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Lately, because of the current world situation, there has been a huge amount of social, military and political tension between religious believers, and people who do not believe in a higher being that created the world and/or is responsible in some way of overseeing what occurs to humans following death. I think vis a vis this question of atheism vs. religious belief (of any sort, although I would argue that atheism is just as much a religion as the rest of them) there is an understandable lack of objectivity.
People who do not believe in one of the normative religions (one or more god or gods, positive and/or negative rules of conduct (meaning, there are things you have to do to follow the religion, and things you have to refrain from doing) cannot understand the faith of people who believe. It's not a criticism, it's just accurate. The agnostic or atheist honestly sees a person who believes a lie when they look at a person of sincere faith. They cannot help but believe that the religious adherent is stupid to believe what they consider to be a falsehood.
Likewise, the person who has a literal belief in a normative religion (doesn't see it as an allegory or set of ethics alone, but actually believes in its god/gods and rules as divine and handed down from a power above humanity) sees pure incarnate evil when they look upon an agnostic or atheist.
I think the split comes down to personality differences. Believers are more likely to find the idea of a higher power comforting and providing stability and structure to their lives. On the other hand, the person who does not believe would resent the idea of a higher power. They want to see themselves as the only power over their lives. It's a generalization, but I think it's often accurate.
Of course, the problem is, religion, including atheism, is really just a sort of "writer's convenience" for us to explain questions we simply don't know the answers to, such as:
1)How did the physical universe we experience come into being? And how is it possible that physical existence itself can begin, since what was there before physical existence?
2)Does a person's consciousness and intelligence survive physical death, and if not, did it really ever exist in the first place, or was it just a clever pattern of electrical neural signals that we pretended was what we call a "person?"
3)Why is life a unreasonably horrible experience for an appalling percentage of the human species, including both for social/economic reasons, as well as those born with a propensity for fatal diseases and such?
Well, here's my answers:
1). . . Doesn't really matter, since I don't think it's going to effect our tiny little lives, any more than the result of the last governmental election impacts an ant. Humans have an overstuffed view of themselves; they think they deserve to understand everything. They just don't. A being that can barely live more than 100 puny years can never hope to even come close to actually understanding something like what the origin of reality was, so it's useless to try, really. It's like expecting a spider to do integral calculus. It's not going to happen.
2)Reasonable minds can disagree, but I find the fact that localized brain damage can permanently change a person's personality or remove neurological abilities is proof positive that a person's consciousness and intelligence cannot survive brain death. For instance, the ability to comprehend speech, and the ability to talk, are two separate brain functions controlled by separate parts of the brain, and it is possible to sustain localized brain damage such that one can understand speech, but not talk, or that one can talk, but cannot understand what another person is saying to you. Given that a partial loss of brain function can result in a permanent loss of part of your mental capability, it stands to reason that total brain death equals total loss of mental capability. The person will still exist; even after decomposition the atoms that make up the person will not be destroyed. However, existence as a conscious, intelligent entity is finite, which really is of no consequence. A conscious being cannot be dismayed at its non-existence, since being non-existent, he or she or it or whatever isn't around to be unhappy about it. Rather than fearing death, the proper attitude is just to accept that the human brain has a finite functional shelf life, and that we can die when it is our time with the knowledge that we will not suffer for our loss, since we won't be able to know about it.
Given that all the wonderful things our minds can do completely depend on electrical nerve activity on a massive scale that we understand at an only rudimentary level, I would respectfully submit that what a person is is not the body, nor the idea of a soul, or even the brain or some abstract concept of "mind," it's simply the actual pattern of electrical firings occurring at any given instant. When you look at an fMRI, that's the closest we've gotten so far to actually taking a human being's picture. I leave it to you to decide whether that electrical activity can be considered to be a real entity in and of itself, or if its apparent consciousness is merely a clever parlor trick or type of self delusion, since I havn't quite worked it out, and probably never will in any event, but that doesn't bother me too much, honestly.
In any event, dying is a moral imperative, since if we did not die, it would be impossible for other people to have a chance at living. Life is precious, but to hoard it all for oneself seems to be selfish, a negative quality, and if a way to stop death was discovered, it would have horrible consequences for the world economy and environment, and probably ironically bring about the extinction of the human species anyway. People die because they have to; death is just as much a part a life as breathing. If people didn't die before you, it would be impossible for you to live.
3)This is more a matter of economics and/or politics, but my personal opinion is a better world is possible; we just need to do our best to make it happen. Certainly trying to understand and respect each others' beliefs is a step, but it can't just be one way. Atheists and agnostics can't be expected to respect the faith of religious people if religious people refuse to see atheists and agnostics as anything other than incarnate evil.
Also, I can't back this up, but I like to believe that we're really all the same matter and energy in the end anyway, so even when our conscious lives do end, our matter goes on to become something else, and in that sense, we do live forever. Anyone who knows basic physics knows that matter and energy can be converted from one to the other, but the universe contains a finite amount of both, and that amount cannot be changed (I could be slightly off on this, but I think that's right).
Hrodulf 16:56, 24 December 2006 (UTC)