Why would life be meaningless without an afterlife?

August 16, 2009 9:53 pm Published by 12 Comments
This is something I just don’t understand. I’ve heard it said numerous times (and recently from a friend of mine) that without an afterlife, life is pointless and/or meaningless. To which I respond, “huh?”

I guess the argument is that, if the afterlife doesn’t exist, then your experiences in life are meaningless because your soul won’t live on forever. But that’s like saying that you shouldn’t bother to paint your house because it’s just going to be torn down some day, or you shouldn’t send someone an e-mail because it’ll eventually get deleted.

I don’t believe in souls or any version of an afterlife (in case you’re new here) and from my perspective, this issue is completely the opposite of what theists believe. Doesn’t an eternal afterlife make this life much less meaningful?

 

When you don’t believe in an afterlife, you realize that this life is all there is, and you need to make the most of it that you can. You only get one shot, so make it a good one.

But if there’s no afterlife, doesn’t that mean that your “essence” — your life experiences, knowledge, and personality — are gone for good once you die? Well, yes and no; mostly yes. When you die, what’s left behind are the things and people you had an affect on,

If you had a family, you shaped their lives, and hopefully they’ll miss you and remember you. It’s a bit of a cliché, but you sort of live on in your children, if you have any. Through their lives, you shape their minds and personalities, you educate them, you help determine what they’ll do with their lives.

If you’re a teacher in any capacity, you affect many more lives, but naturally have much less of an affect than a parent does on their children. Teachers try to pass on the knowledge they’ve accumulated to their students.

Or maybe you write, or create art, or dig a ditch. Each of us leaves their mark on the world around them in some way.

However, all of this is impermanent. Eventually your writing will be lost, your art will deteriorate, your ditch will erode. The students you taught as a teacher will eventually forget you or die. Your children and their children will (hopefully) miss you, but their memories of you will fade with time, and as new generations are created, you’ll be forgotten; how many people out there even know the names of their great-great grandparents?

We all leave our mark on the world in some way, but inevitably nearly all of us will be forgotten. So does that mean we shouldn’t bother?

Hell no.

That just means that we need to make the most out of the time we have. Don’t just sit and mindlessly watch television. Experience life. Go see new things, go read new books, watch strange movies, learn about the world around you, and soak up every bit of what life has to offer. Create new things, pass on your knowledge, influence the future of humanity in any way you can (in a positive way, of course).

Consider chaos theory: even the tiniest changes now can alter the course of future events. If you’re a force for positive change in life, you’ll affect the future in minor, positive ways. And the more people who realize that all they can do is live life to the fullest to affect the world in their own small way, the better the future will be. It’s sort of like a non-supernatural version of Karma in a lot of ways.

To me, an afterlife greatly diminishes the value of living life at all. Why learn new things if “all will be revealed” when you die? The worst part is that most versions of the afterlife are thought to be places of perfection, where every desire is granted, all pains are lifted, and everyone is rejoined with their loved ones and deities. Why care so much about this life if the next one is so much better? And why do theists mourn their dead if they’re going on to a better place where we’ll presumably be able to join them one day?

If Heaven is real, then what is life, besides just an obstacle to be tolerated until you die, or a waiting room to sit and read old magazines in until the doctor is ready to see you? Far too often, I see people just biding their time until death. People put up with jobs they hate, people they’re tired of, and don’t care about the world around them.

But doesn’t a belief in an afterlife help people deal with the fact that they’re going to die someday? No, not really. The most glaringly obvious point against that idea is that by telling people that there’s an afterlife, you’re really telling them that they’re not going to die, at least not completely. If you never get used to the idea that you’re going to die, then it seems to me that you’re much less likely to live your life to the fullest, because you don’t really believe that it’s going to end. To me, that’s the greatest evil perpetrated by religion, though that’s obviously not the intention.

Getting used to the idea that there is no afterlife, and that once you’re dead you’re really dead, is difficult. I certainly haven’t. Maybe you never do. But that’s true no matter what you believe about death. In all likelihood, dying will always be scary, and losing loved ones will always be painful.

As an afterthought, I should point out that I realize that my examples of “living life to the fullest” are very utopian and probably unattainable. Am I living my life to the fullest? Nope. Is anyone? Maybe, but it’s rare. Living life to the fullest is an ideal, a goal. In fact, it’s a pretty vague and indefinable concept.

The real Heaven is a life well-lived, and perhaps the meaning of life is to leave the world better than it was when you entered it.

So it goes.

Wherein I solicit validation from strangers:

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This post was written by Bevans

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