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Atheism, Religion

The Promise of an Afterlife — Comforting?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the afterlife.  Two questions have been at the forefront of my mind, and I think I can address them both with an observation that just hit me a few minutes ago.  Here are the questions:

1) Does belief in an afterlife provide a measure of comfort to believers that nonbelievers can’t experience?

2) Is this benefit sufficient to explain religion as an evolutionary adaptation to help us deal with our own mortality?

I was thinking about when I was a Christian, and it occurred to me that I was more afraid of death then than I am now.  After a few moments of reflection, I remembered why.  As a Christian, I was taught that I could be 100% certain of going to heaven when I died.  I needn’t worry about nonbelievers or people of other faiths.  They were obviously wrong, and we were obviously right.  I was taught that it is normal and natural for a believer to have complete assurance regarding their own mortality.

The thing is, I didn’t have 100% certainty or assurance.  Oh, I had enough to keep being a Christian, as opposed to converting to Islam.  But, my certainty was not complete.  I remember having a few terrifying “what if” moments.  What if I was wrong and the Muslims were right?  Allah promises a hell just as excruciating and permanent as Yahweh.  What if…

These moments were not just intellectually terrifying.  I remember breaking out into a cold sweat and feeling as if I couldn’t breath.  I cannot remember too many other times in my life when I’ve felt that way.  I genuinely believed that a place called hell existed, and when I contemplated the possibility — no matter how remote — that I might end up there, I felt real, physical, nauseating terror.

The thing is, it didn’t take a lot of brainpower to realize that I couldn’t be 100% certain of my afterlife destination.  I was a kid the first time I thought of it.  It’s pretty simple logic.  Anyway, as I was remembering this mortal terror, it occurred to me that I’m not unique.  I’m just like every other human on the planet.  If I had that realization and the subsequent fear, lots and lots of other people have.

In fact, I’ll go so far to say that anyone who isn’t painfully naive has had the thought.   There’s a truism that the thing people talk about the most is the thing which concerns them the most.  As I reflect on my days as a Christian, I’m startled to recall how many times I was reassured that my eternal fate was sealed, and that I would be going to the good place, not the bad one.  It’s one of those Eureka moments to realize that this is a clear indication of just how uncertain many Christians must actually be!

As a contrast, I can say quite honestly that I have absolutely no fear of being dead.  I’m not looking forward to the dying process, and I imagine I’ll put it off for quite a few more years, but that is all I have to worry about.  I know now that hell is an absurd concept.  I have one less thing to worry about than any Christian or Muslim.

Let me make sure this point is clear.  When I reflect on my own mortality, I have to worry about the process of dying.  When a Christian reflects on their own mortality, they have to worry about the process of dying, too.  They also have the added worry of whether or not they are going to heaven after they die.  Even if a Christian is 99.9% sure that they will go to heaven when they die, they have a 0.1% uncertainty.

We must be careful not to believe theists when they say something that is impossible.  We know enough about human psychology to know that only a very unintelligent person could feel completely certain about something for which there is no earthly evidence, only testimony.  We must go on the assumption that the vast majority of theists, if pressed (and attached to a fMRI lie detector) would admit that they entertain doubts about their eternal fate.

Occam was a very smart man, and I think it would be wise to adhere to his timeless principle.  Avoid unnecessary causal agents.  Many atheists the world over are perfectly content with their own mortality.   Do we really need a supernatural comfort to deal with our mortality, or is that just another one of the lies told enough times to become true?

I am convinced that not only does religion not offer special comfort to the dieing, it adds a level of uncertainty and fear that can actually take away peace of mind.  A recent study offers corroborating evidence that my suspicion is correct.  Contrary to what we should expect if Christians are confident that paradise awaits them upon death, we see them doggedly clinging to life, even when it involves painful and aggressive medical intervention.

The facts seem to support the idea that religion’s claim of comfort in the face of mortality is empty.  The logic backs up the facts.  If religion is such a comfort, why are so many atheists OK with death and dying?  If religion is a comfort, why do the religious fight harder to stay alive?  If religion is such a comfort, why is it that believers are the ones who are afraid of hell?

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Discussion

16 thoughts on “The Promise of an Afterlife — Comforting?

  1. I think your skepticism about early religion is well-placed: Based on all the anthropological evidence I’ve ever seen, early supernatural beliefs always seem to be of the “ancestor spirits must be propitiated” or “we must make peace with angry ghosts” variety. Lingering on after death as a bogeyman your descendants fear is not even remotely the vision of a post-life paradise that developed in one particular monotheistic patriarchal religious tradition originating with some desert goatherds circa 6000-ish years ago – and I can’t imagine how such beliefs help anyone “cope with death.”

    Posted by G Felis | March 19, 2009, 10:29 pm
  2. “Hamby wrote:There are actually more Muslims on the planet than Christians. What if…”

    There are not more muslims than christians, silly rabbit. :P

    http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html

    I do believe that Islam is by far the fastest growing major religion though. So give it time.

    Posted by Watcher | March 19, 2009, 10:34 pm
  3. On Religion and Health:

    Death Anxiety. As discussed previously, awareness of one’s own mortality is a unique characteristic of the human species and may have played a role in the development of religion.

    Of those who reported they were “very likely” to rely on religious faith and prayer when under stress, 10.3 percent experienced death anxiety, compared to 25 percent of less-religious people.

    Koenig, H.G. Religious behaviour and death anxiety in later life. The Hospice Journal. 4: 3, 1988.

    Posted by Watcher | March 19, 2009, 10:40 pm
  4. I agree with much of what your are saying.

    The natural forces, the tug of war in each and every moment is about life and death. Life – us as life – need to continue on being. death wants to replace our “i” with another form. or change us. it is how we evolve. we leave behind the life we were a minute ago.

    but there is a final (our) form-in-life moment when we’re no more form.

    what happens to us? frankly, no one knows. where were we when we came by this existence? we do not know. it’s an interesting subject. religions falsify the present and the after death by selling tickets to a show. one life leads into the next. the better we follow the directives in this one, the better the seat in the hereafter.

    you may think about what becomes of us, but it is, to me, a futile exercise. the one think i know, to die is a natural event. we come from nature. we return to nature. in other word we “stay” in nature. is there an “i” on that side of our death, an “i” that remember itself? perhaps. if not… we will have given up this present i’s life. that is the great tragedy of religions. and if something is there then… it will take care of itself.

    http://www.ANaturalPhilosophy.com

    Posted by aforcier | March 19, 2009, 10:50 pm
  5. Watcher: I was recounting my thoughts as a Christian, and I recall thinking that there were more Muslims at that time. Sorry for the confusion.

    I have more thoughts on this matter, but I think I’ll save them for another post. This is an evolving thought process, and I’m still working out a couple of things. Thanks for the stats.

    Posted by hambydammit | March 20, 2009, 1:16 am
  6. I’ll likely always have a fear of dying, since you know, that would suck. But I think I can agree, while there is still a little part of me that clings to the “what if”, I’m sure that by the time I leave, I will be content to do so. As for the “what if”, if there really is a God I’ll be sure to ask him why he could not leave clearer signs of his existence or better yet, show up for a visit every now and again rather than through his supposed prophets and virgin birth sons.

    I’m a relatively new Atheist, and while I’m still a bit shaky in terms of out-right denial of any theistic deity/prime-mover/whatever caused the big bang, I intend to surround myself with pure intelligent scientific thought and analysis. Ironically, the person who really provoked me to think was a self taught christian I work with. He will not read, watch or listen to anything unless it has something to do with God or the bible. He is extremely intelligent; I have yet to really win an argument against him. Really though, he reminds me quite a lot of Russ, who also seems to at least have a head on his shoulders. I suppose I’ve been fortunate to live among Christians who are not totally stupid and ignorant, like half the bible chain belt of the U.S.

    I’ve often theorized that the bible was created, or at least large portions of it, to create fear of the unknown (death) among humans and to use that fear to enforce rules that should be upholded. What gets me is that they used so much other crap along with it that makes absolutely no sense what-so-ever.

    I’ve wandered off topic a bit here, so I’ll bring things to a close before I really ramble on. This is probably one of my largest sources for general wisdom, I really appreciate your efforts and thoughts hamby. Not only you but also the people you have attracted to your blog also have provided educational insight into a confusing and rather emotional topic.

    Thanks again, I look forward to reading more!

    Posted by Chris | March 20, 2009, 3:55 am
  7. Watcher: Self-reported anxiety is… well, self-reported anxiety. It seems perfectly reasonable to hold that what theists actually DO when confronted with death is much more instructive than what they SAY. Which makes your citation a bit point-missing.

    Posted by G Felis | March 20, 2009, 11:30 pm
  8. G Felis: Exactly. In fact, people of a religious bent would be expected to display a confounding bias towards exaggerating their sense of comfort, since they’ve been taught — brainwashed — to believe that’s how they’re supposed to feel. I think one could spend several hours listing citations for the legitimacy of this prediction.

    Posted by hambydammit | March 20, 2009, 11:37 pm
  9. Hi. My name is David Staume. I’m an atheist. I believe there is probably no God, but I believe in an afterlife on philosophical grounds.

    Now, before you faint, I’ll start by saying that there are four things an afterlife theory must have to be credible.

    1. The most important fact to consider when we talk about the subject of an afterlife is this: There is no generally observable evidence of an afterlife. There is no evidence in our normal dimensions of time and space that the dead continue to live. A credible afterlife theory must therefore provide evidence of a different context of time and space.

    2. But a different context of time and space is not enough. A credible afterlife theory must also provide evidence that we have a constitution that allows a transition of consciousness to that context of time and space. It must therefore provide support for dualism, the proposition that our mind and brain are separate. Unless our mind and brain are separate there is no vehicle of consciousness available when our body dies.

    3. A credible afterlife theory must not attempt to explain one mystery with another mystery; and

    4. A credible afterlife theory, like all credible theories, must be able to be falsified.

    All four criteria can be met. Now, I can’t say for sure that there’s an afterlife, I simply don’t know, but I do know that it is possible to mount a reasomnable case for one. If you want to know more I would be happy to send a copy of ‘The Atheist Afterlife’ to interested people. Yes it’s a plug for a book, but it’s not a money-making proposition when I’m sending it for free, so I hope you don’t mind me entering into the blog. You can read the Introductione here: http://www.modernphilosophy.com/books/aa_intro.html . You can also see it on Amazon. If it interests you please contact me through the above website and I’ll send a copy for free. If so, I would appreciate you letting me know what you think of the argument, and if you disagree, you are welcome to express that with absolute honesty. I make the offer to explore the subject with people who are interested in the big questions of life and prepared to think for themselves.

    Regards

    Posted by David Staume | March 21, 2009, 5:37 am
  10. David, I think you have one crimp in your criteria, and I’d like to hear your thoughts. (My reading list is huge right now, and I have to say, a philosophical defense of the afterlife isn’t high on my list of interests, but I’m willing to give it some time online.) Anyway, the scientific method moves from data to conclusions — everybody knows that. However, in order to begin looking at a falsifiable hypothesis, there usually has to be some empirical reason to look there. That is, we don’t just start with some random conclusion and set about trying to find ways to build falsifiable hypotheses around it. We begin with a set of data that demands an interpretation, and a hypothesis suggests itself based on the question being asked by the data itself.

    To my knowledge, there is no gap in the scientific theory of consciousness or mind that would be explained by the existence of the afterlife. In fact, the scientific theory of life and death accounts for all the matter and energy involved in both processes, with nothing left over. It is parsimonious and in agreement with physics.

    Occam’s razor would suggest that there is nothing more to say. We have examined the data, and we have explained it with an essentially complete theory that has held up in every single instance — ever. The only suggestion that there is an afterlife comes from people who believe in mythology, which… as you know, has a terrible record of predicting scientific facts. Terrible, as in, Science 8 million, Myth 0.

    So, what is the scientific data set that demands an answer, and why would adding to a complete explanation be the best option?

    Posted by hambydammit | March 21, 2009, 4:59 pm
  11. ‘What empirical reason do we have to look there? ‘What set of data is there that demands interpretation, and why would adding to a complete explanation be the best option?’

    Although I have a passion for science, that’s not my area of expertise, so I’m not going to speak from that perspective. My perspective is mainly philosophical. As far as I can tell, there are no compelling reasons to look there from a scientific perspective. The compelling reasons come from a psychological and philosophical perspective – most philosophers, specifically, would go there in a heart-beat.

    While the afterlife theory I propose makes a prediction that is scientifically falsifiable, I can’t think of any reason a scientist would drop what they’re doing to pursue this.

    The psychological questions that the theory sheds light on include: the context and content of dreams, an explanation of the recurrence of thought, an explanation for the subconscious mind, and an explanation for our inability to properly remember our dreams. No psychologist would say they had complete explanations for any of these.

    The philosophical reasons to go there are manifold. These matters (mind-body dualism, the causal connection between thought and action, consciousness, etc) have engaged the minds of philosophers for a few thousand years, but as this wasn’t the question you raised I won’t go further.

    I’ll add one further reason for pursuing this – from the atheist perspective. While it’s not possible to make a definitive judgement about whether an afterlife exists or not, I believe it’s possible to make a definitive judgement about what an afterlife would look like IF IT EXISTS. (This is similar to a scientist saying: while it’s not possible yet to say whether there’s life on Mars, these are the features of life that we would expect to find IF IT EXISTS). Now, say that afterlife required nothing more than physics and known laws, and therefore nothing supernatural, then wouldn’t that remove the ‘God of the Gaps’ entirely?

    I hope that answers the question: that there are no grounds to go there as far as science is concerned, but strong grounds for psychology, philosophy, and atheists interested in the challenge of a ‘non-religious afterlife’ and intrigued by the prospect of removing the last gap. The book will interest people according to the above, and therefore probably won’t be of interest to the strictly science-minded. If anyone’s interested in the offer I invite them to read the Introduction (link previously given). That will tell you if you would like to read the whole thing. I don’t mind if it takes people six months to get to it on their reading list, but I don’t want to send any out to people who don’t feel it’s there kind of book. (That would be a very expensive way to get feedback).

    Posted by David Staume | March 22, 2009, 6:05 pm
  12. David,

    I’m an atheist with a graduate degree in philosophy. When you say:

    “The compelling reasons come from a psychological and philosophical perspective – most philosophers, specifically, would go there in a heart-beat.”

    I disagree. Science trumps pure rational analysis for me, probably in all cases. That is to say that I can’t think of a counter-example right now.

    For me the bottom line is this; how could consciousness continue without the brain to act as the basis for it? The problems with dualism are too great, as the compel questions of interaction. For example, if there is a possibility for interaction (between mind/body), does that not imply that the “mind” side of the dualism is not so much evidence for a dualism but rather a less tangible side of a material continuum (to be overly-simplistic)? In other words, if the body/brain state can influence how the mind works (alcohol, trauma, etc), does that not imply that the mind is a material process? The pattern of activity in the brain may very well BE the mind, not the cause of it.

    Yes, I’m a metaphysical naturalist (in fact, my MA thesis was about the problem of ontological dualism). Again, if the brain disintegrates, then what would be the basis of our awareness in some afterlife? All we know about the brain points to it being the organ where consciousness occurs. As Dan Dennett says (paraphrasing), the heart pumps blood and the brain pumps intuitions (if you get that joke, you are a Dennett-nerd).

    I have yet to hear any convincing argument for an afterlife, either philosophical or scientific. The burden of proof is on the claimant, after all. Just like I am not convinced a god exists, I am not convinced of an afterlife. I think a god is more likely, given the evidence as it stands.

    Shaun

    Posted by shaunphilly | June 9, 2011, 11:23 am
  13. God only exists to those who believe he exists, he can’t for anybody else but yourself. There is no arguing unless one is insecure about their own religion, or their god has told them to hate. With this being said it could be concluded for one to say that god is inside of us, not outside. In other words our consciousness is individualized, what we exierince in our reality is completely different from everyone else’s. That is what it ultimately comes down to, but argument is always open to help further the knowledge of mankind.

    Posted by Humanunkind | July 19, 2011, 12:19 pm
  14. Christ is the only way. Muslims or anyone else who dies outside of Christ willnot experience a pleasant eternity. Hey i didn’t make the rules. Christ is sovereign, period. That’s the way it is. Deal…

    Posted by sue | April 20, 2013, 11:30 pm
  15. I firmly disagree with the latter statement. Who in the world are you to say that every person who believes differently than you is wrong? I respect your religious standpoint, but I find it quite difficult to believe that a non-Christian such as Gandhi, someone who was a good person that helped others, is spending an eternity in Hell just because he didn’t believe in your god. It baffles me. For all you know, there could be no Heaven, there could be no God. The fact of the matter is, is that no one knows what happens to us when we die and pass on. Yes, we have stories and legends and books, but they could be just as false as stories of sea monsters and dragon slayers. Comments like that, like the comment above, are what truly set me off. Just because someone lives differently than you doesn’t mean they’re wrong, or that they’ll go to Hell. I imagine that people of other faiths often ridicule your beliefs, putting them down the way that statement degraded EVERY OTHER RELIGION BUT YOURS. You cannot force-feed your religion to others, I’m sorry, but it doesn’t work that way.

    Posted by Napoleon | January 8, 2014, 10:14 am

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