What Happens When We Die: An Atheist’s Explanation

A lot of religion’s power lies in the laity’s fear of what happens to us when we die. The “flaw” in atheism (they say) is that it can not explain the “afterlife”. Well, here ya go: an atheists explanation of death:

What I have learned is this: The brain works on an electric charge that is roughly equal to your average car battery. This electricity jumps from neuron to neuron, interacting with other bits of electricity to create a sense of self. In order to leap across the space between neurons the electricity needs stuff like Adrenaline, Dopamine, Serotonin etc.. Using one of these, a thought (the electric charge) crosses the gap between neurons and thus keeps us functioning. As long as this process keeps happening, we are alive.

The thing is, for any of this to work there has to oxygen. A lot of it. In fact, despite all the many and varied causes of death you see on tombstones, there really is only one cause of death in humans: Lack of oxygen to the brain. When the oxygen is gone, the processes grind to a halt. The electricity in your brain is unable to travel across the gap between the neurons, and everything in your brain stops. This is death.

Every electrical impulse that existed in the brain before death is still there afterward. It’s stranded, but it’s still there. The “soul” (if you believe in one) is trapped an a trillion cells, unable to make any connection to any other part of the mind. The “self” doesn’t cease to be… it’s just so fragmented that there is no coherent “being” to it. Every thought, from your first kiss to the hydro bill you just paid, remains locked inside neurons that can not communicate the information to each other.

This, as near as I can tell, is where we’re all headed. However we arrive at our own deaths, we will all eventually reach the moment where oxygen no longer flows to our brains. When that happens, our sense of self will stop as the electricity in our brain stops moving. Every aspect of our experience is going to be walled off in a brain that no longer puts the moments together into anything coherent. It’s like smashing a flat of eggs. You still have all the contents, but they will never be a dozen eggs again.

Religions offer a variety of explanations for death. I (more than most) have been very willing to find one that makes sense, given what we know of the physiology of death. So far, none have. All I’ve ever seen and learned tells me that I will eventually disintegrate into a trillion bits of electricity that will eventually dissipate and becomes worm food.

The trick, imho, is not being upset about it. Religions offer hopes and dreams that make this disintegration of the self seem a horrible thing. It’s really only these false hopes that make it all seem bad. We feel short-changed by it only because the fantasy was put in our brains that we would live forever.

Most think the belief in Heaven makes this whole process easier, even if it’s not true. Thing is, I’ve read the Holy Books. According to all of them, most of us would never see a Heaven. We’re going to fry in Hell, while a select few get to watch from a cloud somewhere. The safe and secure notions of religion only work for those who believe they are the elite: one of the pure and holy few who will get into Heaven.

There’s always a chance I’m wrong. Maybe the religions are right, and the science is incomplete or flawed. But, given the choice of what to believe, I opt for the science. Not just because it has demonstrable evidence, but because it offers far more comfort to me than the religious judgment that many believe is coming. Given what I’ve done with my life thus far, I’m going to feel a whole lot better about things at the Old Age home if I remain an atheist.

Original post: Heathensguide.com: What Happens When We Die: An Atheist’s Explanation

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Tags: arguments, atheism, death, faith, religion


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Comment by William Hopper on May 21, 2010 at 6:05pm
Prog Rock Girl: We already have found ways to reactivate them. Basic CPR is something the world would have seen as ressurection only a hundred years ago. The pathways have to degrade (or as Larien says, be destroyed) before they are useless. This can take up to an hour supposedly (in hypothermia cases). But we jump start consiousness all the time these days.
Comment by Prog Rock Girl on May 21, 2010 at 6:01pm
Very good explanation. I've always thought that people are the same as cars; when they die, they are "totalled". (Or when the cost of keeping them alive is not worth the diminished quality of life, but that's a tangent.) The electrical impulses are still in the brain, but they can never again be reactivated? This makes me wonder if we will ever find a way to reactivate them...but that's creepy and makes me think of those heads in jars on Futurama...
Comment by Lorien on May 21, 2010 at 5:56pm
William, if your brain gets destroyed instantly, your brain death isn't caused by lack of oxygen - it is caused by your brain's neuron connections being destroyed like pulling all the wires out of computer. Your mind is gone before the cells die from lack of oxygen. I'm just being a stickler on your statement not being 100% true. But if the brain is intact, yes, I will agree that oxygen starvation causes brain death. Doctors declare people dead when they can't get the heart to beat on its own and they give up on artificially pumping the blood through the body.
Comment by William Hopper on May 21, 2010 at 5:43pm
"Millions long for eternal life but don't know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon." ~ Woody Allen
Comment by Jaume on May 21, 2010 at 3:59pm
I do miss the eternity before and the eternity after, just out of sheer curiosity. I wish I could just explore the universe eternally, even if I had to be barred from interfering with it, except for that one thing - observing it.
Comment by Rob van Senten on May 21, 2010 at 12:26pm
@William Hopper,
I guess that if you are wrong hell will be filled with the brains of the vast majority of people that ever lived. Imagine the power available, think of the possibilities! I think we should try to convince Christian ministries to finance an expedition to drill to hell for "Unlimited Power".

Interesting post! I will now retreat to my lair and hatch on a cunning plan!

It would most definitely be great, as long as it doesn't last forever. That would truly be hellish, I've made the mistake in the past to watch some movies so many times that I literally know the movies by heart (text, background, music, inconsistencies) with which I ruined some brilliant movies, I will most likely not watch them for years to come. Forever is scary, but I guess a couple of hundred years floating around somewhere doesn't sound so bad.

I haven't heard Christians use this pitch, but I have heard it from "ietsists" who in the Netherlands form the current religious majority, they don't believe in a god technically but believe in something ("iets" in dutch). Few of them actively believe in "transcending consciousness" or the "reincarnation of the mind imprint" and what else kind of quasi scientific terminology they use to sell their hope of an afterlife. Too bad that they lack the knowledge and imagination to make moving stories that you might actually want to believe in.

Also, these pricks tend to be so annoying that you would not even want to believe them even if it sounded convincing.

Maybe Tom Cruise would be interested in introducing you to Scientology, although that would presume that I think that you are filthy rich.

Mmm.. I'll guess non theism would be a lot cheaper and not as time consuming as the other options. Too bad that there isn't a better alternative to reality available.
Comment by William Hopper on May 21, 2010 at 11:46am
Caleb: As a good atheist, I could not discount the possibility. The evidense is not there atm to support the idea, but one leaves the door open to possibilities when there are unknowns. FYI... I actually asked the Dali Llama about this one. His answer was "What happens to a light bulb when you turn it off?"
Comment by William Hopper on May 21, 2010 at 11:05am
Lorien: I guess what I should be asking here is "Can you show me a death that contradicts this standard?"
Comment by William Hopper on May 21, 2010 at 11:03am
Lorian: All deaths have the final outcome of stopping brain wave activity. That is how doctors are taught to declare a death. If the heart stops, it's not enough. Hearts can be restarted. Machines (or surrogates) can keep hearts, livers, and kidneys going. The only thing that medical science will acknowledge as "death" is lack of brain waves. If after an accident you were nothing but a brain in a jar that had active brain waves, you are alive. Inversely, if after an accident your body works fine and pumps blood and breathes, but the brain has no activity, you are declared dead.
Comment by Lorien on May 21, 2010 at 5:51am
"there really is only one cause of death in humans: Lack of oxygen to the brain. When the oxygen is gone, the processes grind to a halt" I am disputing this statement where you said there is only one cause of death.

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