Bart Ehrman once was a devout evangelical Christian. Now he's an agnostic scholar who debunks religious myths. Today on my car radio I heard a snippet of an NPR interview with him.
Ehrman was asked how his life had changed now that he doesn't believe in heaven, hell, and life after death any more. He answered that it had become much more meaningful. Ehrman no longer expects to enjoy (or fear) another life after this one.
This is it. One chance. Enjoy it while you can. Make the most of every moment.
That's how I've come to feel also. But for a while, like Ehrman, I was worried about what would take the place of religiosity. He told the interviewer that as he was losing his faith in Christianity, he wondered if he'd become an amoral anything goes libertine (or words to that effect).
Such didn't happen, Ehrman went on to say. Apparently what changed the most was the meaning life had for him, not what he felt drawn to do.
My experience also.
I was into an Eastern guru-based faith, not Jesus, but for many years I had a similar expectation that my current earthly existence was just a way station leading to an afterlife.
Either a rebirth as another sentient being, or release from the supposed confines of being a soul conjoined with a physical body. Whichever happened after death, I'd have another chance to get things right. Or, wrong.
Like Ehrman I believed that I'd live on after I died. This was undeniably comforting. However, I now realize that I was trading quality for quantity.
Meaning, I was living with reduced intensity, passion, and awareness of the present moment (quality) because in both the back and front of my mind there was an expectation that this life was just a stepping stone to another one.
And eventually, if paradoxically: eternity (quantity).
I used to read a lot of science fiction, including Philip Jose Farmer's marvelous "Riverworld" series. The main character is trying to reach the source of a mysterious river. After some trial and error, he learns that when he dies he'll be instantly reborn -- sometimes farther up the river.
Cool. Death becomes a means to an end, not the end. So the guy becomes cavalier toward dying. Bring it on, dude. Shoot me. Stab me. Drown me.
I've known religious believers who claimed to have a similar attitude. They'd talk about how they were looking forward to death, because then they'd meet the divinity that wasn't with them now.
Well, that's doubtful. Highly doubtful.
Yet I could see these people sort of sleepwalking through their current (and likely only) life, not taking it all that seriously, anticipating a much better life to come that would make this one seem like shit on a stick compared to ever-so-tasty cotton candy.
Problem is, this life is real. Any afterlife is imaginary, no matter how appealing some concept of it might be. In "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist," Stephen Bachelor says:
What is it that makes a person insist passionately on the existence of metaphysical realities that can be neither demonstrated nor refuted? I suppose some of it has to do with fear of death, the terror that you and your loved ones will disappear and become nothing.
But I suspect that for such people, the world as presented to their senses and reason appears intrinsically inadequate, incapable of fulfilling their deepest longings for meaning, truth, justice, or goodness.
Sad, if true. Nothing prevents us from finding tremendous meaning in this life, this moment, this action, this awareness.
In fact, I don't see how genuine meaning could be found otherwise. Putting real living off for another life, where is the meaning in that?
If our central purpose in life is to pursue a religiosity that supposedly will lead to another really real life, distinct from the half-baked living we're doing now, aren't we forgetting the wisdom of the adage "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush"?
Especially since we've never seen the bush, much less the birds in them. In his book Bachelor says about the Buddha:
He then compared a passionate believer in God to a man who declares that he is in love with the most beautiful girl in the land, but on being asked what she looks like is forced to admit that he has never once set eyes on her.
Here we are. Living on Earth. As a body (not in a body; immateriality of mind or soul is a belief, not reality).
If there is an afterlife, we don't know about it, since we're alive -- not dead. The meaning of our existence is founded on our actual life after birth, not our imagined life after death.
Look around. This is it.
This. Is. It.
Drink in that reality. More: get drunk on it. It's intoxicating. What's happening never will happen to you again. Not ever. Never.
Miss it, and it's missed forever. Fail to pay attention to it, and that awareness is gone forever. Neglect to fully appreciate any priceless unrepeatable moment, and we have lost that meaning-richness.