From Godless in Dixie
The Christian’s Wager: Why Faith Is a Bigger Gamble Than Disbelief…
This weekend I was speaking with a new friend who worked in hospice care during a transitional time in her life. Like many of us who deconverted from religious faith to atheism, she wondered how the change of thinking would affect her outlook on death and the brevity of life. Working around death for a living seemed like it should be a traumatic thing to do as a recent deconvert, and yet she explained that she found that wasn’t the case at all.
Working around the dying helped her come to terms with the regularity of it, the inevitability of it, and dare I say the normalcy of it? Being around death helped to normalize it for her so that it no longer looked like a spooky, scary thing that should keep you up nights, worrying. It’s just a part of life. Things and people don’t last forever, and since as they say the only two things that are certain in life are death and taxes, it only seems logical that we should come to grips with this reality because there aren’t any ways around it.
And yet religion banks everything on the claim that death can be avoided. Or if it cannot be avoided, perhaps it can be overturned through a promise of resurrection someday when everything changes and those two most reliable elements of life suddenly disappear (I’m not aware of any afterlives with taxes, but if you know of one please let me know). That’s a mighty big claim to make. It’s like walking into a game of roulette and betting your entire life’s savings on a single number. It’s a really big gamble to bank your whole life on something that isn’t supposed to be revealed until the moment after you die. The immense pressure of an entire lifetime of expectation really does a number on you.
I think Christians fear death a whole lot more than do people who don’t believe in life after death.
This assertion is far from a scientific one, and I don’t have any studies for this yet because I’m mostly thinking out loud here. I am merely making an observation based on my own deconversion as well as on my extensive exposure to both kinds of people (believers and skeptics), and I’m telling you that people who believe in life after death seem to fear it even more than those who have already decided there isn’t anything afterwards.
Facing Death Squarely
It makes sense if you think about it. Once you decide that this life is the only one you are going to get, you get busy making the most of it and you come to grips with the brevity of it. So ultimately non-theists just learn to face death head-on. They harbor no illusions or expectations that it’s only temporary, or that there is a get-out-of-jail free card available for those who subscribe to the right theology. Instead they spend the precious time we have left getting used to the limited nature of it, making the most of it before our time is up.
Of course nobody really wants to die who isn’t utterly miserable in the life they currently lead. Leaving those folks aside for a second, the fact is that everybody else wants to survive. They want to prolong their lives. That’s not really saying much. It’s not a revolutionary assertion. But shouldn’t people want to leave this life if they really believe there’s a far better one awaiting them after the first one is through? My observation is that those who say they believe eternal bliss awaits those who believe the right things (good grief that sounds trite to say out loud, doesn’t it?) don’t really seem to draw as much comfort from that belief as it would seem they should. On the contrary, I see believers fighting death even harder than those who don’t think they get a second life.
Consider the issue of assisted suicide. Having left the world of religion (and yet never leaving, because Mississippi), I’ve noticed that atheists view assisted suicide far more positively than do most Christians I know. I find this fascinating. When a person is diagnosed with a degenerative disease for which we have no promising treatments, an apparent majority of atheists seem to hold that such a person should be free to choose his or her method of death proactively. Some call this “dying with dignity.”
If you believe a person’s life belongs to him or her alone, then it’s ultimately nobody’s business but their own what he or she does with it. The people who object the strongest to this tend to believe that we do not belong to ourselves—personal agency isn’t a thing for them—and that we belong to someone else. Incidentally, my friend Dani Kelly has written a fantastic piece on the subject of self-ownership that I think everyone everywhere should read.
The same goes for keeping people on life support. I have watched with bewilderment as Christians have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars prolonging the suffering of people who should just be allowed to pass in peace. I’ve wondered aloud if they really even believe the stuff they say about life after death because the intensity with which they fight the inevitable almost makes it look like they don’t really believe the stuff they say they believe.
Would the Real Skeptics Please Stand Up?
The Christian message is now and has always been situated within a promise of life after death. I would argue that the very heart of its appeal comes from this promise. If you doubt me, just try suggesting that a viewpoint can be seen as legitimately Christian which rules out life after death and instead focuses on the here and now. Only the most liberal of Christians would allow such a redesign of their framework. Even those who have given up on hell still cling to a promise of heaven for those who deserve it, or for everyone, or whatever.
And don’t even get me started on funerals. If you have any doubts that the Christian faith draws the bulk of its emotional capital from people’s fear and dread of death, just attend a funeral and watch how compulsively people feel they must use each one as a platform for pushing their message no matter who the audience happens to be. Or watch how quickly the subject of death comes up once you tell a loved one you no longer believe. It never takes long, which should tell you something about how fundamentally rooted their system is in the fear of death.
For Christians, every ethical decision they make is weighed against the value of that decision in light of their belief in trillions and trillions of years to be spent in a heavenly kingdom they have yet to see. As a Christian I was taught to evaluate everything in terms of its relevance to that reality rather than this one. As the apostle Paul said, “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” He used a similar formula for adjusting people’s estimations of the sufferings they endure in life:
For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.
With that kind of outlook, shouldn’t death be welcomed as an eagerly sought passage into a better life? Why do Christians even pray for 96-year-old Billy Graham to stay with us one more year if his body has long since quit doing its job? Is it selfishness? Surely it can’t be because he is enjoying his quality of life? And why is it that Christians put up a greater resistance to things like living wills and assisted suicides for the terminally ill? With the promise of a far better second life ahead of them, why do they not wish to leave this life as quickly as possible?
Herein lies the greatest irony in this whole discussion: It is ultimately the “believers” who are the most skeptical when it comes to life after death because between people like them and people like me, they are the only ones who can correctly be called “doubters.”
See, that term doesn’t even apply to people like me. I was only a “doubter” while I still believed. After I left my faith (or as many say, it left me), I no longer struggled with those expectations anymore. I don’t spend nights lying awake, wondering what happens to me after I die. I feel fairly confident I know what happens. When we die, they put us into the ground. I’ve gone through that now with multiple loved ones so I know what that looks and feels like. And not one of them has come back. In fact, people been doing this for thousands of years and you know what? They’re all still there. Or what’s left of them, anyway. It is very, very consistent.
Growing Up Means Accepting the World As It Is
Bodies don’t last forever, and they don’t come back. That’s a harsh reality, yes, but it’s the truth. We seem to be okay with saying that to our children when their pets die, but when it’s about people, we just can’t bring ourselves to do it. But that’s inconsistent. Why exactly do we think that one kind of body just decomposes but another kind will magically come back in a new form? Is it because we think there’s a ghost in ours but there’s not one in little Fido or Mittens? Is it because an old book tells stories? That may have been okay for me when I was seven but I’m not a kid anymore. Grown-ups need you to show them why they can trust what you say. They don’t need more stories.
This isn’t a problem to my mind, and that’s what I’m trying to get you to see. Death is only problematic for people who have been led to expect something else. Sure, we don’t want to die. But I don’t see any point in failing to grasp the finality of it so that you can get on with living the one life that you do actually get to live. And it seems to me that it’s the people who spend their entire lives gambling on a future they cannot even prove exists who are the most intensely sweating that approaching inevitability. They spend their entire lives rolling the dice, hoping that in the end they won’t have spent 70+ years evaluating every decision in light of a story they were told at their grandmother’s knee only to find out it was just a story.
Are you sure you’re prepared to take that chance? Do your actions belie your own disbelief?
From a comment…
I think there’s a number of different things going on here when we talk about the religious fearing death.
1) Survival instinct. We all have a normal, healthy, fear of injury and death and a limited ability to override those survival instincts. So everyone is always going to have a baseline anxiety about death and dying. After all, it’s one of the worst things that could ever happen to a human being—complete destruction of the body.
2) Cost/benefit ratio. If you study really hard for a test, you really invest in getting that A, but then, for some reason, you don’t get the grade you bargained for, that makes you reassess your study priorities. It can either motivate you to double-down, or it can make you want to cash in your chips and give up. People who have invested their time, effort, money, self-denial, etc., in trying to convince their god that they are worthy of him have a lot riding being right about the promises their religion makes. If they’re wrong, and they aren’t going to get what they think they’ve been bargaining with their god for, their whole investment is non-refundable. A lot of people would have lived their entire lives differently if they had been living them for themselves, instead of for someone else. They’ve sacrificed a lot, and they’re scared it might have all been in vain. I doubt the devout generally think they risk going to hell—that’s for infidels. And the lack of an afterlife isn’t that bad of a proposition, except by comparison. I think they’re scared of death because they’re scared of getting ripped off. They’ve paid for something in advance, now they’re in the lurch, and they aren’t 100% sure the benefit is going to be delivered. So it’s not so much that they’re scared of death, but scared they may have misspent their life.
3) Wishing, hoping, trying, to have “faith” is not the same as having it. It’s also not the same as having a religious worldview either. You might be able to point to some coincidences, transcend experiences, prayers that might have been answered, etc., but that level of “evidence” is pretty weak, and I think that as a result the religious are far from convinced that their god is really going to deliver them from death. I mean, it’s pretty obvious that religious people don’t really think their religion is that real when the only time they don’t behave like atheists is when they’re at church. After death, all this stuff is supposed to become more real that it has ever been before, but they’re afraid it’s going to stay as unreal as it’s always been.
4) The moment of truth. Death is the time when you find out—or you don’t find out—that all the promises your religion made were true. It’s when you’re supposed to find out if an entire lifetime’s hard work has paid off. It’s the moment when everything you’ve ever wished, hoped for and dreamed of is supposed to come true like in a fairy tale. The only problem is, things that are too good to be true usually are, and while doubts like this may niggle at you during the long march, these things can hit you like a tsunami when the moment of truth arrives. Also, it’s the moment of risk. It’s usually not obvious (never, really) whether your god has come through for you in the past. If there’s ever a time when you needed your god to come through for you, it’s at death. If he doesn’t, then the complete destruction of your body will not be mitigated. Is death a transition or an end? Will you be saved? Or are you about to freefall into oblivion without a safety net?
5) Sunk costs. As a religious person, you’ve lived your entire life predicated upon a host of assumptions, most of which you’ve taken on “faith.” It doesn’t take many of these assumptions to be wrong for the whole contract you’ve bargained for to be null and void. When you’re facing death, your whole life is behind you. It’s too late to reassess and make some course corrections. What ever your answer is, right or wrong, it’s your final answer. Your whole life is a sunk cost now, and whatever you have—or have not—managed to purchase with it is what you’re going to have to “live with” (figuratively speaking).