Sunday Sacrilege: Mortal lies

Afterlife? What afterlife?

Religion has always fluorished in ignorance. What is it but a collection of stories and claims to explain the mysteries of life — wherever there is something we don’t understand, that we lack real knowledge about, there is a priest ready to rush in and fill the gap with a story. And it’s always a story that gives the answer people want to hear. It’s all about retribution for the wicked and rewards for the godly, and everything has a purpose, even the most arbitrary phenomenon, because people love to believe in a guiding hand that, if they properly satisfy the god behind it, will give them an extra scrap of protection against a dangerous world.

Look at the stories they make up: they know nothing of the deep history of the world, so they make up fables about a human deity building it like one would construct a house; they know nothing of disease, so they make up imaginary demons and spirits that torment us; they don’t understand geology or the weather, so every natural catastrophe becomes a warning shot from an angry god. They want power, so they pretend that their incantations and rituals will get them the blessings of their god. Most pathetic of all, they fear death, so they’ve invented fabulous heavens and hells to terrify and tempt.

They’re all lies. They don’t know, they can only pretend to knowledge: no one has returned from an unambiguous death to tell us what goes on afterwards, and the people who claim to have visions of an afterlife or ghosts or souls are not consistent with one another. The only reason to invent a story that you have a ‘spirit’ that will ‘live’ on after death is because it’s what people want to hear — death is frightening, so it’s easy for people to believe in an afterlife.

But here’s the truth. There is no evidence at all for an afterlife. There is no logical reason to believe in it; immortality of any sort doesn’t even make sense, since a life without growth and change is no life at all, and an eternity of change can only render who we are now rather irrelevant. The available evidence suggests rather strongly that our minds are dynamic processes played out on the substrate of our brains (and a theologian wishing otherwise is no rebuttal), and when the activity stops, we cease to exist. I am a unique array of synapses tuned by my personal experience and neural connections laid down under the dictates of genes and development, and when my brain stops and rots, all those memories, every detail of my personality, everything about my mind will be gone forever.

To argue otherwise is pure fantasy.

It’s a hard sell for atheists, isn’t it? We offer nothing but the prospect of personal oblivion, while our opponents promise paradise. If all we had to go on was belief, you’d have to be crazy to go with the atheists. But we do have something more than just a desire to believe: we have reason and evidence, and most importantly of all, an overriding interest in the truth. Why, we’ll accept the most horrible, terrifying ideas if they are true: that we’ll fall if we jump off a ten story building, that we can electrocute ourselves if we stick a silverware in an electric socket, and that someday we will inevitably stop and no longer exist.

Reality matters. The only way to argue for an afterlife is to argue otherwise, that what is is unimportant compared to what you wish were true. I can’t do that. In fact, I can’t even offer anyone soothing words and the promise of consolation, because there are none. We stand naked before the universe, a product of its rules, and one of the facts of our existence is our eventual obliteration. Running away won’t help. Believing in a magical savior won’t save you. You face reality bravely, or you hide in fear — and that won’t help you either.

The essential principle, though, the one that the religious cannot abide, is that you can face it honestly. And there’s at least a little dignity in that.