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The Perils of Belief in an Afterlife

by Johnny Reb

Death, then, is nothing to us, nor does it concern us one least bit, inasmuch as the nature of the mind is that of yet another mortal possession. . . - Titus Lucretius Carus (c 99-55 BCE), De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things).

One of the proofs of the immortality of the soul is that many have believed it - they also believed the earth was flat. -Mark Twain

As a child I enjoyed the bed time stories my wonderful mother read to my brother and I, such as Jack and the Beanstalk and other classics.  She explained to us that these stories were fables and not really true. We also enjoyed the Santa Claus and Tooth Fairy fictions but even most kids by the time they were ready for school, held skeptical thoughts about their veracity. Some things just didn't add up, such as why rich kids got more presents at Xmas than poor kids. The Bible stories we were fed at Sunday School such as Noah's Ark and Jonah and the Whale seemed equally implausible; at least to me they did. But some people never put away such childish beliefs. They continue to hold them, the most ridiculous of which is belief that there's a Santa Claus in the Sky who watches over us and who will grant us eternal life just for believing in absurdities.

But, in addition to the violence, mayhem and malice condoned by a tyrannical God in the Bible,  what really scared the crap out of me was the bedtime prayer my mom asked us to recite "As I lay me down to sleep, I pray dear Lord my soul to keep, and if I die before I wake..." You know the one. My Mom, a very smart lady, no longer believes in any religion. Anyone who has read the Bible, and I daresay most who call themselves Christians have not,  their God is deemed loving and caring despite the fact his rap sheet is longer than any mafia don.

One prevailing theme in religion is how readily people construct fables in order to avoid dealing with reality. The invention of abstruse notions like the "soul" and an afterlife is one of many of the fairy tales the religious  have invented to deceive the masses and console themselves against facing the real. The fiction of an afterlife would not matter so much were it not purchased at so high a price: credulity, disregard for reality and the willingness to become part of the biggest delusion and con game ever conceived.

The French philosopher Michael Onfray summed it up this way:

"I do not despise believers. I find them neither ridiculous nor pathetic, but I lose all hope when I see that they prefer the comforting fairy tales of children to the cruel hard facts of adults. Better the faith that brings peace of mind than the rationality that brings worry - even at the price of perpetual mental infantilism. What a demonstration of metaphysical sleight of hand - and what a monstrous price."

Most people it seems prefer comfort to truth. And thousands of Christians have been lured by the carrot and stick enticements of the biggest swindle ever conceived. Even Wall Street and Madison Avenue couldn't come up with anything so cunning, deceitful and fraudulent, yet so successful. But the latest Pew Forum study reported that the most devout Christians are the ones who spend the most on medical options to extend their lives when faced with a terminal disease. Hedging their bets I suppose?

Here is Dromedary Hump (aka Bart Centre):

"Ask a Christian what the best thing about being a believer is. After a few stumbling attempts and some meaningless babble about their “personal relationship” with Jesus, the warm fuzzy feeling of knowing they don’t actually have to think, and the benefits of their man-god granting their wishes, they will eventually get to the meat and potatoes of Christian belief ... the promise of eternal life."

At the very least, belief in the afterlife ought to make one's present life better. There are obvious intellectual diffi­culties in acquiring and sustaining the belief, but managing the difficulties should make the only life we know, a happier one. There must be consolation in knowing that this life isn't all there is, despite the fact there's not a shred of evidence as to the existence of this afterlife and what it might entail. Both an afterlife and it's characteristics are at best mere conjecture and speculation.

 Death is perhaps the greatest human fear, or even more so, the process of dying. If we lived forever it's likely religion would not survive another generation. Ironically many who long for immortality are frequently bored with the only one they can be sure of. That's something that has always mystified me; I've never been bored save for a few dull periods in a church pew and the dentist chair. Isn't life too painfully short to be bored?

Sustaining a myth that one does not really die lifts one of the great anxieties from our lives. Of course, belief in God and the metaphysical construct of the "soul" is the main rea­son that people feel able to believe in an afterlife, despite there not being any evidence for either God or a soul. To superimpose a conclusion about life after death on two highly abstruse concepts and dubious premises just won't cut it. Although belief in a deity is not a necessary condition for belief in the afterlife, it is quite often seen as such, and for many, religious belief is a sufficient condition for holding that there is an afterlife. I've never met an atheist who believes in a life after death and I've never heard of one strapping on a bomb in the name of his non-belief. But if you believe there is a God, then the total lack of evidence for an afterlife can be dismissed, or left unexamined, as it stands protected by the larger grand blueprint of one's chosen religion.

Christians call their afterlife either Heaven or Hell depending on what deity you choose to believe or not believe in. They love to invoke the free will defense in explaining away all the gratuitous misery and suffering in the world ruled by their omnipotent deity but when it comes to a choice as to whether or not you believe in their particular dictator in the sky, there is no choice. You either believe in their God or burn in a lake of fire for eternity. Thank you Jesus! Now one of the enticements of Heaven offered by Christianity is the prospect of meeting your deceased loved ones in that vague place in the sky. But suppose you have been "born again" but your parents were of the wrong religion - or atheists? You'd only be able to look down and see them screaming in pain as they burn in Hell. Thank you Lard! Interestingly almost all criminals in US prisons will be going to Heaven since in the latest surveys, only .2% (yes, that's one-fifth of one percent) are atheists.

But surely, argues the theist, any support for a belief in an afterlife, no matter how tenuous, is better than none? Isn't it bound to be a comfort? It may not work out like that. Thinking that you are going to live on after you die carries with it dreadful possibilities, as by its very nature you have no idea what it would involve, save the conditions of reward and punishment for acceptance and vague descriptive narrative provided by theologians. It cannot but help be indefinite for most of us, or at least subject to doubt for all but the most dogmatic, delusional and fanatical. By its very vague, even self-contradictory nature, one's life after death looks like something one can only be uncertain about. We cannot see beyond life to know what it would really be like - and few have seriously sustained the idea that there are those who have come back "from the other side" to tell us what it's like. But the more unclear and uncertain our belief in the afterlife is, the more diminished is the belief, unless we think, as Christian inform us, we are definitely going to Hell to burn for eternity in a lake of fire merely because of our disbelief. But that's just not possible because non-believers reject the entire edifice of religion. Moreover, it is worse not only for ourselves, but for those we love.

To see how such deliberations can diminish your life, consider this. Gloomy thoughts, albeit self-admittedly irrational ones, enter the minds even of those who have lost loved ones and based on lack of any evidence, are  sure we do not survive death. They might have morbid thoughts, such as speculating about whether they're somehow cold, conscious and trapped in their coffins [I'll personally be choosing cremation]. These thoughts apply to our own impending death too. Like in some Edgar Allen Poe tale, will we wake up in the grave and be locked there forever? Who can tell, given that the form that one's existence takes beyond death is wholly undetermined, allowing for an infinite number of possibilities?

Even if we manage to strip ourselves of such irrational fears, and convince ourselves that the person dead and buried is no longer there, we may still find it disturbing to con­template their remains as we stand above the grave. Imagine how much worse and potentially obsessive such mediations might be if you have the slightest indefinite belief in an after­life. In that case, the question of what it will be like acquires a renewed urgency. Will it be one of constant pain? Or one of endless frustrations, where one finds oneself no longer able to act, and yet desperately willing to do so? Will it consist of your now? Will you be conscious in the crematorium furnace? If one's essence is a non-physical soul, why not? One could be both there, and burning. If you think you do not know whether an afterlife could happen, or think that it might happen, endless indefinite possibilities open up. There is no reason why they should be pleasant ones. Perhaps it's an atheist Hell where the religious will be punished for their credulous faith by having to suffer for eternity listening to bagpipes playing "What a Friend we have in Jesus" with lyrics sung by Tiny Tim?

If, on the other hand, someone can be as sure as he can be that he does not survive death, then might have a chance of quelling whatever irrational thought naturally forces itself upon him. In fact this is usually what happens if one firmly thinks that this life is all there is; one entertains such grim thoughts fleetingly, but usually manages to snap out of them. Not so if one has a belief in the afterlife where anything goes as to how it might turn out. The ghastly uncertainty as to what it might be like is definitely worse than the certainty of knowing that there will be no state that you will be in after you die. Other than, of course, the state you were in before you were born. As the Roman philosopher Lucretius (99 - 55 BCE)  argued, What's the fear in that? Nothingness, compared to an infinitude of both positive and negative possibilities for an afterlife, seems to me preferable.

I offer the final words by Michael Onfray:

"Monotheisms have no love for intelligence, books, knowledge or science. Preferring the ethereal over the material and the real, they have a strong aversion to man's instincts and basic drives. Thus not only do they celebrate ignorance, innocence, naïveté, obedience, and submission: the three religions of the book disdain the texture, forms, and forces of the world. The here and now is irrelevant, for the whole world, now and forever, bears the weight of original sin."

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