What do agnostic people think about the afterlife?
January 30, 2004 11:23 AM   Subscribe

Being agnostic, what are some people's thoughts regarding life after death. Where to people go, spiritually or otherwise, after they die? More inside...

My grandfather passed away very suddenly, and my family is mostly a religious sort and they all think he's in heaven...but...I'm curious what other religions or philosophies might believe.
posted by grefo to Religion & Philosophy (21 answers total)
grefo: I am sure everyone is sorry for your loss, but this is not the place for this sort of question, which is why your first post was deleted.
posted by terrapin at 11:51 AM on January 30, 2004

Personally, I believe that whatever happens after one dies--and something does happen, whether it's the molecules that makes you you decomposing and reforming with other molecules to make something different or the translation to some other form of consciousness--one simply cannot attempt to successfully anticipate it, one can only experience it. At that time one's life experiences--including memories of good times and the loved ones one is leaving behind--will be there to help the person welcome, and not fear, the one experience that everyone, ultimately, has in common.
posted by WolfDaddy at 11:58 AM on January 30, 2004

Around Christmas time I found myself thinking a lot about this topic, and I came up with my own philosophy of sorts. I'm not sure that I'll be able to explain it well, but it's worth a try. The beliefs that precluded Christianity in Europe contained many ideas of rebirth, but these were primarily on a physical level. (A good example of this being the old Christmas tradition of Mummer's plays, which involve the death and revival of a character). These beliefs can be understood in terms of nature (the year 'dying' in Winter and being 'reborn' in Spring) or in terms of the death of a human body (a man dying, decomposing, and being 'reborn' as the soil that nurtures new life). Christianity eventually adopted some of these beliefs, using Jesus's death and rebirth as a metaphor symbolizing the [hoped for] rebirth and cleansing of the human soul following death. Personally, I have a much easier time accepting and finding comfort in the idea of physical 'rebirth' as our atoms re-form into new life and new parts of the earth than in the more incredible and abstract Christian ideas of death. Hopefully some of this makes sense...
posted by bubukaba at 12:00 PM on January 30, 2004

Speaking as a lifelong atheist: death is final - there is nothing beyond our earthly life. What remains, however, is the joy, the love, the humor, the smile of those who have died. Remember and cherish the good things about your grandfather - tell other family members favorite memories and stories. Make a charitable contribution in your grandfather's name to continue whatever legacy he wanted to leave behind.

Bodies die -- people remain.
posted by davidmsc at 12:01 PM on January 30, 2004

"A broken pot of earth, ah, who can piece again?
So too, to mourn the dead is nought but labor vain.
No friends' lament can touch the ashes of the dead.
Why should I grieve? He fares the way he had to tread."
posted by monju_bosatsu at 12:15 PM on January 30, 2004

Response by poster: Terrapin, I didn't realize my first post had been deleted. I merely assumed that I had hit a wrong button.

Nonetheless, I'm at peace with the turn of events, and I could have phrased the question differently. Perhaps, "What do non-Judeo-Christians believe happens after death?"

posted by grefo at 12:21 PM on January 30, 2004

Google is probably a better place to search for answers to questions like this.
posted by Galvatron at 12:41 PM on January 30, 2004

I agree with Galvatron. Google and/or a library are better places for such philosphical questions.
posted by terrapin at 12:48 PM on January 30, 2004

Most of us have no problem understanding that we didn't exist before we were conceived. What makes it so hard to accept that we won't exist after we die?
posted by kindall at 12:50 PM on January 30, 2004

What makes it so hard to accept that we won't exist after we die?

Our perception of time. The present seems real to us in a way that the past and future do not (and the past and future seem less real in different ways). Yet physics gives no indication of any difference between past, present, and future; the idea that there is a present which is somehow real in a way that the past and the future are not makes no more sense to a physicist than it would to say that "here" is real in a way that "there" is not.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:00 PM on January 30, 2004

Kindall - this is a fascinating point, I have been thinking about it alot. Do you know of any reading/literature on the subject? The inability of a human consciousness to comprehend its own non-existence in the "future", except in a very abstract way - thus the creation of all the myths, religions etc. Mind blowing stuff.
posted by ac at 2:02 PM on January 30, 2004

I've always wondered why people even ask this question. I just don'geddit. When you're gone, you're gone and you don't care anymore. You only live on in other people's heads.

On preview: ...and you Google-cache.
posted by bonehead at 3:00 PM on January 30, 2004

You live on in other people's memories and thoughts, but I believe a non-tangible part of you does keep on going somewhere. If you believe you'll go somewhere after death (heaven, hell, etc....) I believe you'll go there.
My grandmother used to say that the day you were born, the day that you were going to die was written in a big big book somewhere...maybe we become the writers of that book?

Sorry about your grandpa, grefo...i do believe he's somewhere, and if he believed he was going to heaven, then I think he's there.
posted by amberglow at 3:25 PM on January 30, 2004

My answer is not going to be popular at all, but you asked so I'll answer. As an atheist my belief is that your grandfather's death means that everything he was - contained entirely within his neural network - has been obliterated. Because each of us has a perceptual universe that is seperate from the actual, our death represents the complete termination of that perceptual universe. With your grandfather's perceptual universe having ceased, it is now - from his perspective - as if he never existed in the first place.

Other people find this view difficult - to adopt the vantagepoint that a life which ends is a vanity, but I find it helps to accept the death of my friends and family as excoriation by the universe for my own failings in searching for a cure to death.
posted by Ryvar at 4:08 PM on January 30, 2004

Oh, but there are so many fine lines Ryvar. My grandfather has Alzheimer's and his perceptual universe has changed so much it seems unfair to say that he is still himself (he forgets his own children) Is he dead? If so when exactly did he die?

In any case, if we cease to exist then our own death should not matter to us at all. Death is only present as a fear we have while we are alive.

As regards the death of others, all that's left in the human universe is our memories of them, their character, their unique charms. And if that is so, it is not too much different, from our perspective, whether they died or just went away on a long vacation.... :)
posted by vacapinta at 4:23 PM on January 30, 2004

Indeed, kindall's point is something I think about a lot. The void need not be terrifying. But if there's antithesis to the void, we're it, and something about us struggles against it persistently.

I don't know why it's so vital to imagine that the person's life/soul endures, out there somewhere, somehow. In a way, obsessing about this overlooks the time they spent on earth, living. Contemplate that instead, rather than insisting it's not enough, and that there must be something else.

Life is so vivid, so... LOUD at times it just rings through us to the bone. I find the concept of eventual rest comforting at times. Other times I'm freaked all to hell. But if I live a good 70 years, I hope I'll feel *accomplished* enough to evaporate completely, and not grasp at metaphysical straws, because I feel somehow all of it still wasn't enough.

Accepting limitations isn't any easier on a small scale. I don't see why we should have an easy time accepting death. It takes work, and time.

Fortunately, it's the last thing you ever have to do.
posted by scarabic at 6:06 PM on January 30, 2004

This is not to say I agree with Ryvar. I think our perceptual universes wreak consequences on the world around us, constantly. People write, they influence the members of their families, they make contributions to society. The further you integrate yourself into your society, the more salient your "perceptual universe" becomes. Some of them are absolutely immortal. I give you Thoreau, Gandhi, etc. Hard to deny that everything they ever were is gone, and "from their perspective" doesn't change that, because they don't have one after death. And during life, they were probably aware they'd have a legacy (as will we all, not just the great minds of our time).
posted by scarabic at 6:11 PM on January 30, 2004

My wife mocks me for my belief system, so you can too...

I'm an atheist who believes in an afterlife.

By that I mean that I don't believe in god, but I think that people's individual pattern, their consciousness (let's call it a "soul") can find existence after corporeal demise.

My conception of an afterlife has to do with what sort of person the dearly departed was... what their mindset was at the moment of death.

Cynical and hateful? Then their afterlife is a reflection of that, some might call it hell... (imagery would be provided by guilt, and upbringing... Including your typical Christian fire and brimstone).

Hopeful and peaceful? They should experience "heaven" (which might be any idealistic, pleasant surroundings... In my case, I hope it involves the seashore...).

What's my proof for this? It's a belief system, so I just have faith...
posted by jpburns at 6:46 AM on January 31, 2004

For a comprehensive survey of different scientific and philosophical/religious aspects of death, the book Death to Dust is hard to beat. It is big and kind of expensive, but you might have luck finding it in a library.
posted by TedW at 8:44 AM on January 31, 2004

Would you like a muslim viewpoint, or do we fall under Judeo-Christian classification? It's a different understanding to either of those two creeds, that much is certain.
posted by Mossy at 10:39 AM on January 31, 2004

jpburns - Your outlook is extremely similar to that of Tibetan Buddhism, on that subject.

grefo-I'd also recommend "What survives? - Contemporary Explorations of Life after Death", 1990, Jeremy T. Archer Inc., edited by Gary Doore, Ph.D.

It features more than 20 essays by various authors, with a subsection which is dedicated to the evidence for the case that something of us actually survives the demise of our bodies. Other sections cover this question from various philosophical and religious perspectives including that offered by the Tibetan Book of The Dead, and Shamanistic traditions.

If you are not wedded to the orthodox perspectives on this given by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam - you might take considerable comfort in this book, which offers no easy answers but explores a range of possibilities not mentioned in the predominant opinions here on Ask Metafilter
posted by troutfishing at 10:27 AM on February 1, 2004

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