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?