The Moral Implications of Belief in an Afterlife
There’s a profound, unmistakable contrast between a worldview which does not indulge fantasies about an afterlife, and those which do. Obviously there’s the orientation towards facts to be consider: a worldview informed by facts which we discover by looking outward at reality and identify by means of an objective process, will recognize that life is biological in nature and that consciousness is an attribute of some biological organism, and consequently find no evidence for the notion that consciousness survives the death of an organism possessing it.
By contrast, a worldview built on fantasies will necessarily ignore facts in preference of those fantasies. Facts are ultimately of no concern on such a worldview, for they are not the determiner of what is accepted as “truth.” “Truth” on such a view is not fact-governed, but whim-generated. What generates these whims? An invisible magic being which is said to have created whatever facts exist in the first place. How do we know all this? Well, we do not discover this by looking outward at reality and applying an objective process. On the contrary, you have to “have faith” – i.e., look inward and consult the contents of your imagination as it is informed by the decrees of the churchmen. To them, we are all uninitiated villagers who need to be told what to believe and what to do.
So the contrast here is indeed profound, and I would agree that this contrast plays out in terms of moral implications as well. Unfortunately, it does not appear that the theist has interpreted these implications correctly at all. The theist wants to characterize belief in an afterlife as having positive implications for morality: we will “behave” better if we believe that rewards and punishments await us after death. This in itself reveals that the theist conceives of morality in terms of “right behaving” as opposed to values which man’s life requires. Values are those things which a man’s life requires given the factual nature of his life, which means one needs a fact-oriented worldview to identify what values man’s life needs and the actions he needs to take to achieve them (see my blog The Moral Code of Life). Since man’s pursuit of life-preserving values is made possible only by a fact-governed worldview, a worldview which subordinates facts to fantasy will only undercut man’s ability to identify those values his life needs and his ability to achieve them.
The churchmen are not concerned about values. On the contrary, they’re concerned about “right behavior.” They want the villagers to behave in a certain way (and provide some benefit to the church in doing so – it’s the villager’s “reasonable service” per Rom. 12:1), so they erect a scarecrow of sorts – e.g., a suffering man nailed to a crucifix – to enforce the desired behavior model. Meanwhile, if the villagers need certain values to keep their lives going in the here-and-now world of everyday life, well, that’s their worry, they better get about their business and figure out a way to accomplish this, but “right behavior” holds moral primacy over life-based values according to the churchmen.
The tension between “right behavior” as determined by the churchmen on the one hand, and identifying and procuring those values which life requires on the other, is a constant source of conflict in the psychology of the believer. The only solution allowed by the churchmen is for the villagers to sacrifice - some values simply have to go. Why? Because the scarecrow saith. It all comes back to the scarecrow and the churchmen’s interpretative ventriloquism: the individual villager’s wants and needs are to be subordinated to the churchmen’s authority. Otherwise, you’ll miss out once you’re on the other side of death. The imaginary rewards and punishments awaiting us after death are continually held up to enforce “right behavior.”
Belief in an afterlife can only undermine one’s value of the life that he actually has. When a person truly believes that a new life awaits him after the grave, he will always live his current life with the assumption that he’s going to get another chance. Consequently, what he does in this life becomes less significant in the ultimate scheme of things, for his life is not the primary factor in defining the ultimate scheme of things. The primary factor becomes something that he can only imagine - a “life” after death.
Religious apologists think this has only positive implications for morality. But again we must keep in mind that according to the theistic worldview, “morality” has essentially to do with “right behavior” as opposed to values. Values are important only for “this life” – life lived in the here-and-now. “You can’t take them with you,” the churchmen are fond of saying. So they are of no significance in the ultimate scheme of things. Maybe you worked your way through college, pursued your dreams and built a large business, achieving those values and even more that you set out to achieve. Ho hum, say the churchmen. If you did not affect the “right behavior” that they prescribed, all the years of labor that you put into achieving your values was pure vanity, and the scarecrow will happily watch it burn with you. On the theistic worldview, then, achieving values is morally irrelevant. Values are things one earns, but the afterlife is a “free gift” that one cannot earn. The churchmen’s “morality,” then, is “right behavior” buttressed on the pursuit of the unearned.
Thus we can see how belief in an afterlife can only sap a person’s moral ambitiousness. If the values I create in this life are just going to burn up anyway – and worse, are of no significance in terms of moral accomplishment – why try? Why not simply sit and wait for the afterlife to come? I can’t earn the afterlife which is supposed to be a “free gift.” So why do anything? After all, this life stinks – it’s just a veil of tears, full of suffering and weeping and mourning and fretting about what the scarecrow demands. So why not shut down moral ambitiousness altogether in obeisance to the “right behavior” prescribed by the churchmen, and be contented with moral mediocrity? In the grand scheme of things, it makes no difference whether I work to earn those values I seek or languish in the church pew waiting for the end to come.
This is not a caricature. Indeed, it can be observed on wide scale in any culture dominated by religion. Settling for moral mediocrity on the individual level will result in cultural stagnation on the societal level. Multiplying the numbers of those who are leading empty, unhappy lives will simply result in larger groups of unhappy, empty lives. Cultural stagnation is what we should expect to find in populations heavily influenced by religious worldviews, and that is precisely what we find, whether it is Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. All of these religions have in common the same emphasis on “right behavior” as its primary moral thrust. Life-based values are always an afterthought, never at the forefront of moral intention. So there is a philosophical causality at work in cultures that languish in a downward Dark-Age spiral, and that causality is the morality of the churchmen. Belief in an afterlife is key to all of this: this life is ultimately of no value, for another one awaits you.
Contrary to what Christian apologists might have us believe about morality and their claim that theism is necessary for it, belief in an afterlife can only lead to moral mediocrity. Instead of moral ambitiousness, the theistic worldview seeks to inculcate an all-pervasive sense of humility in the believer. Whether it’s Lord Jesus or Lord Buddha, the model held up before the villagers is the same: a life lived in self-sacrifice as the moral ideal. Go through life with your hand out, expecting others to give for your sake, and condemning them for not sacrificing more. The believer is not to be focused on “the cares of this world” because they “choke the world” (Mk. 4:19). Why focus on facts when the churchmen demand that you focus on their fantasy? The believer is to “take no thought of the morrow” (Mt. 6:34), so long-range moral planning is out. Moral planning requires initiative, focus on priorities, a recognition that one is worthy of the values he seeks to achieve. But the religious worldview condemns all this; it requires that believers adopt a passive resignation to their lives, to “lay up” for themselves “treasures in heaven” (Mt. 6:20), which can only be done by means of imagining that there is a heaven in the first place. The believer is to love his enemies (Mt. 5:44), which means: to “love” those who represent a threat to one’s values, up to and including his own life. In this way, the churchmen seek to divorce love from values as such. On such terms “love” becomes an attitude of indifference to one’s own interests. This should not matter for the believer, for he is not to love his own family members. Indeed, as a condition of discipleship, and therefore an outward sign of “right behavior,” he is to hate “his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also” (Lk. 14:26).
The implications of all these and more teachings of the religious worldview, make it clear that morality as conceived by the religious worldview is divorced from values. Values are based in facts relevant to man’s biological needs – i.e., his “flesh” which the religious worldview excoriates as the ultimate source of his sin. Pursuing one’s own values means serving one’s own self-interest. But that’s selfishness, which is anathema to the model of self-sacrifice which the believer is to hold up as his moral ideal. The believer is to downplay the importance of facts – they’re “contingent” and therefore “not necessary.” Instead, he is to focus on the fantasies generated by the holy storybook, including the fantasy that an afterlife awaits him after his death.
In the most general terms, then, all these implications can mean only one thing: the religious worldview systematically divorces morality from reason. Reason is the epistemological methodology of looking outward at the world of facts, identifying the objects of perception by means of an objective method and integrating them according to a rational standard. Religion will have none of this; it requires that men sacrifice their minds, to replace facts with fantasies, and to “have faith” that a supremely better existence awaits them in the grave. The religious view of morality is not about preserving and fostering a life fit for rational human beings. On the contrary, it is all about surrendering to the clutches of death.
So make no mistake about it: when apologists appeal to their belief in an afterlife to support their claims that the theistic worldview is necessary for morality, they do not have man’s earthly interests in mind, nor are they premising their arguments on the basis of facts. Quite the contrary, they are concerned about “right behavior,” which on their paradigm always involves self-sacrifice, and it is all premised in fantasies. Their ideal is not the enjoyment of life, but the “delight” of suffering in death.
by Dawson Bethrick