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... “everything and everyone we value, everything we cherish, could just vanish at any moment ... An awareness of our own death is potentially extremely distressing because it renders you aware that you are, ultimately, no more significant than food sources and animals, or as [one expert] put it: “lizards and potatoes”.”

It is hard to imagine that people that seek help with their mental health would go to such “professionals” that look upon their patients as no more significant than “lizards or potatoes”.

Materialism has many faces this is one of them.

Interesting, Michael.

I myself think about death a lot. But if I were certain that death equals extinction (as I used to be), I doubt such thoughts would bring me much comfort. Chances are most of the subjects in this study were, at a minimum, agnostic.

Do you think Randi or Dawkins find peace from thinking about death? I doubt it!

"Chances are most of the subjects in this study were, at a minimum, agnostic."

I don't know about that, Bruce. Many long years ago I wrote a short story called "Sunset," about a time in the far future when death has been abolished by something known vaguely as the Medicine. At the time, I was firmly in the atheist/extinction camp, but I was still able to see how such an innovation would have mixed consequences, at best. For those who might be interested (hint, hint), the story is included in my ebook collection "Steel Trap and Other Stories."

http://tinyurl.com/nuvouzw

Interesting post!

Is the mechanism explained? I really don't see how thinking about death and considering it extinction would help much. I'm with Bruce on this one...

Death became very real to me when I developed painful arthritis in my mid 40's. Before that I honestly thought very little about death. I'm not sure I was an atheist so much as I was so busy living my life that I saw my own death as something remote - a long way away - so it wasn't important to give it too much thought. It was when we got the internet around the year 2000 and I retired that I started reading NDEs and The Holographic Universe by Michael Talbot that I started really thinking about death and what it means. I think a couple of years later I discovered death bed visions and that was a real wake up call. I found an online version of William Barrett's book Death Bed Visions and for some reason it really resonated with me. Now I find reading stories about death bed visions very comforting. It has reduced my fear of death significantly.

Free online book, Sir William Barrett - Death Bed Visions
http://www.survivalafterdeath.info/books/barrett/dbv/contents.htm

Bruce:
[[Do you think Randi or Dawkins find peace from thinking about death? I doubt it!]]

Actually, I think that materialists DO derive comfort from thinking of death as annihilation!

I mean - there won't be any Judgement, will there? And more importantly for the well-educated, well-fed, prosperous, white Anglo-Saxon males who comprise the majority of materialists and New Atheists, there won't be any reincarnation!

Imagine if you were a respected Oxford professor who has also made a lot of money from the writing of popular science books (good books, I might add). The prospect of being reincarnated as a starving peasant in a Third World slum would not be at all appealing!

Here's the thing: we ALL fear death - "the undiscovered country, from whose bourne no traveller returns", as Shakespeare put it.

Some people fear extinction, but at least an equal number fear the prospect of continuing consciousness. ("The dread of something after death .... must give us pause", quoting the Bard of Avon again.)

Materialists are fond of sneering at 'religious' or 'spiritual' types because they believe the latter are too wimpish to cope with the thought of extinction.

Yet the materialists have often not considered that they, too, fear the Reaper for the very opposite reason! (I might add that a lot of New Atheist disciples are former Christian Fundamentalists, so they have a great deal of psychological investment in their view of death-as-annihilation!)

The philosopher Neal Grossman covered some of these points in his paper 'Who's Afraid of Life After Death?', available online.

I'm not altogether fussed which scenario turns out to be the truth. Indeed, my preference changes regularly according to mood. And if there's nothing after death then, mercifully, we shall never know.

Hi Michael,

Fascinating stuff. I've heard similar reports. I'm not at all surprised by the results of Heflick's study.

Back when I was still serving as pastor of a church, although baptisms, confirmations, and weddings were certainly enjoyable, from a pastoral perspective I preferred funerals. I found that funerals were much more likely to lead to spiritual engagement and change on the part of the family and friends. Some of our most active members became active after the death of a family member.

When everybody is happy, it's a big party. Few people think very deeply on those occasions. They're just having fun!

But when a loved one dies, people tend to think about the ultimate things in life. They seriously consider their life and their place in the cosmos. I had many more substantial spiritual conversations with people in connection funerals than I ever did in connection with the happier occasions. It's like the line in Paul Simon's song "Graceland": "Losing love is like a window in your heart." People are more open when they've lost someone they love.

The reality of death is always in the background, whether we think about it or not. Thinking about it brings it into the foreground, and makes it part of our conscious awareness. Death is like a deadline for accomplishing what we're going to accomplish here. For theist, agnostic, and atheist alike, "a deadline has a marvelous ability to focus the mind." Realizing that there's a time limit can make life more focused and intense for anyone, regardless of belief or lack thereof.

Personally, I would find it depressing to think of death as an extinction of my conscious life. But if that were my belief, I'd at least want to squeeze as much as I could out of the time that I do have. I'd also want to leave a good legacy for those who come after me. That would give some sense of afterlife even if I did not believe I personally would be participating in it.

As it is, I believe that our time between physical birth and physical death is our one and only opportunity to form our basic and eternal character. Yes, we will continue to develop as human beings in the spiritual world. But it will be in the general direction that we set during our lifetime here on earth. So even though I do believe in an afterlife, I still think of death as being a significant deadline, to be taken seriously. And that does affect how I live my everyday life.

Both of my own parents died within the past couple years. I wrote a piece about it here:

When Death is a Celebration
http://leewoof.org/2013/03/29/when-death-is-a-celebration/

Hi Rupert,

"Here's the thing: we ALL fear death"

Not all of us. I don't fear death. And I know I'm not the only one.

Neither of my parents feared death, nor was it a topic to avoid in our household. I grew up thinking of death as a normal part of life and a transition to the next life, in which there is nothing to fear unless we ourselves have created something to fear in our own soul.

I actually look forward to death when my time on this earth is complete. I've made it known to my wife and children that I do not want any heroic measures to keep me alive if I have reached the point where I'm unable to live a reasonably decent and functional life here on earth.

If I were to die early, I would be concerned about its effects on my wife and my children. I'd also annoyed that I didn't get everything done that I'd planned to in this life. Other than that, it wouldn't be a big problem. I've come to think of this material world as a bit of a nuisance--albeit a necessary one.

Of course, this world does also have its own beauties and satisfactions. As long as we're here, we might as well get the most out of what it has to offer.

Hi Rupert,

"(I might add that a lot of New Atheist disciples are former Christian Fundamentalists, so they have a great deal of psychological investment in their view of death-as-annihilation!)"

Yes, this fascinates me. Until I encountered it myself in conversations with various atheists, I never realized how many of them come from fundamentalist backgrounds. It gives me more sympathy for them. I'd probably be an atheist too if I'd had so much garbage drilled into my head as a youngster.

Their diatribes against religion also seem to apply mostly to the fundamentalist variety. I rarely encounter an atheist argument that has much bearing on what I personally believe.

I don't know, are most people afraid of death? I don't think so, you even see poor little children facing death calmly. Of course, when we're in a crisis situation, like in war or a car accident, the adrenaline starts pumping and we're terrified. On the other hand, there are those few odd people who are really afraid of death all of the time. I don't think they've ever really thought about how horrible it would be to live in a physical body for all time (I always felt sorry for Tolkien's elves).

Hi Leewoof,

Congratulations in overcoming the fear of death; I should think very few people achieve this.

I myself fear death less than I used to. Like you I believe in the continuity of consciousness. But an element of uncertainty is inevitable.

There are also times when I find the idea of annihilation quite appealing. These are when I have had a lot of negative stuff going on, and at these times I often think 'oh, for a bit of eternal rest from all this crap'. And certainly the idea of reincarnating, and going through all the same aggro again, seems a lousy option when I'm feeling low.

Shakespeare felt the same - he has Hamlet, on the edge of suicide, thinking that oblivion would be a wonderful release from all life's problems. Until, that is, the fear of the unknown kicks in:

"Who would fardels bear,To grunt and sweat under a weary life, But that the dread of something after death, The undiscovered country from whose bourn No traveler returns, puzzles the will And makes us rather bear those ills we have Than fly to others that we know not of?"

And the phrase I find interesting is 'the dread of something after death'. DREAD, please note - not 'hope' or 'anticipation'. This I think is the atheist view - that an afterlife is in many ways a frightening prospect, especially for those many atheists who are lapsed fundamentalists. And thus many of them hide their own dread by painting belief in an afterlife as a fear-based phenomenon.

Shakespeare, of course, knew better. It's the afterlife that's scary for many folks, not oblivion.

Interestingly, by that point in the play Hamlet has already been visited by his father's ghost, which really ought to have resolved his doubts about an afterlife. :-)

This seems like a good thread to throw out what I've been thinking on the topic.

I think very few atheists really think through and accept the implications of their beliefs.

Dying myself? I could handle that. Everything humanity ever creates being destroyed and forgotten in the heat death of the Universe? Nope, can't handle that. I doubt most atheists could either if they *really* thought about it. (Of course, they will insist that they are totally fine with it. They're tuff!)

But beyond whether all of that is "handleable" or not, I think very few atheists accept the *implications* of their being no objective or external ground of values. They'd like to think that everyone "goin' atheist" would improve the lot of humanity. And yet, whether anything is an improvement or not over anything else is nothing more than an opinion. It's just how you feel, totally subjective.

E.g.:

Atheists think that their version of "rationality" would make for a better world. Much better than to believe in pink unicorns, right? That's just their opinion and their feeling.

If atheism were to be proven true, wouldn't that drive some people to lose hope and go on nihilistic rampages? Well, if they did, the moral value of such rampages would be nothing more than a matter of opinion.

Sure, some behaviors are more conducive to social order than others. But whether social order is a good thing or a bad thing, that too is merely a matter of opinion and feeling.

In fact, whether anything is true or not by dint of logic or reason also comes down to feeling and opinion when you're an atheists. I have had skeptics vehemently argue with me that the truths of mathematics are not real, external, unchangeable truths but mere our perceptions or the product of scientific inquiry (yes, really stupid). Well, in such a world, if the creationist wants to insist that Adam played paddycake with a T-rex, then you can't really argue against that. There *is* no objective, external truth!

I don't actually think most atheists think this way. I think they *do* on some level believe in external, objective truth but hand-wave it away as necessary to remain orthodox.

It's not death I fear but what it takes to get there. The road leading up to it. I'm sure that the second my physical body ceases to function all pain and suffering and fear will be gone and there will be happy reunion with my loved ones that have gone on before me.

“I don't know, are most people afraid of death? I don't think so,"

Kathleen I think most people are afraid of death so much that they repress those fears. I also believe that repressing those fears is responsible for many anxieties and even for some different forms of mental illness.

What I have found interesting is that the more fundamentalist the religious beliefs the greater the fear of death especially as that person ages.

Most atheists live very stoic lives but that is just a form of suppressing their fear of death.

Of course there are always exceptions.

Hi Rupert,

"Shakespeare, of course, knew better. It's the afterlife that's scary for many folks, not oblivion."

I think you have a point there. It's a little hard for me to fathom, however.

You give me too much credit in congratulating me for overcoming the fear of death. The truth is, I simply wasn't raised with a fear of death, so I haven't had to overcome it.

Because fear of death has never been much of a factor in my life, it is a mental exercise for me to consider the present life and the afterlife from the perspective of people who do fear death. Your thoughts shed some light on that perspective for me.

“Now I find reading stories about death bed visions very comforting. It has reduced my fear of death significantly”.

Art I have a personal friend that was in the room with her sisters when her brother passed. When he started to look around the room she asked him what he saw and something heavy fell over in the room at that exact instant.

Then he looked to the other side of the room, again something fell over at the exact instant she asked the question do you see our dad.

After his vision/s he passed within the hour but not before he told his sisters in the room that he loved them. Later his mother realized that her son passed 10 years to the day his father passed even the same hour of the day.

What is interesting after his vision a great peace came over him and before that vision he was fighting hard to stay alive. My friend called within the hour to tell me what she had just experienced and started by saying over the phone in a very emotional state of mind, “you will not believe what just happened”. I told her yes I think I would belief her.

I hear these kind of stories all the time even from strangers once they see they will not be judged by telling their own stories.

My neighbor lady recently lost her husband after 55 years of marriage and the very next day after he was buried she went to his gravesite and prayed “Jim if you are Ok, if possible give me a sign”. At that very instant a white dove landed on the tombstone next to her husband’s grave.

Coincidence? Not if we have knowledge of the spiritual world. Oh she now collects white dove figurines.

Hi Michael,

"Interestingly, by that point in the play Hamlet has already been visited by his father's ghost, which really ought to have resolved his doubts about an afterlife. :-)"

One would think.

But the fact is, despite thousands of reports of people who have seen something of the afterlife and come back to tell us about it, there are still many people who not only doubt, but deny the afterlife. Those who do not wish to believe can simply put it all down to hallucination--even if it was their own experience.

This seems to be what Jesus was talking about two thousand years ago when he ended one of his parables by saying, "If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead" (Luke 16:31).

Personally, I find it amazing that despite overwhelming evidence of an afterlife stretching over thousands of years, and mounting to a massive crescendo in the past fifty years, many still deny its existence, and believe that there is no evidence for it at all.

However, that is a product of human freedom. We will not be forced to believe something we do not wish to believe.

The 1974 Pulitzer Prize winner was Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death. Its blurb reads:

The Denial of Death is Ernest Becker's brilliant and impassioned answer to the "why" of human existence. In bold contrast to the predominant Freudian school of thought, Becker tackles the problem of the vital lie -- man's refusal to acknowledge his own mortality. In doing so, he sheds new light on the nature of humanity and issues a call to life and its living that still resonates more than twenty years after its writing.

After spending two years in Kabul, Afghanistan, I found the daily contemplation of my own extinction to be unnerving and refreshing at the same time - a kind of complementary/quantum duality view of existence and this corporeal realm. Death is not something to be feared but the momentary (I hope) suffering associated with death is not something I look forward to.

I'm glad you made it back from Kabul, JW! Thanks very much for your service to your country.

"Most atheists live very stoic lives ..."

Or at least they want us to believe they do. But recently there was an embarrassing series of scandals connected with prominent atheists, who were accused of sexual harassment and similar behavior. A timeline:

http://tinyurl.com/mlzr69y

The blogger/scientist P.Z. Myers provided a lot of coverage of these allegations - an act of courage and integrity on his part, since Myers himself is firmly in the atheist-materialist camp.

Of course, I'm not saying that all or most atheists commit such acts. But for certain people, there may be some truth to Dostoevsky's observation that if God is dead, everything is permitted.

" I have had skeptics vehemently argue with me that the truths of mathematics are not real, external, unchangeable truths but mere our perceptions or the product of scientific inquiry (yes, really stupid)."

Here's another way to think about this. Here on Earth, we are perpetually grasping at numbers: what time is it? How much money do I need? How many years have I been alive? How many miles away from me are you?

For all those reasons and more, we think of numbers as central to our existence.

But in spiritual realms without money, time, spatial distances, or perhaps even clear divisions between souls, maybe the meaning and import of mathematics changes completely.

We've created a storyline in which 1 + 1 = 2 plays a huge role. Maybe there are stories happening in other realms, in which in it has little relevance or meaning. And in that sense, perhaps, maybe mathematical truths are not as universal as we think.

Yes -- I believe that this universe is stranger than we can imagine. I think that when we leave the body, we are going to be surprised and delighted at how provincial our thinking, and our attitudes, have been.

From a review of Ernest Becker's famous book The Denial of Death:

A major premise of this book is that just about everything we do and all our personality quirks and neuroses are a compilation of our ways of dealing with and repressing our fear of death. And a major reason why neuroses have increased in society is because science has deconstructed all our major spiritual belief systems and left us with nothing bigger than ourselves to believe in. It becomes harder to sincerely believe in God and an afterlife, so we increasingly feel even if only subconsciously that this one lifetime on earth is all we have, which makes the stakes of our lives higher than any other era of man has felt. Death is no longer just a stage we pass through to get to eternal life, it's just the end.

I have always felt, along with Becker, that a deep fear of annihilation is instinctual to the human psyche. 99.999% of human everyday experience, especially of illness and injury, only stimulates this dread by making it obvious that for all practical purposes we ARE our all too fragile bodies and brains, which obviously can be damaged and destroyed.

It seems to me it is psychologically normal to have a deep fear of death, and I find it hard to believe the studies mentioned, that delving into the apparent inevitability of annihilation leads to better psychological health. It might be better for most people to leave their defense mechanisms alone to do their protective work (if they still have any given the modern world view), and not try to examine the existential horror that seems to underlie human life.

Of course, on the other side of the question there is a lot of accumulated evidence of various sorts (much or most of it anecdotal and about very rare occurrences) for an afterlife and for the related existence of psi phenomena. Regardless of this, for the vast majority really, deeply believing in survival seems to go against the instinctual grain, goes against intuition. Notions of an afterlife seem to be very counterintuitive and can be interpreted as psychological defense mechanisms. Why should this be, if we are really souls temporarily occupying physical bodies? It almost seems as if the deep psyche part of us knows the truth and can't always be successfully denied by the defense mechanisms of higher levels of mind. Or it could be that we humans are supposed to experience this sort of existential suffering as part of the plan of the powers that be.

I am not particularly afraid of BEING dead. I'm 90% sure there is an afterlife.

What I fear is the pain/suffering that is often involved in getting there. My physical pain tolerance is fairly low and a long, drawn-out death is something I am scared of.

Matt Rouge:

[[ I think very few atheists really think through and accept the implications of their beliefs.]]

Yes, that's precisely my view. The big one for me is the notion of 'meaning'. If the universe is a pointless accident and life has arisen by accident, with consciousness just an interesting thing meat does when its structure gets complex, then it makes no sense to talk of 'meaning'.

Atheists will usually say 'I create my own meaning', but what they really mean is 'I create a pattern from a series of intrinsically pointless events during my lifespan, and ascribe a significance to this pattern in order to avoid having to cope with the nihilism implicit in my materialist faith'.

In other words, they're comforting themselves with fairytales - precisely what they accuse 'believers' of doing.

(Hardline atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg deals with this very plainly in his 'Atheist's Guide to Reality' - a rare example of an atheist facing up to his own worldview.)

Now, atheism MAY be correct - but if it is then the universe, and human life, is intrinsically meaningless, and no amount of atheist self-delusion can change this.

In my view, the rational way for humans to proceed is to study every line of evidence which suggests a purposeful intelligence behind the universe, life, and death. (There is plenty of it!)

It seems bizarre to me that someone would leap, with apparently joyous abandon, to embrace a meaningless universe without first examining the contrary evidence. I conclude that there are only three reasons someone would wish to do this:

1) As a rebellion against an oppressive, conventionally-religious upbringing, or

2) As a means of asserting some sort of intellectual superiority over non-atheists. (In other words, for ego-boosting purposes), or

3) As an exercise in 'psychological machismo' - adopting a posture of psychological toughness ("I can cope with the thought of mortality, not like these religious wimps"), perhaps to compensate for physical weakness.

I suspect that for many atheists, the above psychological benefits are so important that the atheist is happy to ignore both the full implications of his/her beliefs, and the considerable volume of contrary evidence.

I sometimes think that those who are more likely to believe in some existence after death are those who may be some of the more accomplished among us---but not because of what you might think. Perhaps those who have spent most of their lives cultivating and developing their intellect, talents and/or skills, whether they have achieved fame and fortune or not, believe at some deep level that what they have accomplished is too valuable, too special, to be lost upon their death. They could have just as well spent all of that energy just living for the moment and having a good time rather than devoting those hours, months, and years deep in study and practice while others around them were out having fun; that realization is perhaps more difficult to accept than annihilation of consciousness. - AOD

Evidence for afterlife: anecdotal? Sure. But very rare? No. Such anecdotes are very common.

I have a friend who is a hard-core materialist and 100% atheist. Has been since she was 13 and decided that the Catholic Church was lying to her.

Despite that, when she was 18 she awoke one night to find her uncle at the foot of her bed, glowing with light. He told her that he had just died and that he was going to heaven and she shouldn't worry about him. He then vanished.

She thought she was hallucinating of course. But about an hour later they got a phone call that her uncle had died. He had dropped dead of a surprise heart attack. He had been in his mid-50s, had not been sick recently, no reason to think he was about to die or anything of that nature. Plus he was living in Europe, and she was in the United States and had not seen him in over a decade.

When she told me this story, I asked her if she could accept the materialist explanation that this was just a coincidence. She said no, it did not seem like a coincidence to her. But she could still not accept the concept of life after death and remained an atheist/materialist even after having this experience, even rejecting the coincidence explanation.

She just lives with the contradiction between her experience and her ideology.

It may be a misnomer to call people who do not believe in an afterlife skeptics or pseudo- skeptics. After all, they simply believe that consciousness does not exist after the body dies. No need to apply a label to them. They have made a decision based upon what they have seen as the lack of evidence for survival. They are not considering any additional 'evidence'. They are not skeptical. They are no longer questioning. In the words of one well-known paranormal investigator, "case closed!"

I think that coming to a conclusion, one way or another, about death and a possible afterlife provides a certain amount of peace and comfort in that one no longer spends mental energy in doubt, trying to consider this piece of evidence and that piece of evidence and never really being sure; always seeking more and more evidence to substantiate their will to believe that consciousness survives death of the body. If one faces and accepts the fact that human consciousness will not survive death, then the matter is decided and one is free to live to the fullest for whatever time chance and circumstance allow them. Similarly, those who fully accept the dogma of religion, also experience that same peace and comfort. The case is closed for them also.

It is those of us who are caught in between those two poles that suffer in doubt, whose intellect requires them to look for one more piece of evidence that will provide assurance and thereby relieve the anxiety of facing extinction.- AOD

"She just lives with the contradiction between her experience and her ideology."

Great story FDR! A perfect example of how the mind will twist it itself into a pretzel at times.

"I conclude that there are only three reasons someone would wish to do this"

My own reasons were quite different from the ones you mentioned. I rejected spirituality largely because my long-time psychotherapy, which was enormously helpful to me, precluded it. If you're interested, I talk about my experience here:

http://skeptic-discovers-afterlife.com/opening-to-the-impossible2/

| Evidence for afterlife: anecdotal? Sure. But very rare? No. Such anecdotes are very common.|

Various writers have accumulated a lot of accounts, but this is over large numbers of people and many years. My observation and impression is that it is very unlikely that any given person will have a spiritually transformative experience of contact with the deceased - most people will probably never experience one over their entire lifetime. For the great majority, belief in an afterlife will probably have to be mostly based on trusting in the reports of others, or blind faith. NDEs and other STEs appear to be rare in the population. Perhaps there have been statistical studies on this.

Regardless of this, for the vast majority really, deeply believing in survival seems to go against the instinctual grain, goes against intuition. Notions of an afterlife seem to be very counterintuitive and can be interpreted as psychological defense mechanisms.

The simplest explanation of this I can think is that most people have not witnessed any phenomena related to an afterlife: most have not witnessed apparitions of the deceased, most have not witnessed possessions, most no kids telling their previous lives. Hence the belief that death is the ultimate end seems so obvious it is almost instinctive. But the lack of experience of most silent on the presence of experiences of a minority that are related to an afterlife.

On the other hand, it can be speculated that thousands of years ago mankind had the intuition that humans survive death, but this intuition we have lost due to the rise of technology and culture.

I'm not sure I was an atheist so much as I was so busy living my life that I saw my own death as something remote - a long way away - so it wasn't important to give it too much thought.

When she told me this story, I asked her if she could accept the materialist explanation that this was just a coincidence.

I would cease to treat atheism as the denial of the existence of an afterlife, because that's just not believe that God exists, and there is no necessary connection between God and afterlife. I would talk to mortalism instead. Not even the existence of an afterlife is incompatible with materialism, because the realm of the afterlife may be material, but unknown to modern physics.



“A Man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”

― Benjamin Franklin

Well I know several people who have had paranormal/psi/afterlife communication experiences including myself. Maybe it is just the crowd I run with but it doesn't seem "very rare" to me.

I would think writing about mortality etc, would allow people to express their emotions much as they do in group therapy. Therefore its simply another form of working through and exploring one's emotions.

With regard to having fear/ no fear of dying, in my experience there are similarities in thinking for both those of materialistic and spiritualistic views.

Having come close to death myself, and witnessing others with cancer for example. Suffering certainly helps one appreciate death and even look forward to it. But I have seen a number of atheists who when it comes down to the crunch, become very spiritual. So I think when we are put in the spot, we are very much the same in the end. Lyn x.

As for my atheist friend, I love her very much. If I'm right, and there's an afterlife, and I die first, I hope I am allowed to be in the greeting party for her. If she dies first, I hope I can find her on the other side.

Art said,

||It's not death I fear but what it takes to get there. The road leading up to it.||

That's how I feel too. I saw my father die of heart disease over the course of 16 years, and he was absolutely tortured.

A friend, age 29 and apparently in great health, has to get his aortic valve replaced on Friday.

My stepfather, apparently in good health, got cancer and died six months later, in January of this year.

One day you're OK, then the next you feel a chest pain or a have an odd cough, and then suddenly normal ain't normal, and you're fighting the entropy of the body. As Jesus said, "Let this cup pass me by."

Belief in the Afterlife doesn't help one deal with this issue all that much. Yes, it's better than believing that nothing will remain, but that world of sickness and death is horrible either way.

Rupert said,

||Atheists will usually say 'I create my own meaning', but what they really mean is 'I create a pattern from a series of intrinsically pointless events during my lifespan, and ascribe a significance to this pattern in order to avoid having to cope with the nihilism implicit in my materialist faith'.||

Indeed. I think what 99% of atheists end up doing is relate to the world as theists do (i.e., find meaning in things that resonate with them emotionally, such as relationships, art, anything) and then just have a very thin overlay of atheistic apologetics on top of that. And that's what I mean by not considering the implications. They do not face up to and accept the inherent lack of meaning that you point out. Rather, they'll listen to a favorite song and tear up and though it really *does* have meaning, etc.

On dating sites, I see the atheist women (I'm sure there's an equivalent for men), and it seems to go with a certain attitude. It's like part of a personal brand.

||In other words, they're comforting themselves with fairytales - precisely what they accuse 'believers' of doing.||

Absolutely. And in the case of Communist atheism, they were replacing theism with the state religion, in which Chairman Mao just *was* right and so was the revolution, and the triumph of the proletariat was simply *meant to be.*

||Now, atheism MAY be correct - but if it is then the universe, and human life, is intrinsically meaningless, and no amount of atheist self-delusion can change this.||

Yes. I think perhaps *the* biggest atheist fantasy is that the average person can accept atheism--that we are "built that way." I think they know that this is impossible, that we are not evolved simply to believe in nothing, and they have to engage in cognitive dissonance over this fact. On the one hand, they must for political reasons assert that atheism, if widely accepted, would make life better for people, and thus they need to assert also that it's possible for people to do this. On the other hand, they enjoy mocking theists and enjoy being among the "elite" with the intellect and emotional fortitude not to believe.


||It seems bizarre to me that someone would leap, with apparently joyous abandon, to embrace a meaningless universe without first examining the contrary evidence. I conclude that there are only three reasons someone would wish to do this:||

Your reasons are excellent, but I think there is actually a #4. Atheism is an extremely *clean* philosophy and appeals to people who cannot handle ambiguity (which I think is often young people of high intelligence). Suddenly, all the crapola you were taught about religion is tossed away, anything you've ever heard about the paranormal is defined as fraud and delusion. You get to keep science, which is great, since it's prestigious anyway. And all you have to do to argue against anything is deny, deny, deny. No! There is no evidence! All lies and hallucinations!

When I became an atheist at age 13, it was extremely freeing. And per your #1 reason, I got to toss away Catholicism in one go (I actually became Buddhist first, but let's not complicated matters). And that was something that surely needed to be tossed. And all was clear! The only problem was that I began to experience my psychic abilities at a level I couldn't deny when I turned 14...


||I suspect that for many atheists, the above psychological benefits are so important that the atheist is happy to ignore both the full implications of his/her beliefs, and the considerable volume of contrary evidence.||

They definitely tend to fall into a certain psychological type, which of course they are blind to. They tend to be, frankly, a bit Asperger's-y, unintuitive, hard-headed, and unpleasant. Now I'm talking about the hard-core proselytizers. There are a *lot* of soft-core atheists who, as I said it above, adopt it as part of their personal brand ("Screw religion, man") or find it required by their social group.

Anthony Flew, for instance.

My last comment was in response to Lynne. :)

Hi Rupert,

"Now, atheism MAY be correct - but if it is then the universe, and human life, is intrinsically meaningless, and no amount of atheist self-delusion can change this."

Personally, I happen to agree with you.

However, to take the other side just for the sake of fairness:

The idea of intrinsic meaning certainly has an ancient pedigree, and is generally embraced by theists, believers in a spiritual realm, animists, and so on.

However, the idea of randomness and no intrinsic meaning also has an ancient pedigree, and those who hold to it have often been able to carve out realms of meaning for themselves and for humanity even with a belief that existence has no intrinsic meaning.

In modern times, this is the philosophy of existentialism, which generally holds that meaning is something we humans create for ourselves out of the chaos around us.

This can be seen as a noble exercise--something that we humans are uniquely able to do, and therefore very precious. And in the best version, it is seen as something we can pass down from generation to generation, each generation adding to what it has received. In this way our meaning-making existence achieves a kind of immortality.

I believe that the push for space travel on the part of various atheist scientists has partially to do with ensuring that this quasi-immortality extends beyond the billion or so years hence when the sun becomes so hot that it burns out all life on earth. If we can hop from star to star, and eventually from galaxy to galaxy, we can perpetuate the species as long as there are inhabitable planets out there somewhere. In this way, there will be meaning in the universe as long as we humans can ensure our continued survival.

I should add that a more immediate reason for the push for space travel, and the fascination with extrasolar planets, terraforming, and so on, is that we humans have developed the technology, capability, and perhaps the motive to render this earth uninhabitable far sooner than it would naturally become so.

Developing the ability to reach other planets, and the technology to create habitable planet-wide or enclosed ecosystems there, would provide us with livable havens outside of earth in which we could continue to live and perpetuate the human species, and any other species we carried with us, if we were to destroy earth for human habitation. This is a common theme in science fiction.

Ironically, this idea has a strong thematic connection to the story of Noah's Ark in the Bible. Darren Aronofsky's recent movie makes such a connection even stronger by transforming the Noah story into a eco-play in which Noah must preserve all the species on earth from the ecological destruction wrought upon earth by evil technological humans. The flood itself, however, becomes a Shiva-like deus ex machina, completing the job of eco-destruction that the evil humans had started. (I recently reviewed Aronofsky's Noah on my blog, so it's fresh in my mind.)

I've read more than one science fiction novella with similar themes, some of which make references to Noah and the Great Flood--such as by naming their earth-escaping ships "arks."

I haven't seen Noah, but I did find this article interesting:

http://drbrianmattson.com/journal/2014/3/31/sympathy-for-the-devil

It argues that the film takes a Gnostic perspective on the Noah story. The reviewer, a staunch Christian, is outraged about this, but to me, it makes the movie sound more intriguing.

A rebuttal (arguing that the movie is inspired by Kabbalah but not Gnosticism) is here:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/filmchat/2014/04/no-noah-is-not-gnostic-say-that-ten-times-fast.html

Either way, I still won't see it till it shows up on DVD ... and maybe not even then.

Great story, FDR. I don't think after death communication experiences are rare, actually, I've heard a lot of them from people, and have had them myself. They can't all be imagining them. At the same time, I admit I'm still a Doubting Thomas, even though I experienced what I did, so I can empathize with your friend. The "real" world just seems so "real" and "solid" all the time, it's hard most of the time to conceive of this other reality. The "logical" part of the brain just rejects it.

My sentiments exactly, Kathleen. And the more the 'believers' strain to convince the less convinced I become - despite my own experiences. I think there is no rational position on this subject other than to remain open minded.

"The "real" world just seems so "real" and "solid" all the time, it's hard most of the time to conceive of this other reality. The "logical" part of the brain just rejects it." - Kathleen
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It's rather ironic isn't it? They are stuck in 19th century Newtonian thinking when it comes to physics. It's like they can't accept the implications of what quantum physics tells us about our Universe, "Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real." (Niels Bohr) They pretend to be so "scientific" when the truth about our Universe is way more weird than what we can even begin to imagine.

The only thing preventing my hands from floating right on down through the keyboard are the negative charges of the electrons in my hands repelling the negative charges of the electrons in the desk and keyboard. Otherwise there is pretty much nothing there. Or as Roger Ebert said to his wife right before he passed away,

"the day before he passed away, he wrote me a note: "This is all an elaborate hoax." I asked him, "What's a hoax?" And he was talking about this world, this place. He said it was all an illusion. I thought he was just confused. But he was not confused. He wasn't visiting heaven, not the way we think of heaven. He described it as a vastness that you can't even imagine. It was a place where the past, present, and future were happening all at once." http://www.esquire.com/blogs/news/roger-ebert-final-moments

Hi Leewoof,

Your comments sent me on a bit of a nostalgia trip.

Many years ago I read a wonderful book called 'Gustav Mahler and the Courage to Be' by David Holbrook. This was a bar-by-bar analysis of Mahler's Ninth Symphony as an example of existentialist philosophy conveyed in music - the search for a 'meaning to life' without God.

Ironically, the glorious final adagio of the Ninth has a melody which is very close to that of the hymn 'Abide With Me'. (That pesky Creator - people don't seem to be able to find meaning without subconsciously invoking Him/Her/It, even when composing an existentialist musical masterpiece!)

Also during my youth (sigh) I was for some years a member of the British Interplanetary Society and used to receive its excellent Journal, which dealt mainly with the scientific and engineering theory behind Mankind's colonisation of space. One paper called 'The Extraterrestrial Imperative' impressed me; it set out the reasons why we MUST get off earth - the sun going supernova being one of several.

But of course, even if we eventually colonise the whole visible universe, entropy will conquer all in the end, and the cosmos will vanish in a Stapledonian heat death when 'the last of the suns will set'. This, as Bertrand Russell famously pointed out, will mean the total and eternal extinction of Mankind and all his achievements.

Maybe, though, by then we will be smart enough to create a new universe in a different dimension - a universe with just the right physical attributes to permit the evolution of life - and download the collective consciousness of humanity into it, to inhabit the evolved lifeforms.

(Oh bugger - we've just become God!)

Hi Kathleen,

"The 'real' world just seems so 'real' and 'solid' all the time, it's hard most of the time to conceive of this other reality. The 'logical' part of the brain just rejects it."

And yet . . . we have no direct experience of material reality at all. The only direct experience we have is of mental reality: our own thoughts and feelings. Everything else is second-hand.

So although this material world does seem real and solid, we can't know for sure whether it really is, since all of our experience of it takes place in our mind.

It's ironic, isn't it, that what seems relatively unreal--mental and spiritual things such as loves, motives, concepts, and ideas--are the only things of whose existence we can be 100% certain. They are the only things we directly experience for ourselves. Everything else we just have to assume is real because it seems so solid and obvious.

All of materialistic philosophy is based on a massive, largely unquestioned assumption: that the physical world outside of our mind is real. Yet there is no way to demonstrate conclusively that it isn't all a projection of the mind.

I happen to believe that the material world actually is out there. However, this is a belief of mine, not something I could prove in any satisfactory way if someone were to seriously challenge me on it.

A fuller version of this line of thought is in this blog post of mine:

"Where is the Proof of the Afterlife?"
http://leewoof.org/2013/01/20/where-is-the-proof-of-the-afterlife/

Yes, it's counterintuitive. Atheists and materialists generally will generally just laugh at it and call it stupid. But that's just their way of avoiding an embarrassing piece of logic that they simply do not want to face. What "logical," "rational" person wants to admit that their whole worldview is based on an unprovable assumption?

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