Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Free from the fear of an afterlife?

I've been reading Victor J. Stenger's God: The Failed Hypothesis, and the following paragraph made me wonder: are atheists free of the fear of what lies after death? Page 257:

The promise of life after death carries with it the dread that the afterworld will be spent elsewhere than in the bosom of God. Everyone is a sinner, and even the most cloistered nun lives with the nagging worry that she might not be forgiven for that occasional impious thought that slips into her head between endless recitations of the Hail Mary. Likewise, the believer in reincarnation might sometimes worry about living his next life as a rodent . . . On the other hand, the atheist has the comfort of no fears for an afterlife . . . .


What do you think?

38 comments:

CyberKitten said...

Anxiety about any kind of Afterlife is a wonderful control tool...

Stengers book is on my reading list. I hope you'll do a full review when you finish it.

Josh said...

I wouldn't describe it as fear. I would say my conscious is clear. Let's say that as an atheist, I've made a terrible decision and hell does exist, and furthermore, as a result of that decision, I will be spending eternity in eternal torture. I could have escaped that fate simply be believing in / worshiping (for the sake of argument) the christian god.

Yeah, that would royally suck. But I wouldn't change a thing. Even if I knew that god exists, and not worshiping him would lead me to hell, I still wouldn't do it. The type of god that would allow anyone to be tortured forever is not the type of god I would worship.

Of course, If there was some evidence that such a god existed, I would believe that it existed, but that is very different from worshiping it.

Benjah said...

On the one hand...there is not one of us who can absolutely know what the truth is, and human wisdom has consistently proved itself tremendously fallible; so it seems we should fear death in that it is more possible than perhaps we think that we are all wrong and we are all going to Hell.

On the other hand...if one has no reason to believe there is an afterlife, and she lives her whole life according to her belief, then she should not fear it because to the best that she could she lived her life according to truth. It may be that she will be condemned to an eternity of suffering, but any reasonable person who was not able to foresee that fate coming shouldn't fear it, because there was no way for her to avoid it.

That's what I think at least.

JP said...

There is a certain fear of the unknown, but it goes, really, no further then that.

Do we just cease to exist? Will it be like it was before we were?

Alot of us have a deep religious background and I would be a liar to say that once in a while the "what if" questions arise.

Hey, we are only human.

rodolfo said...

Why should I fear death?
If i am then death is not.
If death is then i am not.
Why should i fear that which
cannot exist when i do.
--Epicurus

Anonymous said...

One can leave Xianity and still have that lingering fear, especially if that fear began early in life. Its hard to undo the neurological sabotage.

Cori said...

I find this quote interesting - as a follower of Jesus I don't fear the afterlife at all. Perhaps not paying much attention to literal translations of the Bible (and thus of heaven and hell) has a role to play. But I think for many people, when you have developed a deep relationship with someone and trust them utterly and completely with your current earthly life, then spending the rest of your eternal life with them doesn't seem that scary.

Dallas Willard describes how Christianity has moved from the idea of faith as 'sin management' (managing your sin so you don't go to hell) to something much more relational. I think this kind of quote assumes a sin-management theology which is only relevant in some fundamentalist Christian circles...

Having said all that, I know this post isn't asking Christians whether they feel afraid or not, but atheists, and it is an interesting question!

CyberKitten said...

cori said: Having said all that, I know this post isn't asking Christians whether they feel afraid or not, but atheists, and it is an interesting question!

I think that it's a rather strange question to ask atheists. As we generally don't believe in any kind of 'afterlife' what exactly are we supposed to fear?

As rodolfo said Epicurus had it about right....

Benjah said...

Well that quote from Epicurus assumes that there is no afterlife, which we cannot prove. So an atheist may fear that she is wrong and that there is an afterlife, which would be something to fear.

CyberKitten said...

benjah said: Well that quote from Epicurus assumes that there is no afterlife, which we cannot prove.

There are many things that we cannot prove the existence or non-existence of. That doesn't mean I should live in fear of vampires....

benjah said: So an atheist may fear that she is wrong and that there is an afterlife, which would be something to fear.

If I am wrong so be it. I am big enough to deal with the consequences of my mistakes. However, I'm not going to lose any sleep over the minute posibility that Heaven, Hell and evil pixies actually exist!

Benjah said...

The afterlife and vampires are very different things to compare, because all of the statistics that popped up on my google search indicated that significantly more people believe in an afterlife than not; and I couldn't find any statistics of people who believe in vampires (though I imagine it is very small). Fox news said 85% of people believe in heaven, which seems a bit too high, but it still seems that the overwhelming majority of people believe in an afterlife. Obviously the number of people who believe something is irrelevant in terms of it being true or not, but it is possible to imagine a scenario where a person may question her belief if it is countered by such a strong majority.

I should also add that I did not say an atheist must or should fear death, but rather "may" or might fear it. In another reply I made to this post I added on to that idea that an atheist really should not fear death.

and I don't know why I added all this on here because I agree with you...but its nice to discuss things I suppose.

rodolfo said...

I often wondered how strong or relevant religious beliefs would be if it didn't include stories of heaven or hell in their books. Who wouldn't fear hell if they were told from a young age that that's where you go if you misbehave? When I was a believer I couldn't imagine a parent who would send their children to an eternal firepit. Upon reflection I thought that was retarded. But that's me. My parents, teachers, coaches, counselors, girlfriends, mentors, bosses, etc. have taught me to conquer my fears so I guess it was only natural for me to reject fear of a hellish afterlife. These days I compare fear of the afterlife with the fear of a secular moral chaos. I never think of why I don't commit crimes as an atheist because the thought simply doesn't cross my mind. Maybe I fear going to prison and having my rights taken away.

I hope when my time is up I would find comfort in death. Especially should I become terminally ill. But fearing the afterlife is a monumental waste of time and potentially harmful to your mental health.

CyberKitten said...

benjah said: Obviously the number of people who believe something is irrelevant in terms of it being true or not, but it is possible to imagine a scenario where a person may question her belief if it is countered by such a strong majority.

You said it yourself: Obviously the number of people who believe something is irrelevant in terms of it being true or not.

It makes no difference to me if I was the only person on the planet who didn't believe. Most people (probably in the 90%+ range) believe in some kind of God. The only thing that this proves... is that most humans believe in God - nothing more. Just because other people believe in Heaven has no impact at all on my lack of belief in it. Why should it?

benjah said: but its nice to discuss things I suppose.

Indeed. That's the fun part.

Laughing Boy said...

On the other hand, the atheist has the comfort of no fears for an afterlife . . . .

(Note: I haven't read the responses so excuse me if my comments have been covered.)

4 questions:

1. Is denying the afterlife is just a self-intoxicating delusion that helps people cope with a disturbing reality?

2. Is Stenger the Marx of the Bizarro universe?

3. What does Stenger's argument have to do with truth, or even reason?

4. How does this line of reasoning help the atheist cause?

CyberKitten said...

laughing boy asked:

Is denying the afterlife is just a self-intoxicating delusion that helps people cope with a disturbing reality?

No. For me at least its based on a lack of evidence for the 'Afterlife'.

Is Stenger the Marx of the Bizarro universe?

What exactly has Karl Marx got to do with the topic we're debating?

What does Stenger's argument have to do with truth, or even reason?

It seems very reasonable to me....

How does this line of reasoning help the atheist cause?

What....! We have a *cause* now....? Why didn't anyone tell me! To what 'cause' do you refer?

tichius said...

It was said earlier that there is a fear of the unknown.

You can know God personally. And when you know him, through Jesus Christ, there is no fear. There is only a wonderful mystery.

Please take the time during your life to research the bible, and determine for yourselves whether it is true or not.

Please don't let your eternity rest in the hands of someone else's opinion!

Ben Olson said...

tichius said:
"Please take the time during your life to research the bible, and determine for yourselves whether it is true or not.

Please don't let your eternity rest in the hands of someone else's opinion!"

I'll try not to get too far off topic, but this does all relate.

So firstly, what you say is wise. One must certainly research anything before making a decision if she believes it is true or not.

As for myself, I am quite familiar with the Bible, though mostly from a protestant perspective. I never bothered with Catholicism because it very much so contradicts what the Bible says.

My question for you is how much research have you done about arguments against Christianity being the truth? I don't mean reading things written by Christians with a Christian agenda, but true objective information?

Generally, when conversing with Christians, I find that many Christians believe that there a lot of things about their beliefs that they can't explain, and so they respond that it is just a matter of faith. In other words, the only reason these people believe what they believe is that they were told it was truth, and for no other reason.

Not only should someone not let her eternity rest in the hands of the opinions of others, but she also should not let her life rest in those hands either.

Laughing Boy said...

What exactly has Karl Marx got to do with the topic we're debating?

You know very well that Marx famously said that religion is the opiate of the masses, meaning that religion helps emotionally weak people deal with the harsh realties of life. Stenger, at least in the excerpt, seems to be proposing that, if the idea of the afterlife causes you anxiety, simply denying the afterlife can be your opium and help you past the harsh realilty.

I think it's poor advice, personally.

To what 'cause' do you refer?

The same cause that, I suppose, caused Stenger to write the book; to promote the idea that atheism is a credible worldview.

tichius said...

Ben,

I understand your point entirely.

But, I caution you not to judge a philosophy by the people who believe it. Don't look at Christians, look at Christ. (at who they claim to follow.)

Philosophically atheism is a logical contradiction. It is affirming the negative in the absolute-

anti- theos -- there is no God.

To know this you have to have infinite knowledge.

You would have to have infinite knowledge to know there is no one with infinite knowledge.

CyberKitten said...

tichius said: anti- theos -- there is no God.


Nice try... but actually it's a-theism *not* anti-theos

Theism is the *belief* in the existence of one or more deities.

A-Theism is the *lack* of belief in such. Therefore your objection to a-theism on the grounds that it is a logical contradiction is false.

laughing boy said: You know very well that Marx famously said that religion is the opiate of the masses, meaning that religion helps emotionally weak people deal with the harsh realties of life.

Indeed. Marx *was* right sometimes.

laughing boy said: Stenger, at least in the excerpt, seems to be proposing that, if the idea of the afterlife causes you anxiety, simply denying the afterlife can be your opium and help you past the harsh realilty.

He is saying that the belief in an afterlife can be problematical. Lack of such a belief - in other words *facing reality* - takes this anxiety away. Not my idea of opium which is normally an *escape* from reality.

laughing boy said: The same cause that, I suppose, caused Stenger to write the book; to promote the idea that atheism is a credible worldview.

Personally I wouldn't call that a 'cause'. I'd call that reasonable common sense!

Laughing Boy said...

A-Theism is the *lack* of belief in such. Therefore your objection to a-theism on the grounds that it is a logical contradiction is false.

It used to be that atheists were people who made a truth claim: There is no God. Now, for some, atheism is not a truth claim but just the description of a state of mind. A such, atheism is much easier to defend, in fact it doesn't need defending at all since it's not putting a stake in the ground. This leads people to say things like, "Babies don't believe in God so we are born atheists." This type of atheism also applies to dolphins, dogs, and dung beetles. In other words, this type of atheism is a meaningless label.

He is saying that the belief in an afterlife can be problematical.

Indeed it is.

Lack of such a belief - in other words *facing reality*

I don't see an argument for or against the afterlife as reality in the excerpt, just a proposal that lacking the belief would make one happier.

I'd call that reasonable common sense!

By definition atheism can't be classified as "common" sense given that it is so uncommon.

Laughing Boy said...

Josh said...Even if I knew that god exists, and not worshiping him would lead me to hell, I still wouldn't do it. The type of god that would allow anyone to be tortured forever is not the type of god I would worship.

This is more profound than it seems.

Ben Olson said...

As a matter of fact, Tichius, I don't believe you do understand my point entirely, because the way you responded does not relate completely to what I said. Even still, it was probably my own inability to communicate my thoughts well...so maybe I should make myself clearer.

I am not judging Christianity by the people who follow it. My point in saying that even Christians recognize that their belief is a matter of faith is a response to your previous comment that atheism results in letting one's eternity rest on someone else's opinion. I had hoped to show that, in fact, Christianity at its core is doing exactly that. I am not saying Christianity is bogus because it requires faith to follow it. I am saying that the ONLY way to say that the Bible is absolutely true is to have faith that what is written there is true, and that other than the plainly historical details (i.e. lineage, kings who reigned when, etc.) there is no evidence either way to prove or disprove what is written there (i.e. there is nothing that proves or disproves Jesus performed certain various miracles). The type of things I am referring to here are the sort of things that do not occur in present times and that people do not observe any longer, meaning there is no reason to believe those things happened except that other people say they happened. For instance, people do not typically walk on water anymore. So I have no reason to believe anyone ever has, except that it is said that Jesus did. As a result, you are, in fact, resting your eternity in the hands of other peoples opinions; the very thing you warned against doing.

Ultimately, you do not need to defend against what I am saying, because of two things. Firstly, human logic is extremely limited, and is not capable of solving all the worlds mysteries on its own. Secondly, truth is what it is regardless of who believes what or why anyone believes it or what anyone says. So, if what you believe is true, then it is so even though you may be forced to believe some of it just because you were told it was truth.

Atheism does not have that luxury. There is no one itty bit of anything that I believe that was told to me by anyone else. I came to be an atheist after being a Christian, and deciding that I did not want to believe that what the Bible says is truth just because I was told it was truth. I decided I would look as objectively as I could at everything that I could (truthfully still expecting to be a Christian at the end of it) and as of the moment, I don't have any reason to believe that there is a God.

And all of this relates back to a fear of death because I do not let my eternity rest in the hands of someone else's opinion, I let it rest in my own hands; and truthfully I have no fear of death.

Laughing Boy said...

Good thoughts, Ben. Some passing remarks:

1. I'm skeptical that every itty bit of knowledge you possess (believe) is first-hand info.

2. Nobody believes anything by force.

3. Few people fear death until it comes knocking.

Regardless, rather than trusting your eternal life to your own hands, I assume you are trusting that it's a moot point—that there is no afterlife. Are you really saying that if there is an afterlife you are perfectly capable of dealing with it? If so, what's the basis of your confidence?

Anonymous said...

When we die our souls become one with the holy Flying Spaghetti Monster...unless you don't believe.

CyberKitten said...

laughing boy said: Are you really saying that if there is an afterlife you are perfectly capable of dealing with it? If so, what's the basis of your confidence?

What gives you grounds for believing that we are *not* capable of dealing with any 'Afterlife' that might turn up? Most of us are perfectly capable (most of the time) of dealing with *this* life. I see no reason why we should be incapable of adapting to the 'next'.

Laughing Boy said...

But is the Holy Flying Spaghetti Monster covered in tomato or alfredo sauce, or, dare we think it, pesto? Are you willing to risk it?

CK: My grounds are the only source of information I have regarding the afterlife which is the Bible. If what it says is true, then there is reason to fear. If it's not true then I could use as my new grounds whatever you think.

CyberKitten said...

laughing boy said: But is the Holy Flying Spaghetti Monster covered in tomato or alfredo sauce, or, dare we think it, pesto? Are you willing to risk it?

Pascal's Wager? Say it ain't so, laughing boy... Say it ain't so...

laughing boy said: CK: My grounds are the only source of information I have regarding the afterlife which is the Bible.

Obviously I would not regard The Bible as sufficient grounds for believing in *anything* never mind just an 'Afterlife'.

laughing boy said: If what it says is true, then there is reason to fear.

Of course... We have everything to fear from a 'Loving God' who presumably punishes people who make honest mistakes regarding His wishes for all Eternity. That's what I call a God worthy of worship....!

laughing boy said: If it's not true then I could use as my new grounds whatever you think.

That's almost funny - as you expect us to follow *your* beliefs on the Afterlife rather than our own! After all.. why take the risk that you could be wrong?

My grounds for my lack of belief in the Afterlife are simple... NO EVIDENCE to support the idea. If there is no evidence to support an idea and no reasonable argument to get me their... I tend not to believe it. It's called scepticism - it used to be all the rage.

Ben Olson said...

cyberkitten: "Of course... We have everything to fear from a 'Loving God' who presumably punishes people who make honest mistakes regarding His wishes for all Eternity."

The only 'honest mistake' that would keep one out of heaven according the the Bible is to not believe that Jesus was God and not believing His death and resurrection are the only means to salvation. I don't see why that is such an awful thing for God to do, given that, according to the Bible, any one thing done wrong in life deserves the penalty of death. I don't mean to make this into an emotional deal...but I feel like a God who would sacrifice His own son for the sake of people who sarcastically mock Him--knowing that they would--is a loving God.

That of course assumes such a God exists.

CyberKitten said...

ben said: The only 'honest mistake' that would keep one out of heaven according the the Bible is to not believe that Jesus was God and not believing His death and resurrection are the only means to salvation.

Then I guess that I ain't going to Heaven!

Laughing Boy said...

CK: That's almost funny - as you expect us to follow *your* beliefs on the Afterlife rather than our own!

I don't expect you or anyone else to follow 'my' beliefs. I do not deserve any following. The fact that I hold a belief adds nothing to it's worthiness. I hope to hold true beliefs. I hope others hold true beliefs, too, whether they are 'mine' or not.

Very good comments, Ben!

God is a loving God, but He's not all-loving; He doesn't love everything. Some things He hates. He loves and hates with equal perfection.

Anonymous said...

I recently got into a discussion questioning whether or not christians would remain christians if the concept of hell were erased from Christian dictrine. My main point was that Christianity appears to be the only religion that uses fear to gain converts. In other words, a Buddhist may become such out of desire. But most christians become such out of fear of hell.

LorMarie.com

Ben Olson said...

Firstly, I disagree. Not only do most Christians I personally know not ever even think about the afterlife, the Bible even says itself: "Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent." That seems to say that eternal life is knowing God on earth as well. Not only that, but I don't know any "converts" who converted because of a fear of hell, but rather in seeing the love that Christianity offers. In that sense they converted by choice and not out of fear.

Anonymous said...

"To live in the hearts we leave behind is to never die."

John said...

' that Christianity appears to be the only religion that uses fear to gain converts'
-wow you must live a another world. What about Islam?! I've never seen a more feared oriented belief eg)murdering infidels (non muslims) is justifiable in the quran. Im more concerned about a jihadist nut than an imanginary hell.

Im not going to convince christians that when we they die thats it.
But the projection of self is a product of the brain. So when your brain stops ticking that self projection ends as well. Similarly when people suffer brain damage /mental illnees the 'self' is damaged just like if you had damaged a film projector. Theres plenty of evidence for this.
Of course xtians believe that you have a soul/spirit as well as your mind. But I think the atheist explanation is simpler.

eg) you could believe that we live in a Matrix and you might be right. But again theres no evidence and such an idea is superfluous/unneccsary - we already have an explanation thats simpler and requires nothing outside of nature. Occam's Razor.

Anonymous said...

Firstly, I disagree. Not only do most Christians I personally know not ever even think about the afterlife, the Bible even says itself: "Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent." That seems to say that eternal life is knowing God on earth as well. Not only that, but I don't know any "converts" who converted because of a fear of hell, but rather in seeing the love that Christianity offers. In that sense they converted by choice and not out of fear.

Riiiiight.........

C'mon. Fear of hellfire has been used for centuries as a converting tool.

Ben Olson said...

My response was written in response to the assertion that most Christians are Christians mostly, if not solely, because of a fear of Hell.

I realize now that I choose my words poorly, because I wasn't trying to say that there aren't people who "convert" based on the fear of a torturous afterlife. All I was trying to say is that while the Bible does promise salvation in the afterlife, that is not the only reason to "follow" Christ (according to the Bible at least). Theoretically, a person could receive "salvation" but live the same as they did before they did so, and still go to heaven. However, at least some Christians spend their whole lives "following" God anyway; not because they need to to be "saved" from Hell, but because they choose to hoping for a more fulfilling life. The people I know may be a very small exception, but the Christians I know have even said the words "I would still follow Christ even if there was no Hell." They don't hardly even think about the afterlife, because they already know they are going to Heaven. Instead they focus on trying to get the most out of this life by "following" Christ.

In that regard (referring back to the comparison between Christianity and Buddhism), there are at least some circles of Christians who's primary reason to be a Christian is to be fulfilled. So I might say that some (or few or many...I don't have any empirical data on this subject) Christians choose to live a more enlightened lifestyle the same way a Buddhist does. A good example might be that there are some Christians who go to Church with some amount of regularity, even though they do not have to go to church one moment of their life to be "saved" from Hell.

Let me make clear one last time, this may be just a tiny fraction of the "Christian" population. But the mega huge events like Passion that draw thousands of people from around the country seem to suggest that there may be a reasonably significant group of Christians who are seeking an enlightened life, not just freedom from Hell.

This is already long enough, but I might even assert that there are similarities between Christians who "convert" only because of a fear of hell, and atheists who are atheists only because they do not believe in God. But then there is also the argument that some philosophers and sociologists make that says that a human can coax themselves into believing whatever they want, so that in theory people could potentially have certain beliefs only by choice. It does seem true that people do ultimately believe what they want to much of the time. And then there are atheists such as myself who don't want to be atheists, but they are unable to believe something that they are less sure is true than whatever they happen to believe.

Don Manolo said...

It's not punishment, it's natural consequence. Very, very few will actually go to hell, and most will go to a place where they will feel comfortable, there's not just one heaven, just like there's not just one kind of people.

If God enjoyed punishing people, why would he give us so many opportunities to turn our lives around? Think attonement of Christ, the biggest sacrifice a person could do is to give his child, especially if that person has infinite love. I don't subscribe to the idea that if someone doesn't know Christ or just a very difficult time believing that he is the savior, will automatically go to hell. It's so much more complicated than that. That's why God waits until after we die to judge us, because he needs to take into consideration everything that makes us as an individual.

Does a serial killer who couldn't controle his action because of mental problems go to hell? I don't know, God only knows, and he can see deeper into that person's soul than we can.

Most arguments I hear from atheists are very simplistic and don't consider a broader view into the nature of God. It's like God is just like us and they can understand him from a Freudian point of view, or something.

I know religion has caused a lot of trouble during the ages, but those troubles don't arise from religion itself, but from people who put themselves in position or religious authority. I still believe that religion has done much more good than bad, and it has given millions of people worldwide a reason to be good, happy, hopeful, etc.