The Credit We Deserve
The idea of death affects me a lot worse now that I’m an atheist than it ever used to before. Not just my own death, but everyone else’s too. People dying is bad enough to comprehend and deal with when it occurs from natural causes, to people who have lived a reasonably long and fulfilling life. Unnecessary deaths, pointless killings, natural disasters – these leave me inconsolable.
A few years ago, if I heard on the radio that someone had been murdered, I’d certainly be moved. “Poor, poor guy” I’d mutter, “bloody world’s gone mad”. Now, when I hear similar stories, I want to cry and scream at the top of my voice, to lie face down on the floor and bang my fists and kick my feet against the ground, like a toddler throwing a tantrum in a supermarket.
The reason for the change is this. I used to be very open to the possibility of an afterlife. So, while it was tragic that someone had been murdered, I still considered it a distinct possibility that they were enjoying some sort of heavenly rewards in the beyond. I’m still open to the possibility of an afterlife, but having examined the evidence, I consider the odds to be astronomically against it. I believe that this life, here on Earth, is all we have. I don’t believe it through faith, I believe it based on evidence. When someone dies, no matter who they are, how old they are, what they’ve done or how they’ve conducted themselves, I believe that they are gone forever. I don’t believe that they have gone to a better place, or a worse place. I don’t think they’ve gone anywhere, more succinctly, I don’t believe they are anywhere, other than the memories of those who knew them. No second chances. No reprieves. When a human being dies, a supremely complex and sentient organism, capable of experiencing great pain and happiness, compassion and malice, creativity and sloth, is lost to the world forever. And yet, so tragically often, it is other human beings, capable of all the same emotions and experiences, who deliberately terminate their own kind.
Gold is worth more than iron. (Just to pre-empt any confusion before I continue, for the purposes of this essay, I’m not talking about sentimental value, only market or trade value.) Why? Because it is more pleasing to the eye? No, it is worth more because there is less of it. This is a universal principle that applies to anything that can be quantified, the less there is of something, the more it is worth. It applies to goods and currency, to materials, to human skills and qualifications. Anything of which we have an infinite supply is worthless. Without air, we would die, but as we have an infinite supply on this planet, you’d have a job selling it to anyone. If, at some point in the future, though, we set up communities living in artificially built residential areas on other planets in the solar system, then breathable air may become a commodity.
This principle also applies to time. If there is an eternal afterlife, then wherever we are destined to go when we die, be it Heaven or Hell, time is worthless to us, because it is infinite. Our life on Earth is relegated to the status of a mere entrance exam, only nobody knows what the criteria are to pass. Our fleeting ownership of a physical body is rendered superficial. If we are going to live in some form or another for all eternity, then why should we really care about our life on this planet? More to the point, why should we care about other people’s lives? Belief in an afterlife undermines and devalues the importance of human life.
If, however, there is no afterlife and this is all we have, our human lives and our time on this planet are infinitely more valuable. Our very existence in this world becomes the most treasured possession we will ever own. Our interests and well being are our own concern, there are no supernatural beings for us to worry about, and no supernatural beings to worry about us. We can all work together with the common goal of maximising total human happiness in whatever form it comes, and minimising human suffering, instead of the appeasement of a deity, or the conversion or elimination of the followers of other deities. The complexity of our bodies and the joys and pains that lie therein are a wonder to behold. The company we enjoy and the relationships we hold with our friends, family and loved ones are of greater significance, and the awe of the universe we inhabit all the more special.
Would I swap the pain and anguish I feel about human death for the warm, blissful comfort of a spurious belief in an afterlife? Not for the world! Aside from the little matter of truth, my beliefs do more credit to the value of human life than any supernatural belief system entailing an afterlife. The despair I feel at the futility with which human life is viewed, is the very thing that makes me human. The capacity to feel that emotion is what makes me, like every other human being, amazing. To seek suppression of my true emotions, is to deny what I am. Give me my pain, for a human being I am.
Murders and other senseless killings are not carried out because the killers believe their victims’ souls will survive their deaths. It isn’t that simple. We live in a society that is very open to the possibility of an afterlife, and never really questions or scrutinises it as a claim. Ghost stories, mediums’ platitudes, religious doctrines and past-life-regression anecdotes are banded about without restrain or criticism. It is this apathy towards the question of an afterlife that creates an environment in which human life is so utterly devalued as to be considered expendable. It is only with the growth of atheism on our planet and therefore the development of scepticism towards the concept of an afterlife, that the price of our Earthly time will be recognised, by all, for the priceless treasure it is. We don’t know if there is an afterlife or not. We do know we have life on Earth, and this is what we should defend and uphold to the last. Not just our own, or even those of our loved ones, but of all human beings, of all creeds, races and religions. Embrace what you are, revel in all your emotions for they make you what you are, and strive for the truth whatever it may be. Give yourself, and your fellow human beings, the credit you deserve.