You must live your life preparing to die, training and honing your skills in battle. When you die, it’s a good idea to die in battle, valiantly defending your cause to the bitter end. Those who live well are rewarded in Valhalla, drinking and feasting.
Silly and primitive, right? Now let’s try a modified version:
You must live your life preparing to die, giving and doing good deeds. When you die, it’s a good idea to die a martyr, valiantly defending your cause to the bitter end. Those who live well are rewarded in Heaven, eternally happy and blissful.
The two contain essentially the same ideas and only switch a few details. The human conception of the afterlife is just that: human. There are really only two afterlife myths that I’ve seen: the heaven myth and the reincarnation myth. They arise so consistently that either they must be true, or they must be deeply rooted in the human psyche. Since the two are mutually exclusive, we can say for sure that at least one is simply rooted in the human mind.
Humans don’t want to die. We tell so many stories, religious and fairytale and fantasy, about fighting death, beating death, etc. We place death at the core of our darkest stories, and personify it as something dark and malevolent. This makes sense: if you’re afraid of dying, you’re probably more likely to pass on your genes.
From this fear comes the idea of the afterlife. The brainpower that evolution has given us lets us think of the most absurd delusions and then cloth them so well that we can actually believe them. Other cultures’ myths seem bizarre to us because we haven’t built up our protective illusions around them. Our own have been carefully protected because they have been the ones with which we comfort ourselves. And even beyond that, the most ridiculous of myths are made ordinary simply by exposure to them. Even an atheist generally considers the myths of other cultures more silly than those of Christianity. They are ordinary to us, so we do not see how bizarre they are.
In the case of the Heaven style myth, it appeals both to the fear of death and to the wish for justice. It means that all the people who died unfairly and unjustly have gone on to eternal happiness, so it wasn’t really so terrible, right? It means that the little infant who dies in her mother’s arms is in a better place, and they weren’t just snuffed out. It means that the martyr has been rewarded.
In the case of the reincarnation myth, it appeals to our fear of death and, I suspect, also to some extent our curiosity. We wonder what it would be like if we had been this, or if we had been that. For some people, never being able to know really is painful. We wonder what the world will be like a hundred years later, or a thousand, or a million. In the reincarnation myth, we can live it.
The incredible capacity for thought that allows for these delusions to be protected, however, also gives us the capacity to see through them. As evolution gave us greater intelligence, it gave us greater powers of reasoning and logic. Human thought is subject to many pitfalls and fallacies, but we have the capacity to learn them and to seek to avoid them.
In the thousands of years of human history, we have made great strides in understanding logic. Today, we understand not only the formal structure of logic, but how we go wrong. We know that we tend toward confirmation bias, looking only at evidence that supports our belief and not that which contradicts it. We know how vulnerable we are to appeals to authority, giving someone’s word greater weight than it deserves. We know that we believe anecdotes over statistics (one of the most powerful modes of evidence), seeking the personal and throwing out the impersonality of numbers. All of this is known, and although we cannot free ourselves from them entirely, we can be careful to look for them and avoid them much of the time.
Through the lense of this logic, our religious myths fall away. As you come to understand the fallacies that are all too common in human thought, you can see how others use them to prop up their belief. It is, of course, easier to see it in others than in yourself, but with enough time and thought, you see them in yourself as well. Once you see them in yourself, you doubt. Once you doubt, you question. And that’s all anyone can ask.