Atheism & 'The Afterlife'
Hi, I'm an atheist, and I dislike the word "afterlife."
My husband and I both strongly disbelieved consciousness survived physical death. We thought life was "purely biological," an electrical impulse, our bodies temporarily animated for as long as we lived only to cease forever at the far-flung future moment during which one or ideally both of us would simultaneously die.
It wasn't a taboo subject as such, since we talked about everything and everything there ever was to discuss. Nothing was off limits, and nothing made us uncomfortable. But the notion of an "afterlife" to us was as preposterous as unicorns or genies or things of that nature.
In the course of being alive, we predictably encountered people who thought otherwise. I'd witnessed people on Facebook who'd suffered grave losses speaking of interaction with dead people, and naturally assumed those people had been driven to such distress they'd begun hallucinating. It was very sad to observe, and despite losing people I cared about, the idea of "life after death" never held any great appeal to me.
I understand that some people have "death anxiety," but once I accepted that consciousness ends when your physical body dies, I never experienced that angst. As far as I was concerned, my consciousness would blink out and any unease would go with it. This is actually more soothing than you might think, because you wouldn't have to really worry about future calamity for which you wouldn't be present or helplessly observing from afar.
Anyway, obviously I'm writing this because my husband died. Unexpectedly. And pretty young.
When that happened, changing my mind was not something I considered. People expressed an opinion he was "looking down," and I smiled politely. (He has a whole foot on me, he was always looking down at me anyway.)
The idea consciousness survived death wasn't all that compelling since by that rationale, he was "in the afterlife," and I was stuck here shopping at Target. It still eludes me people think the concept is an immediate balm to grieving people, for that reason.
There were some unusual experiences, experiences I chalked up to grief-induced hallucinations. I didn't turn to religion, and I took some comfort in the idea materialist atheists like us maintained connections without a heaven; I thought of Carl Sagan's wife Ann Druyan, and a longer commentary of hers resonated with me. It concluded:
"I don't think I'll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.”
One thing I felt pretty sure about was that he was my person, and I didn't really want another person. And so I did what I do when something is new and scary -- I researched. I researched death, dying, and what people who do and have come close to it say and said. Was it painful? Blissful?
This is where things got weird. I'm a debunker, a professional skeptic. I knew that James Randi offered a million dollar prize to anyone who could prove ... well, something. What was it, anyway? Whatever it was, no one took the money so it was all fake (this is the crux of what you'll hear on Facebook about it).
I knew well how mediums fleeced the gullible, how easy it was for a skilled charlatan to use a few generalized comments to pretend to be talking to the dead. I knew that if anyone had ever done that for real -- which was impossible -- they'd be all over the news.
I knew that near-death experiences were a "new age" fantasy, the by-product of dying neurons creating tunnel vision and auditory hallucinations. Those had been thoroughly debunked. I read it somewhere ... hadn't I?
As it turns out, I'd never really looked all that closely, even being a person whose job involves some degree of both rigor and public scrutiny. If I were wrong, people would castigate me on Twitter, or send emails, usually both. So I was used to checking and double checking my work, being extra-cautious when it came to contested matters, never leaning on what I believed I knew.
It started with NDEs, which were not how skeptics had described them -- descriptions that created a barrier between the actual accounts and my body of knowledge. I'd believed them to be nonsensical and fantastical; they were not. I understood them to be a phenomenon among the religious -- but atheists and agnostics were as likely to have them.
Hundreds and hundreds of NDEs, and none were "simply a tunnel" or hallucinations of a religious figure. They were specific, compelling, they shared elements.
It was weird. I talked to doctors, science people, people who worked with death. Off the record, they had a lot more to say. There was research, real research, research I'd been led to believe simply didn't exist. And if I hadn't been really looking, I'd have never seen it at all.
Part of it was probably that word, "afterlife," which to me was inextricably linked with woo and worse, denial. Comforting lies about sky mansions and beloved pets moving to a farm upstate. Childish.
It was all very confusing, so I thought about the central focus of my fellow skeptics' ire -- mediums. If anything were true, it was that mediums were phonies. Obviously, the most reasonable course of action would be to visit with one, because I'm good at my job. Polite, but I know when something was "cold reading" or "hot reading."
It would be hard to explain to most people how unwelcome this knowledge would be. For all I knew, it didn't necessarily help to consider maybe consciousness survived death. Even if it did, and it didn't, my husband was still dead.
So I paid through a proxy and used a different name, and talked to the medium over the phone. Going in I was really unguarded, because I was still pretty certain the evidence I had seen was just aberrant, not indicative of any bigger picture.
And as you may have guessed, she changed my mind. There's no way for me to prove how unconvinced I was going in to it, possibly a testament to my conviction at the time. It wasn't brief; it was hours. And it wasn't relevant to one aspect of my life, she knew details of every area of my life -- details that were not available through cold or hot reading.
Eventually, she told me that none of those reasons (all very extensively described areas of importance) were why I called, and I said no. She asked me who my husband was, using his whole first name -- not an initial. She told me I didn't call him that, which was true, and followed with a very precise detail known only to me and him. (When I later told our closest friends, they were shocked they didn't know about it.)
Another hour. More details, many, many more details than you could possibly imagine. Enough to convince a person whose job is debunking things. Enough to render the research I'd done irrelevant. Enough to reverse a lifetime of materialism, and to drown out Ann Druyan.
I was talking to my husband -- or, more accurately, my husband was talking to me. It wasn't
even a miracle, it was just a facet of reality I'd heretofore not encountered. After a lengthy conversation I finally hung up the phone and I understood.
There was no gradual change or crisis of conscience or transition period. It was apparent and I was aware that my husband -- while "dead" -- was exactly the same, could always see and hear me, and wasn't far away at all.
Oddly, nothing much changed besides that. I'm still an atheist, I'm still a skeptic, I haven't joined a religion or disavowed the majority of my old convictions. I still believe in science and climate change and vaccinations and peer-review and Carl Sagan. (Who can also see and hear us, and probably has a ton of stuff to tell his wife. )
Somewhere along the line, "science-minded," "skeptical," and "atheist" became oddly linked with a denial consciousness survives death, so much so that I went over 20 years as an adult with no idea such compelling evidence indicated otherwise.
But atheism and skepticism are not inherently in conflict with evidence you may find or witness indicating consciousness survives death. Perhaps the most shocking thing to me was that the evidence wasn't even that hard to find -- you just have to look for it, and look at it.