After I spoke at the World Religions Conference last fall, someone asked me the following: "How can you get up in the morning knowing that this is all there, just this life and nothing more? Does this not leave you in a state of sadness and hopelessness?"
Au contraire! Life is a positive challenge to be met every day and a major component of that challenge is to gain pleasure through learning, knowing and helping others. The life-long challenge is to leave a legacy that people will remember and respect.
We come from oblivion. Do you remember that as being unpleasant? While some scientists have studied the prenatal experience and have established that some mental stimuli reach us before birth and may even affect us in some way, there is no evidence that we perceive these stimuli consciously. Even if there were evidence of such effects on us in the womb, we would still have to determine if anything affected us before conception. Since none of the components of conception have a brain or awareness other than at a chemical stimuli level, we can be pretty sure they do not have any conscious awareness of their conditions.
We do not exist until we are conceived, and then only as non-sentient beings for quite a while and, as far as I know, the Bible identifies the beginning of life as the point at which one draws breath.
This leaves believers with the notion that somehow a spirit or soul enters us at some point during our development in the womb or immediately at birth. No-one has ever been able to establish any evidence for such transfer of spirit or soul into us. For that matter no-one has been able to establish that such a spirit exists while neuroscientists continue to discover normal brain functions that explain the perception of "spirit."
We go to oblivion. Why would that be different from the oblivion we come from? As Epicurus pointed out, "Death is of no concern to us. When we are present, it is not. When it is present, we are not."
Why then should we be concerned about death? The person who asked this question has the traditional views of an afterlife and imagines it as some kind of continuance of this life with all the nasty parts removed. Any of the descriptions that I have heard manage to do that except for the boredom that would result from a completely trouble-free existence.
The person who asked the question also seems to have an idea that the afterlife could be unpleasant. This is part of the package deal sold by many religions. Be good on Earth and get to an idyllic afterlife; be bad and suffer for eternity. Of course those religions close the loop by defining good and bad. Other religions seem to soften the consequences somewhat, but most believers are convinced that one has to be good on earth in order to get to the pleasant afterlife.
Why can't we be good just for the sake of being good? OK, I probably do most good things because I get a charge out of doing them -- that little shot of dopamine that comes with helping another being. I don't have to wait until I die to get this. It is immediate and repeatable. Why, then, should I wait?
Sure, sometimes we have to do things that we know are good without any immediate reward. In fact, sometimes doing the right thing, or the good thing, is downright painful. We have to understand intellectually that the action is good or that it will bring about good before we can really do this. This gives the proponents of an afterlife reward an advantage in this debate, but that advantage is temporary, since good will result from the action whether that action is done to gain reward in an afterlife or because the doer just understands that good will result.
If the person who asked this question feels more comfortable with the thought that there is an afterlife that is (one hopes) more pleasant than this one, then that person should go for it. Hopefully, the list of things that person has been taught as tickets to that life, benefit the rest of us.
Our main concern should be people who harm others because they believe that such violent acts are tickets to that better life.
"Just this life" is enough, thank you. We come from oblivion. We go to oblivion. We have one life-one opportunity-to leave a positive legacy. Let's go for it.