Various views on the afterlife

The series of five interviews on the afterlife with NPR’s All Things Considered host Robert Siegel was pretty good. Siegel himself does not believe in the afterlife and his questioning of his guests was gentle but pointed. He interviewed an evangelical Christian pastor (that I wrote about before), a Muslim imam, a philosopher, a Jewish rabbi, and a Catholic theologian. Each of those links has links to the transcripts of the interviews.

The philosopher Samuel Scheffler was the only one who did not believe in an afterlife and his interview was the best. He said that he does not believe that we personally survive our physical death but that he believed in an afterlife in the sense that life would continue after his death for a long time. He said that we are all (more or less) reconciled to the fact that we will die one day and that we know that all life will die eventually as the Sun dies out and the universe cools. This does not cause us to have existential despair and give up, except perhaps in the case of young Alvy Singer in the film Annie Hall.

As Scheffler says:

Because we take it for granted that other people will live on after we ourselves died, we don’t normally reflect much about the significance that that assumption has for us. And if we call it into question – if we thought that human beings were not going to continue to live on Earth for very long after our own deaths – my thought is that that would have quite profound effects on how we live the rest of our lives, that many of the things we now regard as worth doing would no longer seem to us worth doing. And in that sense, it seems as if the assumption that others will live on is more important to us than the belief that we will survive our own deaths. [My italics]

And many people fear death greatly, but it’s considered an unremarkable fact. It wouldn’t be an unremarkable fact if we thought that there were no more people who were going to be born, that this was it for the human race.

He makes the important point that it is the belief that many generations will live on after us that gives our lives meaning and makes us strive for things that we ourselves will not benefit from but that we can bequeath to future generations. But the relationship is not just one directional.

I think we don’t take sufficiently seriously the importance of ensuring that human life continues. And, you know, some people are trying to change that, but often, they do it by appealing to some sense of moral obligation. We owe it to our descendants. I’m suggesting that it’s not just that they’re dependent on us. There’s also a sense in which we depend on them. Without them, if there are no future generations, the value of what we’re doing here and now is threatened.

Compared to his refreshing and sensible take on the afterlife, those of the religious people were obvious examples of wishful thinking.

The imam said that at the end of our lives, we are judged by god who weighs our good and bad acts and then gives the verdict: heaven or hell. Siegel asks the obvious question: “Doesn’t God already know the answers?” To which the imam replies, “He does know the answers but that just shows how just he is. To make the person comfortable to know that, yes, we were actually judged in the court of God.” So basically his god runs what we would call a kangaroo court, where the result is preordained and god just goes through the motions and yet to the imam this seems just. The imam’s wishful thinking was patently obvious when he said:

For those of our loved ones who will be fortunate to be in paradise, you know, if we are fortunate to be in paradise as well, each and every person will be entitled to his or her own paradise. While at the same time, you know, they will be able to meet up with each other and just as in this world how, you know, a group of friends gets together and sits down, has a nice conversation, inhabitants of paradise will be able to get together and have these types of conversations, you know, in their palaces or in their abodes that God has prepared for them.

Again, you know, whatever the soul wishes for and desires in paradise, then that will be there. [My italics]

The rabbi was no better. He admitted that the Torah was entirely silent on this entire issue of the afterlife and yet that did not (of course) make him consider the possibility that the whole idea was a human construct. Like all religious contradictions, this was something to have interminable studies and debates over. He also said that he believed that in the afterlife we retain a consciousness that will retain an awareness of the present life, again with no evidence whatsoever. His wishful thinking was just as obvious the imam’s.

My belief in an afterlife is to a large extent also an outgrowth of my belief in God. It seems unlikely and inconceivable to me to believe that there is a God and there’s not an afterlife, for the simple reason that in the absence of an afterlife, it would mean that Adolf Hitler and Anne Frank had the same fate, of dying and actually having nothing. And it would be impossible for me to imagine that that could coexist with a God who’s just.

So in order to believe in a God who’s just, which I do believe in, there has to be some existence beyond this world. Because it’s more than obvious that justice does not always prevail in this lifetime.

Siegel gently pointed out the backward nature of this reasoning by saying, “So the injustice of our every day lives leads you to the conclusion that therefore there must another life after this.”

The Catholic was more circumspect and while saying she was more sure about the existence of heaven than of hell, she wasn’t as emphatic as the others. Siegel refrains from forcefully intruding his own views but cannot resist the temptation on occasion. When the Catholic theologian says that all that she is saying about the nature of the afterlife is “sheer speculation on my part”, he responds, “As is most of what is said about the subject.” It is when talking about the afterlife that religious people get into full “make up any stuff that you like” mode.

It would have been nice to have had interviews with Hindus, Buddhists, B’ahais, Wiccans, and other religions. The views of those religions on the afterlife are little known in the US while those of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism have been talked to death.

As an aside, what I found particularly significant is how a mainstream media personality like Siegel could casually acknowledge his disbelief in a central tenet of western religious thought, the way that reporter Jennifer Senior also did in her interview with Antonin Scalia, as if it were no big deal. She went even further and seemed to show incredulity that someone like him could actually believe this stuff.

This is something new. Atheists have always been around but they were usually those who were well known as being atheists, like Bertrand Russell or Robert Ingersoll. Having people who are well known in public life revealing their atheism as casual asides is a sign of progress.


  1. doublereed says

    It just seems so odd. Everyone seems to act like there’s no afterlife. We still mourn and do all those things. Everyone still acts as if ‘Dead is Dead.’ If anything, it just seems like people “go through the motions” of believing in an afterlife. More like a social signal than an actual belief.

  2. doublereed says

    Hell, even fundamentalist martyrs don’t kill themselves often enough for me to think that they really believe in the afterlife. And suicidal tendencies are usually caused by underlying issues and problems, not by people who just want to go to the next life or something.

    Nobody acts like death is no big deal.

  3. mnb0 says

    I like the imam’s version best exactly because of what he wishes: that people in their earthly life try as hard as they can to lead a good life. This makes the weird idea of the kangaroo court bearable, though not less silly. The real problem is that way too many muslims, based on their holy book, have weird ideas of what constitutes that good life: for instance killing Israeli children by means of suicide bombs.
    Fortunately I happen to know only muslims – my female counterpart is one of them – who have about the same ideas of what a good life is as I do. So I prefer that to the christian doctrine that you can do wrong as much as you like; if you repent on your deathbed and accept Jesus as your saviour you will still go to heaven. Christianity always has been ambiguous in this respect.

  4. dmcclean says

    For an interesting take on Scheffler’s thesis that “it seems as if the assumption that others will live on is more important to us than the belief that we will survive our own deaths,” you might want to check out Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach.

    Overall I would only give this novel 2.5 or 3 stars, but it is directly on point because it explores what might happen in the absence of that belief. (Might happen among a sparse, homogenous, comfortable population anyway…)

    (There’s a ridiculously thorough plot summary on Wikipedia, so I won’t bother trying.)

  5. Mano Singham says

    I read this book a long, long time ago, when I was too young to fully appreciate the underlying message.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    I never read the book, but was both moved and disturbed when I saw the 1959 movie as a kid. Nothing quite like it until I saw the 1983 movie Testament. Similar theme, without the car races.

  7. Mano Singham says

    Thanks for reminding me about Testament. I too saw it and was terribly moved by it. I thought that Jane Alexander gave a wonderful performance. I still remember her covering things with bed sheets.

  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    Yes, I agree with Roger Ebert’s take on the film, and Alexander’s acting;

    In fact, Alexander’s performance makes the film possible to watch without unbearable heartbreak, because she is brave and decent in the face of the horror.

    I saw it nearly thirty years ago. I may be ready to watch it again.

  9. AsqJames says

    Having first read your excerpt of Scheffler’s thesis, the following part of what the Rabbi said struck me as very narrow:

    It seems unlikely and inconceivable to me to believe that there is a God and there’s not an afterlife, for the simple reason that in the absence of an afterlife, it would mean that Adolf Hitler and Anne Frank had the same fate, of dying and actually having nothing.

    It should be trivially obvious to anyone with a basic knowledge of the 20th century that Hitler and Frank are remembered very differently by history. The different ways in which those “others who live on after them” remember are their respective “afterlives”. At least the only ones for which we have any evidence at all beyond wishful thinking.

    Few of us will be remembered by as many or for as long as those two, but (almost) all of us will be remembered by someone for some period. And it is demonstrably true that we care about that.

  10. filethirteen says

    I sometimes wonder whether religion is primarily a way of avoiding the elephant in the room, that the eventual end of all (Earthly) life is inescapable and will be bleak. Like the end of humanity but more so, which in turn is like the end of your own life but more so.

    We are trapped in a dilemma in the sense that if there was a way out it would be through knowledge we haven’t attained yet, but such knowledge might not (probably does not? almost absolutely certainly does not?) exist and there’s nothing like ignorance plus fantasy to avoid unpleasant truths.

    I don’t blame people for wanting to avoid those ones. I try not to dwell on them myself, it’s unhealthy.

    At this point I would like to quote from and comment on Gene Wolfe’s Forlesen, but how can I provide a hint to something that the great man himself didn’t? Those who discovered it for themselves will know what I mean.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *