Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Make yourself comfortable

If I'm completely comfortable saying, as I said the other day, that I didn't exist during the Carter administration, why shouldn't I also be comfortable saying that I also won't exist during the future _______ administration -- probably by 2080, and surely by 2100?

I don't understand the desire to have some kind of religious faith in order to comfort yourself about death, which seems to be one of the main motivations for believing in a religion. Maybe there's an afterlife -- I don't dismiss the possibility. But I don't see a very good reason for affirmatively believing in it.

Any belief of mine always has a hidden asterisk at the end, with a footnote that says: "This is what seems to be true ... but, of course, I might be wrong." You may not know anything with 100% certainty, but you can get pretty close. You just have to accept the residual uncertainty in order to get through life, so that you're not paralyzed by doubt.

Yes, there might be an afterlife, which would involve a soul that somehow survives the death of the body. But that doesn't match up very well with what we can observe in our lives. So, I'm going to go ahead and just assume it doesn't happen -- not because I'm 100% certain, but just for the sake of having some basic default beliefs about how the world works. The fact that I might be wrong about this is fine with me.

So I think the correct way to refer to dead people -- more so than how we're used to referring to them -- is that they don't exist. They haven't "passed on" to some new place, and they haven't transformed into some sort of different creature.

This is not at all to disparage the fact that we need to take various steps to remember them. But this is for our benefit, not theirs. Because we're the only ones who still exist.

Cimetière du Père-Lachaise

If my family members or your family members were in heaven, doing whatever it is that people do there (singing? pontificating? carousing?), then there'd be little reason to be sad about their deaths. In fact, death would be something to be welcomed and sought after. (Of course, I know that religions get around this by having rules against homicide and suicide. Whether that's coherent is another question.) But in fact, there is very little chance -- I would say no more than 1% -- that these people are in heaven (or hell or purgatory). They're definitely on our family trees and in our memories; they're not very likely to be going on weird adventures in mystical alternate realities.

This is a lot more consistent with the fact that we mourn the deaths of our loved ones: (1) they are no longer in existence to enjoy life, and (2) we no longer get to be around them. Those are the basic facts, the inevitable starting point for both feeling bad about death but also getting over it. You don't need some extra layer of "facts" superimposed on what we can plainly see to be the case. I find the straightforward, reality-based, secular view to provide a lot more comfort and closure than the "Gee, I hope they went to heaven instead of hell" view.

I know this is supposed to be too upsetting; we're supposed to need to be comforted by something more dignified than the plain, observable facts. But I think this is a paradox in religion: you're told you need religion to comfort you, but before you can get to that point, you need to buy into an elaborate story about all the scary, horrible things in the world: sin, hell, etc. I prefer to skip all that drama and just approach whatever specific problem in my life happens to be facing me at the time. Life is hard enough when you're just dealing with the real problems. To those who offer a whole other set of made-up problems, I say: thanks, but I'll pass.

(Cimetière du Père-Lachaise in Paris - photo by me. We Will Become Silhouettes - video by The Postal Service.)


Ann Althouse said...

Thanks for explaining that. I'm tempted to write: Now, can you explain why the Postal Service guy look simultaneously fat and not fat? Instead, let me add to this point of yours: "you're told you need religion to comfort you, but before you can get to that point, you need to buy into an elaborate story about all the scary, horrible things in the world: sin, hell, etc." There are plenty of people in the world -- maybe most people -- who have such difficult lives that picturing a beautiful new life in the future helps them get along now. Belief in the afterlife also helps the rich and powerful keep what they have by stressing to everyone else that they shouldn't want to take their stuff away -- that would be sinful -- but should concentrate on being obedient and unselfish in order to get the better reward in the afterlife. So, religion serves a lot of present-day interests that are not made up.

John Althouse Cohen said...

I'm tempted to write: why would you ever say you're tempted to write something instead of just writing it?

I wouldn't disagree that religion "serves present-day interests that are not made-up." What I'm saying is that it does so by making up problems. In the case of people with ultra-difficult lives, the point from the last paragraph of my post should apply especially strongly for them: they have enough problems as it is. That doesn't end up being empirically true: people are more likely to be religious the worse their objective conditions are. But that doesn't mean I have to think, as a normative matter, that their views are well-founded.

Ann Althouse said...

"... should apply especially strongly for them: they have enough problems as it is."

But how do you deal with problems that are too severe and cannot be solved by working harder or something mundane like that? It may be that taking a religious attitude about suffering actually is better than any of the alternatives. By the same token, for some people, a religious attitude may obstruct better solutions to real-world problems. A lot of religion seems to be about discounting the value of the real word. Yet, isn't that a solution of a kind? Is working harder and making more money or eating nutritious food and exercising more necessarily better than attaining equanimity?

John Althouse Cohen said...

You're not taking into account that religions use up time and money, which could instead be devoted to the very problems you're talking about.

John Althouse Cohen said...

And not only do they use up resources, but they could also directly preclude genuine solutions, e.g. religious doctrines against medical procedures.

Sam the Butcher said...

Pascal's Wager.


And besides, chicks dig dudes who have a religious faith.

I've heard they also like dudes who're into sports. It reassures them.

Be what they want you to be. Mold yourself. $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

John Althouse Cohen said...

Sam the Butcher:

(1) Pascal's Wager is a bad argument. (Anything can follow from the logic it uses.) I had originally written at the end of this post: "Maybe it's my secular reverse Pascal's Wager."

(2) Why would you think I'd be interested in the "chicks" who "dig" guys who are religious and into sports?

"Be what they want you to be. Mold yourself." ---> Words NOT to live by!