On the Subject of Death, and Religious Faith/Belief.

There are no atheists in foxholes and Pascal’s wager both argue for belief and faith in religion as a stopgap or life insurance plan just in case there is something more when you die, an afterlife. Why do we think like this?

“People say there are no atheists in foxholes. A lot of people think this is a good argument against atheism. Personally, I think it’s a much better argument against foxholes.” -Kurt Vonnegut


I’m going to have to preface my main topic of discussion by first defining the  terms Religious Faith/Belief, and Death.

Faith and Belief: People often interchange the words faith and belief as one and the same, but I think they have a nuanced difference. Faith is a general hope for something in the afterlife, and belief is how much you believe that particular idea. Everyone has faith and belief in different ways or to different degrees, but one common faith/belief is in a religion. Religions all claim to have understanding and insight into an afterlife, and behind this claim to understanding of an afterlife, is the very notion that there is in fact something more to the universe than what we see and feel until we die. We want to believe that there is a way to become immortal, and so we cling to world religions, we create world religions, and we believe what we are taught based on the testimony and social group that we chose to belong to. Some who reject religion, still claim to agnosticism or spiritual but not religious viewpoints, that we create ourselves, to again help explain the afterlife, and help us convince ourselves that there is more to the world than meets the eye, and that there could be more after we die. People have faith and belief about things other than religion, but I’m going to focus on religion, faith, belief, and death. One example of a non-religious faith/belief would be faith and belief in oneself to succeed. For the purpose of this discussion, I will focus on faith and belief predominantly as they relate to religion, faith, belief, death, and the afterlife.

People who have faith in some religion, do so on a sliding scale, where some have tremendous and unrelenting faith, and some are less sure but pretend to be sure. How much one believes in their particular religion, and how strong one’s faith is, directly correlate to how open minded or questioning one may be. In the end, one must choose to either question their faith and belief, and suffer with doubts, or live out life in unquestioning bliss or ignorance, comforted by the religious claims of sacred knowledge about the afterlife. I think there are a great many people that claim faith and belief in some religion, who deep down are not certain and have doubts about their religion’s positions and viewpoints, and so they will take some and leave some of the religion, and their faith and belief will shape to that religion based on how strong their faith and belief levels are. High faith and belief means complete devotion, asking few questions, and accepting one’s religion as the final source of legitimacy, the ultimate truth, and as such one will be willing to do or not do a great number of behaviors,as called or compelled upon to do so by the religion, such as proselytizing or manipulating people to join your social group, sharing your religious views to convince others on how to “save” their lives, or waging war in the name of religion. Nobody wants to die. Atheists, people that don’t believe in the afterlife, fear death a bit more than those who believe in a religion and have faith in an afterlife, usually. I guess it just depends on the person or individual, for an atheist can go bravely into their death or as a coward, and I think this is the same with true religious believers. We all have to face death with some level of uncertainty, and we all really just want to pass peacefully and have our affairs and goals accomplished before we go, I think.

Belief and faith in religion is a stop gap against the fear of death. This comes down to the selfish notion that one needs to live past death, and we can be saved from death by just believing in this religion or that religion. Perhaps we can find our new existence after we die without following a religion, and that, as agnostics might think, we just don’t know what comes next, so perhaps it’s something grand and wonderful, something new. Who knows? Perhaps heaven awaits those that live good and ethical lives, always helping and never hurting others, regardless of their particular faith while on Earth. Ultimately the word faith and belief in religion come loaded with the assumption that one will find the afterlife or succeed in the afterlife according to how they live their life in this world. The concept that rewards and punishments await us in the afterlife are at the root of religions, and they use this risk/reward compulsion to manipulate people into believing and doing all kinds of things, like giving them your money, sacrificing your time, bringing and indoctrinating your family, and the list goes on far more than I care to discuss right now.* The risk includes penalties in the afterlife, and the rewards include closeness to God or admittance to heaven, or some such wonderful thing like the happy hunting grounds. Perhaps what you believe shapes what reality you find in the afterlife? Faith in the afterlife can be strong whether you believe in any particular religion or not. Belief and faith go together, but are not strictly linked. One can have strong faith and weak beliefs, or vice versa.

Death: I’m not going to belabor this one. but a small discussion is necessary. Death is when a living thing stops living. Non living things sometimes are destroyed, say by a black hole, and living things sometimes will equate this with death, such as when a ship sinks or a car crashes, but ultimately it’s the people inside the thing that we really care about. So for my purposes, death can only be accomplished by a living thing. All living things die, so far as we know. Death happens to different living things in different ways. For example, animals kill animals by stopping their breathing. Animals kill plants by stopping their photosynthesis process, by cooking and eating them. Plants can die from lack of sunlight, or no rainfall. In short, living things have certain required gasses and materials or energy, and when those gasses, materials/energy are no longer accessible, the living thing will die. So far as we know, death is final. There are some extreme cases where the cold will freeze a living thing in stasis, at the moment of death, where that living thing can then be revived some time later, but this is rare and difficult to achieve. The cases of cheating death are few and far between, but they do exist. In any case where the dead thing suddenly or inexplicably self revives, self resurrects, then that is not death, yet. So death is final, and if something temporarily dies and comes back to life, then that is not technically dead, yet. Hence the word undead?

People have been pulling off tricks and finding ways to cheat death throughout known history. Sanjay Gupta’s book, Cheating Death, details this topic nicely, but suffice it to say that there are numerous ways to mimic death, to slow the heartbeat, and to then be revived or wake up, both natural and unnatural, both intentional and unintended. Battlefield doctors, morticians, news and authors, have detailed stories down the ages of such events, usually with tremendous dramatic fanfare. Numerous Egyptian and Canaanite gods and myths tell of resurrection, the dying and returning to life of a god. And clearly, the Egyptians were obsessed with an afterlife. In ancient Greek mythology heroes are the ones who are brought back to life by the gods, such as Achilles and Asclepius. Mind you the Christians took the concept of resurrection to the next level, not with Jesus or Lazarus, but with the idea that people will someday be resurrected without any corporeal body left on Earth. The Greeks apparently did not think a person or body that had been destroyed could be resurrected. This is an interesting distinction. Cryonics is when a body is frozen in stasis and then revived. Frank J Tipler, a physicist, proposed the idea that in the future that humans would evolve into robots and that a supercomputer would then be able to reprint people into physical bodies. There are a number of other’s who write or think about how DNA, a person, could be coded into a computer and then reprinted into another clone. Let’s suffice it to say that finding ways to mimic death, cheat death, or to reverse it, has been an obsession, like alchemy, to many, and will most likely remain a significant source of motivation for genius, mad scientist, and ordinary people like you or I. As far as I know, no know examples of undead actually exist. Creatures that exist half way between life and death, that perhaps have a malevolence against living things, like zombies or vampires. People certainly are obsessed with creating mythologies about such creatures to no end. From what I have learned in the natural world, death is permanent, but there are some ways to revive in the short term. There are even fewer ways to revive in the long term, but in some extreme cases, this can happen. There are numerous ways to mimic death, and then to create the appearance of a miraculous revival. I have heard stories from people first hand that have had near death experiences, where they were outside their body and watching the scene from above. I had a similar experience when I was a child. I had a high fever, and I remember a feeling of wrongness and that I was on the roof of the room. I called it the upside down dream, but thankfully I awoke and then told my parents and they quickly realized I had a high fever and put me in a cold bath and gave me medicine. I could not fully comprehend what I was seeing because I was so young, but I do think that the upside down dream could have been an out of body experience. I have some personal, and first hand, experience with this out of body experience at near or after death experiences. Often friends will tell me that they will see a loved one that passed recently, one last time, to say goodbye. I don’t deny or disbelieve them. I don’t know if these things are real or dreams.

I have a mildly hostile position toward organized religions of all shapes and colors, all of them, but I also have taken parts and bits from some of them as part of  my core ethical points of view. My position on organized religion is polarized, bipolar, and though I will never return to believing any faith shared on Earth by other people, I would like to think there is an afterlife.  This may sound contradictory or conflicted, perhaps even a bit twisted, but alas I don’t mind. My hostility toward religions stem from several places within my identity. I was brainwashed and forced into Catholicism as a baby until I was old enough to say no more, and over the years, I phased myself out and away from going to church for any reason. I say brainwashed because that’s basically how it works. I’ve studied and read my way into understanding most of what is out there, and I reject it all. If your parents both indoctrinate and shelter you in some religious sequester, eventually the real world catches up with you, and you have to come to some sort of self understanding, or transformation, or just remain stagnant and ever unchanging, believing what you are told or read in books by other people. To each their own. I don’t judge others that choose to follow religion, and I try to be understanding when they say or do things I consider ignorant or misguided. I’m not going to detail all my grievances, but I’m irritated by religious malfeasance and some common religious practices. I will give two examples for now.*

  1. Malfeasance in the form of priests and ministers that abuse their power to gain sexual favors, financial gain, and personal glory. The abuse of young boys by Catholic priests is one such example.
  2. Common practices that I find offensive are those who proselytize to others. The spread of religion by force has plagued the world with countless wars, and Catholicism is a legacy of colonial rule by Spain in the New World. Catholicism was forced on the Native Americans, and they were enslaved by the Spanish. Catholicism became a symbol of belonging to a legacy of colonial and cultural conquest. I view the act of proselytizing people who did not ask for information as a violation of personal privacy and personal space. I find it disrespectful, and though I don’t treat people who do this badly, I have seen fewer and fewer over the years.  I used to be one, or think I was, and so I kind of feel sorry for them. If they want to devote their time and energy to promoting their beliefs, fine, but I wish they would limit that activity to people that request their services.

I started off as any good true believer, I read diligently on the subject, I studied courses at the university on the history of world religions, philosophy, history, science, math, and based on my increased understanding of the natural world, and the history of the natural world, I became aware that my past beliefs had been shackles of falsehood, interspersed with some good tenets, but ultimately I could not identify and attend any religion without feeling such strong doubt and inability to resist what seems to me the obvious falsehoods and inconsistencies that derive from man made religions. I cannot deny that there was a good feeling singing with my family in church, all together with the group, for one purpose. True or not true, the feeling was real.

What is that feeling of euphoria and peace that we get from religious experience? Scientists has documented this phenomena. It’s true. We we have evolved to release endorphins and adrenaline, like when we exercise (runner’s high), during group religious or spiritual experience. Why? We get a similar experience when in times of extreme trauma, and in times of extreme crisis. These are natural survival instincts. How is religious feel good experience a survival technique? Well, what does religion really accomplish? It bands and groups people together with a common belief, it unifies a society, and it allows for the leaders of said bands or groups to unify socially for social purposes.

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”- Karl Marx.

Was Marx right? Perhaps on a very subliminal level, he was. So again back to my question: Why did we evolve shared religious experience as a endorphin and adrenaline generating habit?

Religion bands people together under a common cause that offers rewards in the afterlife and promotes the idea that an afterlife awaits members. This can be useful in building things together, and it can be useful in unifying and motivating people to make war.

Prehistory and history share some clues into this question. I’d like to continue this thread later. I hope this installment will generate more interest and perhaps some dialogue, input, or questions.

*Topic for further discussion.

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