Not too long ago, I was having a discussion with a coworker wherein the conversation led to me mentioning my book and blog. I had not previously realized that this coworker was a devout Christian, and apparently it had never crossed his mind that I was not. When I said that I was an atheist, his first question was not at all unusual:
“So, then, what do you think happens after we die?”
I must admit that I find it really strange that, of all the issues which fall under the umbrella of spirituality and religion, of all the complexities of our existence, the part of atheism which strikes so many people as incomprehensible is a lack of belief in an afterlife. But there it is, over and over again, the reaction of complete confusion and shock that someone can live a meaningful life if they don’t believe there’s any more after it’s over.
For a long time I responded much like that. I would patiently explain that I didn’t think anything happened, that this life was all we got, and that I therefore preferred to make the most of it. Those answers, however, make little difference to those who believe otherwise, and while I have no interest in converting anyone to anything I admit those conversations have always left me frustrated.
Recently, however, I found a better answer for the question. I can say, actually, that I know with absolute certainty at least part of what happens after we die:
The earth keeps spinning on its axis, circling the sun, carrying billions of human occupants.
The sun and moon continue to rise and set, other people and animals and plants and organisms are born and reproduce and die, the seasons continue to occur in succession.
Your coworkers keep working, your family and friends keep living, your belongings still exist, and the things you were responsible for become someone else’s responsibility.
All the things you said and did to other people become part of their memory of you, for better or worse, and some of those memories will have an impact on how they live their lives.
The problems facing the world continue to plague everyone else, and all the things which made you happy continue to make others happy.
In short, life without you goes on.
So why are we so caught up in what happens to us, individually, after we die? Is it really more important to worry about what afterlife we may or may not have when we could be worrying about the life we’re sharing right now with billions and billions of humans who will continue to exist after we’re gone?