Without an eternal soul our existence is truly meaningless in the long run which is all that matters. Eventually your effect on others, nations and the world subsides, even if you are Alexander the Great. The earth will cease to exist, the universe will eventually cease to support any life. It will be as if we never existed. There will be absolutely no trace.
In the above excerpt from a feedback e-mail, a Christian visitor attempted to persuade me that I should view life as meaningless because I am an atheist. If we don't believe in an eternal soul, he argued, and if life ends forever at death, then all our endeavors are pointless because they are doomed to return to nothingness in the long run. Eventually, the universe will be the same as it would have been if we had never come into existence.
Quite aside from any other considerations, this argument is fallacious on its face. Meaning and accomplishment need not last forever to be significant. When we act now, in the present, we can make a difference in others' lives here and now, and as far as I'm concerned, that is more than enough. It's nothing but arrogant vanity to think that our acts must be remembered and praised for all time to be meaningful. This correspondent felt that "the long run", meaning thousands or millions of years hence, is all that matters, but in fact it seems to me that the exact opposite is true: the present is what truly matters. The future can see to itself.
However, there's another reason why this argument misses the mark. In my recent post "The Moving Light of Time", I presented evidence from physics that the common-sense notion of time as a moving spotlight, illuminating moments in succession so that each one briefly becomes the present, is false. One of the most startling consequences of the theory of special relativity is that past, present and future are relative terms, dependent on the motion of the observer. Which one of those three categories a moment is classified as depends on who is doing the classifying, just as a particular place can be nearby or far off, depending on where one is viewing it from. The place itself does not change, only the observer's perspective.
But the fact that the same principle holds true for time leads us to a profound and awe-inspiring conclusion. Past, present and future are matters of perspective: it is the moments themselves that are real. In a very real sense, each moment exists eternally. Our imperfect senses, deceived by the arrow of memory that creates an illusion of time's steady flow, do not perceive this, but it is no less true for our inability to grasp it.
In this sense, it is not true, as my correspondent suggested, that all will eventually return to nothingness without a trace. Quite the contrary, the moments in which we are alive will always exist. There may be later moments in which the universe becomes barren, but those earlier moments will not cease to be. Thus, a universe that is empty and dead from the beginning does differ from a universe that later becomes so. The set of moments which comprise the totality of spacetime in these two universes are not the same. One contains life and happiness, and the other does not - and the more happiness that is contained in the former, then the better that universe was a place to be.
There is another profound implication for freethinkers. If Heaven is defined as eternal happiness, then we do not have to die to get there. We are already there. Any moment when you are happy, any moment when you feel joy - that moment exists forever. No blind faith in this conclusion is required, no miracles or magic need be invoked; this is the position to which the ordinary, evidence-backed natural laws of the cosmos inevitably lead.