[edit: apologies for this article being slightly outdated]
Thanks to Louis for the link.
Aschwin de Wolf has recently commented on the propensity of the ‘big guns’ in the New Atheist movement to comment on the issue of eternal life and how it relates to religion and, more importantly, human values and ethics.
He has this to say:
Some contemporary atheists and secular humanists do not stop at debunking the idea of God but seem to think that making a persuasive case against religion requires them to refute all of its associated ideas as well; including the desire for immortality.
Well, first off, I fail to see how anyone has been arguing against the desire for immortality. The primary concerns most ‘players’ in the atheist movement have about the issue of immortality stem from the issues of believing this life is not or less important than the supposed next one, leading to a breakdown of the need for and the logic behind moral behaviour. I firmly doubt that if given a chance no one would turn down eternal life, provided they could end it if they found themselves suitably bored.
In response to a post by Paula Kirby he says:
Kirby does not just repeat the hollow non-empirical cliché that life can only have meaning in the face of death but she also pretends to speak on behalf of all atheists.
This exposes the first of a series of misconceptions that Aschwin seems to have brought to the table in discussion, namely that any atheist truly speaks for all other atheists. I am also guilty of representating my views as somehow representative of the general concensus among other atheists, but this is with the implicit understanding that this is based solely on my interaction with other atheists and my knowledge of the ‘movement’ and it in no way actually implies that I believe everyone else is of the exact same opinion as me. No other atheist truly believes this way (and, as you will see, this is not another example of what I’ve just talked about) as if they all did, they would have nothing to talk about. We would all believe we agreed on everything and communication would break down. It is implicit in Paula’s comments that she does not truly speak for all atheists, but her comments do speak to a certain level of consensus in the atheist community as a whole that that which has an end, is preferable to that which is unending. This is an inevitable conclusion to draw since our entire species would never have come to be if the first cell ever to evolve lived for ever. Evolution simply could not function properly with beings with an infinite lifespan. Imagine bacteria that lived for thousands of years, they would expand in numbers until all resources were expended, and then what? Eventually, evolution would bring them to a point where they would make use of the only other plentiful resource available: themselves. The birth/death cycle is an integral part of existence, both on a local and a cosmic scale. But I digress.
The next misconception Ashwin displays here is that he believes that Paula, and those she ‘claims’ to speak for, believe that life is meaningless without death, by logical inference.
It is not true, empirically, to say that eternal life would be meaningless, for that assertion has no basis. Some people find meaning in the smallest of things. But it is true, psychologically. Humans are of such a bent that an infinite life would inevitably drive them to unrelenting depression and loss of motivation and joy etc… all the things that are signifiers of a meaningless existence.
The really important thing to note, I think, and it seems to be a unifying factor among freethinkers/atheists, is that what Kirby is really getting at (unless I’ve read her wrong, that is) is that part of the beauty of life is its transient nature. It’s so much more beautiful to appreciate something which will not be around forever and always. I think this speaks to a certain specific dissatisfaction that many ex-religious people may share in finding that all the promises of eternal life were not only empty but seemed to detract from the true beauty of being alive in the world. As such, we all share the opinion that a life that is unending would be very hard to appreciate the way we all appreciate our lives, short though they may be.