Atheism and the Afterlife: Two Great Tastes That Taste Great Together

March 14th, 2011
Dear Charles,
Is it possible to be an atheist and still believe in the afterlife? I
was raised by atheist parents so I never really believed in God,
although I would question it from time to time. I recently started
believing in an afterlife though. I've been exposed to psychics that
communicate with the dead and they are so convincing. I've also heard
stories from people that have gotten signs or messages from their dead
loved ones. I realize there might be logical explanations for these
experiences, and maybe I am just trying to be optimistic about death
as I approach middle age, but these people have convinced me over time
to believe in life after death. Does that mean I have to believe in
God and Heaven? Can one exist without the other?
Thanks for your help,


Dear Cloudy –

According to my dictionary, an atheist is one who denies the existence of god, and it seems to me that it is possible, although maybe a little unusual, to fit that definition and believe in an afterlife. I can’t see why the existence of an all-powerful god would be a necessary condition for the existence of a spiritual realm inhabited by a multitude of immortal souls. Although most believers in a god would argue that spiritual entities could not exist without having been created by that god, the majority of these same believers hold that god, himself a spiritual entity more complex and magnificent than any other, was not created.  If god doesn’t need to have been created, surely no form of consciousness does. In fact, it’s easier to imagine that many not-too-bright, not-too-powerful spiritual entities came into existence without being intelligently designed than it is to imagine that one omniscient, omnipotent being exists without having been brought into existence. In view of this consideration, your fledgling belief in a godless afterlife seems to me at least as reasonable as a belief in a god-supervised and -sustained afterlife.

And if immortal souls do exist, I’m sure there’s a perfectly paranormal explanation for them. Perhaps there are clouds of consciousness floating around somewhere out there, and perhaps every so often a certain part of a consciousness cloud starts to feel it doesn’t really have that much in common with the rest of the cloud so it strikes out on its own, and perhaps it then gets bored just floating around being conscious without anything to challenge its views and perceptions, so perhaps it then joins a queue of immortal souls waiting to install themselves in babies as they’re born, and perhaps it sticks with whatever body it enters until that body breathes its last, and then perhaps it floats around a bit until it gets bored again, at which point it rejoins the queue, and perhaps it’s annoyed when it’s summoned by a psychic to speak to friends and relatives of the person whose body it most recently inhabited because it has to lose its place in line to answer the call. Or, perhaps we’ve just evolved to a point where a brand new immortal soul is part of the package nature gives us at birth, and perhaps that soul separates from the body at death to rove the universe or perhaps settle in with a community of other souls. And these are just a couple of possibilities; there are at least two or three more.

If these psychics you’ve been exposed to are actually communicating with the dead, a good way to find out if there’s a god involved in the afterlife would be to ask the dead, who really should know. With this rampant communication with the dead going on, it’s hard to fathom why we don’t have a fairly clear picture of what the afterlife is like. What kinds of questions have been asked of the dead in the psychic sessions you’ve witnessed or participated in? What kinds of things do the dead like to talk about when they get to choose the topic? I watched a few clips of television psychics (John Edward and Sylvia Browne) on YouTube and was unable to find a clip where the dead revealed anything that was not already known by the person to whom the psychic was relaying the information (e.g., Psychic: “Your husband has asked me to acknowledge the wart on your left thigh.” Sobbing widow [amazed]: “I DO have a wart on my left thigh!”), except for a couple of clips in which Sylvia Browne volunteered extra information that it turns out couldn’t have been true. The information presented in the clips seems like it would be less than useful to any interested party. If you’re aware of an instance in which a psychic relayed detailed information from the dead that couldn’t have been known by the living but was subsequently confirmed to be true, please see if the dead have told that psychic anything about the afterlife and let us know what you find out.

Hoping to see you on the Other Side,



  • Jennine:

    I used to have a reoccurring nightmare of meeting “my maker”.
    It had Sylvia Browne’s voice. ~shudders~

    I kept thinking, “Who knew that God was a smoker?”

  • bPer:

    I strongly urge Cloudy to think critically about so-called psychics. Learn about the technique they use called ‘cold reading’. Also learn about how you can fool yourself with flawed thinking like confirmation bias (counting the hits and ignoring the misses). Once you learn what to look for, go find some unedited recordings of psychic readings (John Edward’s shows, for example, are heavily edited) and watch how they use cold reading and gullible audience members to ply their trade. Psychics exist for one reason – to separate gullible, wishful people from their money.

    An excellent resource online for stuff like this is the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) at He has for decades offered a cash reward (currently $1,000,000) for anyone able to demonstrate paranormal ability, including talking to the dead. So far, nobody has won, and Sylvia Browne (mentioned above) reneged on her commitment to try out for the prize. There are a lot pf people in the JREF Forum who could help Cloudy armour him/herself against getting scammed by psychics.


  • I’m with bper. I highly recommend Derren Brown’s “Messiah” on YouTube or his interview with Richard Dawkins:
    Just Derren Brown in general. He’s delightful.

  • Haha! This was quite funny at several points. I wholeheartedly agree with you. My parents had this joke when I was younger: “What do you call 500 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start.” I have said for many years now that “lawyers” ought to be replaced with “psychics” in that joke.

  • Mo:

    So my soul might have just as many annoyances and social anxieties and could aimlessly wander the universe without focus? Sounds just like life, except floatier!

  • Dave:

    I reject atheism because it has ‘NOTHING’ to offer.

    • Charles:

      I don’t think that’s quite true, Dave, if what you mean by “it has ‘NOTHING’ to offer” is that it precludes a belief in an afterlife. As we’ve seen, you can be an atheist and still believe in an afterlife. And you can believe in a good afterlife, too; you don’t need to believe that you’ll spend eternity floating around bored or as part of a community of souls that get on your nerves increasingly as time drags on or in the presence of an all-powerful being who demands constant worship. Freedom from the strictures of scriptures could put you in the driver’s seat and enable you to believe in any kind of afterlife you enjoy looking forward to. If you can think of a better afterlife than the afterlife you believe in now but your current religion prohibits you from believing in it, it might be time to give atheism another look. Or, if the afterlife you want to believe in requires a different kind of god than the one you believe in now, you don’t have to be an atheist; you can believe in precisely the kind of god that will fill the bill. I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you’re going to choose a belief system on the basis of what it enables you to believe about what will happen to you when you die, you may as well go for the gold.

    • jalf:

      So you’re shopping for belief systems?

      I guess I’m weird then. I subscribe to the belief system that I think is true, whatever it has to “offer” me. If I thought that a great omnipotent, malevolent and petty and vengeful God was in charge of everything, and that getting on his good side would be beneficial for me, just watch em run out to find some goats to sacrifice in his honor. But only if I believed that this god actually existed.

      If I believed that we’re all destined for eternal pain and damnation then, well, that’s what I’d believe, and what other religions “had to offer” wouldn’t really matter. Some religions might offer a more attractive package, but if I didn’t believe it to be true, I wouldn’t, well, believe in it, no matter what they “offered me”.

      But I’m an atheist. Not because someone offered me a bag of money to reject religion, but because I doubt that any god exists.

      And it doesn’t really matter what various religions have to offer. It doesn’t matter if you show me a religion which allows me to do what I like, with no accountability for my actions, and free food and booze for the rest of my life, and the best afterlife imaginable, I still wouldn’t believe in it. Because I don’t think it’s *true*.

      I sometimes envy people like you, who can apparently *decide* what to believe, based on nothing more than what offers you the best benefits package.

      But then I look out the window, and realize that the real world is so much more amazing than anything I could dream up, and so, it’s probably for the best that I chose to stick with the truth.