PREFACE: (Damn, I’ve been having to do a lot of these lately, huh?) I want to make it clear that I have been intending on writing this post for about a week now. There was a comment made in a thread on another one of my posts a couple days ago addressing this exact question, which is absurd and driving me crazy. I simply wanted to put it out there that my posting this has no relation to the commenter who asked this same question a couple days ago. It’s coincidence, that’s all.
OKAY! Time for the obnoxious question of the day!
Why does life matter to someone who does not believe there is an afterlife?
How to begin… Well, first, there’s the fact that every person who I’ve seen ask this question has been Christian, and has every time been asked to an atheist. The typical way the conversation goes is something like this:
Atheist – I have no belief in god, heaven, or hell. There’s nothing to prove that there is anything after we are dead.
Christian – Then why live?
Atheist – …Excuse me?
Christian – If there is no afterlife, what’s the point of what you do in this life? What does it matter? Why try to contribute to society? Why keep on living?
Atheist – …*makes above face*
The idea (to the Christian) is that there is something to look forward to, something to work toward after death, and that next life is their motivator for everything they do in this life. Without that final reward of heaven (and the final threat of hell should they live incorrectly), they can see no purpose in life. I have even seen someone with this mindset go so far as to tell the person they were addressing to kill himself, because if there’s nothing after this then there’s no purpose for his life in the first place, so he might as well just end it now.
To all the people who have been in this discussion before, here is your answer, at least your answer from me.
Without an afterlife to look forward to, life itself becomes the most valued commodity one can possess, and that life must be cherished and valued above all other things. Additionally, with the view that no person has an afterlife to speak of after death, all life becomes of paramount value and must be cherished and preserved to the highest degree.
Follow this explanation up with a metaphorical comparison. Take a good look at the girl to the right here. You can tell by her clothes and the mat under her feet that she lives a very meager life. She doesn’t have much, and her family cannot provide much for her. Before her are 3 toys.; the only 3 toys this girl possesses and likely will ever possess. Now look at the state of those toys, and may I specifically point out the bear to the far right. The bear is white, all white but for the ears. It is spotless. It looks as if it came out of a storefront window. Despite the grime caked on this girl’s shirt, the stains on the sheets hanging behind her, that bear, one of her only toys, is pristine. Why? Because those toys are all she has, and she knows they are likely all she will ever have. She cherishes those toys, she keeps them safe, she keeps them clean, she values their care above the care of her own clothing.
This is the feeling a person has when he or she either does not believe in or does not assume the existence of an afterlife. And not the feeling of having a toy, but cherishing a thing which we know is special and is not bountiful, a thing which only comes around once. That is my answer.
I hold to the idea (as most of you could guess) that it is better to assume there is no afterlife than to assume there is and spend copious amounts of time deciding which human-defined version of the afterlife is closest to the truth, and what are the best practices to adhere to in order to accomplish the positive afterlife versus the negative afterlife. If this life is all that we get, when there is no possibility of a second chance at consciousness, at existence, we must cherish every moment and every breath of every day. This life matters because it is every individual’s everything. It is your legacy, to exist and to be known to have existed.
This is another aspect of this question which bothers me; that the idea of one’s legacy here on earth – the actions we commit in this life, which will cause untold amount of repercussions throughout the rest of human history – also does not matter if there is no afterlife. As if one’s individual afterlife makes the entire future of Earth and mankind after that individual’s death completely obsolete and meaningless. I realize that’s not the point, but that’s how it comes across. And what kind of self-centered point it is! To think that no person’s life has meaning unless death is not the end, that the generations upon generations of lives which will come after are just as meaningless as your non-existence after death, so why put effort into yourself. I cannot comprehend this mindset, this idea that without an afterlife, life itself means nothing. That mindset could not be more wrong in my view.
I feel that this is a mindset which is developed to justify wasting one’s lifetime in pursuit of one’s afterlife, instead of putting all one’s efforts toward the life one knows one has now. To me, this is backward in every regard. To this mindset, I pose my own set of questions:
If you live your life under the assumption – no, the expectation – that there is another life after this one is over, then why cherish the life you have now? The afterlife is another chance, a second opportunity to live, a continuation after what seems to be a final end. If you just get another life after this one, then why should this life have so much more value than the one(s) to come? Especially if in that next life, you are essentially immortal, a soul not bound to a mortal body?
The only answer to these questions is that the next life depends on what we do in this one, the our afterlife is built of consequences for the things we do in this life. Typically this is followed by an explanation of how loving God is, and how God wants to have us love Him in our lifetimes, through a combination of good works in God’s name and worship of God, allowing us the full rewards of heaven. If we do not love God as He loves us, then we do not gain the reward of heaven, and instead are doomed to eternal hellfire, basically going to the realm of Satan, the ‘god’ which replaced God god in our lives, since we did not worship God and do good works in His name and for His sake.
Here’s my take on this; if you live cherishing your life as if there is nothing left to you but the things you do in this life, would your actions not reflect a respect and value for all life? Would you not live to help those around you, for the sake of making their lives better, lives which are all you think they have to themselves just as your life is all you have to you? And would not a god of love appreciate this dedication to preservation and value of life that this god would reward our kindness and love for life?
The value of life as the only chance at consciousness we have, the value of life when death is the final destination, not only discourages waste of one’s life, but discourages the waste of others’ lives as well. Murder is out of the question. Suicide is out of the question. Grudges and fighting and anger are all just wastes of time and energy, precious time and energy that could go toward contemplating the sky, or baking a cake for a loved one just because, or reading a book that another person slaved to complete and publish, or calling Nana just to talk about the good old days, or investigating the sciences to better the lives of those less fortunate. Every moment accomplishes something, something that will better the only life that another person will live somewhere else, or right next door, or in one hundred years, or within your own skin.
So no, the expectation of an afterlife does not make one’s life matter. In fact, from the point of view of those like myself who do not assume or expect an afterlife, to assume and expect an afterlife devalues life itself. Cherish the life you have as if it is all you will ever know, and cherish all other life the same, and you will know what true value means.