So the last few weeks have been a little busy on the personal front. First, I had to run off to the east coast for a business trip. That took about a week. Then, seeing how I was already most of the way there on the company’s dime, I figured I would visit my family for a few days and celebrate Christmas with them.
… which brings me to my first minor aside: yes, atheists can celebrate Christmas. I know a lot of the people who know me or at least read this blog may not be surprised at this idea whatsoever, but I still see some occasional amazement – likely manufactured – at the idea of an atheist or other non-believer celebrating a holiday that has such a strong apparent religious origin. Emphasis on “apparent”, since the true origins of Christmas were simply based on the solar calendar, and co-opted by early Christians in order to bring the pagans into the fold back when they were desperate for new members. These days – and by that I mean something like the last hundred or so years – it has evolved from a self-proclaimed “Christian” holiday that symbolizes the birth of a god (who likely popped out of the oven around March or so) to a largely commercial event with one foot firmly planted in the secular world. For me, and for many others in this country, Christmas is – and has always been – an event that consists of taking time off from school, work, or any other obligations to instead spend it with the people you love, eating an unreasonable amount of food, and exchanging things you think other people need. While going to church had once been part of that tradition, it is no longer. The rest, however, remains … and will do so regardless of any kind of believe or lack thereof on my part.
Anyway, back to the story. I spent a few days with my family, and we “exchanged” presents. I have that in quotes because they told me to tell them what kind of big-assed flat screen TV I wanted (thanks guys!!), and I gave them a scanner that will let them finally digitize all 1,663,723,448 pictures they have stored in their house. Nothing like handing out homework in the form of a present, right? Anyway, they were pretty happy with it, but I think they have a few other things to take care of first since scanning and storing such a large amount of files will likely require a Blu-ray DVD burner and other accessories. (That’s for next year.)
A couple of days after I got back, I got a call that a family member had died. They had suffered a heart attack the week before, and it turned out that it was worse than previously thought. Arrangements were being made for physical therapy and live-in care at the time, but the situation deteriorated rapidly. In retrospect, I’m glad I had the opportunity to see them one last time, even if it was in a decidedly unpleasant context.
The next day, I got a call from another family member just to sort out some of the arrangements that had to be made, and the inevitable topic of the afterlife came up. It went something like this:
Him: It just got me thinking, that’s all. I went to visit them, and I saw a bit of fear …
Me: … that’s certainly understandable.
Him: … since you’re right there, facing the unknown. Do you have any beliefs about the afterlife?
Me: Not really. Personally, it would be nice to know that there’s something after death so I’d know that I kept on existing in one form or another … as long as it’s not a bleak one. But there’s no evidence for any of it … so I can’t bring myself to do anything more than think it would be kind of interesting.
Him: That’s kind of dreary, isn’t it? That there’s nothing else after this?
Me: There may be, there may not be. I can’t really say, but I’m not going to assume or believe there is.
Him: I can’t really say either, I guess. I just hope that one day we do develop some kind of belief.
There’s the rub. I would be fascinated to see if we ever discover the existence of an afterlife or proof of consciousness after death … but until then, believing in it is just a coping mechanism based on a partial – yet indefinite – deferral of grief. “They’re not really gone; they’re just in a better place,” is what I almost always hear. Again, that would be nice. I’d love to think that it’s true, and I’m not about to criticize or look down on people who do it. But until humanity has some shred of objective evidence to suggest that it has any basis in fact, I feel like I’m deluding myself into refusing to accept the fact that when we die, we’re gone forever.