I have been an Atheist for about four years now. I’ve always found difficulty in believing the existence of such things as gods, demons, angels, spirits, and so on. The religion I abandoned, Christianity, gave no accurate explanations for how we came to be, both humanity and the universe, only mythologies that sounded more like the fairytales my mother read me as I failed to sleep. Even as a child the most of the myths sounded off; especially the one about God ordering Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, only to suddenly burst out an angle proclaiming that it was just a simple test of faith—one that is overtly elaborate, and undoubtedly a permanent trauma for the unfortunate Isaac. Hence, leaving Christianity and to join all the other faiths came quite easily. Save for one obstacle: the horror of approaching oblivion.
In presently popular religions, there always exist some forms of an afterlife. Christians and Muslims with their Heavens and Hells, Buddhists and Hindus with their endless reincarnations, et cetera. Atheists do not believe in these concepts. In our eyes, when we die, that’s all there is to it. Our brains and bodies cease to function, along with the consciousness we prize highest of all; all the elements we’ve lived with throughout our lives.
I did not mind leaving the Christian God, and all the sense of security he provides. Yet knowing that one day no trace of myself, the ones that matter to me, would be left, save for a rotting corpse gnawed on by maggots halted my steps. No one wants to die, but even more so when that death is permanent.
I was unprepared for the realization of an everlasting death. For tz]oo long—sixteen years of my twenty-one year-long life—have I been reassured that life goes on, even after we perish. And that this later state of being is the one that matters to us and to the gods we believe in. But with that belief gone, so does my formerly firm determination on faithlessness. My disbelief of the supernatural began to waver out of a selfish need for an endlessness that I was sure did not exist, yet its claws had begun to cling themselves to my mind. What use are all the deeds I’ve done, the goals I hope to one day fulfill, if I would not be allowed to savor their rewards? I would be akin to a farmer planting crops that he knows he would never see ripen.
But I was looking at the problem from the wrong angle. What value actually lies in eternity? Yes, I would see all the accomplishments I’ve made time and time again, however I would also suffer the misfortune of witnessing them crumble into nothing before my immaterial eyes. Of course, meeting my deceased loved ones would be a wonderful occasion, though considering that each afterlife is an exclusive club for very specific and devout followers, this possibility seems unlikely to be rewarding as well. With these considerations and more, the puzzle turns into something different, a question of how truly valuable is a life if it is only a temporary state of existence? In my humble opinion, that value would be very close to nil.
What kind of a price can we place on the temporary? Why should we struggle to survive and thrive in this world if there is a certainty that another, one that is guaranteed to be better if we can meet its criteria, would follow? Why value our fellow men, if when they die, we’d one day meet them again anyway? Perhaps on better terms.
According to religious dogma, we should be kind, just, assiduous lest we wish to be burned (though the type of punishment depends entirely on which type of Hell you believe in). Yet consider the hypocrisy that underlies that statement, one which profoundly showcases a particular aspect which can be perceived as the false moral worth of religion. If the only reason we are good is the overarching fear of divine punishment, then are we truly noble? Or are we no better than opportunists hungry for the reward of a wonderful afterlife? Whichever the answer might be, if one guides himself with such a moral compass, then virtue does not run through his blood, in its place are greed and lust for what he does not deserve.
Now consider the absence of an afterlife. There would be no benefit, no promise of a reward, even if one becomes saintly. Breaking-off our last piece of stale bread as we lay starving warrants nothing in return. No matter how righteously we carry ourselves, we will never relish any eternal rewards, only the ones present in here, on this planet which, likewise, will one day be wiped out from the universe. However depressing these thoughts might be, they express the importance of our brief existence.
When—if you believe things the way that I do—we die and cease to be, we have reached the time limit to do all we can for the whole of our lives. And life passes rather quickly. One moment you’re a toddler struggling to stand upright, the next you’re a teenager trying desperately to get laid, then you’re an adult looking for worthwhile careers and perhaps partners in life. Until near the end, when our hairs have grayed, and all we do is stand on the front porch waiting for what is inevitable. In all these phases of life, the coming of an eternal slumber continues to trail after us. The promise of an afterlife is comforting for those who tremble before the dark, but perhaps a little in the excess.
There is a certain kind of urgency that occupies the mind when one is made aware of an unavoidable finale. Such awareness instills subtle fears, panic, but also a yearning to do as much as we can with the meager time we have. Resulting in us attempting to carry out as many tasks as we can—be they good or bad—through this short period. For if there is no continuation to life, then there can be no more chances to fulfill our aspirations.
Transience engenders an unquenchable thirst to act, and to do so with utmost sincerity. Since for those who do not believe in an afterlife, the only rewards we will ever reap are the ones in the here and now. The smiles and gratitudes—in whatever form—granted by the people we meet are the sole gifts available to us; and there is no assurance that we would be further remunerated in the future. There would be no dozens of virginal women, no seats by the side of God assuredly waiting for us. In their stead are whatever we are endowed by our own brethren.
For now I can say with confidence that I am grateful to be mortal, to be a fleeting human. Without this acknowledgement of a bitter-sweet truth, I would not be who I am today. I would not pour out all my energy on my writings, my education, even my futsal games, even though I have repeatedly failed spectacularly on each of those pursuits. My friends, my family, my nephews and nice, and who knows who else I’ll one day hold dear, each and everyone of them are priceless, as I would never be able to spend an eternity with them; one has only so many years to spend with his loved ones, and it is never pleasant to part with them without hope of a later reunion.
But life must have an end. Everlasting life as a reward is a paradox, for it devalues all aspects of life; the ones that have scorched our hearts, and the ones that have showered it in delight. An endless prolongation, either in the form of a spiritual hereafter, or a ceaseless cycle of being placed in different bodies and species, underwhelms the gravity of life. Appreciation most often comes with scarcity. Why should we treat what is always available as exceptional? If life is such a thing, then it is a surprise that we have not treated it with triviality.