A mundane Sunday sermon on the nonexistence of the afterlife

September 6, 2020 • 9:00 am

While driving back from the grocery store (I shop early), I was forced to listen to Krista Tippett’s “On Being” show on NPR. It’s the show I love to hate, and because my radio dial is set on the local public radio station, I have to hear her on Sunday morning drives.  What I love best of all is when she nearly reduces herself to tears with the profundity of her own words. She always sounds like she’s on the verge of sobbing.

Today Tippett broadcast an old interview with the Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, who read some of her work at the end of the show. One of the poems that struck me was about mortality (Oliver died of cancer). The poet asked whether, when she died, she would vanish forever or live again in some form.

When I heard those lines, I thought, “You’re not having an afterlife, for we’re evolved beings.”  This sentiment now comes naturally to me since I’ve studied evolution for so long, as well as religion and theology and their penchant for wish-thinking.

Although theologians have tied themselves in knots trying to show that evolution is perfectly compatible with God and an afterlife (see Faith versus Fact), these apologetics always have the air of desperation. First, you have to reject the stories of Genesis (or, in Islam, the Qur’an) about the creation. One is forced to say, as did Andrew Sullivan, that they were just metaphors, adding perhaps that people of those times could not have understood the idea of evolution. That’s why God had to put it in the form of a fairytale.

But that has its own difficulties. Why, if the Bible is the word of God, wasn’t he able to discuss evolution? “‘Verily, all ye men came from a long process in which animals changed slowly,’ spake Moses.”  Well, we can leave that aside, but then you have to take issue with church fathers like Aquinas and Augustine the Hippo, who believed the Bible literally.

And if you think creation is a metaphor, then you have to explain why, if you’re a Christian who thinks we have souls, at what point the soul “evolved” in humans (actually, Catholics think that the soul is an exception to evolution: God stuck one in us instantly at some point, but left out all the other birds and beasts).  Further, you have to explain why, if we really did evolve, genetic calculations show that we could not all have descended from just two progenitors—Adam and Eve.  A Sophisticated Catholic (or evangelical Christian) would then have to say that Adam and Eve are in some sense also metaphors. You can see the sweating theologians trying to deal with this over at BioLogos. (The Catholic church leaves no wiggle room here: the Catechism states clearly that you cannot reject Adam and Eve as the literal progenitors of all of us.)

But you must explain as well that, if we really didn’t descend from Adam and Eve, whose actions brought us all the Original Sin, how that sin got into all of us. Again, theologians have answers, but they’re ludicrous and make me laugh. For if the Original Sin is just a metaphor, then the whole Christian story of sin and redemption falls to pieces.

Many Muslims simply reject the idea that the Quran’ic story of creation is a metaphor, and deny evolution altogether. This is why Turkey has banned the teaching of evolution in schools below the college level, and why I had such trouble getting Why Evolution is True published in Muslim countries. (It’s now said to be out in Egypt, published by the government press, but they’ve made it almost impossible to get hold of.)

Edward Feser, cocksure in his delusional theology, has declared that no animal beside humans go to heaven. (Say goodbye to Fido and Fluffy!) But if there’s any lesson from evolution, it’s that this form of human exceptionalism is bunk. Not only aren’t humans the special objects of God’s creation (we have 4-million year old fossils of our ancestors, for crying out loud); but if at some point we were given an afterlife by some unevidenced act of God—and that’s connected with our “immortal soul”— and other species don’t live on after death, at what point was that afterlife graciously vouchsafed to us? At the same time we got a soul? Or, you can aver that. contra Feser, every creature goes to heaven (including rotifers?), but I don’t know anybody who thinks that.

We have to face it: if you accept evolution, the most parsimonious hypothesis is that we’re part of a stream of genes extending back to the dawn of life, and there’s no evidence that we have features that couldn’t have evolved but were instilled by gods. And that rules out the possibility of souls and afterlives.  Those, of course, were already ruled out because there’s no evidence for them—they are wish thinking, pure and simple.

When theologians babble and blather, explaining how exactly God inserted his finger into the evolutionary process to ensure that we’d live on after death, they are trying to make a virtue of necessity. The afterlife is wish-thinking, pure and simple—something that Freud tried to tell us decades ago. Nobody, not even an eloquent poet, is going to live on after death.

But you knew this all already, right?


Augustine the Hippo

82 thoughts on “A mundane Sunday sermon on the nonexistence of the afterlife

  1. I find the whole idea of ensoulment fascinating.

    At what point do you get one? And, if it’s before splitting, after splitting, which twin has the original soul, and which one gets another, and when? How do you know?

    And, weirdest of all, in a chimera, what happens to the extra soul>


    1. Jerry had been posting a while back about the equally nutty idea that all matter has some degree of consciousness. Ergo, our big brains have a big hunk ‘o consciousness.
      One could argue similarly that all living things have at least some soul. But humans are the most soulful.

  2. And when does the soul magically get installed? If it is at conception, as some religions dogmatically insist, how is the soul distributed between identical twins?

    And just for the sake of tidiness, at what point is the soul ‘freed’ from the body? At brain death, heart death, vegitative coma? What happens when one of a pair of identical twins dies (if they share a soul between them)?

    Once you start making things up you have to keep making more things up.

    1. Many years ago, Thomas Tryon wrote a novel about identical twins who were born on consecutive days, just before and after midnight, in different Zodiac phases, I think the first one was a Pisces and the second an Aries.

      I never read the book, but after reading a couple of reviews I remember laughing out loud.


    2. Imagine the shit fit theologians would be pitching if human identical twins did not occur in nature, but were developed by fertility doctors to aid women wishing to maximize the efficient use of their child-bearing years.

      1. That is funny to think about. But at least the theology would be rendered more sophisticated through the insertion of a mathematical operation – the division of a soul by 2, and all.

  3. i don’t understand what human religious mythology has to do with the presence or absence of an ‘afterlife’, whatever that might be; or of the possibility of some sort of god.

    1. “Human religious mythology” is precisely how all that stuff and nonsense came into ‘being.’ Can’t have one without t’other.

  4. I think people decide on whether animals have souls based on how they feel about animals.

    People who love their pets can’t imagine a “heaven” without them, and people who dislike animals can imagine a “heaven” with them.


    1. Yes, and by the same token, I imagine the seating arrangements for weddings and Thanksgiving dinners in heaven would be an absolute nightmare, what with every generation expecting that their parents and children would join them at THEIR table.

  5. There are two senses in which “we can survive” our deaths—by our genes (mixed up) in our descendants, and by our recorded thoughts (often also mixed up). The latter distinguishes us from our non-human ancestors. Lucretius died over two thousand years ago but he lives on, in a sense, through his great work De rerum natura, which can profoundly influence one today as if he were still alive. Likewise, Darwin survives. In the beginning was the Word, but the true words were not those of God or gods, but of mere mortals.

    My philosophical thought of the day, available only here and not on NPR.

    1. I am currently reading Lucretius, and by a lucky coincidence I reached the part where he argues against the afterlife shortly before reading this post!

    2. I would add that we also ‘survive’ through leaving a permanent change in the brain states of all those we have loved, met or even heard of.

      My mother’s mother died in childbirth in 1928. I nevertheless feel that I know her very well, through my late mother’s stories, and those of her siblings, and the photos we have of her. And my children and grandchildren know about her as well, and have some images to visualise her by.

      My youngest granddaughter has just turned four. So, unless global warming does for humankind before the century is out, my grandmother’s memory could be passed on getting on for 200 years after she lived. That’s survival for you!

  6. Ok, now a ration treatment of the idea of a soul always seems harsh by the negation of the concept.

    Theists would argue that is evidence of a god, that we know the truth but have to subvert it to play this evolution game.

    I argue that raised in this culture, even the way we construct the questions about the world around us is framed by an idea of a creator.

    Instead of asking “does man have a soul” we should first start by stating what can be demonstrated to be true and then go from there.

    Good post Jerry. I was raised a theist and sometimes I mourn that there is no afterlife. It would have been better had my parents and culture not taught me that there was an afterlife or that men are endowed with this “soul.”

    1. I am sure many of us here have passed thru that gate in some fashion. As a youngster, I remember feeling an almost visceral recoil against the pressing thought: “I am an atheist”. This because of a moderately religious upbringing. It took time to get over that guilty feeling, and so I can somewhat appreciate how hard that can be for someone who had a longer haul.

      On a different note: I just noticed that when composing a reply to someone, our comment box is once again conjoined to who we are commenting to. Hallelujah!

  7. I find it noteworthy that Christianity throughout history has repeatedly rejected the less implausible, not quite so instantly refutable view of the soul that Aristotle and Averroes suggested: a depersonalised type of immortality. The soul is made of immortal/divine stuff, and is subsumed into God’s Neoplatonic “essence” at death.

    They won’t have it, and condemned Averroes as a heretic and banned his books (as did muslim leaders) because this kind of thing ruins the punishment/reward system upon which priestly power is squarely built.

    (And I wonder what Herman the Dalmatian would have thought about dogs going to heaven.)

  8. At the end of the day or story it is just a con. It is no different than listening to a Trump speech. Everything is true and nothing is true but most of all there is no evidence for any of it. Why be nice to religion by arguing nicely with it. It is not deserved.

    1. Now look you meanie, religion, especially Christianity as all about love and peace and niceness and if you say otherwise it will set you on fire.

  9. Or, you can aver that contra Feser, every creature goes to heaven …

    Caterpillars ain’t gonna be happy to find parasitoid wasps behind those Pearly Gates.

    1. The other day I watched a Polistis rubiginosus wasp eating a monarch caterpillar, and if that wasn’t shocking enough (I had no idea wasps could eat them, right off the milkweed leaf) as the wasp munched along, several fat white parisitoid grubs plopped out the ripped open half of the caterpillar and crawled across the leaf and into the grass below. It was fascinating and disgusting.

        1. I had to look it up to make sure I wasn’t crazy but yeah, braconid wasps do parasitize monarchs, chalcid wasps probably do as well, and so do tachnid flies. Several kinds of insects and arachnids apparently feed on monarch caterpillars, but also orioles and Grosbeaks, according to the Monarch Joint Venture website.

    2. I thought this with spiders. Imagine a heaven overrun with spiders that went to heaven because they achieved spider grace.

  10. I honestly appreciate fools like Feser, for it was a comment like his about heaven being for humans only that put the first crack in my religious faith and at the tender age of 4 or 5. Know your audience and know that for a child who delights in worms, slugs, turtles, and roly-polies a heaven without animals is the same as an eternity in hell.*

    *and no, the fact that some churches have started having services for pets does not win me back to the fold, even if you offer to baptize my goldfish.

    1. My mom once told of JWs because they didn’t include other animals in heaven and our dog had to be just euthanized.

  11. The concept of a soul does quickly become a theoretical rabbit-hole; let’s lean in a bit into this theater of the absurd with a few objective questions:

    Did the soul originate with our species? Is it exclusive to our species?

    Did our cousins the Neanderthals have souls? Or our mutual ancestors Heidelbergensis? Homo erectus? Australopithecines? Chimps? How far back on the timeline do we have to go?

    Do cats and dogs and birds or any household pet have souls? If fish have souls, would their souls swim under water or float through the air?

    And if birds have souls, that suggests that dinosaurs (from which all birds derived) would have had souls (…so, did the dinosaurs all go to hell or do they simply still haunt their skeleton replicas in museums?)

    Do only sentient beings have souls or is it all creatures with any type of brain? What about the fact that brains didn’t exist for life’s first 3.5 billion years?

    If all life on earth today is descended from one single-celled common ancestor that existed 4 billion years ago, did that single-celled ancestor have some sort of a soul? If that’s so it would certainly argue a case that not only every animal, but every plant, fungi and bacteria on earth today would have to possess one. I feel like Atticus Finch (the good Atticus Finch from Mockingbird, not the racist one from Watchman), pounding the table arguing a case for every soul (though I guess mold spores on the cheese in the refrigerator and plaque on your teeth might argue they’re already in heaven).

    So does every oak tree have an equally old soul and every flowering annual have an afterlife, showing up every year? If you pull a weed from your yard is its soul now consigned to wander the earth in restless torment like Marley’s Ghost?

    If every single living cell in your body has its own soul, isn’t that some kind of conflict of interest to you? If skin cells die off every two weeks or so and you live to be 80 years old does that mean you’ll have 2080 complete pairs of skin waiting in the heavenly closet?

    …And at what point does all of this reduction become absolutely absurd? The soul is a vague construct caught between medieval fairy tale and a young child’s bedside prayer… there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that any such thing exists other than the idea that, yeah, this sure would be cool.

  12. There is also the belief that we do die, and are dead, until the end of the world, whenever that is, when we are resurrected in the flesh. I always thought this was some cockamamie Christian idea until I discovered it was one of Maimonides thirteen principles, and believed by some Orthodox jews. I’ve often wondered, how does that decayed flesh become undecayed, and won’t there be a lot of old and decrepit people among the resurrected, or are we resurrected in the prime of life? If so, what age would that be?

    1. I think it was the great Persian physician al-Razi who questioned the Islamic doctrine of physical resurrection in heaven by asking what happens to victims of cannibalism.

    2. I often wondered about that resurrection in the flesh. At what age is the flesh resurrected? When you died? When you were at your peak? What about children who died before they grew up?

      1. Yeah I always thought it would suck to die of old age & spend eternity in the body of an old person instead of the youthful person you once were when everything worked & didn’t ache.

  13. The doctrine of Original Sin makes no sense without a literal reading of Genesis. Only in Paradise -where everything is perfect and beautiful beyond imagination- the first humans could have done something so unforgivable that would make God so angry for so long. And there is absolutely nothing a couple of hominids that lived hundreds of thousands of years ago could have done to that effect. So, if Christians believe that Genesis is a metaphor, they have to explain what the first humans could have done in Africa (very different from Paradise). And it must be something unforgivable, like the disobedience in Genesis, not something mundane like genocide or mass rape, which were not even possible to commit because, well, they were the first couple of humans. Then, what? What made God so angry?

  14. With regard to your terminal figure:

    I saw the ’potamus take wing
    Ascending from the damp savannas,
    And quiring angels round him sing
    The praise of God, in loud hosannas.

    Blood of the Lamb shall wash him clean
    And him shall heavenly arms enfold,
    Among the saints he shall be seen
    Performing on a harp of gold.

    He shall be washed as white as snow,
    By all the martyr’d virgins kist,
    While the True Church remains below
    Wrapt in the old miasmal mist.


  15. One of the burning theological issues under discussion was solved 30 years ago in the animated film “All Dogs Go To Heaven”. It appears that there are separate (but equal?) heavens for each animal. Augustine the Hippo is right now wallowing in a swamp-like heaven along with his fellow hippopotamids. Or maybe that branch allows in a more general run of Artiodactyls. We must ask NPR about this.

  16. Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “I have no preference for either heaven or hell. I have friends in both places.”

    Einstein said, If we believe in reward and punishment after death then we are a sorry lot.”

    My idea of hell is living with a whole gaggle of oldies who have nothing better to do but talk about god, etc. That’s where I live. But I am still capable of using my computer, so I oscillate between heaven and hell.

    I occasionally have the temerity to say that I am not religious and that there is absolutely no evidence for a soul/afterlife, etc. That view is not well received – and so I hang out on atheist-focused websites!

    The idea of living ‘eternally’ is absolutely repulsive. I wonder if children were programmed to not fear death and therefore to live their lives to the full, if religion and all that nonsense would evaporate?

    1. Stick with it, Nell! You won’t find any friends in places that don’t exist; but there are plenty of them in the only real world we’ve got!

  17. Part of the attraction of Heaven is that it is a place of joyful reunion with our mum and dad, grandparents, and so on. Catholic theology means that poor Adam and Eve won’t have that lovely experience.

    1. Again, in the spirit of “even rotifers”, think of the completeness of reunion, if yours and yours tapeworms and such join the party.

  18. I tentatively believe in reincarnation, so I guess to my mind what we think of as the human soul evolved as the human ego did (and exists to some extent in animals as well, to the degree that they have a sense of self.)

  19. “Nobody, not even an eloquent poet, is going to live on after death.”

    No quibble about life after death, but whatever it was of Mary Oliver’s consciousness that she managed to incarnate in her poems will remain alive as long as there are people to read her words. Not immortality by any means, but not nothing.

    Since were not supposed to make assertions on this site without “evidence,” read this:


    1. That poem isn’t evidence. It’s lovely, but says nothing about souls, afterlife, or the untruth of naturalism. When you say “what she put in her poems will remain alive as long as there are people to read her words,” well, so what? That’s true of every author and poet whose words have come down to us.

      1. I love poetry and, as with other human-made things, much of it has lasted for centuries
        and may yet last longer but, not forever. There are, no doubt, many people, like myself, who try to write poetry and whose poetry will, fortunately, not last for centuries, or forever.

        I am reminded of a friend, no longer alive, who wanted to be able to stop the clock at one particular time and place in history that she thought was best. I don’t agree with her.
        There is much that is good (as well as bad) in most eras of the changing universe. Remember that place in the river that one can’t step into twice.

        It doesn’t strike me as odd that some people want an eternal happy life (except they can’t choose the content) and want others to suffer horribly forever. It reflects conditions on our planet in which there are gross inequities and mistreatments of the poor by the wealthy. It does make me both angry and sad that a religion and its’ people should want this kind of afterlife. Thank goodness, it doesn’t exist.

    2. It strikes me as odd, Gary, to conflate the fact that humans modify their environment with some kind of “living on after…” notion. If I die tomorrow will you say some part of me “lives on” in the garage I had built in the back hard? Granted that the garage is not as lovely as a Shakespeare play, at least to most people, but what’s the difference in this regard?

      1. “. . .what’s the difference in this regard?”

        A good question, GB—one that I tried to anticipate when I spoke of a poem as “incarnating consciousness.” To my way of thinking, poems are not good or bad; they’re alive or dead. The great majority of them, in fact, are as dead as your garage—which doesn’t mean that, like your garage, I’d guess, they can’t be well-made. This is what distinguishes art from craft.

        Any poet who leaves behind a dozen living poems has beat the odds; more than a dozen and that poet warrants the epithet “great.” But since I seriously doubt I could convince you that human beings have souls, I don’t entertain much hope of persuading you that poems do. 😊

        1. You’re right. Souls don’t exist.

          All you’re saying is that some thing are more memorable than others. That some cultural artifacts survive longer than others. This is the only way it could be. There’s no reason to reify this fact into something numinous.

          1. “Soul don’t exist.” The closest we come to living on after life is over is in the memories of those who love us. As was mentioned earlier, that may extend further if we share knowledge of that loved one with other generations. Or, as in the case of fine artists of whatever sort, their best works may live on after them, perhaps for centuries. That has to be good enough.

            1. That’s good enough for me, Rowena. I do believe in the conservation of spirit, but not in a personal afterlife. My gloss above was an attempt to explain why some works of art live on and some don’t.

              1. “I do believe in the conservation of spirit”

                Not me. I believe in consuming the spirits, a wee dram at a time.

    1. Umm. . . .do you think that the belief that unicorns don’t exist can’t be said to be right as there is no way to prove THAT?
      The absence of evidence is evidence of absence–IF the evidence should be there. And it isn’t–not for God and not for unicorns.

      1. In plain and simple terms, both the priest and the atheist can in no way fully prove their beliefs to all. It might suffice for us to just admit that we don’t know whether God exists or not. The universe is infinite; our knowledge is limited.

        1. I don’t think you read my comment. Do you say “I don’t know whether fairies and leprechauns exist, since we can’t fully prove that they either do or don’t exist?” I doubt you think that.

          God, of course, is supposed to care about humans on Earth, so isn’t it odd that God chooses to keep evidence of his existence hidden?

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