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Thoughts on death and afterlife, by NaturalPantheist

November 24, 2013

Today we continue our late autumn theme of “Death and Life” with Natural Pantheist.  The theme for early winter will be “Beginnings”.  Send your writing and art to humanisticpaganism [at sign] gmail.com by September 21, 2013.

Over the past few years I have lost two people that I was very close too. The first, my Nan, died of cancer at the end of January this year. It was too late before we found out she had it and there was nothing that could be done to help her. Two years ago another friend of mine, quite young, was killed in a car crash. Their deaths are still raw in pain for me…but when has life ever been fair?

Anyway, this situation has got me thinking about how I see death as a Naturalistic Pantheist. A few years ago I was a Christian and would have taken comfort from the fact that I would see her again one day in heaven. Now, without those beliefs, where will I find comfort? Can Pantheism give any help?

I believe it can. Pantheism says that “We see death as the return to nature of our elements, and the end of our existence as individuals. The forms of ‘afterlife’ available to humans are natural ones, in the natural world. Our actions, our ideas and memories of us live on, according to what we do in our lives. Our genes live on in our families, and our elements are endlessly recycled in nature.”

Pantheism does not promise an afterlife in some heaven, nor in hell. Pantheism promises only natural forms of afterlife – we will live on in the memories of those who knew us and in our genes passed down through our children. But Pantheism also goes further…it says that at death we begin a process of transformation, of changing or recycling. Our atoms become part of nature again. When we are buried, our atoms become part of the soil, that becomes part of plants, that becomes part of the animals and so on in an endless cycle. If we are cremated, some of our atoms join with the atmosphere and become part of that. The point is that none of our atoms or energy is destroyed, we are not “gone” because we become part of the world again, the world we came from. Our atoms have been in existence since the very beginning and will be until the very end of the universe. We do not die, we are transformed. Our consciousness may end, but the very essence of who we are, the elements that make us up will never be destroyed but will continue to exist for all time. When we die, we do not just rot in the ground, but become new things, new creations. We may become a flower or tree, become part of insects or animals, become rain or the wind. We become part of the natural world once again. How beautiful a thought.

A long time have I lived with you
And now we must be going
Separately to be together.
Perhaps I shall be the wind
To blur your smooth waters
So that you do not see your face too much.
Perhaps I shall be the star
To guide your uncertain wings
So that you have direction in the night.
Perhaps I shall be the fire
To separate your thoughts
So that you do not give up.
Perhaps I shall be the rain
To open up the earth
So that your seed may fall.
Perhaps I shall be the snow
To let your blossoms sleep
So that you may bloom in spring.
Perhaps I shall be the stream
To play a song on the rock
So that you are not alone.
Perhaps I shall be a new mountain
So that you always have a home.

by Nancy Wood, Many Winters: Prose and Poetry of the Pueblos

This essay was originally published at Naturalistic Pantheist Musings on June 10, 2012.  

In the comments below, discuss how your Naturalistic Paganism helps you cope with the loss of loved ones, either actual or anticipated.  

The author

NaturalPantheist:  A former Christian, I now see myself as a Naturalistic Pantheist with an interest in Druidry.  I blog at Natural Pantheist Musings on issues relating to scientific and naturalistic approaches to spirituality.  I’ve lived in both China and the UK and I love to travel. I’m a country boy at heart but also strongly believe in getting involved in my local community here in Devon, UK. My interests include religion & philosophy, social media & technology, current affairs and walking.  My blog is at naturalpantheist.wordpress.com

Check out NaturalPantheist’s other posts.

This Wednesday

This Wednesday, we hear from our first new columnist, Glen Gordon, Postpagan Ceremony & Ecology: “Death Song”.  Don’t miss it!

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28 Comments leave one →
  1. November 24, 2013 8:16 am

    Beautiful post. Where does the quote in bold come from?

    I take great inspiration from the kind of view you talk about, where we live on in the endless recombination of our atoms. Whenever I tell it to people, though, their reaction is usually, “Yes, but that’s not the part of me that I care about.” They care about the conscious experience of “me”, of course. This is often led me to wonder if naturalists could stand to benefit from a kind of practice where you learn to identify with the *un*conscious parts of yourself, which can really be extended as far as the whole universe.

    BTW, the image from Pawel Jonca is breathtaking!

    • November 24, 2013 10:11 am

      The quote in bold is from the World Pantheism site. It’s one of their 9 principles (number 6) – http://www.pantheism.net/manifest.htm.

    • November 25, 2013 8:55 am

      I find the problems associated with the idea of locating the self really fascinating, and I love this idea – although I think a lot about the way in which our bodies and minds are connected to the all, I’ve never made this explicit connection in the context of the afterlife. Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. November 24, 2013 8:58 am

    I never knew this view, that we return to the natural world, was a part of anyone else’s belief system! After I lost both my parents, 12 days apart, having spent the better part of a year watching their decline, I came to the same conclusion. Here is a link to my blog post, comparing their demise to the death of a star – even as they cease to exist, their energy travels on through the universe.
    Thank you for sharing your story. It really resonates with me.
    http://talesfromthesandwichchronicles.blogspot.com/2013/03/what-if.html

  3. Kathi Burk permalink
    November 24, 2013 11:13 am

    Wonderful post. The poem gave me chills.

  4. November 24, 2013 9:15 pm

    “We see death as the return to nature of our elements, and the end of our existence as individuals… Our atoms become part of nature again… we become part of the world again, the world we came from.”

    We never were separate from Nature to begin with, Nature is just in constant flux, like a dance.

    “We do not die, we are transformed. Our consciousness may end, but the very essence of who we are, the elements that make us up will never be destroyed but will continue to exist for all time. When we die, we do not just rot in the ground, but become new things, new creations. We may become a flower or tree, become part of insects or animals, become rain or the wind. ”

    As I think on this can we really say we are transformed? Our entity dies and what had made up us does become incorporated into other things, so it isn’t really “us” becoming something else, its more like what made up us disperses into other things, being the elements themselves transforming. It really brings the question of what makes us, us? This just brings about more to think on…

  5. November 25, 2013 8:33 am

    I think what make us, us, is not the atoms that come and go in our bodies, so the thought of their continuity elsewhere after we die has never consoled me. For me, our us-ness is our being living things–to put it awkwardly–so what consoles me a little in the face of death is our place in the long chain of living beings, our interaction with so many other living things (not just humans but every animal and even plant we impact), and the subtle supports we provide for other lives (again, not just humans) in the future. I find consolation in reminding myself that I and we, every insect, tree, and bacterium, are living right now, that we will all die, and yet amazingly all life will continue, massively and energetically.

    I think it is easy to feel, perhaps unconsciously, that one’s death in some way will cancel out one’s past existence–when you die, your whole life will cease to have existed. (That’s why we remind each other of our pasts and hope for a life after death.) I can’t quite explain this fear. But I do know it is eased by reminding myself of my place along with all others in the chain of life that will continue across the deaths of the individual links.

    It’s a privilege to be part of this important discussion.

    • November 25, 2013 9:31 am

      I don’t mind the issue of dying. Having been raised in a Pentecostal Christian worldview and since becoming naturalistic its become a lot less stressing and almost a non issue really. You have to come to terms with death – which is quite refreshing as the alternative is constant worrying about “going to the right place”.

      The very least I want to do is leave behind something that is beneficial to others long after me. Hence my work in Ehoah. I don’t care to be remembered, just to know on my death bed that I did something worthwhile for future generations would be enough. Also, I want a fruit tree planted over me so even after death I have a direct connection in benefiting others. Its a really fun thought for me :)

  6. November 25, 2013 11:57 am

    I don’t really want to argue with any person’s way of finding comfort in the face of death; it is a great challenge to us. But I do have to wonder in what sense we can speak of “our genes” or “our elements”? It would seem to me that the enduring elements “own” the ephemeral genes, and the ephemeral genes “own” the even more ephemeral individual being that they give structure to.

    Even more, I would have to ask what comfort the enduring of either elements or genes can bring? The body is critical to what we are, but at a minimum is it not the body, the body’s self awareness, and the individual’s narrative history that comprise a self? Alas, at death the body’s self awareness ends, the light goes out, the endless night begins.

    Or does it? As the elements “own” the genes and the genes “own” the elements, does not perhaps “The Light” “own” the light of the body’s self awareness. Does not each body’s self awareness not come from the mysterious fact of awareness that belongs to life itself? At death the light that shone on our particular narrative, our particular pattern of behavior and thought, goes out forever, but The Light remains providing awareness to all the other beings existing now and in the future.

    As a human we are simultaneously an individual and an exemplar of universals. The individual must die, that is Nature’s simple fact. But the universal of Life itself, of the light of awareness that shines through individual lifes, endures. If we adhere to our individuality, we must simply accept that what we adhere to must end. If instead we adhere to the universality of which our individuality is a fleeting part – as a wave is a fleeting part of the ocean – then we focus on that within us that was there long before we came into existence and will continue long afterwards.

    I would argue that this is the real message of Pantheism – the Pantheism of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, Buddhism, Taoism, of Emerson’s essay “The Oversoul” and of Whitman’s great poem “Song of Myself.” The message that “Thou Art That.”

    • November 25, 2013 1:47 pm

      Exactly. :-)

    • November 26, 2013 9:57 am

      “Does not each body’s self awareness not come from the mysterious fact of awareness that belongs to life itself? … The Light remains providing awareness to all the other beings existing now and in the future.”

      Beautifully written. You describe abstractions so smoothly and clearly.

      I had trouble with the “Light,” however. You explain it at first as the source of individual self-awareness–of the kind that characterizes humans and some animals, I assume. But when you extend it to all beings, I’m wondering what you mean by “awareness.” Plants and insects don’t have awareness, as the word is normally used. To consider them as having awareness stretches that term unnecessarily, I think. What they do have is livingness, the quality of being alive. A plant, a bacterium, a flea, all sense and process what they need to do to stay alive–feeding, defending themselves, etc. I find it easier to characterize this as the mysterious fact that is life itself than as the mysterious fact of awareness. This second mystery, awareness (self-awareness, conscious awareness), belongs to relatively few species.

      • November 26, 2013 11:37 am

        3.8×10^9Years writes: “But when you extend it to all beings, I’m wondering what you mean by “awareness.” Plants and insects don’t have awareness, as the word is normally used.”

        Well, I don’t concede that plants and insects do not have awareness — I think insects do have awareness in the way we normally use the word. If a fly does not have awareness, how is it able to react so swiftly when I try to swat it?

        But, since I am agnostic about whether plants have awareness in the sense we use the word, I will do an end-run on the objection — I will simply define a “being” as an entity that has awareness in the the normal sense of the word.

        Also, I appreciate the complement about being able to “describe abstractions so smoothly and clearly.” It is something I have worked hard at so it pleases me to hear that I might finally be succeeding.

  7. November 26, 2013 12:53 pm

    Reblogged this on The Darkness in the Light.

  8. December 7, 2013 12:51 pm

    Much respect to your beliefs, NP. It’s difficult to frame a naturalist explanation of death that captures how inspirational & comfortable it can be.

    Personally, I pull away at the use of words like “afterlife” to discuss what you’re talking about. What you call “natural forms of afterlife” are really things that don’t fit well under the word “afterlife” – the fact that one’s reputation and atoms continue on does not grant the second, or many, chances at personal life that “afterlife” usually connotes.

    And I think that’s important. The beautiful and powerful part of a naturalistic belief about death is that we must confront one truth: the individual will not go on. The individual is destroyed.

    Often, I see naturalist writers speak about the wonders of death in ways that appropriate religious, personal afterlife language. That is what I see in your passage:

    …none of our atoms or energy is destroyed, we are not “gone” because we become part of the world again, the world we came from. Our atoms have been in existence since the very beginning and will be until the very end of the universe. We do not die, we are transformed.

    That is very reassuring language because it is poetic and inspirational. But it also distracts from the reality that “we” (our conscious selves, our individualities) really do die and that “we” are not transformed at all – some compost we were associated with transforms while we, the subjective part we care about, is annihilated.

    I struggle because I think the hope in a naturalist belief comes from confronting and meditating on that very intimidating reality. To whatever extent poetic language can encourage that meditation, great! But to the extent that poetic language (“we become part of the world again, the world we came from… we do not die”) distracts from that reality, or makes annihilation sound less total than it is, isn’t it just making the same false promise as a religious afterlife belief?

    Emphasizing the finality of death is not a popular or easily marketable position. But it does offer some hope and a sense of wonder. Can we somehow present that message without clothing it in afterlife?

    • December 8, 2013 1:34 pm

      Drew, I agree that confrontation of annihilation is core to Naturalistic Paganism. I think though that there is something more than “poetry” going on in this discussion, if by poetry you mean just pretty words. I think there is something radical about the notion that “we” do go on, because “we” are not our “conscious selves”. Many traditions teach that what we would call our conscious self is an illusion. Identifying with that other “Self” is as important as confronting the finitude of the little-self.

      • December 8, 2013 4:42 pm

        Yes! Well said, John.

      • December 8, 2013 4:56 pm

        Thanks John. By “poetic” language I mean statements that cannot be literally true, and thus must be interpreted subjectively. And example from NP’s article is the statement, “we do not die.” Obviously we do die.

        I think a literal statement of what NP means would be something like, “we die but, while we’re alive, we can take comfort knowing that our bodies will continue to be part of the natural world after we are gone.”

        Instead NP uses poetic phrases like, “we are not ‘gone’ because we become part of the world again.” I think that is quite beautiful, but it leaves the door open. For example, when I once said something like this to a religiously devout friend, she said: “Sure, and those same atoms could become another human someday, couldn’t they?”

        They could, but she was hoping that meant some part of her consciousness would wake up in another human someday. It won’t.

        I guess it’s this ambiguity that I worry about, because so many people have such a strong incentive to misconstrue a naturalist view of death and find some hope of an afterlife in it.

        • December 9, 2013 8:28 am

          One of the things about NP is that we get past those kinds of worries. We’re generally not about limiting people’s means of expression because of what we think is best for them. We’re about discovering how means of expression, especially those traditionally religious, can open up new ways of seeing and feeling for naturalists.

          The author of the article put “afterlife” in quotes (or rather left it in quotes, as it’s a quote from another site), and I think it was pretty clear throughout that he wasn’t talking about any literal sense of a conscious ego-self surviving or reincarnating or anything like that. Given the context of the site and the discussion, I don’t think it was misleading.

          • December 19, 2013 11:04 am

            Just to use the phrase that has a more popularly known association in a way that it doesn’t normally mean can easily be misunderstood. I certainly got an impression that the idea of consciousness was somehow carried on in the way the words were laid out, I just personally dismissed that impression because I don’t believe that, and have no problem with others believing that. That is actually the main reason behind my past debating habits, is that so many words are used outside its colloquial understanding that it is confusing and causes misunderstanding. Hence advocating new terms or use more accurate terms to convey better understanding. This is what I understood from what Drew meant by “poetry” – words used out of usual understanding.

  9. Susan permalink
    February 24, 2014 1:30 pm

    This is not how I originally viewed an ‘afterlife’ but I loved the essay; it is in fact, a very romantic idea or how we live on, in nature.
    I lost my husband to suicide last year after his long battle with depression and addiction. I realised how susceptible to suffering we as individuals are in our present form.
    Would it not be better to leave that suffering self behind and become one with nature again?
    If we remain as individual ‘units’ of consciousness, we shall continue to suffer, even in some afterlife or heaven.
    I cannot bear the thought of that for Keith, rather, I would like to think his suffering has ended and he is at one with nature and at peace.
    I think it is what he wanted as well, to be free of his suffering self, and it would be selfish for me to want him back as his old self.
    Also the poem was beautiful, and brought a tear to my eye.

    I just want to add a verse of my own, written by Swinburne:

    From too much love of living
    From hope and fear set free,
    We thank with brief thanksgiving
    Whatever gods my be,
    That no life lives forever,
    That dead men rise up never,
    That even the weariest river
    Winds somewhere safe to sea.

    Swinburne.

    • February 24, 2014 9:23 pm

      Thank you for sharing that Susan. I had someone dear to me take his own life a few years ago. He was an atheist. I read Swinburne’s poem at his funeral.

    • February 25, 2014 8:23 am

      Susan, this is beautiful. Condolences on your loss.

  10. Susan permalink
    March 1, 2014 1:00 am

    Thanks to both John and B.T for replying. Sorry about my belated one, I’ve not been around these past few days.

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