When people learn that I'm a secular humanist, one of the most frequent questions they ask is, "What do you believe happens after death?"

So that there's no confusion, let me make my position on this clear. I don't believe that there is any such thing as a soul/mind/atma that survives the death of the body. I believe that the mind is a physical process, arising from and produced by the activity of the brain, and so when the body ceases to function, the mind ceases as well. Thus, I don't believe in an afterlife of any sort – no heaven, no hell, no reincarnation. I see no reason to believe that death is anything other than the permanent and total cessation of consciousness, no different than an endless, dreamless sleep.

It's a very common opinion that this view necessarily leads to despair – that if our lives are finite, then we are without hope and all that we strive for is futile. I can see why some people might think this. Of all the living things on this planet, human beings are the only ones able to imagine the future. And while this ability has blessed us with wonderful gifts, it has also cursed us with the certain knowledge of our own mortality. It is of course frightening to envision one's own death, which is why so many people seek to escape it. Although religion has taken full advantage of humanity's death anxiety and created the concepts of soul, afterlife, immortality, heaven & gods, it did not create it.

But I think these fantasies, comforting though they may be, are unnecessary. I think there is another way to face up to death, one that does not need the consolations of an afterlife. This article will deal with the prospect of death and how an atheist philosophy can give us comfort.

Belief in Heaven encourages people to fix their gaze on a fantasy, to try to look beyond this world in the hope of seeing something more. And when people do that, they inevitably overlook the valleys of pain and darkness in this world, learning to think of them as inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Worse yet, this belief will always produce those who believe in this otherworldly "something more" so fervently as to consider life itself to be meaningless in comparison – and it is this way of thinking that has directly caused so much suffering and destruction [ISIS/ Al Qaeda/ Boko Haram].

But atheists take a different view. We do not believe that there must be something more. We do not believe that this life needs a sequel to make it all worthwhile.

In fact, we know that the absence of an afterlife is what gives this life its meaning, since it gives us the strongest possible motivation to live this life to the fullest, to make of it what we will and fill it with purpose and joy. After all, if we neglect the duty to help others, we will never have a chance to make it up to them; if we squander this opportunity, we will never get another one.

There are many ways of achieving immortality for non-theists:
1. Through descendance
2. Through inheritance
3. Through deeds
4. Through remembrance
5. Through Organ Donation

Descendance. In children and grandchildren, our genes, fused with those of our partner, live on. There is nothing quite like seeing the family resemblance in a child's face, for realising the continuity of the generations and feeling one's embedded involvement in the process of life.

Inheritance. Almost everyone who has accumulated any degree of wealth or property likes to pass some or all of it on to their children or relatives.But even the not-so-well-to-do have some possessions that are unique to them- a school prize, a medal, a drawing/ painting, a diary, or some collection like a stamp collection or book collection even though they might be tattered.

Deeds. The third form of real afterlife comes about through our actions and creations whose impact persists after our death.Not only for writers and artists trying to leave immortal works behind them, but even a single act of kindness may be recollected for decades after our death.A life of loving care by some mothers will be remembered by those it touched for as long as they live. The trees we plant now will provide shade and beauty for generations.

Remembrance. Our only afterlife and immortality is in the lives and minds of those who survive us. And our only hell is in their memories, too. If we are unkind or egotistical towards other people, they won't feel sorry when we die. They may even say " good riddance ". If we hurt them seriously, they will remember us, not with love and nostalgia, but with hatred and rancour.

Organ donation
One definite way in which we can live beyond our lifespans is by donating our organs (Heart Valves, Lungs, Liver, Pancreas, Kidneys, Skin & Eyes) to others. This is possible only when our brain is dead. [In the case of normal death, none of the organs can be harvested except eyes].

Some causes of brain death include :
• Trauma to the brain (i.e. severe head injury caused by a motor vehicle crash, gunshot wound, fall or blow to the head)
• Cerebrovascular injury (i.e. stroke or aneurysm/Hemorrhage)
• Anoxia (i.e. drowning or heart attack when the patient is revived, but not before a lack or blood flow/oxygen to the brain has caused brain death)
• Brain tumor

Brain death is death. It should not be confused with Coma. A patient who is in a coma or persistent vegetative state typically has some brain stem function (which controls breathing) and possibly other brain function. When a person is brain dead, no part of the brain is functioning any longer.

But you will have to tell your family members who survive you (your spouse, children) to implement the organ donation wish of yours.

End Note
Even if we are life-long bachelors and have no kids, even if we leave no legacies, even if we have not accomplished anything memorable in life & even if we have a lurking suspicion that people may not retain fond remembrances of us after our death, an Organ donation contract (even if it is just our eyes) will over-compensate for all this lacuna and give us some kind of immortality & meaning in life, the thought of which should give us quite a bit of satisfaction when we are alive.

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Comment by Michael Penn on June 8, 2017 at 7:27am

Well written and your end note says it all. My problem with organ donation is that I'm getting too old for that now. There could be a body donation to science in which I can imagine I am now dead and they find out what was really wrong with me, and I was right the entire time. That would make my doctors as stupid as I thought they were but do me no good because I would still be dead.

It's really true that you don't get out of this world alive.

Comment by tom sarbeck on June 8, 2017 at 12:10am
Daniel, your tossing pebbles into a lake metaphor makes more sense than any other explanation I've seen. Thanx.
Comment by tom sarbeck on June 8, 2017 at 12:04am
"Of all the living things on this planet, human beings are the only ones able to imagine the future."

HEY, WHERE IS THE EVIDENCE FOR THAT???
Comment by Glen Rosenberg on June 7, 2017 at 2:13pm

That is so poignant GC. 

Comment by Grinning Cat on June 7, 2017 at 1:56pm

Glen, thanks for that link! It mentioned Amy Krouse Rosenthal's essay "You May Want to Marry My Husband", which she wrote "with profound love and humor" as she was dying of ovarian cancer.

A few snippets:

I have been trying to write this for a while, but the morphine and lack of juicy cheeseburgers [...] have drained my energy and interfered with whatever prose prowess remains. [...]

Still, I have to stick with it, because I’m facing a deadline, in this case, a pressing one. I need to say this (and say it right) while I have a) your attention, and b) a pulse.

I have been married to the most extraordinary man for 26 years. I was planning on at least another 26 together.

Want to hear a sick joke? A husband and wife walk into the emergency room in the late evening on Sept. 5, 2015. A few hours and tests later, the doctor clarifies that the unusual pain the wife is feeling on her right side isn’t the no-biggie appendicitis they suspected but rather ovarian cancer. [...]

Jason Brian Rosenthal [...] is an easy man to fall in love with. I did it in one day. [...]

By the end of dinner, I knew I wanted to marry him.

Jason? He knew a year later.

[...]

Wait. Did I mention that he is incredibly handsome? I’m going to miss looking at that face of his.

If he sounds like a prince and our relationship seems like a fairy tale, it’s not too far off, except for all of the regular stuff that comes from two and a half decades of playing house together. And the part about me getting cancer. Blech.

[...]

I am wrapping this up on Valentine’s Day, and the most genuine, non-vase-oriented gift I can hope for is that the right person reads this, finds Jason, and another love story begins. [...]

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/03/style/modern-love-you-may-want-t...

Comment by Glen Rosenberg on June 7, 2017 at 9:41am

It's a fantasy, but that delusion helps people cope with their mortality.

Daniel, that is an assumption that i do not share. Maybe super-pious fundamentalists, maybe..

But the rank and file of believers seem just as fucked up as the rest of us when somebody they love or care for is dying or dead. And there is some evidence in some circumstances that the prospect of one's own demise is somewhat pleasant. 

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/06/170601124022.htm

Comment by Daniel W on June 7, 2017 at 8:18am

VNK Kumar, thank you for your always thoughtful essays, including this one.

My point of view is that our lives are like the effects of throwing pebbles into a lake.  There are waves that emanate from the initial plunk.  Those waves intersect with any others around, intermingle, and dissipate. 

The desire for immortality is understandable, but may be a driver for a lot of bad human behavior - if we belong to this or that tribe, either ethnic or belief, then we can latch on to their claims or rebirth or immortality.  It's a fantasy, but that delusion helps people cope with their mortality.

I just hope that my life results in more good, than bad, on average.  I hope that the wavelets from my pebble, will be enough.

Comment by Glen Rosenberg on June 7, 2017 at 4:38am

You said lacuna. That alone made it worthwhile to read your thoughts on absence of afterlife. 

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