I was once an agnostic Christian. Though I vaguely believed in Heaven and Hell, I supposed that people who were righteous but had refused to recite the sinner’s prayer could probably slip through the cracks. Somehow. Otherwise, I largely ignored the appalling moral quandary posed by this arbitrary, judging God.
Then Death sent me a postcard with my friend’s face and signature on it. I was forced to face not only that staggering personal loss, but the reality of death. He was a noble, intelligent gentleman — and a passionate atheist. Since his death, I’ve spent these years mentally asphyxiated by life’s cruelest riddle — what happens, if anything, after we die?
It’s rare to find an atheist who believes in the afterlife. Most atheists, through application of rational and critical thinking, reject the idea of an afterlife for similar reasons they reject the existence of gods.
These hyper-materialists argue human consciousness is established solely by structures and processes in the brain and body. When these cells and tissue are destroyed and decay, there is nothing left to carry on the processes that generated consciousness, and so it ceases to exist. Dualism between mind and body, they conclude, is false.
But an afterlife, extracted from the context of religion, regardless of whether God exists, is plausible. An atheist can reasonably believe in an afterlife that doesn’t contradict what we know about physics.
David Staume, a philosopher and secular humanist who claims to be a member of rationalist and free-thinking associations, argues thus. In his book “The Atheist Afterlife,” he proposes that the afterlife, if it exists, would be just like the dream state, except: (1) we won’t wake up, (2) it would be as real as life is now and (3) it would correlate with the actual dreaming experience, rather than the remembered dream experience.
According to Staume, the survival of consciousness might be compatible with the law of the conservation of energy; the mind surviving the death and eradication of the physical body obeys the laws of physics. Physicists widely agree that matter nor energy can be destroyed, so it would simply have to be converted or go somewhere else.
“If an afterlife exists, it must be an externalized inner reality,” he writes. If the mind is a reality, then our thoughts, emotions and memories are also objects in that reality.
These thoughts and emotions would most likely take the form of geometries. Take for example Chladni figures — when dust is sprinkled on a metal plate, and that plate is set to vibrate at different frequencies, the dust collects into various geometric shapes. This could be how immaterial thoughts and emotions — like acoustic waves — are expressed visibly.
But once the brain has rotted, where would this “dreaming” take place? Staume proposes that the survival of the consciousness makes sense with the following analogy:
A television shows channels which it receives from broadcast signals produced by the television station. If you bust apart the television with a sledge hammer, it will — obviously — not be showing programs anymore. But no one assumes that the shows no longer exist; the station, far away, is still casting invisible broadcast signals, they simply aren’t being expressed by the television set.
Likewise, the body could be like a television or radio; when a person’s body dies, it’s not unreasonable to theorize that their consciousness is still being “broadcast,” but cannot any longer be expressed through their body.
So where is this metaphorical television station? If the mind is outside the brain, it would exist in another dimension — a place that is at right angles to the other three dimensions. The mind would exist both “within” and “without” our bodies at the same time.
If the afterlife is the domain of thoughts, emotions and memories, then reasonably we can assume that it will match our expectations — if someone was full of hate in this life, their afterlife will only be filled with hate. If someone was full of love, then there will be love in their afterlife.
If consciousness exists after the body dies, we must assume it existed before the body came into being. Hence, reincarnation is necessary if this theory is to remain consistent.
But this is all just conjecture that has yet to be exposed to the rigours of scientific inquiry. In the very least, nonbelievers can have reasonable assurance that they and their loved ones will carry on after their mortal coils — without the need for religion.