"Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today"
Imagine (1971) by John Lennon
He glanced at the green, luminescent numbers on the digital clock and it told him that he was travelling through deep night; when the world is stillest and the air is frost. It was the elusive witching hour. No one knows precisely when that should be, but everyone can instinctively tell when they are in it. The supposititious wisdom of superstitions say that it's the time when invisible beings both fey and infernal are out in force to do mischief. He knew that - he just didn't believe in it. He could however, still get a kick from pretending he still does. The sensation of the numinous is a heady, intoxicating experience and there's no cure to wanting to believe that there are worlds beyond one's own. But wanting is one thing, he always said. Puns are another.
He had been driving hard close to 4 hours by now and the banal monotony of headlights and shadows was slowly lulling his overclocked brain to beddy-byes; so slowly, in fact, that he didn't even notice that it was happening. He had always been devillishly lucky. He frequently picked up money from the ground, and had never been seriously injured, broken any bones or crashed his car. And he liked boasting about these things too, jinxes being just this other thing he didn't believe in. It's that same cockiness which made him think he could drive for near 6 hours in the dark of night alone and turn out okay. His only passengers were his backpack of necessaries and his personal computer, which he found impossible to part with for the month he was planning to spend in his girlfriend's place in Butterworth. The only entity he worshipped was the world wide web, and the machine was his shrine to it. The internet is many a wonderful thing, and while it's perfectly capable of keeping him awake for many nights in his bedroom, it had no power whatsoever in keeping him from falling asleep at the wheel. And fell asleep he did. At 120 kilometres per hour.
They also said that the witching hour is the time when sleeping people drift closest to death. By sheer dumb luck, this was one night the old wives got it right.
The biggest commonality that religions of the ages share is a belief in life after death. The afterlife came mainly in two flavours: the diremption of Heaven and Hell, which the Abrahamics such as Christians and Muslims favour, and the metempsychotic cycles of karmic Reincarnation, which is preferred by Eastern faiths such as Taoism, Buddhism and Hinduism. Both types of afterlife are coupled with our actions and intentions in life. Do good and you'll earn eternal bliss in heaven or be reborn into a better next life. Do bad and you'll be punished hellishly without end or come back as something silly like a cockroach or a sea sponge. More fundamentally, both ideas suggest the persistence of one's self - mind, memory and personality - after the demise of the body.
The most important thing to know about afterlives, of course, is the fact that there's no actual objective proof of the existence of any. None. Nada. Zilch.
Some religions went one step further and decided that anyone who isn't part of their exclusive club should likewise be punished, usually for eternity, regardless of how righteous or moral they have been in life. A lot of godly people asked me: what if I'm wrong? What if I'm wrong about God and after I die, I find myself paying for my oh-so-wicked disbelief in Hell? That's the wager which Blaise Pascal made. Never mind that it's a fallacy of false dichotomy. Never mind that they could easily be worshipping the wrong god and be screwed over anyway - but in the face of neverending existence after death, I ask what is the worth of the infinitesimally short life we now have?
What I see is billions of people in the world today living in service to a God or gods who may not exist and investing in an afterlife they cannot know for sure is really there. What if this is it? What if this one life is all we are getting? In the suffocating fog of hell-mongering and fear of the hereafter, we live a pitiful existence indeed. Some worry constantly about what they can or cannot eat or wear. A great number spend a lifetime preaching the alleged words of God, while more than a few would gladly kill to defend their post-mortem fantasies. My point is, it isn't hard to understand why a Muslim man would blow himself and a thousand infidels up along with him when the merest reward promised to him on his arrival in heaven is an abode with eighty-thousand slaves and an all-you-can-fuck buffet of 72 busty, virginal houris. The afterlife devalues life. The only life we know for sure we have.
Have you ever lost someone, a family member or a friend, and people kept telling you that the person you lost is in "a better place"? I always wanted to ask them how the fucking fuck they know that. It always sounded like some empty platitude parroted by well-wishers to soften the blow. But do you know what most people really think? When an old friend of mine took his own life in desperation, when my great grandmother passed away, I know for a fact that each and everyone of my Christian and Muslim friends casually believe that these people I cared about are currently being tortured sadistically in Hell without respite by their All-Loving, All-Forgiving, All-Merciful God. Religion, I learned a long time ago, make monsters out of us all.
The idea of an immortal soul was borne out of the elemental fear of death. I remember that when I was a kid, death was so terrifying a notion that whenever I stared into its abyss, I felt like screaming my head off. There was one time when my little sister woke up suddenly in the middle of the night, weeping piteously and saying over and over again that she doesn't want to die. My parents told her not to worry because death is simply a milestone, that there's a whole new world waiting for her on the Other Side. It's not hard to see that that was how it all began in the first place. To comfort her, they would have told her any number of absurdities.
I am an atheist and all I have to look forward to after I die is nothing. I know, as far as I am able to ascertain, that this is the only life I have. I know that at the end of my own line, the light of my consciousness will be snuffed out for ever. I don't believe that the people I love are destined to be in any place better than Here and Now. When they go, I accept that they will be gone forever. I accept that I will never see them again - not in another life, not in another reality. This is difficult to admit to oneself, but loss is suppose to be painful. This is how I face death, not by denying or cheapening it; not by turning it into a passage to a different state of existence; not by swallowing or making up some childish fairy-story to make myself feel better. It should hurt because it's real and permanent. It should hurt because it's the end.
For all accusations of atheists being cowards who are simply afraid of judgment after dying, it's ironic that we are really the only ones who have the courage to face death and bear the high cost it demands. Here, allow me to reverse the accusation. It's religious people who are really the true cowards; so afraid of death's price that they would believe in anything.
It was one of the darkest and narrowest stretches of road on the North South Highway. Snaking through the chalky mountains between Ipoh and Butterworth, it's one of the windiest too. With every passing second, the car banked ever so much closer to the steel barrier on the right. The driver, no longer driving, was slowly spiralling into a fatal sleep. At the speed he was going, there was no way the inevitable collision could end well.
"KRNG!" A loud cracking noise pierced his ears like a gunshot and his wandering mind rushed back into his head at the speed of thought. In reflex, he jerked the steering wheel to the left and away from the barrier. He felt adrenaline flooding his blood and began shaking violently from the terror of his close brush with his doom, his drowsiness having dissipated without a trace. You can't go through something like that without reacting strongly to it. His ride didn't seem to be too damaged, but it was hard to tell from the inside.
Before long, he reached a truck stop where he pulled over and alighted to inspect the part which he thought made contact. There was nothing there - not a dent, not even the slightest scratch. Puzzled, he examined the rest of the vehicle. Nothing. There was absolutely no evidence that the car ever touched the barrier. He checked the tires, wondering if one of them had burst. Not the case there either. He circled the Suzuki Vitara several more times, feeling more and more bewildered and frustrated with the passing minute. Something must have made that noise which startled him from his incredibly mistimed nap, but what? Was it an artifact of a dream, a passing benevolent spirit or god forbid, divine intervention? Then, shining a beam into the backseat, he spotted his answer - and laughed long and hard. The reason why jokes are funny is because their punchlines tend to be something wholly unexpected, and laughter is simply how people react to it when their brains make the new connection. Or maybe, he's just laughing from the sheer overwhelming joy of being alive. It wasn't clear.
He saw that the hinged front of his CPU was swinging ajar. When the car pitched right, the weight of the backpack resting on it must have gotten great enough to pop it open - cue popping noise, cue near miraculous escape from the fate of a burning wreck and being the morning headline. He marvelled at the wildly improbable circumstances which saved his life. What are the chances of this happening, he wondered as he climbed back onto his seat, closed the door and reignited the engine.
He gave no thanks to any god because he believed in none.
P.S. Yes, the title of this article is a Neil Gaiman reference.
Faced death and will face her again,
k0k s3n w4i