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 (2)

15 11 2008

(Afterlife Myths 1)

So, now that I’ve tackled the “positive” afterlife myths, it’s time to take a look at the fire and brimstone side of religion.

First, reflections on using these myths to understand a culture.

A hell-style myth is very common, although it seems to have greater variation. There’s Hell itself, with its eternal fire, brimstone, torture, and so on. There’s Egyptian mythology, in which your soul is devoured. There’s Norse mythology, with the cold, barren wasteland. Reincarnation is the most mild, with simple demotion.

I think that the variety of negative afterlife myths actually makes them more interesting. Heaven style myths tell us something about human psychology, but little else. Hell style myths speak volumes about the culture that produced them. What do they fear most? What do they think of justice? How moderate is their religion? How authoritarian are they? All of these can be answered, at least partly, by the culture’s hell myth.

Christianity and European culture is the easiest for me to examine because I know the most about them, so I’ll use those to make my point.

Firstly, it shows us that the culture that has shaped the religion believes very strongly in just punishment. Hell is, after all, eternal punishment for crimes (what you think of whether they are really crimes is irrelevant here, what matters is the scale). Sinners are punished horribly.

Second, it shows us that the religion was shaped from something very fanatical. Moderation does not produce eternal and horrendous torture, because moderation is, well, moderate. It’s level headed and fairly balanced, while fanaticism is fiery, passionate, and angry.

Thirdly, it shows that the religion is coming from a very authoritarian view of the world. God is ruling the universe with an iron first, and all who break His laws are condemned to eternal torture and damnation. An authoritarian punishes harshly and ruthlessly. In general, a non-authoritarian does not.

Finally, it shows that the culture was not a forgiving one. There is no chance in hell (da dum tsch) for redemption. Those who have sinned are damned whatever they should do after they die. A more forgiving culture gives opportunities for redemption, with nothing permanent and immutable.

Now, on to making fun of these myths. Again, I’ll be sort of centered on Christianity because I don’t know as much about other religions, but I think the same argument tends to apply in more or less the same form to the other myths as well.

The Hell myth is covered in human fingerprints. The idea of supernatural justice is both human and downright silly.

What sort of God have we created who is so petty as to send you to be tortured for eternity for failing to believe in him? This God is supposed to be omnipotent and omniscient, and also benevolent. Well, does this fit? If he is omnipotent and omniscient, surely he is above such things? And if he is not, he is certainly not benevolent, so I have to ask why he is worthy of worship.

What sort of God is going to send anyone to be tortured for eternity? That’s the human thirst for vengence and punishment speaking. It’s not reasonable or rational. Again, this is a God who is supposed to see things on a timescale that dwarfs the age of the universe. And we think he’ll punish us for sleeping with the wrong person? Come on. That’s not a god, that’s an interfering, entirely ordinary, human parent.

We have in many ways made God in our own image, but in no way more so than in our idea of Hell. We ascribe to God the pettiness and self righteousness that we all feel, and we create a fantasy in which these are acted upon. We reassure ourselves that those who we hold in hatred or contempt will be punished by God even if we can’t do it. When you look at it clear of cultural conditioning, it really is silly. I mean really, picture a being vastly greater than the entire universe, capable of creating universes with the snap of his fingers, and he cares if you sleep with the wrong sort of person, or eat shellfish or something? Yeah, right.