"We are young
Wandering the face of the Earth
Wondering what our dreams might be worth
Learning that we're only immortal
For a limited time"
- from Rush's 'Dreamline'
In reference to my Atheism, a Christian friend once said to me, "It's too bad you have to live with such hopelessness."
"What do you mean by that?" I asked.
He replied, "Well, from your viewpoint, after you die, there will be nothing, so your life would have had no meaning. Why bother trying to accomplish anything? It would just be hopeless."
"Not at all," I said, "To the contrary, it makes this life more precious and meaningful, because it's the only one I've got."
He wasn't very convinced. Our conversation continued a bit, and it was very clear that what bothered him the most about my Atheist convictions was that if there was no afterlife, then upon death we would simply cease to exist; all of our thoughts, ideals, creativity, and everything that makes us who we are would simply vanish. To him, this was simply unacceptable and unbelievable. There just had to be something after this life was over! I could understand why he felt this way, because I used to think the same way.
During my long transition to non-belief concerning the existence of any gods or an afterlife, I must admit that the idea of no longer existing was the final and most difficult emotional hurdle that I had to get over. Throughout my childhood, I had always been told that everything was created by God, and there was a plan, and after I died I would go to Heaven and live forever. The idea of non-existence seemed foreign and scary. It was just utterly inconceivable that an individual’s existence in any form at all would come to an absolute end.
In my mid-twenties I began thinking critically about what I had been taught as a child, and these fantastic ideas of a god and an afterlife fell deeper and deeper into the realm of doubt. Questions about our origins and what we were doing here still nagged at me however, and it all seemed so unfair to me. We humans are one of a species of apes on this planet whose brains have evolved to the point that we understand clearly that our lives are finite and that we will each eventually die. It seemed to me at the time like we were all the victims of a very cruel practical joke. Only, there was no "joker" to blame it on.
I continued for several years identifying myself as a Deist or Agnostic (depending on my mood), avoiding the "Atheist" label because it seemed to me at the time to carry with it a cold resoluteness; a harsh finality that would indeed slam the door on any hope or meaning I could find in life. Having turned my back on the Christianity I had been brought up with, I kept on trying to foster some belief in some type of higher power or some type of afterlife through various New Age practices, Neo-Paganism, and numerous Western adaptations of the Eastern religions. Every attempt I made ended with my critical thinking getting in the way. I was unsatisfied with the absence of any empirical evidence. I needed something that would give me confidence that I wasn't following yet another set of ideas based on nothing more than blind faith and wishful thinking. It was at a point like this in my life when I finally decided to come to terms with this "unfair practical joke" that humanity had been stung with. In retrospect, what I had finally decided to do was to make a paradigm shift in my outlook about life on this little speck of dust we call "Earth."
I first considered what it would be like to not exist. It sounds silly if you think of it, because it wouldn't "be" like anything. So, I imagined myself going to sleep some evening, dreaming a final dream perhaps, and then drifting off to...nothing. No alarm clock to wake me up, no bills to worry about, no concerns. "That wouldn't be so bad." I thought, “I can handle that.” As for meaning, purpose, and hope in life; I decided that would be up to me to provide.
Today I have a newfound appreciation for this life, this world and all the discoveries that have been made and are yet to be made. It's not perfect. No one said it would be. Many aspects of it are unfair, but the choices I make determine how I will deal with the unfairness. I don't have all the answers, but Science does what it can to discover them, correcting and refining itself along the way as new data and insights come to light. There are still many unanswered questions, but that just deepens the mystery and increases the excitement of each new discovery. I am not a victim of circumstance, and I am responsible for my own actions. My life has the meaning I define for it, the purpose I give to it, and the hope I contribute to it. The final hurdle is now far behind me. I lead a full and happy life filled with wonder, love, and a renewed hope for the future of this little planet and its many inhabitants.