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Nov 11 2013

Is it ever acceptable to pretend that god and the afterlife exist?

As atheists, we tend to take a hard-headed attitude towards god and the afterlife. Neither exists and we view those who believe in them as being either mistaken or clinging to them out of a need for a comforting illusion. While I am convinced that telling the truth about the non-existence of any gods is always desirable, I am not as sure about the afterlife and am willing to be persuaded that, under very limited circumstances, maintaining the fiction may be justifiable.

I’ve long felt that one of the most attractive appeals of the afterlife, and the one that is most likely to seduce people into wanting to believe in it and the associated idea of a god, is the idea that we will meet again our loved ones who have died and whom we miss so much. I think that this desire is so strong that it masks all the many problems of such a belief. But fortunately, while religious people wax lyrical in words and song about the joys of the afterlife, the desire for it is not so strong that it makes otherwise rational people take their own lives in order to get there quicker.

One can perhaps understand people who know they are near the end of their lives or who are suffering so terribly or who are depressed taking their own lives in order to escape this life and enjoy the hereafter. But when we know that people can be lured by this promise to do terrible things thinking that a reward waits them in heaven, religious people need to pause and consider whether giving unqualified praise for the afterlife is such a good thing.

But here is a situation where it gets murkier. On NPR sometime ago, they interviewed a doctor whose research dealt with deadly diseases that affect children (I forget which ones) and he often had to give parents the heartbreaking news that their children had just a short time to live, and then watch them have to deal with this sad information. He described one couple who decided to tell their child the truth that he would die soon. But they did this by drawing the curtain between them and using that as an analogy, telling their child that just as they were on the other side of the curtain though he could not see them, when he died, they would be on the other side of a different curtain from him but would still be there.

I can see the utility of such a fiction in such a dire situation involving children. But as a general rule, I think it is better to face the truth about death.

16 comments

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  1. 1
    jamessweet

    Eeps. Yeah, I went into this being like, “Yeah, I doubt it Mano,” but that’s a pretty powerful example. Hrmph.

    My sons are 2 and 4, and we have always been up front about them with the permanence of death. The 4-year-old is old enough that sometimes this bothers him a bit — he has been known to spontaneously say, “I’m gonna live forever!” in the middle of a car ride, heh — but we just remind him that he will be alive for a long, long time, and he doesn’t seem to worry about it too much.

    If I couldn’t honestly tell him that death was so far away that he really shouldn’t worry about it — then I’m not sure what I would say. Bah, I think I’d rather just not think about it…

  2. 2
    thewhollynone

    What you are both saying is that the afterlife is a fantasy for children; harmless for children, and sometimes useful. Okay, but the problem is that most humans don’t grow up and relinquish their childish fantasies, and their cultures do not encourage them to do so. Instead we persist in promoting, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus!”

  3. 3
    Nick Gotts

    Hmm. I’ve been fortunate enough never to face such a terrible situation as these parents, and it’s hard to second-guess them, but I would think the primary fear of a young child (with loving parents) is separation from those parents, or the cessation of their love. I think I would have been inclined to tell the child something like “We will always love you”, which would have the advantage of being true: I have no hesitation in saying I love my parents, even though they are dead and I have no belief in an afterlife: I think of them often, with affection and respect, as well as regret that they have gone.

    My son, now in his first year at university, astonished me at the age of 3 with respect to death. We had been talking about the subject, and he said something about “When I die…” I said “I hope you won’t die!” meaning, of course, not for a long time and not before I do. His reply (I remember the exact words and intonation):

    I will! Persons die, I’m a person, so I will die!

    A perfect Aristotelian syllogism, and on the classic subject. I’m sure his use of “persons” was an over-regularised plural, not a precocious use of that favoured by professional philosophers!

  4. 4
    Rob Grigjanis

    It’s been 20 years since I saw Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata, one of the best things I’ve ever seen on the telly. A ripping good yarn, with a fantastic international cast, and a beautiful soundtrack (my favourite piece here).

    The scene which has persisted most in my memory is the one in which Arjuna approaches his death, near, or at, the very end. He believes he will meet all the loved ones who died before him (even hearing their voices as he climbs), and then at the last, he is disabused of this notion. I make it sound cruel, but it was a very moving scene. Wish I could remember the actual words…must see it again.

    As for dying children, anything that alleviates the unbearable heartbreak is a good thing.

  5. 5
    Lou Doench

    I worry sometimes that a lot of Atheists I meet online and elsewhere are much to confident in their ability to deal with such a situation. There’s a glibness to the responses to talk about an afterlife that i think masks some real insecurities. All I can say is that tragedy… real personal tragedy like the situation Mano features can overwhelm even the staunchest Atheist convictions. Powerful emotions are going to sweep over you when life happens in such a terrible fashion. I know that when my Dad dies, suddenly and tragically (he was hit by a car), I pretty much let those emotions wash over me. I took my ATHEISM and put it in a little box and saved it for later. When my friends and family talked about how they hoped he was at peace now I nodded and smiled, because I knew they meant well, they were grieving too. I talked with my cousin about Dad and Uncle Al meeting up in heaven (Al was one of the nicest guys you could ever meet, he had died earlier that year.) I placed a $2 Canadian coin in his hand before we closed the casket, in case he wanted to buy a beer when he visited Canadian Heaven.

    All of that is nonsense of course. I know that. I knew it at the time. But in the moment… when it was so close and raw, there was definitely a benefit to at least entertaining those thoughts, to letting them out to play for a brief time. To tell the truth, whatever helped me hold myself together for that period was welcome.

    Just my 2 cents…;)

  6. 6
    Daniel Schealler

    Completely disagree with you Mano. ^_^

    IMHO, the afterlife is both a worse idea than God.

    Belief in the afterlife diminishes the importance of this life in favour of a lie that will never be realized.

    If I could wave a magic wand and choose between either removing the idea of an afterlife or removing the idea of God… Well, I wouldn’t do it on ethical grounds of freedom of conscience. But if I did wave the wand, I would choose to remove belief in the afterlife.

    Besides, I don’t think most people would continue believing in God if they didn’t accept the existence of an afterlife.

    Hmm… That’s interesting: Now I think about it, I know of at least one religion that has an afterlife (reincarnation) but not necessarily a God. Many permutations of Buddhism (though not all) meet that criteria.

    But I can’t for the life of me think of a religion that has a God but no afterlife. Anyone here know of one?

  7. 7
    Daniel Schealler

    That said, regarding the comforting a child thing?

    It would be very crass to come over all harsh and preachy about someone who takes that route.

    It’s hard to say whether or not I’d take that option unless I was in that situation myself. It would be completely heartbreaking. I think that I would find some other way to do it. But I could never really know until it happens, and I dearly, dearly hope I’m never placed in a situation to find out.

  8. 8
    wtfwhateverd00d

    Yeah, I think harsh reality once past childhood is for the best.

    I remember my uncle telling my grandmother very graphically about what my grandfather would be enduring during his various cancer surgeries. I think my grandmother was far better off with the harsh reality shoved right into her face like that, she certainly seemed to appreciate it, and we all felt better being intellectually honest with ourselves.

  9. 9
    Vote for Pedro

    I think the consensus is that early Judaism didn’t have a belief in an afterlife. I don’t remember the details, but early in the Torah, there’s emphasis in “living forever” through descendants carrying on the line and no afterlife is mentioned. Been a long time since I heard that (likely at Catholic high school), but that’s my recollection.

  10. 10
    Daniel Schealler

    Thanks. Good to know.

  11. 11
    CaitieCat, in no way a robot nosireebot

    It’s an odd idea you have, that none of us have ever experienced loss like you.

    When I was 15, my father was killed in an electrocution accident while swimming, and my sister and I were fortunate enough to escape it with our lives.

    At no point did I question my atheism: I was annoyed by the minister my grandmother brought to the hotel while we waited for my (divorced from dad) mother to show up, I gave him back the free bible he was offering, and only went to the memorial service in a church because my mother pointed out it would upset my Nan if I didn’t. I didn’t bow my head, and I didn’t pray, and I didn’t ask any gods to unmake what had happened. I didn’t shake the hand of the god-botherer after either. He hadn’t known my father, had never met him, so his words were stupid bullshit generica about how he was going to a better place, and blah blah blah. No. His meat went to a crematorium, after the medical examiner was finished, and was reduced to ash, and I don’t even know where that went. It wasn’t important, because it wasn’t my father anymore.

    So please don’t speak for others; speak your own story, sure, but don’t attribute your feelings to others.

  12. 12
    mnb0

    I assume those parents believed what they said, so they were telling what they thought was the truth.

  13. 13
    jamessweet

    I think you missed a key part of the story: The kid in this story is NOT GOING TO GROW UP. That kinda changes the equation, a lot. I agree with you in general, but if a kid has very little time to live, I have trouble articulating an argument against the childish fantasy.

  14. 14
    jamessweet

    To be clear, I’m not arguing in favor of it either. It still “feels” wrong. I don’t know what I think. I’m just saying, my usual arguments against teaching kids a false belief in the afterlife don’t really apply in this situation.

  15. 15
    jamessweet

    Yeah, I gotta agree, maybe YOU “put your atheism in a box” when faced with personal tragedy, but many of us have faced personal tragedy and not done that. Everybody reacts differently.

    I do share your concern that at least some online atheists are overly glib about this stuff. But I don’t think it’s always out of a lack of life experience.

  16. 16
    lanir

    I’m pretty familiar with the uses and benefits of fiction. And I’ve certainly been in situations where it was tempting to get lost in it, even for years at a time. So when people talk about taking a firm, absolutist no-exceptions stand against something just because it’s not a part of objective reality, I do wonder what exactly they think they’re taking a stand against. The story? The culture surrounding it? Some specific person in their life who’s bothering them with it?

    Don’t get trapped into attacking the straw man. Nobody really cares if there’s a story out there about a magical invisible friend who does nice things for you when he’s not too busy (could be a deity or Santa Claus). The problem is the grifters, the oppressive culture, the promotion of abusive behavior. These are the issues. When you forget that and attack the straw man they hang out there, you lose. You sound like an extremist and as we’ve seen over and over again in the last couple decades, one extremist creates his opposite, sometimes multiple times.

    Don’t give them ammo.

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