This is a guest post by Matthew O’Neil, author of After Life: Solving Science and Religion’s Great Disagreement
When I awoke after my heart attack in 1998, I was told I was clinically dead for a short while. My mind, at 14-years-old, told me I should have seen a tunnel, bright lights, deceased family members, and feel a warmth unlike any other. However, I did not. Convinced I was going to remember it in a dream, through hypnosis, or some other means, I made myself okay with not experiencing what I saw in other people’s claims of near-death experiences. When I had dreams with my grandfather telling me he missed me, it confirmed for me that there was something in those dreams I had to discover or remember. Moreover, when I received, at my request, a copy of Victor Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis as a Valentine’s gift, I realized there was a powerful disconnect between what I believed and the real world.
After leaving the Catholic faith about a decade ago, my views had predominantly been shifted, and focused on, the concept of there being a god and any supernaturalism related to the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. While the afterlife certainly is part of the mythicism of Christianity I rejected, the word “but” always seemed to follow it. As in “I do not believe in the afterlife, but perhaps that is a part of our understanding of the world that we have not been able to conceptualize scientifically.” My issue was not that I was asking the wrong questions, it was that I was not asking the question at all.
Even with the shift in my philosophical and scientific understanding of the natural world, I still was unable to see the universe surviving without me. I gave room for such thoughts to permit me still the comfort that, even though I do not believe in such things, there might still be a minute chance of my being conscious after I pass away. I wrote my graduate thesis, which even helped me discover how far removed modern society is from the concept in the Bible. This showed me a separation of God from his people, a Greco-Roman themed valley of death, and Satan being a powerful demon rather than the ruler of hell, and even a complete lack of hell altogether, and I stayed firm in my position of not believing, but still hoping.
When I proposed the concept of my fourth book, After Life, to Ockham Publishing, building off of my graduate thesis, I had no idea that another rude awakening was waiting for me. This came when I started to research the scientific realm and was recommended a name: Sean Carroll. Carroll explained such a complex topic in such an easy to understand way. How he was able to explain Quantum Field Theory, how it disproves the afterlife, and how he definitively stated at a Freedom from Religion Foundation conference “…we can say that there is no life after death” made me shudder and feel very empty the first time I heard it. He stated everyone has a brain, made of atoms, and we do know how those molecules work. We have a breadth of knowledge about how the atoms in our bodies work, and how there is no room in the equation that demonstrates this. So for anything to affect those atoms after our death, then there is no way for our consciousness to leave, let alone persevere, beyond our death.
As I continued with my book, I had the same intense, sad feeling I’d had when reading Stenger’s book about a decade before. It was uncomfortable; it was concerning; the idea that what I experienced when I was 14, that of nothingness, was truly what death felt like. An eternity of experiencing nothing. However, if it is nothing I will experience, then I will not be conscious of that time frame. Moreover, as science also dictates, what ends up making me me, namely carbon, will be released back into the universe and will become a part of life in may other areas. Plant life, sea life, and even soaked into the earth to become part of a volcanic eruption in several hundred million years. A pretty epic send off if I do say so myself.
Once I finished writing After Life, I ended up walking away noting that this experience was one I needed to keep in mind with all assumptions I had about thoughts and beliefs that gave me comfort. Was I only confirming what I already believed to be true, or did I have evidence to demonstrate the facts of the matter? It turns out I need to start asking those questions I’ve been too comfortable in my ignorance to ask. Like why I am continuing my education by pursuing a Ph.D. in Biblical studies when it was two physicists that made life-altering belief shifts for me.
Matthew O’Neil is an activist, theologian, and teacher. He has an MA in theology from Saint Michael’s College, and he is a certified Humanist chaplain and celebrant. He is the author of You Say That I Am: Jesus and the Messianic Problem and writes for the Danthropology blog through the Patheos network. He lives in Saint Albans, Vermont.