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Ask An Atheist: What happens after death?

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By Jim Downard

Where do you believe you go after death? I am a Catholic who believes in reincarnation and was wondering if Atheists do as well.

I don’t believe in an afterlife (though I’d have no objections to it, and would definitely be happy to know Schubert and Van Gogh made it, two great artists who died feeling themselves rather big failures).  All the atheists I know of don’t believe in afterlives either, but I’m not aware of surveys on this insofar as nonbelievers are concerned generally.  Some atheists of a Buddhist proclivity might have such beliefs, for example.

It should be noted that the afterlife thing is distinct from whether we have an incorporeal spirit (rather than that we are what it is our brains do, and that being that which dies with us).  It could still be theoretically possible for survival after death or reincarnation to occur naturally, perhaps by some transdimensional interconnectedness, but that seems rather an ad hoc stretch and I see no reason to think that is so.  Similarly, an omnipotent deity could theoretically reconstitute one’s mind in an afterlife even if we lack actual extraphysical spirits in this life, but that again is a pretty ad hoc way to support what it is that one wants to be so.

Neither of those hypotheticals (or reincarnation) square with the standard Christian notions of sprits or afterlife, so trying to plug that into the frame seems yet another ad hoc tinkering.  It is fair to say that the anecdotal stories of reincarnation occur within cultures that believe in that.  Ghost tales are more general, and pervade Christian culture as a holdover of prior belief.

Jim Downard

About Jim Downard

Jim Downard is a Spokane native (with a sojourn in Southern California back in the early 1960s) who was raised in a secular family, so says had no personal faith to lose.

He's always been a history and science buff (getting a bachelor's in the former area at what was then Eastern Washington University in the early 1970s).

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