What If You’re Wrong? An Atheist Perspective

As soon as I posted my answer to the question, “What do you believe happens to you when you die?” in my last blog post, I received a follow-up question: “What if you’re wrong?”

It’s a fair question, and it deserves a thorough answer. After all, the implications are huge. It’s a question about which I have read,  contemplated, and asked other people.

What If You’re Wrong?

First, allow me to pose the same question to you. What if you are wrong? How do you know which god is the right one? There are so many gods, religions, and holy books, how can you be sure that your chosen faith is the right one? What if you die only to find out that Allah or Zeus is the one true god and you’ve spent your life serving a false prophet?

Your question asserts Pascal’s Wager, which is a philosophy that says one should believe in god because the threat of eternal punishment outweighs any advantage to not believing. But the problem with this reasoning is that it is drenched in fear, not love, which is incompatible with a benevolent, compassionate god.

The god of Christianity is often attributed with two noteworthy qualities: ultimate benevolence (love, compassion, and kindness) and omnipotence (knowing everything possible from every point of view and in every context). So if this god exists, he utterly loves me and completely knows me.

This god would perfectly understand the events that built my psyche, personality, and paradigm. He would appreciate everything that challenged me, changed me, or forced me to think differently, including the moment that I doubted his existence.

He would intimately understand my morals and ethics and appreciate why I resolved to approach religious claims critically and cautiously, not accept them readily on faith.

He would be aware of the countless times I read, studied and memorized scripture, and the verses that I found horrifying, illogical, or irreconcilable with the claim that a just and loving god concerned with our salvation inspired them.

This being would know that I valued the truth, took it seriously, and sought it earnestly. I didn’t believe something just because I wanted it to be true or doubt something simply because I wanted it to be false.

He would know that I didn’t reject his existence out of rebellion, bitterness, or hate. I would have much preferred that a loving god exist and would have happily obeyed his commands, but there were too many contradictions and claims requiring special pleading, circular reasoning, and ad hoc speculation.

He would understand that I could not simply pick what I believed to be true, and perfectly comprehend that my disbelief was an involuntary reaction to a deficit of evidence for a god’s existence.

He would appreciate that I found it unacceptable and dishonorable to pretend to believe in a god because I feared punishment or sought reward.

Other Perspectives

I asked a friend of mine who considers himself an atheist “for the most part” 🙂 “What if you’re wrong?” He replied:

“In the eyes of religion, if I am wrong then I’ll be going to hell. Regardless of the fact I’m a moral man, because I did not accept a savior or accept a god into my life, I’d be screwed either way. So instead of blindly following a religion based around the Quran, or Bible, or any other work of religion, I choose to accept that the things around are living evidence. Science and logic have multitudes of theoretical answers about what happens after we die. I’d rather trust a theory that’s based upon scientific and mathematical fact, than a book that has been rewritten and warped over thousands of years. So ultimately if I am wrong, then I will have to answer to whomever is waiting for me after death, but I’d rather truly believe in a false logic, than blindly follow an illogical faith.

Here is another atheist’s response to “What if you’re wrong?” that is funny and to the point:

“I’d say that if God exists then the most likely situation is that “He” created the universe via the Big Bang and then let everything play out from there.

So if I got to heaven, then I guess my fate would be determined by the kind of person God wants in there. Does he want kind and loving people, or perhaps observant and intellectual people?

If it turns out that God only wants people who hold onto one specific religion out of hundreds of denominations based on its specific anecdotal evidence while rejecting all other anecdotal evidence then yeah, I’m pretty much screwed in that case.

For another excellent response, watch this.

One of my favorite quotes is by Galileo, who said

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forego their use.”

If there is a god, I would think he would be pleased with the way I employed the intelligence and moral sense he gave me, even if it turned out that I was wrong.

Good thing I’m not. 😉

What Happens When You Die?

A beloved former teacher of mine recently asked me, “What do you believe happens to you when you die?” As an atheist, my beliefs are a bit off the main road, and I appreciate her question.

I responded to her comment on Facebook, but as it was a fairly long answer, I also wanted to include it here, in case you run across it and it sparks your interest. Oh, good! You’re here! 🙂 Read away.

What Happens When You Die?

This is a difficult topic, and one that I’ve thought and read about a good bit. It’s more than a logical issue; it’s a deeply emotional one.
The comfort offered in religion is nearly irresistible when you lose someone you love or contemplate your own death. We all have a powerful self-preservation instinct, and so it is understandable that many hold fiercely to a belief in immortality.
It is tempting to confuse what we want with all our hearts to be true with what is true.
However, science has uncovered knowledge about life and death that is so much more amazing and awe-inspiring than stories of streets of gold, mansions in the sky, and lakes of fire.
So here’s what I believe.
When you die, your consciousness ends. However, according to the law of conservation of energy, energy can’t be created or destroyed, so your life force continues in other forms forever.
Your body rejoins the earth and gives rise to new life, as the earth once gave life to you. That is a powerful and humbling thought. You are part of an existence infinitely larger than yourself.
You live through your children. They literally embody your genetic essence, as you embody your parents’.
You live through your words. I was reading an excerpt from “A Narrative on the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” to my English class today when the thought came to me that Frederick Douglass was living through me at that very moment. I wasn’t sharing my own words; I was sharing his. His life, his voice, his experiences, his vitality was alive today in that story’s retelling.
This realization also impressed upon me the importance of writing and sharing your stories with the world. You never know what impact it will have, or for how long.
Here is a beautiful passage by Aaron Freeman about why you want a physicist to speak at your funeral:
You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.
And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.
And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.
And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they’ll be comforted to know your energy’s still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly. Amen.”
Why cling to faith without evidence when the evidence is so beautiful and breathtaking?
I want to hear from you! What do you believe happens to you when you die?
The Helix Nebula is 700 light-years away from Earth, but screened before audience's eyes in reconstructed 3D in Hidden Universe, released in IMAX® theatres and giant-screen cinemas around the globe and produced by the Australian production company December Media in association with Film Victoria, Swinburne University of Technology, MacGillivray Freeman Films and ESO. The original image was taken by ESO's VISTA Telescope.
The Helix Nebula is 700 light-years away from Earth, but screened before audience’s eyes in reconstructed 3D in Hidden Universe, released in IMAX® theatres and giant-screen cinemas around the globe and produced by the Australian production company December Media in association with Film Victoria, Swinburne University of Technology, MacGillivray Freeman Films and ESO. The original image was taken by ESO’s VISTA Telescope.

Wedding Ring



Last night at work in between
Cursing heels and pouring drinks,
I saw an ad on TV
For a two-stone wedding ring.
Best friend, true love.

You want to know a secret?
I’m only cynical because it’s sexy.
Deep deep deep down, I’m still that little girl
Who wants to save her first kiss for her wedding day.
But all my firsts are given away, except one, perhaps.
I’ve never worn a wedding ring.

I see a love story written in every face.
In one or two, I’ve read my name.
But when I saw you the other day-
God, how long had it been-
I saw that our chapter had been erased.
The words were there but very faint.

If I fall asleep, please don’t leave.
Let me hold you gently while we breathe
And dream of soft cotton days and simple, sinless things;
Of what might have been and what might never be.