When I was a kid, I kind of looked forward to the famed "Judgment Day." Not because I thought I'd score well or anything. ;-) Rather, I liked the idea that every moment -- every precious moment -- is being recorded.
Probably for some of you, the first thing that jumped into your minds reading the above was "Even when you're in the can? You want that recorded? Eeew!!!" But I was hoping to just fast-forward through those parts. What I liked was the idea that days I'd completely forgotten could be brought back and that I could even watch all of the dreams that were lost before morning.
Giving up belief in the afterlife means accepting the fact that past events that are forgotten are gone completely. You no longer get to look forward to one day learning the right answer to all of those historical questions that are in dispute. Like what was really in that lost Spalding manuscript and did it even exist? If the evidence has been destroyed, then the correct answer can never be known.
What's more, I liked the idea that other people's experiences wouldn't be lost either. Maybe this is weird of me, but when learning about ancient cultures and their customs, a lot of times I think about all of the people who lived, loved, and thought, who are today gone without a trace.
But all of that isn't really why I don't like the idea of death. More than anything else, I just don't like the idea that one day all of my thoughts will stop and I will simply cease to exist.
Part of the problem is that non-existence is inconceivable: I have to exist in order to contemplate anything at all. (We discussed this point in a related post over on The Fire Sermon.)
But it's more than that. The main problem I have with death is that my mind and senses are my only window to observing and contemplating the universe. Sure the universe can get along just fine without me, but if I'm not there to observe it, then to me it's as if it doesn't exist. To me, once I'm dead, it's not just that there will be no me, it's that there will be nothing at all -- everything comes to an end.
I don't know if that makes any sense. Maybe someone will explain why that point makes no sense so I can stop worrying about it. ;-)
I have one other problem with death that probably makes even less sense than that one, but let me see if I can try to explain it:
Nine out of ten atheists agree that when you stop believing in the afterlife, then real life seems that much more precious. When this is all there is, you want to cherish every moment and live life to the fullest. You don't have the infinities for procrastinating your dreams -- anything you fail to do before death, you won't do it ever.
But then here's the problem: Suppose you live exactly the full life you set out to live and accomplish everything you ever wanted to accomplish. Who does that really matter to? It matters to you. But then after you're dead it doesn't matter to you anymore because nothing matters to you anymore -- you're dead. You could try living your life to make a positive impact on other people that will continue after your death. But someday they'll be dead too. Hmmm.
This is why I try not to think about this.
Weirdly, none of this nonsense seems to have any effect on my desire to live a full life and achieve my dreams and make a positive impact on the lives of others. I guess it's because my life matters to me as long as I'm alive, and I'm alive now (at the time of this writing anyway...).
It only bothers me when I think about it. Which is why it would be better if I could stop thinking about it. It seems like it would be nice to be able to contemplate life and death from the outside rather than being intimately and ultimately bound by it. I think that's the draw of a monastic life: you give up "worldly" things in hopes of opting out of the cycle of life by attempting to rise above it, and by trying to deny that you're a part of that cycle and that it's a part of you.
Unfortunately, fear of death seems like an obvious consequence of being human. As with all animals, natural selection has provided humans with a powerful will to survive. Yet the human trait of understanding that you're alive means realizing that one day you will die. And it's not just "if you're not careful, you'll die." It's you will die. period.
Sometimes religion seems like an obsessive-compulsive style strategy for dealing with this internal conflict: since there's nothing real that you can do to ward off death, performing rituals, prayers, and incantations seems better than nothing. This is why skepticism and atheism are scary: they lead you to the realization that ultimately the charms won't work.
I hope to make peace with the idea of death sometime before it happens, but in the end it doesn't really matter either way. Ready or not, it will come...