Hopelessness and Death: I Have No Problem With It

20 August, 2008

Had an interesting conversation with a friend over the last few weeks regarding atheism and death.  His comments (condensed version here (and he agrees with my condensed version)) echo what I have read on the internet:  “With no eternal life, you must feel hopeless.  If you aren’t living your life for God, what’s the point?”  I’m not going to repeat the entire conversation (I don’t think I can even remember the whole conversation), but I am going to riff off of it.

Four points in those two short sentences:

1.  “With no eternal life.”

I am now 42 years old (okay, plus 8 months).  Everything that happened before January, 1966, is before my time.  I expect to live another 30 to 50 years (longer, hopefully).  Everything that happens after my death is after my time. 

Eternity is infinite time, a duration of time without beginning or end.  Given that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old, and the earth is about 4.54 billion years, that’s a long time.   Humanity evolved to its present form, Homo Sapiens sapiens, around 80 to 100,000 years ago.  Prior to that time, we did not, as a species, exist.  The earliest human burials date to around 35,000 years ago (burials would tend to suggest a belief of an afterlife). Christianity, in a recognizable modern form, is only about 1,700 years old.

Seventeen billion years is a long time.  So is (to a human lifespan) 1,700 years.  But it still is not infinite.  For any human, living in the 21st century of the Common Era, to have a magic eternal life, that human would have to not only predate Christianity, but also predate belief in the afterlife, humanity, mammals, the earth, and the universe.  My friend’s claim to an eternal soul which will live on in heaven brings up an interesting point:  he claims to have already lived an eternity prior to his birth. 

What was he doing all that time?  I would tend to think he was drinking beer (invented about 5,000 years ago) and eating chicken wings (chickens were probably domesticated around 8,000 years ago in Thailand).  The math works if he is a Young Earth Creationist;  but he’s not.  He accepts evolution and, though he confesses to not understanding the math, accepts the Big Bang Theory as an acceptable (and probable) explanation for the beginning of the universe. 

So he has lived an eternity.  But is about my age.  And doesn’t have the wisdom (sorry, X) which an eternity of life before birth could have given him.  He agreed to think about the absurdity of eternal life.

2.  “You must feel hopeless.”

I’ve always found this one of the more interesting theist views about atheists:  that we have no hope.  Theists (and I mean primarily Christians (because that’s who I have the most contact with)) seem to think that, without an afterlife, there is no hope, no point, in life itself. 

So why should belief in an afterlife give hope?  It’s always seemed to me that, given the impossibility of actually following all of the rules in the Bible, Christianity itself is hopeless.  It is a game which is impossible to win.  Stone someone to death for working on God’s day and you seem to run up against ‘Thou shalt not kill.’  Try finding clothing which doesn’t mix threads.  Does the right-wing worship of Ronald Reagan count as a violation of ‘Thou shalt have no gods before me’?

I discussed with him, at length, the impossibility of living up to the standards set forth.  We also discussed the contradictions.  We both agree that the Bible is muddled.  His take on this now:  “The Bible was translated by man, so it has mistakes.”  My take is:  “The Bible was created by man, so it has mistakes.”  I view this as progress.

3.  If you aren’t living your life for God.

 Who actually lives their life for god(s)?  A priest, nun, pastor, hermit, the crazy guy with the signs?  Someone who goes to church daily?  A couple who have decided that ‘be fruitful and multiply’ is the most important teaching?

One of the most useful things my father ever said to me was:  “The key to happiness in life is find something you like to do and then find someone stupid enough to pay you for doing it.”  In America, people really can choose what makes them happy and pursue that happiness.  I love history and have found a job in public history. 

So what about people who are devoting their lives to god(s)?  Dobson enjoys telling people what they can and cannot do, telling people how to vote, telling people who to hate, and he has found a way to do that and get rich.  Many people find happiness in church — it tells them they are the good people, they are the saved, the elect.  Admittedly the payment for all that church time will come later (if at all), but it makes them happy now.

I would submit that people who are (in their own mind) living their life for god(s) are pursuing happiness the same way that I pursue happiness in my history books.  The same way Ric pursues happiness through writing, cats and vermouth.  The same way PhillyChief pursues happiness through sports and art.  The same way the Ordinary Girl pursues happiness through sunrises, and the Exterminator through wordplay and his wife.

People try to do what makes them happy.  A person living their life for god(s) is just as selfish as anyone else on earth.  A minister has found his calling?  Bullshit.  A minister has found an occupation in which he or she is paid for doing something he or she enjoys.

If you are doing something you dislike because you think that it is god(s) plan for you, that you are living your life for god(s), you have my sympathy.  Find something you enjoy and do it.  My friend likes the idea (and he said “I’m good at drinking beer and eating wings.  Who’ll pay me for doing that?).

4.  What’s the point?

As I’m sure most of you know, I am a naturalistic atheist.  If I do not understand a process, I look for the answer in the natural world.  I do not insert god(s) into the gaps of my knowledge.  For me, as for any other life form on the planet, the point of life is simple:  procreate.  Yes, folks, I just said that fucking (or whatever sexual activity creates the young’uns) is the ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything.

From the smallest prion (which may or may not be alive (last I checked, the jury was still out  on these self-replicating proteins)) to protozoa to plankton to flobberworms to planeria to earthworms to squid to elephants to me, (((Wife))), (((Boy))) and (((Girl))), our biological purpose, the point of our life, is to create the next generation ((((Boy))) and (((Girl))) — it doesn’t have to be (and better not be) right away!).  (((Wife))) and I have already done our duty to the gene pool.  We have inflicted the next generation upon the world.  We can die now.  We are (along with rats, mice and other rodents) the most successful mammals on the planet at procreating.

But humanity has evolved a brain which is able to learn, remember, and plan.  So what is the point of living past my reproductive years (which were artificially limited after (((Girl))))?  My point in living, my goals, are goals which make me happy (see number 3 above). 

I want to leave the world a better place than it was when I arrived.  I know that all I can do is nibble around the edges of the world’s problems — I have no illusions about that.  But through my job, my writing, and my firefighting, I am able to make small, yet useful, improvements to the world as a whole.

My friend still insists that his only goal in life is to make it to heaven.  To him, improvement on earth — better medical care, better food and food storage, clean energy, wliminating poverty — do not matter.  None of these will get him into heaven.  But prayer, attending church, and believing will.

I view his life (and I have told him so) as pointless.  He is willing to ignore the problems of the world, the problems of his neighbors, because it does not help him get to heaven.   I have told him so, and he disagrees.

He lives his life for god(s).  It makes him happy to do so.  Fine.

I view his life as selfish.  He is so wrapped up in trying to get to heaven that he is willing to leave the world worse-off than when he was born.  And he considers atheists selfish because we deny ourselves to god(s).

My friend and I disagree on the basics of reality.  I see a natural world explainable through natural means.  He sees a godly world with natural processes explainable through god-created natural means.  I see atheism as a natural position.  He sees atheism as hopelessness — a living death.  I see his beliefs as absurd and self-contradictory.  He will create excuse after excuse to explain away the contradictions and absurdities.  I view his life as inherently selfish, living his life for the greater glory of god(s).  He views my life as inherently selfish, living my life for immediate pleasure and screwing god(s). Dying scares me, but death does not.  I did not exist before I was born, and will not exist after I die. He is not scared of dying, but I think death scares the shit out of him because the idea of eternity is just so large it intimidates him. 

He is my friend.  I will continue to try to guide him to rationality, reality and naturalism.  He is my friend.  He will continue to try to guide me to a god(s) centred life. 

The only reason it works is that we both have a sense of humour about it.



  1. The crux of your argument and my main disagreement with this brand of Christians was summed up in these two paragraphs:

    “My friend still insists that his only goal in life is to make it to heaven. To him, improvement on earth — better medical care, better food and food storage, clean energy, wliminating poverty – do not matter. None of these will get him into heaven. But prayer, attending church, and believing will.

    I view his life (and I have told him so) as pointless. He is willing to ignore the problems of the world, the problems of his neighbors, because it does not help him get to heaven. I have told him so, and he disagrees.”

    (((Billy))), I have to agree that understanding and solving the problems of this world should be a priority. What I fail to understand is why theists of this variety don’t do more. It seems ironic that a religion that preaches giving up worldly possessions and helping the downtrodden would rather hasten the “end of the world” (see: Rapture believers) than do anything that might help their fellow man/woman/child

    Is it willful ignorance, denial, or something rooted much deeper? Perhaps a simple fear of death? In that case my disbelief has been all the more comforting because it inspires me to live my life with purpose.

  2. Billy (and friend):
    Perhaps you could both help “heaven seakers” and “Atheists” if you turned your attention to morality. It appears to be missing from most discussions (although Christians like to assume that Atheists are without morality)
    I created a new “definition” that appears on my blog/newsletter. I would hope it satisfies most thinking and responsible humans. My objective is to get Christians and Atheists together to deal with some common problems in our world.
    I find that taking the argument away from the Christians is to remove their “smoke screen” of “I believe in God and Jesus” and get right down to questions of morality. I also admit that immorality occurs on both sides of the fence. It is entirely possible that Christians privately believe that they can execute immoral acts because God is on their side and all they have to do is “confess their sins” before they die. In the meantime, what the heck!

  3. Yunshui: Tungtide: Definately a question I need to explore more fully. I think it may be that suffering is seen as either a punishment for sins, or as a ‘reward’ to strengthen faith. Either way, interfering with suffering is interfering with god(s)’ will. Additionally, the Protestant idea of salvation through faith alone divorced doing good in the world from personal salvation. It is odd, though, how accepting Christians can be of moraly intollerable situations.

    Anton: Welcome to my blog. I think that if you peruse many of the athiest blogs I frequent (notice the Atheosphere links on the right (blatant plug)), plus some of the posts I have made, tend to deal with morality. We don’t harp on it constantly, but we do deal with morality.

    This post is a case in point: while I don’t mention morality directly, I definately touch upon it in the section Yunshui quotes. Failure to help, failure to make the world a better place, failure to alleviate suffering is, to me (and while I may not state it directly) immoral.

    Again, welcome to my blog and keep on visiting.

  4. Flattered though I am to be confused with the excellent Dr Tungtide, I think you’ll find that I had little to do with that particular comment…

  5. Crap!!! I plead old person disease and will change what I said to reflect the apropriate person. Sorry, Yunshui.

  6. great article (((Billy))), I’ll bookmark it and direct any christians to it who ask those questions.

  7. Ozatheist: Thanks. I think the most intriguing one for me (and the only one that my friend found even slightly persuasive) is the one focusing upon eternity. I don’t think he had any concept about what eternity really meant.

  8. old person disease

    Is that shorthand for people who can’t remember how to spell Alzheimer’s disease? You’d think the guy would have had to courtesy to have a short name that’s easy to remember and spell. Al’s Disease works for me.

  9. No. Not quite to Alzheimer’s yet. More a problem of ‘I Have Too Much Stuff I Need To Keep Track Of and Not Enough Memory Storage To Do It’ Disease (IHTMSINTKTONEMSTDI Disease). In other words, I feel like I’m running Windows XP on a machine designed for DOS 7.12. I get lots of internal out of memory errors.

  10. Well, I’m at that place where I know the end is coming, and that it will be one of three things that does the job, just what gets there first is all.

    Some tell me that I’m being given a chance to renounce my evil ways and come to Jesus, and that I’m wasting my time with “worldly” concerns. That is, making music, interacting with and teaching the young folks, and enjoying myself.

    I’ll tell my terrible jokes, have fun, and try to give more than I take, and when they ship my carcass off to wherever the’ll use it to help mankind, I hope people will say, “Do you remember the time that the crazy ass hole said/did…” and that they laugh.

  11. Sarge: My view of death seems close to yours. I figure the only afterlife I will have is the tangible things (good and bad) I have done during my life and the memories people have of me.

  12. The memories people have of you is what really matters, isn’t it? Think about this: you consider those “worldly concerns” important enough that you’re interested in making this world a better place, rather than waiting for some fantastic afterlife. There are quite a few religious people who seem to think making this world is a better place is also a worthy goal. I can’t say I agree with ’em when it comes to religion, but if we agree on, say, helping the homeless, I think it’s more important to do what good we can and put our philosophical differences aside.
    What finally broke me away from religion was being told that non-Christians were doomed to Hell. Even now when I think about it I think how hopeless, even meaningless, the life of anyone who feels they must cling to such a belief must be. It speaks of terrible insecurity when someone feels compelled to invent an otherworldly paradise and then proceed to exclude others from it.

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