I know many of you are consciously or unconsciously worried about death. The more you deny this fact though, the more it hovers over your head, waiting to shake you like a tree that has been plucked freshly from the soil. I also know many of you will have beliefs regarding the course of your fate after this earthly moment of life, but you may have wondered about us poor atheists, and how wretched we must feel, recognizing the fact that we have no home return to after our vessel has sunk.
I don’t wish to convince you of the philosophical incoherence of any view of the afterlife, I’ll save that for another day. Today I feel raw and passionate. Hence, I want to paint a portrait for you, of how there is actually a spring of comfort that godless creatures may tap into; there is no reason to fear what’s to come. Note: this works for the religious just as well, because if you only imagine that you are incorrect about your beliefs, you will realize that the worst case scenario (which is the atheist’s reality) is truly not so bad! (A real win-win).
Now that I can welcome you to the atheist’s world, let me show you around. To start, there are no ‘spiritual entities’, things like a ‘divine plan’, ‘events that cannot be explained’, and certainly no hanging out with God’s angels, or roasting your butt in Satan’s furnace – depending. On our tour, you begin to fill in the details. You connect the dots and shriek: “You mean to tell me that we just rot in the ground – game over?”.. “A+” I exclaim, “for listening comprehension”.
Warning: what I am about to say may blow your mind. Turn on some epic music, take a deep breath, anything – just get in the right mindset to contemplate the universe.
When you die, no matter how much pain or suffering you endure, even if for months, peace or relief is on its way. For some this is the only thing they wish for in their last days, but let’s imagine that you aren’t going out in a blaze. What happens next for the atheist is that they begin to decompose. The friendly appendages of the earth tickle you in the soil, the worms and little bugs make use of your body; they are sure not to waste the gift mother nature has given them.
(Sunlight reaching to the forest floor)
At some point in this cycle, ‘you’, ‘John’, ‘Sarah’, have your atoms dispersed in various things: part of you is perhaps now growing into a plant. Your other atoms are in bugs, soil, animals, etc. Of course, there is no real identity between you as a human-being and the various things your scattered atoms join…but what about being part of the process of life itself? I think that’s rather wicked. When you blur the boundary between yourself as an individual and the photons of light, or pigments of soil, or molecules of air, you realize you’re just a minute part of a grander phenomena. What better way to ease the anxiety of death?
(We can see here there was something to Dane Cook’s joke about his fear of being part of a tree after death, as an atheist, and being chopped down to print a bunch of copies of the Bible).
This careful passing on of your atoms however is ensured by a wonderful scientific law: the conservation of energy. Nothing is destroyed, merely recycled. Perhaps you’ve already uttered, “ew, bugs”, but this is just the start of a wonderful process! After decomposing, your atoms will never be part of one body again; they’ve already integrated themselves into other things. This is where my notion of what happens to us becomes fuzzy, but it does become clear again, when stars explode.
The ultimate fate though is easier to explain. Our sun will blow up in 5 billion years, converting everything on this planet that was solid into a hot cloud of gas – star dust. Our scattered atoms now become part of a fiery stellar-cloud – just one of many in the vast universe.
If you are scratching your head, wondering what comfort there is in this…just ask yourself this question and start prodding around: that cloud of star dust created us, so who or what could it create next, given endless time? I don’t like getting mystical, but there is no incoherence in the thought that our matter embodied another form of life at some point, maybe even a more highly developed one. This to me, is very comforting. Life is not black and white – you do not vanish or turn into an animal or angel. Rather, you integrate, bind, dissolve, and become..and if anything is proof of this, remember, you are right here, right now, breathing and alive thanks to these processes I mentioned.
We are made of Stars – Moby