Ask An Atheist: Is there an afterlife?

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Q. Is there an afterlife?

A.As someone who is a practical materialist, who does not believe we possess any supernatural spirit apart from the self-awareness generated in our brains, and who furthermore does not believe in any supernatural deities, my answer is a general no. But there are layers to this chain that need some clarifying. The universe is a pretty amazing place as is our own consciousness, and it could very well be (though I suspect it is not) the case that in some dimensional context, the entity that is our personality might in some sense persist. This could be true quite independently of any religious context, simply as part of the natural, material workings, along with quantum physics and relativity.

Likewise, we could exist in a theistically-evolved condition, still totally material in all such ways, lacking an incorporeal soul, but even that would not preclude some deity reconstituting our personal selves in an afterlife (after all, miracles can have no bounds). Again, I don't believe that is going to happen, but it is relevant to remind everyone that afterlives and gods and material brain functions are not logically coupled in the ways that Cartesian dualists might imagine.

Many cultures don't presume an afterlife for all, including the Sumerians and even the Old Testament Jews. Though by the time Jesus came along, the Hebrew tradition had been bumping into a Hellenistic worldview where common soldiers were looking forward to their slot in the Elysian Fields, and had evidently incorporated the general idea as a given. Belief in an afterlife (dealt with exceptional vagueness in the New Testament) suggests to me more how religions can evolve over time, aiming more and more to have a set of tenets that believers would like to be true.



What do you want to Ask an Atheist? Submit your questions online or fill out the form below. 


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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  1. Until we understand how consciousness works (and we don’t), we simply do not have enough information to answer this question.

    So far however, the evidence is quite strong that consciousness is a process that the body engages in (mostly involving the brain). The reason we know this is because of multiple lines of evidence, that basically add up to the observation that if you change the brain you change consciousness.

    If you want to do a fun experiment on this. Go drink a half a bottle of wine and report back on how chemically altering the also alters your experience of consciousness. If you are a tea-totaller, ask an anesthesiologist how this works.

    This is however, a CORELLATION, and you may remember in your 10th grade science class that correlation does not prove causation. So there is some room for doubt. The thing is, once you understand the mechanics of the brain the doubt gets smaller and smaller. And given that ALL efforts have FAILED to explain how a non-physical soul could change the physical processes of the brain, the doubt get’s smaller still.

    So, for those of you who like drawing on an inside straight, go ahead and believe in the existence of a soul.

    Personally, I wouldn’t take that bet, but then I have the great benefit of not being committed to any strong ideological opinion on the matter (unless you consider – “look at the evidence” to be an ideology).

    So all that said, no. The chances of there being an afterlife do seem extremely poor.

    Personally I’m sort of glad. Living forever doesn’t sound too appealing to me. I would like to live a few thousand years though. Life is good.

    Ah well, we don’t often get what we wish for.

  2. humm, looks to me like you just validated theist while invalidating atheist there Jimbo, I like the “no there is no afterlife” followed but the universe is full of possibilities. I predict that Jim is pulling a Hitchens hedge in secret, will try to swing in and time his belief perfectly

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