Afterlife Myths (3)

17 11 2008

(Afterlife Myths 2)

So, I’ve talked about what the myths tend to be like, both the heaven side of them and the hell side. I was actually going somewhere with my ramblings this time, so here’s the conclusion post. (Sorry it’s so focused on Christianity again =\ )

Hell myths are obviously bad. Many who believed strongly in Hell say that it has terrified them for much of their life. Hell espouses an idea of justice that is distorted to the point of meaninglessness. It declares God’s absolute power over us and his right to that power. It’s authoritarian and hate filled, and it’s absolute crap.

Heaven myths are less clear cut. They give people a reason to live good lives, after all, without terrifying them (yes, it’s cynical, but if it works…), and they provide comfort for people about death. What’s wrong with that?

Well, I left out a few important things that heaven myths do. For instance, they interfere with the grieving process. People continue to believe that in some sense, their loved one is still there. They can’t completely get over the death because, to them, the death is caught forever half way done. Can you imagine what it would make you feel like if your mother, your brother, your child were permanently almost dead?

It leaves us with a ghost of that family member forever haunting us, because we never give up on their being there. We cling to that because it comforts us that they aren’t really gone, but that’s just denial. Denial is unhealthy at best, and incredibly destructive at worst, yet it is enshrined in almost all religions because it makes us think we feel better.

On top of that, it erases the idea of morality, or at the very least the idea of “Christian morality.” I’ll tackle the very liberal view of heave first,  liberal view of heaven next (I don’t mind those two so much, because they’re welcoming and accepting to other people as well), then last the more “traditional” view of Heaven.

If we say that everyone goes to heaven, well, that means that no matter what we do, we recieve eternal happiness. The likes of Hitler would thus arrive in Heaven completely unpunished, because this view of heaven is so tolerant. So much for God caring about morality. Of course, I think this still leaves room for morality. It just means you do good because it should be done, and because it helps other people. However, if you believe in eternal heaven, you don’t think that life on Earth matters so much, so why worry about it? I realize that many very liberal Christians work to help others. I’m just saying that their beliefs somewhat devalue that action.

If we say that everyone receives their just punishment and then goes to Heaven, you have a reason to be good, but not too much reason. After all, no matter how long your punishment, you’re in Heaven forever, right? There’s also the same problem of devaluing life on Earth as in the first view, since Heaven is still eternal. And finally, this starts to overlap with the traditional view, where you do good because you get something out of it.

Finally, there is the traditional Heaven. This, of course, is paired with Hell. That right there is enough against it, I think, because Hell is bull, but I’ll address the Heaven side, too. This is the ultimate “do good or else” situation. You don’t do good because it’s the right thing to do, you do good because it gets you into heaven. It’s as cynical and amoral as it comes, but it’s embraced by a horrifying number of people.

I’m not of the PZ Myers school of thought. I don’t think religion is completely evil. I’m not of the Dawkins school of thought, either. I don’t think it’s fairly evil. I think that the more liberal versions of Heaven really aren’t too bad. If the comfort they provide outweighs the interruption of the grieving process, then I have no problem with them. But sadly, I think that for many people that’s not the case. Even the liberal view of Heaven can cause harm. That’s why I argue against it. Not because I hate religion, not because I eat babies (ok, maybe one or two), but because I feel that I have to oppose that which causes needless harm.

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Afterlife myths (1)

6 11 2008

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.