So, Nothing Happens When You Die?

One of the lamest and most vile things I’ve ever heard (spoken to my face, even!) is “Ah, you’re an atheist, so nothing happens when you die?”.

I’ve had experiences with close relatives passing away and countless other friends of mine have lost parents, grandparents, relatives. Diminishing all that suffering to a simplistic and malignant personal attack is one of the stupidest things you could say to an atheist.

The sad part is, it’s kind of true. I cannot believe in Heaven. It would be an incredibly egocentric leap of faith. Science has led me to conclude that once you die, that’s it. Your heart stops beating. The electric impulses in your brain stop moving around. There is no soul. You decompose and ‘return’, as it were, to the Earth.

This has not led me to suicide, however. This has not led me to become a nihilist. And it does not mean that I suffer any less when a loved one passes away. Truth be told, if ‘that was that’ then you could say an atheist suffers more.

Having set up the introduction as a justification for the meaninglessness of life, I’d like to present to you what I believe is the meaning of death, a subject much dealt with in the world of religion.

We all die. Our lives are miniature blips in the extravagantly large timeline of the Universe. Our legacy, our history, everything we ever made and broke is again, just another blip in the vanishing history of our pale blue dot of a planet.

That’s what makes life all the more meaningful. That you can wake up every day and be capable of realising your existence is incredibly improbable makes experiencing everything life has to give you that day all the more worth it.

Everyone. Theists. Atheists. We all are incredibly lucky to have been that particular combination of genetics and fucking. If you need miracles, look into Birth – that you made it is lucky enough.

What more meaning to life do you need other than a brief glimpse of existence to experience it?

What more meaning to life is there other than to live it as fully as you can? Darwinian evolution has taught us that morality is a product of natural selection. So do whatever you feel is right, take a fucking chance and live out your existence to make it as meaningful as you can to yourself and to your loved ones. You don’t need to justify your life to anyone else other than yourself.

How does this tie back into death?

One of the most beautiful and meaningful things one could do for someone who has passed away is to honour their memory. Remember the times shared and appreciate the way that person has built you as you know yourself. The best you could expect from people once you die is that they do the same.

I have the interesting privilege of having been to a Masonic funeral. And honestly, it was beautiful. All his friends from the lodge led the service and had a brief and emotion packed eulogy to his life. No goat sacrificing. They all wore white gloves but it made the whole ceremony kinda cute.

There was no solemn guilt-fest. There was no invocation of the supernatural. There was no preaching by a completely irrelevant ‘authority’.

It was a ceremony celebrating his life, honouring the memories he left with each and every one of us and it was full of hope. Perhaps it was an eccentric Mason funeral. But it was beautiful.

To answer the question less obliquely:

No, nothing happens when you die. That’s what makes living worth it.


35 Responses

  1. Beautiful writing. I’m sorry to spoil it with this comment, but I just have to nitpick about something.

    Many religious persons believe the soul is the mind and emotions. It is also defined as sapience. So when you say there is no soul, you mean there is no soul after death? Or that there never was a soul?

    Perhaps you mean to say that there is no spirit (and that there never was/can be)? Which from your viewpoint would make more sense since it is the eternal part according to most faiths.

    back on topic, I am glad that you were able to celebrate your friend’s life and i would like to share an experience with you. A few summers ago I had 3 people die from my family in a very short time, and now this summer my husband’s best friend’s parents both passed away, one shortly after the other, from cancer. We were not able to attend his mother’s funeral, but did attend his dad’s. It was a typical baptist ceremony; very dry and solemn with some horrible hymn-singing and preaching for too long.

    “T” (our bereaved friend) was in a pretty bad way, as you can expect. After the ceremony while we were getting the cars lined up for procession to the burial, we saw him go to the car. He was at that state of grieving where you physically can’t stand up, you know? His girlfriend and other family members had to help him to the car. I will never forget the sound of him crying.

    Right after they got T in the car, an older woman said something that I also, unfortunately, will never be able to forget. She said we shouldn’t cry for T’s dad; we should be happy for him because his suffering was now over. I was so furious. I am sorry, but even if you believe in Heaven, that is not an excuse to minimize someone’s suffering. I have no idea what possessed this person to say something like that in the presence of someone so bereaved. Religiosity I guess. An attempt to appear holy, maybe. I hope for her sake it was not ignorance of grief, because if it was, she will have a hard, hard lesson to learn.

  2. There is a great deal of logic in your argument, but we can also examine the ‘heaven or hell’ debate in superficial terms.

    All the time we see elderly people who are not religious make remarks such as ‘I’m ready to die’, ‘I’ve lived a good life’ etc. These people are often of the belief that when they die that will be the end of them completely. The point I am trying to make is that some people, like myself, cannot see the point in living forever. I can imagine people in ‘heaven’ sitting around going ‘well what do we do now? I suppose we just keep on enjoying knowing Jesus, unlike those unlucky people in hell.’

    My point is this. There is only so much life one can tolerate. That may be cynical, but think about it. Why would you want to live forever? It would get mighty boring.

  3. A succinctly and eloquently worded post. I couldn’t agree more with your reasoning, and I appreciate the reference to Sagan.

    Several years ago I lost a good friend in a car accident. He came from a very superficially religious family of the kind that tends to consult God only at Easter, Christmas, weddings, and funerals. One of the things he liked to talk about was his atheism. He never really put it in neatly packaged terms, but you could tell that he was disturbed by his family’s belief in a God he just couldn’t bring himself to will into existence, so to speak. It was very difficult for those of us who knew him well to be at his funeral, which was full of tape recorded hymns and a twenty-minute altar call sermon; difficult to hear his brother go on and on about how much he loved Jesus and how certain he was that my friend was up in heaven smiling down on all of us.

    It made me really wrestle with the question: is that would my friend would have wanted, to comfort his family? Or would he have been disgusted to see his beliefs so misrepresented?

  4. Try to cut some of the religious a break with this one. Some people are so terrified of death that it makes them feel better to think that there is something after it, that they aren’t just going to end.

    Society in the USA has the notion that death is some horrible tragedy that should be avoided at all costs if possible…and so people believe in a heaven to go to when their body dies, it helps them face the fact that death will come to them or those that they love one day.

    It also helps some of those to accept death more readily. My grandmother told me a few years ago before she lost all coherance that she was tired, she had been in this world a long time and she was ready to go. Her husband, my grandfather, had died when I was a year and a half…that was 30+ years go. She said she missed him and my great-granmother, her mother. She is the last one left and is languishing in a nursing home because no one will let her die (that is another topic). She is ready to die because she “knows” that Pawpaw and Greatgranny are waiting for her on the other side.

    With that said, yes it is worst for athiests to believe there is nothing. My DH comments that it is hard for him to accept death because he doens’t believe anything happens after…he just can’t get his head around his body not existing anymore.

    What I don’t understand is why it is so important for others to make people believe in it unless it is just a weapon in their arsenal to get them to their side…and that is a shame.

  5. I just see it this way: either there is life after death, or not. Those are the only two possibilities, obviously. Either way there is no way we can ever know for sure whether our actions will have any effect whatsoever on those that have passed on. So the best way to act is to have consideration for those still living, especially the bereaved.

    With that in mind, I guess the best way to act is in a way that doesn’t minimize or trivialize the suffering of the deceased’s loved ones. (deceased’s…now there’s a word that is easier to type than to say!)

  6. I think you’ve written a lovely piece. I think it could go farther. In my experience with people dealing with the deaths of loved ones, I’ve found that Atheists tend to deal with things better then non-Atheists. The view that you expressed has the distinct advantage that it deals directly and irrevocably with the fact that the deceased person is no longer anywhere. Thus, one can focus on a real thing: one’s memories of the dead person. Those who think there is something after death are distracted by thinking the person is still around in some sense or other and are thus conflicted by the grief at the loss and the expectation that the feel joy at the person moving to a ‘better place.’

    The last point is a bit strange since it also involves a fair bit of hubris from within the non-Atheist position. I’ve never once heard someone say, “Gee. I don’t know where God would send that person. God is mysterious you know.” Instead, they always assume their friends are going to heaven.

  7. “Ah, you’re an atheist, so nothing happens when you die?”.

    You could answer this with:

    ” Well, the world will mourn, of course!”

  8. Sorry, I almost forgot:

    Lovely post; thanks.

  9. Nice post ! What most religious people (and even atheists) fail to realize, that, quite often, it’s the other way around : one does not believe in God because he cannot believe in afterlife.

    An individual, overwhelmed by ever-present evidence of irreversible decay of everything, living or not, longs for his own self-presevation. Once he becomes aware of this desire, he rejects God precisely because God would be a way of fulfilling that craving which he knows to be irrational.

    In other words, the hypothesis of God is too good to be true; therefore, there is no God. It’s only the more ironical that given the same basic facts, people can draw two completely different conclusions :

    1. As it is, life is devoid of “higher” meaning; therefore, there should be a God who bestows that meaning;

    2. As it is, life is devoid of “higher” meaning; therefore, there is no God.

  10. (more to my previous comment)

    Actually, there are at least two sorts of atheist arguments : (1) scientific or natural ones (in which the God hypothesis is rejected due to lack of necessity) and (2) existentialist ones (in which the God hypothesis conflits with overwhelming evidence against any grand meaning of our “”I”).

    Interestingly, this mirrors closely the two basic patterns of religious proselytism : God is posited either in order to explain natural phenomenons or to provide some comfort to the feeble and suffering animals that we, humans, usually are.

    I feel that the existential arguments will eventually come to overshadow the naturalistic ones, as few people nowadays need God to explain that which science explains better; the Vatican itself believes in evolution.

  11. This may be completely unrelated, but I’d just like to share a few things I’ve heard from religious people that I found to be a little extreme. I go to a Christian camp where I live, and one of the activities is called Bible, which is basically a children’s church service. The sermon was all about how anyone who is agnostic or atheist is the enemy of God. Me, being agnostic, found that a little offensive. People can’t really force themselves to believe in God, an afterlife, etc. I’d rather believe there is something after death, rather than just stop existing, but I can’t force myself to believe in something that sounds impossible. I can’t force myself to blindly follow a religion and believe in God (this is going to sound corny) with all my heart. I’ve tried to find some logic in religion, and couldn’t find much.

    If God does exist, maybe he should give a little more evidence, instead of just a book, which was written by man, that tells of stories that sound pretty unbelievable. If he’d left more solid evidence, almost everyone could go to Heaven (if there is such a place) and we’d all be happy living as followers of God. My original story was about how this camp is teaching that anyone with the slightest doubt in God’s or an afterlife’s existence is not someone you should hang out with, is an enemy of God, someone you need to pray for because they need “guidance”, etc. I’m just trying to say that if you really think about religion (at least, for me), none of it really adds up. Too many unanswered questions.

    If you’ve done that, you can discover that religion is very illogical, and therefore, unbelievable. Once you’ve done that, you can’t just force yourself to believe in everything since you know what you want to believe is very hard to believe. I’m probably not making any sense. Anyway, that’s my bit to these comments.

  12. […] Death may be the end of our life here on earth13, but everything else will go on without us, although we may hope that our loved ones will remember us1415 as we would like to be remembered: fondly and with good cheer. […]

  13. The comments being made are well thought out and intriging, but I wonder if our limited human capacity for reasoning is just that; limited. Perhaps our ability to ‘know’ the the universe we live in is miniscule and flawed. I would consider myself a humanist and an ethicist, but also a scholar fascinated by the ‘unknowns,’ ‘what ifs’, and many possibilities of existence. Granted our capacity to reason and experience emotion is all we have, there has to be room for the assumption that we can be wrong…that evidence can only take us so far. It is with this assumption that I give the metaphysical and even ‘religious views’ another chance…I see the damage that religious groups can do, but I also see them meeting a basic human need and desire in community. I think to speculate about where one goes when they die is something that should be left to religion and faith, because as you have said, the ‘evidence’ that our feeble human capacity to ‘know’ points us to is back into the Earth. I think a ‘heaven,’ or ‘afterlife,’ or ‘other dimension’ is something beyond our mind’s ability to comprehend and that scientifically and deductively we will not be able to grasp whether it exists or not. As the first person wrote in his/her blog entry, we are on a little blue spec in the universe. Who are we to presume to ‘know’ anything?

    In a nutshell, I just want to throw out that there has to be room for the unknowns and the mysteries of existence.

  14. I have always pondered what “nothing” actually is. Is it complete darkness? the black void we all see when we shut our eyes? Well if that is the case, then “nothing” is actually “something” because we can describe it. If we can’t describe what “nothing” actually is because we are obvisously alive and haven’t experienced it yet, then how do we know what “nothing” really is? It could be something scary or something pleasant, but what ever “nothing” is, as long as we describe it or link it with a word, then it is something. And that gives me hope

  15. I think ones that have no belief at all in our Lord or God himself, are being did you think we came about..or the land and animal life, did you create them? Ask youself…how did it all come about, you should beable to say, OH GOD, did you do that, well the answer is yes, he did.
    I am not a religious zombie, but i do have alot of faith and spiritual being within me, and I do know for a fact, that, there is a spiritual life after Death, I have been thru that very doorway, twice in my lifetime so far..and I feel comforted to know, that, that is our Peace and Serenity with no pain nor worry to carry on as we do on this Plane called Earth, the next is a much more rewarding experience, hence what I said above, you really need to open your mind and heart, and think about things, why? Cause it will explain why we are here and given another chance to prove ourselves to God himself, that we can be as he created us…think about it, and read alil too,so that you understand without spewing such nonsense…
    There is a God and we do have a Father that did indeed die for us, its a proven fact, he was an ordinary man that did indeed walk the earth, but died for our sins and THAT is an amazing and wonderful thing, I thank him every day that passes for my existence, to still be able to see my children grow up and live maybe a better life then I had…he gave me this.

    So look up and smile and say Thank You, for giving me this day and praise to you Lord for another….

  16. Well, first off, I would like to talk to ‘Jerri’. I am also christian, but, from what i see, you’re telling other people how to live their lives when you have no right, and secondly, YOU need to open your mind and heart to all the other possibilities. Just because I’m christian doesn’t mean I don’t consider other things. It doesn’t mean I don’t wonder if things could be different. But, it also doesn’t mean I’m not christian either. Now, anyways.

    My thoughts on the whole situation are the same as some others. I’m really curious as to the idea of ‘nothingness’, seeing as though i couldn’t imagine it. But, I also had a thought. We’re all built of particles, atoms, and such. Well….maybe when we die, the energy is transferred. This supports the concept of reincarnation, but it’s the only thing i can think of. I mean honestly. We’re creatures that can FEEL things and emotions and interact, and basically have an existence. I can’t imagine just cutting off that existence, because in the way we exist…we….it’s just unexplainable. You guys think about it. You exist and then die, and then….you just don’t exit anymore? Maybe the thing i was pointing out earlier about the energy transfer could mean we transfer our energy and it is used to make up other humans, or maybe there’s a whole big mass of particles and such where our energy gets transferred, and we continue our existence there, via the use of our memories and such. It just seems a little far-fetched.

    Maybe the energy is the particle ‘formula’ for the soul, maybe the soul is actually just a big structure of particles. I don’t know. But, I’d be interested in knowing what you guys have to say about this.

  17. I have not done anything in the way of your speaking, but to share what I have felt/seen/been thru in my life speaking of the Lord above…
    I remain..
    Comfort to you all.

  18. In addition, to whomever you are, I am very content of my open mind and heart, I am very Spiritual and have lots of Faith, in my beliefs… I have no regrets and do not need persecution in my statement, ty..Have a Blessed Day.

  19. There will be only darkness. Black like, when you shut your eyes. You can’t move, can’t think. WONT TRY.. and YOU WONT MIND.. T.T

    Enjoy your life while you still can

  20. The plain fact of just diying, and then being nothing is completely mind blowing to me. The thought of not knowing what is out there in the Universe, or able to find out the mysteries of even the earths past seems cruel to me. I remember as a child thinking of all these questions, “what happens when you die?”, ” if God does exist, who created God?”, and the infamous “why are we here”. And what made me feel much much much better was the simple answer “I will find out when I die”. Well, with the thought of no after-life, no soul, and no spiritual being engraved in my brain; it is has brought down my good expectations of death by 100%, but it has made me appreciate life a whole lot more. So just live life to it’s fullest, enjoy it while you are here. NOW I KNOW and understand when people would say that life is the greatest of of them all.

  21. How can NOTHING happen when you die…wtf does NOTHING mean…like what is reality then..and what is time…like how can NOTHING happen…that doesn’t make any sense…im not saying like a god or anything perse’ but how can “NOTHING” happen…explain to me what that means

  22. While I can sympathize with all the discussions about death and heaven and continuing on after death…(I was brought up in a religious family)…

    …if you have researched religions, gods, etc. in the end it all offers no more than comfort to the living that there is more to look forward to after death…or that loved ones are waiting for you in the afterlife.

    My take has dissolved to the factual and scientific aspects that humankind has difficulty accepting the fact that when you die…that is it, it is the end. Because you are a “human” makes no difference. Just like any other biological creature…you die…you decay…and once brain impulses cease, your conscious being dies…nothing more, nothing less. It is indeed a very difficult and uneventful way to think of a human life.

  23. I agree with David and ACS – who knows? after reading this discussion, the atheists and Jerri and the Christians (sounds like a band that doesnt it) seem to mirror eachother in their absolute certainty of their beliefs. I’m Catholic but dear God if I was to live like a devout Catholic I’d be a loon/ walking contradiction – it’s like everything some of it is crap, some good. I think the wonder of death interacts with the question how did we all begin? The big bang – but what was before that? and before that and… get the picture…it’s insane! Very heavy for a Saturday but here it is.

  24. SNOWWHITE197 said “I just see it this way: either there is life after death, or not. Those are the only two possibilities, obviously.”

    The rest of you have similar concerns of how to deal with death… or more specifically how to deal with the lack of an afterlife. I put much thought into this myself. It is our curse: Mentally advanced enough to realize we will die one day, but not advanced enough to accept it. Thus we invent reasons, kill the environment, kill animals with torture for our food and greed, and then each other… mostly in the name of divine right. We are stupid monkeys, unfortunately (most of us; I am aware you may be wonderfully smart, reader. I hope you are.)

    I say unto you then: You were once a child, so small. You once had experiences you no longer remember. You are a different person now than then. You have changed. ‘You’ are constantly changing with time. ‘You’ are a function, or some set of functions of time.

    Simply put: ‘You’ are changing every moment. So the ‘soul’ is generally ‘you’ in a permanent form. It is usually defined as something that is permanent and thus immune to death.

    This is obviously not true because we are agreeing (I think) that we are constantly changing. Science would agree nothing in the universe is permanent. So if nothing is permanent, save impermanence Itself, there is no ‘you’ to die… going further there isn’t a ‘you’ to experience an afterlife. Or perhaps ‘you’ are the impermanence. A constant FLOW of thought, like water, bending shape when needed. It isn’t so much a grand discovery that there is no afterlife as it is a that there isn’t a SOLID ‘us’.

    The comfort in this thought: you have died already, and you die again every moment. Then, you’re reborn. I am 24 years old and I think very differently than when I was ten. Most of my physical body is even different (atoms are replaced by the consumption of new ones + growth – detoriation). Death is just some other moment, but not this moment!! Thus, there is nothing to fear.

    That doesn’t render life pointless, either. As the author of this blog points out: it makes it all the more worth living! If you worry or grow too attached to the idea of “something after” you’ll miss some of the now, and it will bring you suffering from the worry. But there is nothing to worry about. You are nothing but MATTER spawned up from a floating piece of MATTER in a finite universe, and then you return to the earth after some time.

    Instead of thinking about the ‘you’ (that doesn’t exist NO REALLY it doesn’t) think about how we are all related on the very simplistic level: we are walking talking thinking matter; no more important than a rabbit or a bug, but no less insignificant.

    A pointless existence at least gives us the freedom to enjoy it! Serve nature not god. That is your creator, and you’ll return to her one day (in a purely physical sense).

    Buy the ticket, take the ride.

  25. Do you know sometimes can what want to look more like?

  26. Firstly, I like Fiona’s and Josephs the Great’s posts. They are very rational.

    I would define nothingness as obviously nothing. You have no feelings or thoughts. Do you remember what it was like before you were born? It’s like that.

  27. […] So, Nothing Happens When You Die? […]

  28. […] So, Nothing Happens When You Die? […]

  29. OK WELL THESE ARE ALL GREAT AND DANDY, but think of this… TIME NEVER ENDS! it dose not stop take a break or pause it just keeps going think about it even after all the energy from all things in the universe dispurses back into nothing TIME STILL GOES ON.. ever think about it scares the hell out of me more then anything els dying hell or anything

  30. so either you get etarnal life which would be great, but time still goes on forever. im sure it would be greater than we could ever imagine that is why we cant understand the concept of time and space because it is God who only understands. Also if its just eternal nothingness i know you wouldnt know but time will still go on forever just scares the shit out of me sooo bad almost go into panics because of it

  31. You’ve already experienced nothing.

    What happend before you where born will happen again when you die, very simple yet very true, your brain will not exist, therefore you can’t think, dream or anything, there wont be darkness, YOU won’t exist, the human mind is not capeable of thinking of “Nothing” since we can’t experience while alive, thinking about it might feel panicing however, but as said, when you die you will no longer exist.

  32. You are an animal, when you die that animal is dead. The end. The fact you assholes think there’s more is a complete fabrication. When you die an animal died. Look at your ears, they look ridiculous, look at your balls they are retarded looking, look at your nose. If we were designed wouldn’t we be way better designed? We are terribly designed! Because we were not designed, we evolved and ended up this way. If you say there’s a god that made us, fuck you, you are a dumbass.

  33. nhom mua…

    […]So, Nothing Happens When You Die? « Gospel of Reason[…]…

  34. So you think animals have conversations such as these?

  35. BDon I think you are ignorant and extremely immature and insensitive – this is an intelligent blog for intelligent interesting discussions – everybody has a different perspective and we should respect that. If people think there’s a god then let them they’re harming no-one (unless they’re crazy god people of course fundamentalists etc.) also some people have been through extremely traumatic life events and having a faith gets them things.You’re predictable and boring and unlike other entries on this blog offer no interesting opinion whatsoever. ps – i think ears are cute, noses too and there’s nothing wrong with a nice -looking scrotum – maybe you’re just damn ugly. you are an unevolved scrotum.

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