Monday, January 11, 2010

An atheist finds "comfort" in thinking of death.

I largely agree with this long, thoughtful blog post about death by Greta Christina. Like her, I find the claim that religion provides "comfort" to be quite perplexing in the context of the afterlife.

Knowing that there is no afterlife would provide more comfort to me than knowing that you'll go either to heaven or to hell in the afterlife, even if I thought I'd have a much greater chance of going to heaven than to hell. As a thought-experiment, let's put aside the afterlife for a second and imagine there's a magical coin that you may choose to flip. If you flip it and it comes up heads, you'll experience a wonderfully blissful sensation beyond anything you've ever experienced for, say, one minute. If you flip it and it comes up tails, you'll experience horrible torture worse than anything you've ever experienced, also for a minute. Or, you're free not to flip the coin at all and go on with your normal life. Would you flip the coin?

Not only would I not flip the coin, but this decision seems so obvious that I find it hard to imagine anyone saying they would do it. But let's change the hypothetical so it's far more skewed in favor of flipping it. Or, rather, let's say it's not a coin but a well-shuffled deck of cards. If you draw a two of clubs, you get the torture, but if you draw any of the other 51 cards, you get the pleasure. So there's only about a 2% chance of the bad outcome. And we could skew the hypo even further by imagining that if you get the pleasure, it lasts for a whole hour; the torture is still just one minute. Even with all these stipulations, I would still readily choose not to take this gamble. That's how bad the possibility of torture is.

That's why I couldn't find comfort in any worldview in which hell — which presumably involves torture — is a possibility. The idea that hell would be eternal obviously intensifies this feeling. In fact, even if I know that the afterlife could be heaven or hell but were assured that I would get to heaven, I still couldn't feel good about this knowing that other people would go to hell. In fact, my feeling about this would be the opposite of comfort.

ADDED: After I posted this, I saw that Greta Christina has a whole other blog post on that last point, including a response from the Christian theologian William Lane Craig. Sample point from Craig:

[I]t is possible that God removes from the minds of the redeemed any knowledge of the damned. It seems to me that so doing is merciful and involves no wrong-doing on God's part.
Unsurprisingly, Greta Christina isn't convinced — she can't get past the question:
How can it be Heaven if our families aren't there?


HKatz said...

This is an interesting post. I'm a religious person, but the issue of what constitutes the afterlife doesn't figure greatly into my worldview.

The comfort might derive from how one looks at the afterlife. Many people speak of it in terms of stark dichotomies (as it emerges in your post, heaven-hell), or in terms of sensations (our brains and bodies limiting and shaping our thinking). And I agree that imagining a lake of fire or somesuch doesn't exactly make one feel comforted (though imagining one's enemies paddling around in that lake of fire does give plenty of people a sense of cold satisfaction - I wouldn't call this true comfort though).

But what may comfort some people is just the vaguer idea of the self enduring in some way or shape (particularly when confronted with a loved one's death). What might be comforting is the idea of having other chances - to meet again, in some way, with people who've died or who've become estranged; to redress wrongs; find forgiveness; or get further chances at bettering the self. So maybe it's not so much a matter of imagining the shape of the afterlife, or even that there's a place for bad guys and one for good guys, who'll go where, and whether there will be little devils with pitchforks giving chase to people.

Whether you agree with it or not, the idea of an afterlife might give people a way of dealing with incompleteness in this life, the ways in which life is cut short, purposes remaining unfulfilled, relationships remaining sundered, etc. I think that may be the true source of the comfort - along with our strong reaction against death, its irreversibility and apparent finality. Though for others the idea of oblivion would be comforting.

And this is reminding me of a Woody Allen character... I think it's in Hannah and Her Sisters... where he's asking why his father doesn't care more about what comes after death (and eventually the father says something like "either I'll be unconscious or not, and if I'm not I'll worry about it then").

Jason (the commenter) said...

Thinking there is an afterlife, but not thinking about it too critically, is probably more comforting than thinking there is no afterlife.

Jaltcoh and Greta, consider the value of not thinking so much!

John Althouse Cohen said...

Oh, I didn't need to think too hard to come up with this post.

Jason (the commenter) said...

Oh, I didn't need to think too hard to come up with this post.

So you're well on your way to becoming a more religious person then!

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

During the Middle Ags there was big discussion about whether the saved in heaven would take pleasure in the sufferings of the damned, or, in contrast, whether their virtue would compel them to save the damned. St. Thomas Aquinas, after the most intense and convoluted thought, came down on the side of the former.

wv: stroates: a recently discovered saint, the patron of grain raised by memorization

Meade said...

PLAYBOY: Do you think much about death?

ALINSKY: No, not anymore. There was a period when I did, but then suddenly it came to me, not as an intellectual abstraction. but as a deep gut revelation, that someday I was going to die. That might sound silly, because it's so obvious, but there are very few people under 40 who realize that there is really a final cutoff point to their existence, that no matter what they do their light is someday going to be snuffed out. But once you accept your own mortality on the deepest level, your life can take on a whole new meaning. If you've learned anything about life, you won't care any more about how much money you've got or what people think of you, or whether you're successful or unsuccessful, important or insignificant. You just care about living every day to the full, drinking in every new experience and sensation as eagerly as a child, and with the same sense of wonder.

PLAYBOY: Having accepted your own mortality, do you believe in any kind of afterlife?

ALINSKY: Sometimes it seems to me that the question people should ask is not "Is there life after death?" but "Is there life after birth?" I don't know whether there's anything after this or not. I haven't seen the evidence one way or the other and I don't think anybody else has either. But I do know that man's obsession with the question comes out of his stubborn refusal to face up to his own mortality. Let's say that if there is an afterlife, and I have anything to say about it, I will unreservedly choose to go to hell.


ALINSKY: Hell would be heaven for me. All my life I've been with the have-nots. Over here, if you're a have-not, you're short of dough. If you're a have-not in hell, you're short of virtue. Once I get into hell, I'll start organizing the have-nots over there.

PLAYBOY: Why them?

ALINSKY: They're my kind of people.

Meade said...

On June 12, 1972, only a few months after that interview, Saul Alinsky died of a heart attack at age 63.

Anonymous said...

"I still couldn't feel good about this knowing that other people would go to hell."

That's why some Christians try so hard to convert others. They're not trying to be pushy or judgey, they just want you to benefit from what they have.