I want to share this exchange I had with a friend about my last blog post, Understanding Death for Those Without Faith. Daniel objected to my use of the word "Atheist" as its true meaning is one who does not believe in a God. One can disbelieve in God and still believe in some form of afterlife.
I started by asking if there was a more concise term for "a person who does not believe in an afterlife."
Daniel: Good question. Personally I feel that "materialist" covers it, because that seems to be the gist of it -- the notion that all reality, including consciousness, can be reduced to some crudely material basis. I think that if one firmly believes this, then any experiences or phenomena that seem to challenge it will be interpreted within that framework even if it means sweeping whole chunks of subjective experience or objective evidence under the rug. That seems to be how anomalies in general are handled by our arbiters of reality.
Michelle: Materialist... sounds more like a consumer or someone after worldly things. This may or may not be true for those who believe we cease to exist after death.
Daniel: That's a common usage of the term "materialist," but in philosophy and science it means someone who believes that matter is all there is. The philosophical materialist believes that consciousness arises from physical matter (specifically, brain matter), or at least from the *behavior* of brain matter, i.e., neurological activity.
The nonmaterialist considers that the brain and its activity may modulate, structure or create imprints in consciousness but sees consciousness itself as essentially independent of matter, and capable of being influenced directly by other consciousness.
Theoretically one can argue on behalf of either point of view and invoke supportive evidence, but the materialist overlay on mainstream science is so invisibly pervasive that self-described scientists will generally accept evidence representing only one point of view. In other words, this overlay is often equated with science itself, whereas nothing could be further from the truth. Science is simply a *method of inquiry*. Properly conducted, it should be neutral with regard to particular philosophies, worldviews and subject matter. One might even say that the scientific method is very much a spiritual discipline in that its practice requires setting the ego aside and letting Nature speak without hindrance or prejudice. (Sure, some distortion is always inevitable -- you just want to minimize it as much as possible.)
Michelle: It may be they have not been exposed to experiences or information that shifts their perspective. Perhaps "nonbeliever" might be more precise. Or "rationalist.
Daniel: I think genuine "nonbelief" is fine because it's neutral and presupposes openmindedness. What I think we're dealing with here is instead DISbelief, which is really just a fixed, unconscious belief in an opposing idea.
Michelle: "I did point out to the participants at the screening that Buddhism is an A-theistic practice. However, there were at least two people who specifically said they did not believe in an afterlife. And they are members of a group I truly need to address. They are looking for something.
Daniel: If their disbelief in an afterlife was unshakeable, what do you think they were looking for? For most people with high levels of disbelief, anything that smacks of religion (which would presumably be their only point of reference to an afterlife) is already pretty much off the table.
Michelle: I think the nonbelievers (disbelievers?) were looking for some way to cope with the fact of their dying, to bring hope back into life when everything seems hopeless.
Some hopeful strategies those who do not believe in an afterlife include: leaving a life legacy for those left behind -- maybe an annotated photo album, an ethical will, videotaped messages to children. Examination of one's life is a good exercise. Learning to live in the moment, to cherish each moment, to spend time in nature and joy, to feel gratitude, to feel awe. These are all things available to the nonbeliever. Last, and more difficult for nonbelievers is opening to the mystery of life. And that may a little to close to religion for most.
Daniel: That's a tough one. The materialist/atheist must admit to no mysteries, while believing that science will eventually solve them!
But on the practical, human level, yes. Whatever works to raise the person's spirits and help them open to joy in the moment is a blessing. Philosophy is small comfort unless they've already opened up to interpreting their experiences in a new light and relaxing into them.
Please share your thoughts regarding afterlife. We may be totally off the mark. -- Michelle