Thursday, June 2, 2011

To infinity…and beyond.

Image courtesy of Google Images.

One of the unavoidable issues one must face head on during or following a shift from being religious to embracing atheism is one’s future death. Many religions promise an afterlife. Indeed, there are those who hypothesize that religion in its most primitive forms originally developed as our species gradually evolved to consciously acknowledge our impending and unavoidable death and in an attempt to escape that prickly part of reality. Whether this is the case or not, however, it does seem clear that most modern popular religions make promises of, if not escape from death outright, an even better alternative than life itself once one passes over to “the flip side”. The religion of my past, Christianity, is infamous for its promises of an afterlife full of either reward or punishment, depending on performance (or at least belief) in this life. But, as one moves away from religion and accepts that we are mammals, restricted to all the nuances of the carbon cycle that we share with all other living things, then there is no alternative but to accept that you will one day die and cease to exist.

I remember, for myself, this was a bit of a stumbling block as I made my move away from religion. It seemed a bit harsh luck to find out that one’s eternal reward wasn’t real after all, and the idea of simply ceasing to exist was at first a bit frightening and somewhat depressing. Mixed in with this, of course, was the relief of knowing that there was no threat of hell either. I wouldn’t be suffering an eternity of pain, loneliness and despair just because once, as a child, the unforgivable thought: “There is no holy spirit,” had crossed through my consciousness (within a few minutes of discovering that that was the only unforgivable sin).

Now I have accepted quite readily that there is no afterlife. It has been quite a relief actually, and has certainly helped me appreciate this one life for what it is. One mustn’t put anything off until after death anymore! One thought, admittedly not my own, that initially helped was the realization that I had not been alive for all of time until my birth and that hadn’t bothered me in the least. Not being alive ever again after my death should be no more frightening or depressing. One shouldn’t feel cheated for no longer having the chance of an afterlife, but rather ecstatic that one exists at all.

Along this line of thought, I started to think a bit about death and the loss of loved ones. Though one’s passage into oblivion could hardly be bothersome to oneself (at least once the actual passing is over with), there is, obviously the potential for sadness and loss amongst loved ones that are “left behind” (temporarily of course). In this light I began to look at my own death in a whole new light. I realize that the solar system, including earth and all life on it, will be obliterated in a few billion years when our sun expands into a red giant and then fizzles down to a white dwarf. Then, for all eternity (as far as we know), there will be nothing as far as our solar system is concerned. Ultimately, to put is bluntly, we are all royally fucked. My present view of death is that at the moment of one’s death, time accelerates immediately to that obliteration. Time, of course, does not accelerate after someone’s death. We have all seen a loved one die and then go on to live many years or decades ourselves. But, that is how time is viewed from our living perspective. Not that time, or anything else for that matter, can be viewed from death, but in a sense the only logical view is that as one dies, everything instantly ceases to exist. In a sense my thinking is that eventually all life will end, so as far as I’m concerned when I die, it happens instantly. My best visualization of this process mimics that moment in the original Star Wars movies when Han Solo engages the hyper drive and every light source in view seems to accelerate at a terrific speed (on that rare occasion when the Millenium Falcon’s hyper drive actually functioned properly).

I have no logic or reason to support this notion of death but, given that the end of all life on earth is a statistical certainty, it seems a close enough approximation of reality. In some ways, this view (or really more of an acceptance of the future reality) could be seen as sad. Every living thing on earth will one day be gone. Every parent knows that their child will also on day die. It is incredibly difficult to look at your young child and accept that. But, it is also a remarkably calming visualization when you think about it. Life is special. It is rare. And, it is short. Cherish every moment.

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