Atheists, Pagans, and Ghosts

Atheism and the Afterlife

When I tell people that I am a scholar and teacher of religious studies, one common question is, “What do you believe?” For many people this is a simple question.

Here’s the simple answer: I am an atheist and I practice paganism. Surrounded by a Christian culture wherein even those who were raised outside or without religion have absorbed Protestant messages and definitions through osmosis, my response inevitably prompts more questions. As a teacher, I welcome this. As an introvert, I choose my conversations carefully. When I don't want to have the conversation I typically simply say that I’m an atheist. If I’m feeling particularly spunky, I’ll reply that I’m an ecumenical existentialist (look it up). 

In his book The God Delusion Richard Dawkins presents a  scale of belief from zero to 100. 100 is a fundamentalist, someone who believes absolutely. Fundamentalists understand their scripture to be divine revelation, perfect and absolute, though they may wrestle with meaning.

On the other end of the spectrum, zero is the absolute atheist for whom the supernatural and deities are certain not to exist. Zeros often find religion to be harmful; recently some people have begun using the label anti-theist. Dawkins labels himself a ten: a person who does not believe in God or the supernatural but who is persuaded by scientific evidence as new information becomes available. In an earlier work, The Blind Watchmaker, he states outright that, if God exists, then even the deity would have come about through evolution and have a rational, scientific explanation. Dawkins views zeros as risking becoming as close-minded as 100s. The pundit and talk show host Bill Mahr calls himself an agnostic, as opposed to an atheist, for the same reason: absolute disbelief is as irrational as absolute belief.

I find it useful to think of religion in terms of belief and practice. The two align differently in each person. Belief is a person’s cosmology, how they understand and make sense of the world. For a person of faith, meaning is found through prayer or meditation, which is believed to  be required or serve some purpose, and is rooted in a set of unprovable claims about reality: i.e., god or gods exist, the deity interacts with the world in a particular way for some reason or reasons, etc. The key to understanding faith is that the beliefs generated by faith are not subject to empirical testing and cannot be scientifically verified, though the believer may have very profound subjective experiences. For an atheist, skepticism replaces belief as the mechanism through which meaning is established. Atheists see our understanding of reality growing and unfolding based on new evidence coming to light. “Truth” is defined as reasoned, intellectual consensus and is subject to change as new information is discovered.

Religious practice is distinct from religious belief. The two often correlate but not always. Rituals are undertaken by the faithful and the skeptical alike. The difference lies in the understanding of the function of these rituals. The faithful pray in hopes that their prayers will be answered through divine intervention. They make offerings to a deity in the belief that the deity will hear and hopefully respond.

Many atheists do not have rituals in the aforementioned sense. (There’s a whole argument that any behavior performed on a schedule to achieve a goal is a ritual. So brushing the teeth of every morning at approximately the same time would be a ritual. I am using the term in a narrower sense specific to acts of meditation or visualization.) Other atheists do have rituals that, on the surface, appear to be religious in nature. Some attend religious services, not out of belief but out of a need for community or social and cultural tradition. An American example is many Jews who do not believe in God but continue to practice Jewish traditions, including the celebration of religious holidays and rites of passage, in recognition of the rich and ancient Jewish culture. Many Buddhists are atheists but practice meditation including forms of bhakti yoga that use icons as objects of focus. Americans often view these Buddhists as performing acts of worship when in actuality they are simply using iconic metaphors to learn deeper focus and concentration. I will use myself and my practice as another example.

For the past 15 years, I have practiced paganism. For those with knowledge of the topic (or who are looking for a term to Google) I consider myself an “eclectic pagan,” not following Wicca, Dianaic paganism, Druidism, or any of the other traditions within the category of “pagan.” Every six weeks I gather with a group of friends – my coven – to recognize and honor what we consider the earth’s holy days, the solstices, equinoxes, and “cross-quarters” which are the midpoints between the aforementioned. The beliefs of individuals within my coven vary – we have a couple atheists, several agnostics, a Buddhist, and theists who either believe in a Great Mother or in numerous deities (polytheists). It’s the practice we share. The belief that we have in common is that our time here on this earth is short and that taking time to celebrate life is important and adds meaning to our hectic lives. Our community is important. We share food, conversation, and rituals centered around the time of year and its psychological parallel. For example, during this time of year – spring – we wake up with the earth, inviting our senses to awaken, and our creativity and energy to motivate us to action. Each ritual is intentionally different to avoid dogmatism and to remind each member that it's the meaning that’s important, not the ritual itself.

As an atheist, the meaning I give to ritual is based in logic and reason. I know that I get caught up in the stress of everyday life: school, career, paying the bills, chores, errands. Taking a day every six weeks to just relax and breathe lowers my stress levels, allowing me to recharge and renew. Afterward, I feel grounded, centered, and vitalized. I also know that meditation has been empirically tested and is shown to calm the brain. Visualization is a well-used technique that brings our mind into focus and clarify what we want or what answer we need. It’s basically self-hypnosis which, again, has been empirically verified. Even as I pour milk over a statue of Persephone to welcome her back from the underworld, it is not Persephone herself that motivates me but the metaphor of remerging into the world after a long, cold winter. Deities represent certain aspects of reality, they are allegories for human experience. This is how I understand them as “real.” However, I see absolutely no evidence that they exist in the religious sense; I do not think that they created the world, give meaning to existence, have a divine plan, or rule the universe. I find no empirical proof of the existence of god and trust me, as a religious studies scholar, I’ve looked. Science explains the totality of physical existence. Which brings me to the second topic of this post: the afterlife.

Most people assume that, since I’m an atheist I do not believe in an afterlife. It’s more complicated: I’m an atheist when it comes to the question of deities but I’m an agnostic when it comes to the afterlife. I simply don’t know.

There is nothing that conclusively links an afterlife (or afterlives) to the existence of god. In other words, there doesn't have to be a god or gods for an afterlife to exist. (Or vice versa, actually.) Thinking that the two go together is an example of the Protestant belief system permeating America that I pointed out earlier. Many people, including atheists, assume that the afterlife is not empirically testable and is therefore an aspect of religion. I’d like to question this assumption.

First of all, if an afterlife exists, then it has a rational, scientific explanation just like everything else. I base this claim on the following line of logic: everything we know is based on scientific observation and testing (no matter what religious folks may say to the contrary). Even really wild theoretical things like dark matter and string theory exist in the natural world and are hypothetically testable once technology and knowledge evolves a bit more. Therefore, the afterlife should be subject to testing and evidence as well.

Put simply: atheists do not believe in the “supernatural.” We find that to be a contradiction in terms. If there is an afterlife, it is within the realm of the natural world and subject to physical laws (perhaps including some laws we haven’t even discovered yet).

There is a plethora of evidence for the existence of reality that lies beyond the normal range of human perception. Humans have been collecting it in more and more sophisticated ways basically for as long as we have been on the planet. Phenomena recorded by different cultures is remarkably similar, suggesting that cultural bias is not a significant factor (though the technologically advanced west typically sets the bar on what sort of evidence is considered valid).

Many people remark on supposed similarities between near death experiences wherein the subject is dead for several minutes and is then resuscitated. People from all cultures report a light-at-the-end-of-a-tunnel phenomena and some go on to speak of seeing dead loved ones, angels, or deities. Significantly, there are important differences in how subjects understand their near death experiences. The sensations, including the sense of heading into light, one experiences during death have a scientific explanation that is triggered by brain activity reacting to oxygen deprivation. So, unfortunately, near death experiences cannot be taken as evidence of an afterlife. Though they do point to dying itself as a positive, even comforting, experience so that’s good news!

What’s more compelling is the amount of verified (observed by more than one reliable witness and/or captured by recording equipment) experiences that could suggest that consciousness can survive the death of the physical body and even communicate afterward. Countless voices have been captured on audio recorders, and they often respond directly to questions, indicating conscious awareness. While it is currently impossible to determine the explanation for what is being recorded, it is obvious that evidence has been captured.

Possible explanations include a consciousness that has survived the death of the body, transference of radio waves wherein living voices are being picked up (not likely but theoretically possible under certain conditions), or even cross dimensional communication that has some preliminary support. Some even argue, in a 21st century version of Cartesian dualism, that it is consciousness that creates the material universe, not the other way around. Therefore, it is consciousness that is really real, while materiality is transient and ever changing. The body dies but consciousness survives.

Here’s my main point: the existence of an afterlife can be pursued using the same scientific methods as any other quest for knowledge. Furthermore, one can be an atheist and be open to the possibility of life after the death of the physical body.

Catlyn Keenan