JR'S Free Thought Pages
Thoughts on God and an Afterlife
"One of the proofs of the immortality of the soul is that many have believed it - they also believed the world was flat." [Mark Twain]
“Millions long for immortality who do not know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” [Susan Ertz]
“Immortality is the condition of a dead man who doesn't believe he is dead” [H. L. Mencken]
I find the ubiquity of religion, the almost universal acceptance of the existence of a deity and an afterlife perplexing in many ways. I’m still on a quest to fully understand it but I think Bertrand Russell was right when he said that the appeal of religion is based primarily in fear: fear of death, fear of loneliness, fear of freedom, fear making important life choices and fear of having to think for oneself.
What follows are some quotes from Russell on this issue:
“My own view on religion is that of Lucretius. I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race.”
“Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown, and partly the wish to feel that you have an elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing - fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death.”
“Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth - more than death. Men would rather die than think - in fact they do! Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless to the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid ... Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man. But if thought is to become the possession of the many, and not the privilege of the few, we must have done with fear. It is fear that holds men back - fear that their cherished belief should prove delusions, fear lest the institutions by which they live should prove harmful, fear lest they themselves prove less worthy to the respect then they have supposed themselves to be.”
“There is something feeble and contemptible about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths. Almost inevitably some part of him is aware that they are myths and that he believes them only because they are comfortable. But he dare not face this thought! Moreover, since he is aware, however dimly, that his opinions are not rational, he becomes furious when they are disputed.”
“Belief in God and a future life makes it possible to go through life with a less stoic courage than is needed by sceptics... Christianity offers reasons for not fearing death or the universe, and in doing so it fails to teach adequately the virtue of courage....To allow oneself to entertain pleasant beliefs as a means of avoiding fear is not to live in the best way. In so far as religion makes its appeal to fear, it is lowering to human dignity.”
As Russell argues, the ultimate fear is the fear of death and I suspect that if we had infinite lives that also included a continuous physical and intellectual vitality, religion would likely not last a generation. People of course are entitled to be as credulous as they like and believe what they prefer, including supernatural entities and the miraculous. But, if you simply remove all the reasons and emotional enticements for wanting a belief to be true, I suspect most would be discarded. Given either of these two conditions, it’s highly likely the comfortable myths and self-deceptive beliefs and palliatives of religion would disappear in a puff of smoke.
The great Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) had this to say:
It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country. There must therefore be a uniform experience against every miraculous event otherwise the event would not merit that appellation....
The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), 'That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish....'When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.
Most religions have postulated various formulations of a life after death as part of their sales pitch by inventing another even more abstruse assumption: an immaterial substance generally referred to as the “soul”. Conceptions of a soul and God notwithstanding, the idea of an afterlife is highly problematic from three important perspectives. First, there is not a shred of evidence to support it. As the great skeptic and arguably the finest courtroom lawyer of the twentieth century, Clarence Darrow once stated, “In spite of all the yearnings of men, no one can produce a single fact or reason to support the belief in God and in personal immortality.”
Second, it contradicts our most rudimentary commonsense notions about death and our scientific knowledge about what it means to die (it actually contains a self-contradiction) and third, given that there is some existence following our death, we can only speculate as to what it might entail both quantitatively and qualitatively. (If it means spending eternity with an angel on cloud nine singing “What a friend we have in Jesus” while playing a harp, I think I’d decline the offer and choose oblivion)
There are four logical possibilities concerning God and an afterlife:
(1) God and an afterlife
(2) God and no afterlife
(3) No God and an afterlife
(4) No God and no afterlife
Position (4) is generally accepted by all agnostics and atheists and position (1) by theists. Consider the following thought experiment:
Religious people are presented with an opportunity for a choice at some point in their lives between either (2) or (3).
How do you think they would choose?