Putting Away Childish Things
From where does the primitive, delusional silliness of religion come? Why did men invent gods in whose service they all too frequently waste their sole earthly lives? It seems the answer is threefold: First, in times of ancient ignorance, men invented gods to explain phenomena that were beyond their understanding. People could not adequately explain natural disasters or thunder and lightning, so they bound up such events with angry or wrathful deities. Medical understanding of disease was pathetically lacking, so people associated sickness—especially mental illness—with invasive demons or curses. Second, it seems to be a universal part of human nature that, when things are going badly, people like to feel there is somebody in their corner on whom they can count. Because people are limited in their ability to palliate each other’s pain and depression, it is comforting to invent a god to whom one can turn in one’s blackest hours. Third, conjuring a god in whose presence you can spend an afterlife is a neat way of lessening one’s natural fear of dying. The human mind is an amazing thing, and its blessings are numerous, but it also curses us with sure knowledge of our own mortality; god belief, however unjustified and silly, contributes to distracting us from our inevitable expiration.
This third reason why men invent gods and confect religions is my principal interest at present. I am not qualified to say whether individuals of any other species are aware of their own ultimate mortality, but we can be certain none possesses awareness near as acute as that of humans. And yet…death’s slow but sure approach does not preoccupy most of us. We watch our CSI-type shows and see a corpse on an examining table being looked over by the medical examiner, but it rarely occurs to us that, in some period of years—perhaps many but perhaps few—we shall be on just such a cold metal table. A mortician might not be our favorite person to see, but, when we do, it is seldom we consciously ponder that, eventually, powder and makeup shall be applied to our own ashen faces, drained entirely of their pinkness and vitality. I do not think our ability to forget about our own impending death has, in the main, to do with religious superstition; I think we are easily distracted by our prosaic day-to-day lives. But, surely, on the anthropological level, looking across cultures, the idea that one can survive one’s own death has appealed to our kind for millennia.
Although I am without gods, have no use for infantile spiritual pursuits and recognize an afterlife as nothing more than wishful thinking, I have no fear of death. (This is not to say I have no fear of possible pain associated with death, but only that dying, to me, is not frightening.) The balance of this post shall explain why. Religious individuals (principally Christians) have often warned me that, as a blasphemous atheist, I shall spend eternity in hell, being tortured and roasted and experiencing all manner of other such unpleasantness. To be sure, I recognize that, on Christianity’s truth, I shall be consigned to the fire pit; the conclusion is hardly debatable. However, these warnings give me no pause. One reason is that hell, in itself, seems so transparently invented as a means of controlling people’s behavior and making them fall into line. I also find laughable the very notion of a place where billions of wispy, incorporeal essences are tortured infinitely for finite sins committed during earthly life. (How might one torture a wispy, incorporeal essence, anyway? How might there be pain without a physical body? Beats me.) Why does the doctrine of hell entail unending, limitless torment? I submit that, to be an effective deterrent, hell’s awfulness must at least be commensurate with its ludicrousness. Because hell is an infinitely silly concept, to deter anyone at all, it must threaten infinite punishment.
There is no good reason to believe god’s celestial dictatorship exists in the real world but, for a moment, let us suppose it does. Indeed, let us suppose that hell exists, too, and billions have been consigned there. If a god exists who damns people to hell, this god is cruel beyond description and, to my standards, the very picture of evil. On Christianity, god is omniscient, in addition to being the author of every human soul (that being, the immaterial essence that animates our flesh). Omniscience entails that, when fashioning a soul, god already knows every action the person-to-be shall take; there can be no mystery for an omniscient creator. Inasmuch as god is creating people, the deity is creating each individual to be as he is. The deity made John Wayne Gacy to be John Wayne Gacy; he could have created him differently but he did not. In fashioning Gacy’s soul, the deity, with full foreknowledge, fashioned a serial killer who would not repent and who would be sent to hell. Gacy was created to fail, insofar as god chose to make him as he was and all his actions were a foregone conclusion even before he emerged from the womb. The deity, then, established a torture chamber, from which escape is impossible, to punish those people who he, given his omniscience, deliberately created to be unredeemed sinners (that is, sinners who he knows shall not get redemption). Indeed, god is the toymaker who, after purposefully making faulty toys, inflicts wrath upon them.
I do not recognize objective morality, but I see no way I could worship such a deity, who, in my judgment, exhibits the height of cruelty. No matter, though. The unfairness of a god who creates hell is rather a moot point, given that hell is a patently ridiculous concept. Rather than wasting breath arguing against it, it is more properly the subject of derision. Much like Jesus’ apparent parthenogenic birth,
If there is no hell, as surely there is not, what does happen to us when we die? Of course, no living individual can know for certain, but the evidence is rather clear: Upon death, we cease to be. Much as we all might wish that, after dying, we might find ourselves in a theme park in the clouds where our old friends and relatives eagerly await us, we really need to leave such childishness behind if we wish to have an accurate apprehension of reality. What, exactly, is supposed to make it into the afterlife? Victor Stenger writes, “We have seen that neurological and medical evidence strongly indicates that our memories, emotions, thoughts, and indeed our very personalities reside in the physical particles of the brain or, more precisely, in the ways those particles interact. So this would seem to say that when our brains die, we die.” And Stenger is correct, of course. A blow to the head can rob one of one’s memories. Neurodegenerative disease, in some cases, can result in what might be described as the loss of the self. Is one honestly supposed to believe that when the brain is dead—perhaps even rotting away—phenomena strictly dependent upon brain activity, such as memories, thoughts and personality, shall persist? If one wishes to pursue that silliness, one might also revert to the idea that emotions such as love emanate from the heart.
For something that at one time lives, death is merely not to exist. Indeed, in a true sense, each of us may say we were dead during all the years prior to our birth. I was dead throughout the entirety of the
Atheism, then, is freeing and joyous in its way. True, it does not entice us with promises of an afterlife that does not exist. It cannot distract us from our mortality or life’s briefness. But, it allows us to focus our full attention on the single life we do have—this one—and wringing as much enjoyment from it as we can. We do not waste our time prostrating ourselves before a god who, by my standards, would be unworthy of mere acknowledgement, let alone servile obedience. We refuse to gorge ourselves on the false comforts of childish delusion, instead accepting the world for what (and how) it is and, indeed, finding joy, inspiration and wonderment in studying and better understanding the natural order. There is no need for Bronze-Age superstitions cooked up by semi-stupefied peasants when there is biology, cosmology, anthropology and physics, just as no one bothers with alchemy when chemistry is available to us.
Life might be short, and nothing but individual non-existence follows thereafter, but evolution has bequeathed us a gift that no other species has been given: We are capable of understanding our own evolutionary origins and where we, for a brief moment, find ourselves. If this is insufficient to occupy the mind, it is difficult to imagine any cobbled-together book of folklore or magic Jesus wafer would ever be.