I overheard a snippet of a conversation yesterday among a couple of people discussing insurance. One of them wondered whether atheists, who have no belief in an afterlife, could care about anything that happened after he died. He seemed to think that the only things that a person can value is what he can personally experience. Since an atheist cannot experience anything after death, it would follow that he could not care about anything that happens after death.
Quite the contrary. Given the nature of desire, there is no mystery to the possibility of an atheist caring about what happens after his death, or even during his life in parts of the world outside of his immediate surroundings.
Let me begin by getting a bit technical and fitting this topic into the general theory of desire utilitarianism.
A "desire that P" is a brain state that motivates an agent to realize any state of affairs in which P is true. For example, a desire that one's child is healthy and happy is a brain state that motivates the agent to realize any state of affairs in which "my child is healthy and happy" is true. A desire that I be remembered by future generations is a brain state that seeks to realize states of affairs in which "I am remembered by future generations" is true.
There are a great many desires where "P" is compatible with the proposition, "I am not alive". For the parent who has the desire "that my children are healthy and happy," it is quite possible for a future state of affairs to exist in which "my children are healthy and happy" is true and "I am alive" is not true. This is what makes it possible for a parent to sacrifice his life to protect his children. The desire is for the well-being of his children. If, by sacrificing his life, he can secure the safety and happiness of his children then he has a reason – in many cases, a very strong reason – to perform an act that will take is own life.
Among my desires I have several for states of affairs that will become true (if they become true) long after I have died. For example, I have a desire that the human race continue to exist – not necessarily as humans, but that there always exist some race of beings that are the descendents of humans. As the Andromeda Galaxy slowly crashes into the Milky Way 3.5 billion years ago, I would hope that there are people around to live through it who can trace their ancestry back to the primitive life forms that were once confined to the area in the neighborhood of Planet Earth.
This desire motivates me to act so as to realize future states of affairs in which the proposition, "Descendents of human beings exist" remains true – as far into the future as possible. That desire motivates me to write paragraphs such as this on (and the one before) in the hopes that expressing this interest in the survival of the human race (and its descendents) I can motivate others to take actions to realize this same state of affairs. The more people who are acting in ways that are compatible with realizing this state of affairs, the more likely it will become that this desire will be fulfilled.
Of course, I will not be around to be aware of our continued survival (or not). I will be dead in a few more decades (at most). But it is still the case that I have a desire that P where P = "Some set of beings that can trace their ancestry back to modern humans survives" and that desire motivates me to act so as to realize such a state of affairs. The fact that I will not be alive when (if) that state of affairs gets realized is irrelevant to the fact that it would fulfill my desires.
The problem with the speaker that I overheard is that he thinks that we only desire experiences. Consequently, a future state of affairs that we cannot experience has no value. His 'theory' that we only value experiences is immediately conflicted by the fact that a great many people value things independent of experiencing them. Atheists are not indifferent to the welfare of their children after they die, or to their legacy, or the suffering of people on the other side of the planet that they will never meet. Atheists value these things without experiencing them – something that the experience theory of value cannot handle.
This fact gives even us atheists a reason to support an institution of wills and estates (which is really what the conversation I caught a snippet on was about).
I have desires that P that can be realized in states of affairs that are caused to exist after I have died. I realize that, after I am dead, I will no longer be able to act to realize those states of affairs. However, while I am alive I can still arrange for other people to act so as to help realize those states of affairs after I am dead. Those other people are inevitably going to act so as to fulfill their own desires given their beliefs. However, this does not imply that everything is hopeless. I only need to bring about a state of affairs in which those agents, in acting so as to fulfill their own desires, act in ways that will help to realize the things that I desired when I was alive.
I can do this, while I am alive, by supporting an institution of wills and estates. That is, I can get people to act so as to fulfill my desires after I die by giving people a desire to act so as to fulfill the last wishes of somebody who has died. Their "desire to fulfill the wishes of somebody who has died" accompanied by a list of instructions written into my will (instructions that I at least believed would help to realize future states of affairs that I value) will help to realize states of affairs that would fulfill by current desires.
There is no mystery in this type of value.
In fact, there is something at least mildly sinister in which this agent I overheard speaking dealt with this question.
Given that atheists obviously care about the future, and that the speaker was aware of this fact, there are two attitudes that this speaker could have taken when approaching this topic. One attitude would be, "By my understanding of atheists they have no reason to care about what happens after they die. However, they do care about what happens after they die. So, obviously my understanding of atheist values is flawed."
The other attitude is, "By my understanding of atheists they have no reason to care about what happens after they die. However, they do care about what happens after they die. Therefore, atheists are insanely irrational."
The former shows a measure of respect for others – a willingness to treat them with dignity that other humans observe, and a willingness to refrain from harsh and harmful judgments unless compelled to do so by evidence. The latter shows a deep-seated bigotry, where one assumes without question that the targets of one's bigotry have a particular trait. It is like assuming that a blonde is dumb or that a black person can tap dance or that a Jew is a part of a money-hungry cabal that controls the world’s banks for the purpose of channeling money into their own pockets. These types of unwarranted negative stereotypes are the essence of bigotry.
Whereas a fair assessment of atheists – one that doesn't display a deep-seated bigotry – begins with the assumption that there is a reasonable explanation for what one observes.
The attitude that the speakers I overheard took on this matter substantially implies that an atheist parent would be indifferent to the torture of his own children as long as it occurred after he died (or in a way where he never found out about it). It assumes a callous disregard for others that there is absolutely no support for. This lack of support would suggest to the moral person that the attitude that atheists care only about experience must be false. Whereas this lack of support does not phase the bigot – he cares only to see his prejudice as justified without any regard to the facts of the matter.