Why are we here? What’s the meaning of life? Humanity has been seeking answers to these questions forever. Sometimes our thoughts, as we try to distract ourselves from our inevitable ends with family and technology and other less-wholesome diversions, don’t seriously turn towards until we’re in the presence of death.
Death has a funny way of putting the important questions into sharp relief.
My mother-in-law died recently at the age of 56, thanks to that bastard we call cancer. It’s been tough for all of us, but obviously my wife, brother-in-law, and father-in-law the most. And like all families when a loved one passes, we cling tighter to each other. Family is all that matters, right?
But something our priest said at the funeral struck a chord with me. I’m paraphrasing, but the gist of it was that life wasn’t about happiness, or family, or friends. Instead, getting to Heaven–whatever that’s like–and returning to constant communion with God was the purpose of life: Not love, not happiness, and not family, but a seat in “heaven’s unearthly estate.”
That’s interesting, right? And how do you get there? All key issues for every religion.
This also speaks to what a lot of the anti-theists criticize religion for. “Why are you doing stuff for an afterlife when all that matters is here on earth,” “That’s just cruel on God’s part,” and so on. If you believe that this is the only life there is and there’s nothing when you die, more power to you. But for those of us who have a future-orientation directed at eternity, what happens when you die does matter.
This ties into another common anti-theist argument that religion–specifically Christianity, since that’s the one that gets attacked 99% of the time*–is that it’s just a hoax devised to brainwash people. Let’s take this as fact for the sake of argument.
If religion is a hoax, then why would it be invented in the first place?
Not by the Romans for the glory of the Romans, as some believe (Seriously? By the Romans for the glory of the Romans? Have you read the Bible?). And as I’ve pointed out before, if you want to gain earthly power, Christianity is probably the last faith system you’d want to design.
But let’s say it is all made up. What would a society or an individual get out of it?
Here are just a few core tenets:
- You are saved by grace and faith
- Do unto others as you would have them unto you
- Love your enemies
- Love your neighbor
- Do not repay good with evil
- Faith, hope, love, charity
And an overarching belief that getting into Heaven and being in constant communion with God is all that matters.
Most other religions share similar features, paraphrased as being good gets you into Paradise and being bad sends you to a place that’s quite the opposite.
If you’ve been following this blog or my Twitter, you know I’m a fan of Dilbert-creator Scott Adams. He has a unique way of thinking in terms of persuasion. His “moist robot” hypothesis posits that we are all programmable beings, and that we can program our minds into acting in beneficial, successful ways.
What if religion is just the same thing? What if it’s nothing but master-persuader-level mass hypnosis? And if so, is that necessarily a bad thing?
If you’re raised in a culture that believes what you do on Earth will have ramifications in the eternity that follows, then aren’t you essentially programming yourself to act in a certain way–by a system, to use another of Adams’s favorite concepts–that is beneficial to all of society?
That’s the point, isn’t it? If one is going to create a religion out of whole cloth, then you’d probably want it to program your citizens to treat one another with respect and decency, likely so that the government has less work to do. Unless you’re an asshole (a theory I cannot entirely rule out). So it only makes sense that the afterlife features prominently in all of them.
Maybe old dudes with long beards and wizard robes did just sit down in various parts of the world and concoct belief systems for the sole purpose of making the lives of the ruling elites easier. I don’t personally believe this, but it’s worth a thought. We do call them belief systems, after all.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Even non-believers would probably admit to appreciating living in a culture where most people live by the Ten Commandments than living under, say, shariah.
So maybe it’s all a hoax and there’s nothing when you die. Fine. If the hoax–whatever it looks like, since most religions share common features–has allowed civilizations to flourish and people to overcome their natural human tendencies towards selfishness, destruction, and death, then I am all for continuing to live under this particular delusion, regardless of who the master persuader is that devised it.
We all delude ourselves anyway. If a desire to get to heaven is a delusion programmed into is by master persuaders so that we stop breaking things and killing each other, that’s alright by me.
My suspicion is that God Himself is the ultimate master persuader, but then again, what do I know? I’m only a moist robot.
*It’s true. You’ll never hear them pick on Wiccans, say. Maybe Judaism, and as far as Islam goes, Bill Maher and Penn Jillette might be the only prominent atheists doing this.
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