XIV. What Happens When We Die?

“The mystical trend of our time, which shows itself particularly in the rampant growth of the so-called Theosophy and Spiritualism, is for me no more than a symptom of weakness and confusion. Since our inner experiences consist of reproductions, and combinations of sensory impressions, the concept of a soul without a body seem to me to be empty and devoid of meaning.” 

– Albert Einstein

The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”

– Mark Twain

We are born from darkness, and to darkness we return. For all those who feel the twitches of life, this is guaranteed. The late Christopher Hitchens said that the knowledge of one’s own mortality is “realizing that you are expelled from your mother’s uterus as if shot from a cannon towards a barn door studded with old nail files and rusty hooks.” He also likened life to being at a party where, one day, you shall be tapped on the shoulder and informed that you have to leave. What’s more, not only do you have to leave, but the party will still be going on without you! Humans invented the idea of a soul, an immortal vessel that could carry the hopes and dreams of this life to the next, to sooth their anxieties about the inevitable: one day, we and everyone we know will all die.

The idea of a soul has been around and evolving for thousands of years. Like the idea of God and the religions that accompany it, the soul was a crude first attempt at explaining the inner workings of our mental realm. But if a soul did exist, what could it possibly be useful for? It could have no vision-processing nerves and organs so it couldn’t possibly see. It could have no auditory organs so it wouldn’t be able to hear. It could have no brain so it wouldn’t even be able to process these senses, or store memories, hold knowledge or contain personality traits for that matter. Everything about your personality, from your history of memories to your preferences to the way you interact with others and the way you process thoughts and feelings can all be traced to functions in your brain. When a medical patient suffers a stroke or an accident, or if they develop a tumor or brain disease, for instance, they may loose the ability to recognize faces, or the ability to recognize their own body parts as belonging to them. With other types of brain damage, the patient looses all memory of who they are, or in some cases a totally new and different personality replaces the old one. There is not an undamaged soul somewhere inside of them that can’t express itself correctly. Change the brain and you change everything about the person.

To quote neurologist Sam Harris, “Science is not in principle committed to the idea that there’s no afterlife or that the mind is identical to the brain…If it’s true that consciousness is being run like software on the brain and can – by virtue of ‘ectoplasm’ or something else we don’t understand – be dissociated from the brain at death, that would be part of our growing scientific understanding of the world if we discover it…What we’re being asked to consider is that you damage one part of the brain, and something about the mind and subjectivity is lost, you damage another and yet more is lost, [but] you damage the whole thing at death, [and] we can rise off the brain with all our faculties intact, recognizing grandma and speaking English?!”

Some people argue that there must be a “ghost in the machine” that controls what your body does or that there must be some sort of “energy cloud” that powers the whole thing. However, scientists can now track our intentions and emotions down to electrical and chemical impulses produced by our body’s cells. One part of my brain calculates the probability of me throwing a rock to be a desirable action, another part makes the necessary physics calculations and sends them to my muscles, and another part of my brain witnesses it all happening and analyses the chemical response of my emotions. Now describing it in those terms doesn’t make it any less beautiful and amazing that I can hurl a piece of matter through the air with great accuracy, but in no way is it necessary to attribute any part of that with the notion of a soul. And the energy required to do all of this comes from my cells metabolizing the food I eat to produce the energy of movement, as guided by my brain.

Others point to near-death experiences as proof for the existence of a soul. Scientists have been able to recreate and study near-death experiences in the lab. The phenomena that people experience, including seeing a bright light, a tunnel, hallucinating about heaven, hell, family members or the operating room around them, past memory reflection, and a sense of being one with “god” or “a connectedness to all things” are all amazing experiences and can be life-changing, but they all have perfectly rational explanations that involve neurochemistry in the brain during the moments before death. And remember, these are called NEAR-death experiences for a reason.

The truth is that no one knows for sure what happens when we die and don’t come back. But I am familiar with the story that science tells us, and it gives me great comfort. More about that in a later post. For now, suffice it to say that I don’t believe that anything happens when you die, except that you die, and the material that was your body is broken down and returned into the environment, where it is recycled into new forms, both living and non-living. I believe that consciousness ends when we die. Though I grieve when loved ones are lost to death like anyone else, the thought that nothing lives on after death does not sadden or frighten me. I only see it as a continual process that we are all a part of.

The New Age Movement, a loose consortium of philosophies that has taken advantage of far more people than it has helped, incorporates the tenants of reincarnation from Eastern traditions with the idea of a sort of “soul school” where your soul supposedly goes through countless different lifetimes learning pre-prescribed “lessons” according to a pre-determined path, sometimes volunteering to be handicapped, mentally ill, raised in poverty, or a victim of abuse, forgetting this whole system each time that we reincarnate so that we can fully experience life’s “training ground”. Souls are said to choose to be together in certain lifetimes, sometimes over and over, to work on “karmic” issues or accomplish goals that are somehow set up by and important to the greater Universe, Gaya, Godhead, Buddha Essence or God Intelligence that we are all a part of. What would this system accomplish? Who designed it, and why?

I find it interesting that many people leave the dogma of the Church behind, only to exchange it for the same needless dogma in a different form. If you don’t believe that your soul needs to be saved, then why do you believe that it needs a lesson plan? If you don’t need God, why do you make the Universe a god? What is this constant need for humans to feel that they are somehow unworthy, imperfect, fundamentally flawed, lesser than, and separate? Those who believe in souls and soul transcendence are often the same people who get swept up in global conspiracies, alien encounters, abductions and anal probes, astral projection, demons, angels, ghosts, past life regression, astrology, tarot cards, palm-reading, fortune-telling, mind-reading, faith healing, aura photography, chakra cleansing, chasing the “secret” and healing with crystals. For the record there is no evidence that any of these beliefs have a basis in reality either. Click here to watch an awesome video by skeptic author Michael Shermer about why people believe weird things.

So if we cannot confirm nor deny with absolute certainty the existence of a soul unless we are carried by one beyond death, and if the idea brings hope and rich experiences to people, who am I to try to convince anyone that it doesn’t exist? Look, I admit that believing in a soul is a lot less harmful than believing in a God or a Religion, but if the truth of your existence is important to you, and if everyone in the world has to be on the same page in order to save it, it’s time to leave this idea behind. The belief in an eternal soul naturally leads to questions of a Creator, and what purpose that Creator may have for his Creation. What ideas does the Soul Creation Process have about morality and what we should be doing here? This is flirting with submission to a parental figure who claims influence and ownership over you all over again, and I see that as a problem.

For instance, if you have an abusive soulmate, why would you divorce them when you should clearly stay with them to work out your karma? And if something bad happens to you, it’s your soul’s karma, a deserved punishment, perhaps from lifetimes ago even. And just as is the problem with those who eagerly await the Messiah’s return, why should we bother trying to save this planet, if our souls can just travel to another world and leave this rock behind? Similarly, why should you have to get it right in this lifetime, when you have as many “redo” chances as you need ahead of you? Or if you believe that your “inner voice” is actually your soul speaking to you, what if it tells you to do something harmful? Should you listen? Do you see how even the idea of a soul can be harmful and limiting to the doors of your perception?

And yet we all, those of us who believe in souls and those that do not, understand what is meant when someone says, “He plays guitar with soul,” or “You can see her soul in her artwork,” or even “He is an old soul.” “I need some time to soul search.” “What is my soul’s ultimate desire?” “When we made love, our souls combined into one.” “When I am in the mountains, I feel that my soul is at one with Nature.” “His soul is now at rest.” These statements make sense even in light of my beliefs, without having to envision a ghost-like smokey apparition hiding somewhere beneath my skin.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe in a soul, but I do consider myself at times to be soulful. I look at the “soul” of a human, or a dog, or a river, or a planet, as a metaphor for the combined essence of all of its qualities and characteristics. Your soul is what you express, what you create, what you give to others, how you see and interact with the world, how the world sees you, what you are like when no one is looking, what you leave behind. No frivolous dogma about death and dependence is needed for you to experience moments with great depth of “soul”, as long as you let your “true soul” shine through.

So come on Mary…Don’t fear the Reaper.

Instead be grateful, be joyful, be soulful, that you are a part of All That Is and that you are here to witness it all happening.

Prev: Are You There God?                                      Next: Good and Evil

~ by christhehumanist on January 30, 2012.

12 Responses to “XIV. What Happens When We Die?”

  1. I understand. I get where you are. Life is a journey. Keep on keeping on!

    • Thank you Annabel. I know that you have written extensively about some of these topics, and I also know that you have helped countless people in the course of your work. I would never seek to demean, challenge or discontinue that work. In the end, you and I are working toward the same goals: helping people heal from their past and to understand their true selves. That being said, if I am to be totally honest about my beliefs, I had to write this post. Again, in talking about the soul or an unincorporated god, I am discussing things that are extremely hard to conceptualize, and these are simply facts that no one can claim to know for sure at this point. I could be wrong. However, the overwhelming evidence seems to point to the fact that I am not. Thank you as always.

  2. Good Morning Sunshine …..

    (I am addressing you Chris)

    (my humble ramblings include a notion that sunshine is an inherent part of our nature as a gift of God or manufactured at the printing press according to others.)

    I am aware that mankind has to cooperate with such an idea …oops and
    of course you have to uwrap the gift in order to see it or benefit from it
    … sigh

    When you make statements about fearing death, you should really be nearer to a certainty of it ….. not a youngster who sees it in far away terms.
    I am not afraid of death, …. I am 83 years old and am getting little messages that time is getting short for doing and being what I want to in this particular world…….I see what comes after this life as an adventure yet to unfold and the chance to make wiser choices….or not.

    Man may have manufactured a lot of different ideas of who he/she/or it is and why this, that or other will be believed or not believed ….. I have no idea what I want to call Him..It. or That …… but I know that none of what exists is an accident or came without a very complicated floor plan for all of this to happen …..it feels to me that you trust too much in things happening by accident or by superior mental abilities but in MY mind ( which always takes second seat right after my gut feeling ) I know in my gut that this is not so. If it is not an accident or random happening….so then
    who are going to give all the credit to …..the beasties of the field?

    Oh ..I know …. the great mind of mankind …. let’s give that the credit …..and then run, baby run …. you just unleashed the
    holocaust because the ( wrong man’s) mind is known for making gross errors.

    oh my God I am rambling …. and I told myself I would not do that anymore …..oh well

    Love ya Chris

    • Lois! Good to hear from you as always.

      I loved what you said about sunshine. Ironically enough, I’ll actually be writing about that in an upcoming post.

      I also liked what you said about the adventure of death and being close to it, though I hope you’ll be around for a good, long time yet. I try to live my life with the certainty that death is very near, at all times and everywhere I go. You may exceed me in years, but death may come sooner for me than you. I find that thought not morbid or troubling, but energizing. It makes me take in each moment I DO have even more thoroughly, and I find that I concern myself with trivial matters less and less.

      I respect your belief about a floor plan and grand design, but I do not share these ideas. But I will be addressing these and your other points, as I’m sure you’ve guessed…in future blog post.

      And Lois, I’d read your ramblings any day.

      Love ya too.


  3. Thank you, Chris, for your thoughtful response. I am not offended in the least by your post. Yes, we are both in this together. I, too, evolve continuously as my own experiences and those of others like yourself bring me to another level of awareness. As you, I pass it forward!

  4. Lois is right on this one. Any talk of human existence apart from the body is totally dependent upon a belief in spirits, which is to say, God. The soul is our essence, our “I-ness” or the awareness of our self, our universe and the brevity of our mortality. If our essence has any existence other than material, that is apart from the body, the case for God is made. The fact that we are conscious, self-conscious, and have a conscience argues for a spiritual existence unexplainable by evolution. My father and mother and my wife’s mother all passed within the last year. Before she died, my mother-in-law was crying. So my wife asked her why. She said, “I’m dying and I’m going to miss everybody”. She was not an educated woman nor a theologian, but she didn’t intuit that she would cease existing. She felt that she would be in a state of awareness and away-ness, missing those she loved.

    Although it may be liberating to think that we just cease existence after death and that there is no accountability to a Creator God for how we live our lives, in reality the idea of annihilation and eternal not-being is a horrifying thought to those who truly imagine it. Our investment in our vast medical system and ideas of the preciousness and sacredness of life belie the idea that any of us can truly go “gentle into that goodnight”.

    • Carson,

      I don’t believe in any human existence apart from the body, so therefore I do not believe in spirits, or God, or an afterlife. Consciousness is a mystery, but genetics was a mystery just a hundred years ago. And the movement of the planets in our solar system was a mystery attributed to God until a few hundred years ago. I hesitate to call something “God”, just because we don’t understand it yet. I believe that science will figure out most or all of the aspects of consciousness in the near future, but, in my opinion, we already know enough about how the brain works to know that many of the characteristics that have always been attributed to a soul can now be attributed to the brain.

      I feel for you and your family’s losses this past year. I can’t even image how hard that must have been for you all. Thank you for sharing that touching story. Please understand that I mean absolutely no disrespect to you, those who have passed, or the memory of our ancestors.

      I agree that we all have a survival instinct, and we are trying to prolong life through medicine so that we can stick around longer. This has always seemed counter-intuitive to me from the standpoint of Christianity, because if Christians truly believed in Heaven, why wouldn’t they want to get there as soon as possible? I mean, if you’re saved by Jesus, you’ve got your “get out of hell free” card, so why not get to the Eternal Happiness ASAP? True, if you are in Heaven, you may miss those that you leave behind on Earth, but that time without them would be just a drop in the bucket compared to the Eternity that you all would spend together in Heaven. The fact that we cling so desperately to life is just more evidence to me that evolution developed our sense of survival and that there is not a God anywhere behind the scenes. I think that making peace with this idea is important to the development and happiness of humanity. That is my belief, but again, I respect your beliefs as well. I only provide counterpoints for the benefit of the readers.

  5. Chris,

    Thank you for your thoughts about my family. It has been a time of deep sadness and reflection. So, thank you.

    I think it is important to clarify something about Christians, heaven, and death. Why, you ask, “if we have a get-out-of-hell-free card” do Christians not want to “get to the eternal happiness ASAP”? This is often thrown at Christians as though our love of life and living is somehow in conflict with our eternal aspirations.

    First, Christians view death as an “enemy”. It is an unfortunate circumstance that all humans face. God is life and love, not death. He never intended us to die. Ever. But, we do.

    Second, Christ overcame death through his resurrection from the dead. And, he promises us that because of him, we too can overcome death through our own resurrection one day. The idea of going to heaven is a new biblical concept that came about because of Christ. But, even that was not God’s first choice for us. He made us for this earth. This earth is our natural home. We are of the earth. We are from the earth.

    It is the disruption of this natural order because of our embracement of evil has changed all of this. We now have the promise of eternal life in a different realm than we were intended for: heaven. We must lose our loved ones. And, we must experience death ourselves. We must all go through it. And, we must experience the resurrection that will take place at the end of time before we can go to heaven. So, death is not an automatic portal to heaven. Even the dead must wait until the end of the world to receive their home in heaven. So, yes, Christians grieve but “not as those who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4.13).

    • Fascinating. I appreciate your candor and honesty, and my heart goes out to you and your family. In 17 years of debating with Christians, I have found that most Christians do not read much of the Bible at all, and most of those that do don’t understand it. I fully admit that, if I were a Christian today, I would believe pretty much exactly as you do, including your beliefs about when and how people get to Heaven. As, you know, I have rejected the Bible, but at least you and I pretty much agree on the interpretation.

  6. I have been reading the Gnostic Bible and the commentaries of Elaine Pagel ….soooo interesting, and offering a knowing of why I take the Bible with a grain of salt ….. I am finding that blind acceptance is true of many other things that in the past I took as “Gospel”……the history presented vs. the facts of how this country was founded and the lies it was built on for instance ………

    good intentions or not …. we only know the facts as they are presented to us and our willingness to investigate the truth as it comes to us to do that.
    Lies are man made ….. even well intentioned ones …… facts are important and they are hard to come by ….. so much of what we know and believe is based on fiction …….( granted and agreed to……Yes)………but if you murder the inner voice, or let it die from neglect you have missed the essence of what your life is all about and negate any reason to be here at all. I call intuition my inner voice, the gut feeling that over-rides the denial of what is …………….I am way ahead of you Chris ….. your gut feeling says that is not so …………..and I guess if you do not trust the Driver at the wheel you will always put he/she or it in the back seat and you will be the driver and never sit back and relax and enjoy the ride. When you can’t trust anyone but yourself, that happens.

    I think that is sad

    • Thank you again Lois, my faithful companion through this blog journey. I always love the brutal honesty of your comments. I would never want to murder the inner voice or let it die from neglect, as unfortunately many in our society today do. I will be addressing who and what the “driver at the wheel” is and what kind of relationship we can have with our multiple inner voices in post #20. Thank you for reading.

      In love and light,


  7. Author’s note: Since I have had many people ask me what happens when we die, I have added the following to this post to be more clear on my take on the subject:

    “For now, suffice it to say that I don’t believe that anything happens when you die, except that you die, and the material that was your body is broken down and returned into the environment, where it is recycled into new forms, both living and non-living. I believe that consciousness ends when we die. Though I grieve when loved ones are lost to death like anyone else, the thought that nothing lives on after death does not sadden or frighten me. I only see it as a continual process that we are all a part of.”

    I have also added the following:

    “If you believe that your “inner voice” is actually your soul speaking to you, what if it tells you to do something harmful? Should you listen?”

    I have also changed the title of this post from “What Soul?” to “What Happens When We Die?”

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