Dealing With Death

I read this piece by Greta Christina after Amanda Marcotte tweeted about it saying "The possibility of annihilation after death doesn't bother me. My ego just doesn't work that way," which is a sentiment I share in part from the afterlife stories I was raised in. More on that in a minute.

The main question Christina's article asks is whether atheism offers as much comfort in death as religion does, and her answer is, well, it depends on the individual. And I think she's right. Jehovah's Witnesses have a view of the afterlife that's unique (so far as I can tell) among the Christian faiths, at least for the vast majority of adherents. See, the Witnesses believe that there will be a limited number of people who will go to heaven after Jesus's return--that's the 144,000 that they mention from time to time--and the rest will live on earth, which will be restored to paradise conditions by the faithful who survive Armageddon, the faithful who have been resurrected from the dead who didn't make the cut for heaven, and those people who never had a chance to convert, with a helping hand from God, presumably. The big thing they offer in this vision is detail--an end to strife and war, peace even between the animals, harmony with nature, food for all, and so on. Compare that to your garden variety Christian afterlife, which offers heaven (with no detail at all) and hell (in excruciating detail).

I've asked dozens of Christians, both when I was a believer and since, what heaven is like, what they expect to find after they die, and usually I get some sort of bemused smile as a response. Often there will be some talk about being reunited with dead friends and family, but there's never any talk about what they will do in heaven. When I was a Witness, I never thought about that question because I never had any expectation of being one of the 144,000--my place was going to be on earth (and potentially, in space, proselytizing the stars--I was a weird one).

Oddly enough, my religious beliefs might have helped me transition into atheism, at least as far as an afterlife is concerned, because of what I didn't believe in. Witnesses don't believe in a burning hell. It's at odds with their concept of Jehovah as a just and loving god, and they argue that the concept of eternal torment is something added in by later churches who corrupted the True Faith (which, of course, they are the only carriers of now). So death wasn't something to be feared; it was looked at as a sleep, a period of non-existence while you waited for Jehovah to resurrect you if you were faithful. And if you weren't, well, you didn't wake up. Hell, for us, was separation from God's favor, not an eternity in burning pitch being stabbed by a demon with a pitchfork. The only punishment that an unfaithful person would receive is being left outside the party, so to speak, a feeling Witness kids knew all too well since we didn't celebrate holidays, but with the benefit that since you were dead, you wouldn't even know you'd been snubbed.

So when I left the church, I left without any worry of post-life consequences. I hadn't believed in hell before, and there was no reason for me to start now. The thing I held onto, I suppose, was the notion that this life is all there is. The only difference is that now I felt more of an impetus to actually live this life.

Which isn't to say that I don't fear death. I do, though I'm not paralyzed by it. I'm more afraid of not being able to live well, though. My grandmother spent the last ten years of her life with Alzheimer's, and my father was diagnosed with it some years ago, though his memory problems may have had more to do with pernicious anemia (we don't talk anymore, a downside of the Witness experience, so I don't know his current health situation), so I'm more freaked out about the chances I'll lose my mind than my body. I'm completely in favor of medical technology that extends life spans--I hope to live long enough that I can be transformed into a cyborg (and I'm only half-joking here). As long as I can be a viable part of the human race, I want to be here, experiencing, learning, writing, you name it. I don't want to disappear.

But I'm not afraid of what will happen once I'm gone either. Humans did just fine before I came along and will do fine afterward, and some day, I'm sure, an asteroid will hit this planet or the inhabitants will over-pollute and all die or the sun will go nova or a super-massive black hole will eat our galaxy and all evidence this planet ever existed will disappear. None of us are immortal, though we try to make ourselves so.

I comfort myself with this. Even if there isn't an afterlife, I can be pretty sure that I won't be spending it sitting on a cloud for eternity, plucking a harp. Unless that's hell.

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