger than me. I feel spiritual.
As I said earlier I wrote this article as a conversation starter. I told my views, now it’s your turn. How do you experience spirituality? What was the thing that convinced you that there is Soul and there is Afterlife? I’m eager to hear your thoughts, please share it as comments. If you feel like you read somewhere about solid evidence for the existence of Soul and Afterlife, please share that too. If you made it till here then you understand that I would be the happiest to realise that I’m wrong.
About me: Girl, age 31, originally from Hungary, currently residing in Oslo, Norway. Working in an office daytime, drawing webcomics about social and environmental issues nighttime. See them here>>
References: Stuff I read while writing this article
A very long but awesome article about NDE research: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/04/the-science-of-near-death-experiences/386231/
Stories: Out of body and NDE experience collection: http://www.oberf.org/
Stories: NDE experience collection: http://www.nderf.org/
A wiki-tour on afterlife beliefs of the world: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afterlife#