Monthly Archives: March 2011

My Problem with Your God 6 – The Afterlife

Rosa Celeste: Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the...

Image via Wikipedia

I find the whole notion of an afterlife puzzling. We live, and then we die.  Unless, of course, you believe in magic and fairytales, in which case, we might either get a second chance at things, some kind of reward, or even punishment. I do understand the appeal of an ‘afterlife’; it would be nice if all the good deeds we had done in life, great and small, were recognised by some all-knowing judge who smiled upon us benevolently, gave us a pat on the back, said “well done, here, you deserve some bliss”. And, of course, the corollary, that all bad people, and those who had done us wrong in life, are punished. I mean, it’s only fair, right? Life isn’t fair, but the afterlife is? Is that the way it works?

As I understand it, this ‘God’ fellow is the ultimate arbiter of who gets in to the exclusive club known as ‘Heaven’, or of who gets to go on a jolly journey to ‘Hell’. You have to ask then, what are the requirements of entry? I mean, aside from the whole Ten Commandments nonsense, the abstaining from some of the more fun aspects of life, and the general belief in the delusion of a sky-god and his zombie son. If you believe in a heaven you must believe you have a pretty good chance of getting in, otherwise what’s the point? So, are you a paragon of virtue, or the lowest common denominator? Would you join a club that would let someone like you in? I imagine most people who pray weekly in the relevant temple of their faith believe that they will go to heaven; do you think that they all qualify? Do they live up to your rigorous standards? Because everyone can’t get in, that’s part of they system. By the simple fact of not believing in your peculiar delusion the vast majority of people are excluded from your faith’s vision of heaven. And that’s not just those living now; think about all the people who lived and died before some semi-literate desert nomad invented your faith. The vast majority of everyone ever will not go to your heaven, and I reckon quite a good deal of them are better than you. I don’t mean that as a slight against your character, but you are up against the likes of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (who are the foundation of Western science, reason, and civilisation), the genius who came up with oral rehydration therapy (which saves millions of children dying from diarrhea  every year), and Norman Borlaug (the guy who saves millions of lives every year by designing better types of wheat). How do you compare? How many civilisations have you defined? How many millions of lives have you saved? Surely, by virtue of their astounding accomplishments, they get to go to Heaven, right? Would you give up your place to someone more worthy? Maybe God would overlook the “believe in me” red-tape, it’s all part of the plan, right?

The whole “God’s plan” thing is worrying too. People who die in accidents, of God-Pythondisease, or other such tragedies, are, in the words of clerics, taken before their time, it’s all part of God’s plan. Plus, as an added bonus, they get to go to heaven directly, because of the suffering and whatnot that they had to endure.That’s nice, comforting. It’s not really a random accident that could happen to any one at any time because Nature and the Universe are our best friends and they would never do anything to hurt us. It might even be that, if the human race is ever wiped out by a gamma ray burst from a star billions of light-years away that died billions of years before God was even invented, some religious person’s last thought will be, “it’s all part of the Plan”. The problem with ‘The Plan’ is very simple; if it’s all part of God’s plan, and you get to go to heaven for playing your little role in the plan, doesn’t everyone get to go to heaven? “Well”, you might be saying to yourself, “that certainly solves the exclusivity problem mentioned above”. Yes, it does, but it also means everyone gets in. Everyone. Including Hitler (yeah, I went there). If you believe in ‘The Plan’, you have to accept that everything is part of it, and that every player is doing God’s Will. And God is Good (I’ve been told this quite often, but remain unconvinced, especially by the use of the copula), so everything he does is good, therefore the plan is good. So bad things might happen for a good reason. If this is so, anyone who did anything evil was really just an instrument of God, and so can’t be blamed for their actions, and if they cannot be blamed, they are free from sin, and get to go to Heaven. Even Stalin. If you believe in ‘The Plan’ you kinda have to accept that you will be sharing Heaven with murderers, rapists, dictators, pedophiles (the Catholic Church lets them in already), and all kinds of other nefarious folk, like the CEOs of banks, boy-bands, and anyone who ever appeared on reality TV.

So. Let’s agree that ‘The Plan’ notion is fundamentally flawed, and that good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell. I’ll give you, the believer, the benefit of doubt; you are a good and ethical person who happens to wholeheartedly believe in a worryingly transparent fantasy. According to your rules, you get to go to ‘Heaven’ when you die. While there you meet all your dead relatives, friends, and the other cool kids who got passed the bouncer, because they also abided by the rules. After a while of hanging out with the angles and their dull music you wonder where all the good music is. It’s in hell. Ah well, you still have bliss on tap. You look around and your best friend Timmy isn’t among the saved. You ask why and find out he went to hell because he didn’t believe in God. So. Your friend burns for all eternity. While you get bliss. That would really ruin my buzz, if I were you in heaven (but I wouldn’t be in heaven, because it’s not real). Knowing that perfectly decent people suffer for no other reason than they don’t believe in your brand of hysteria would really tarnish the whole good vibe thing that Heaven had going on. How could you (after-)live with yourself? Unless God wipes your memory, which is deceitful, or you are a cruel soulless person, in which case you have to wonder how you got to heaven in the first place, and what kind of sycophant are you? Sorry, that last bit is unfair, believers are not sycophants, that’s the clergy. Believers are chattel.

Orthodox icon of St Edward the Martyr

You get to hang out with people like this forever... Image via Wikipedia

But the problem really is that you already agreed to abandon ‘The Plan’. If God doesn’t run the show, what’s the point of having a God? Okay, fair enough, you can make the case for human agency, but this removes God from being a loving, caring blah blah blah, to a remote and uncaring arbiter who decides what is good and what is evil. Why is he uncaring; well, if he cared he wouldn’t let bad things happen, would he? So, God is a judge; there is no right of appeal, no other avenue open to you. He makes the rules, he enforces them, and he is the king of heaven. I’m sorry, but that’s a dictator. And dictators exist to be overthrown by popular revolt. The Democratic Republic of Heaven would be a nice thing. It’s almost a pity that there is no God to overthrow, or no Heaven to liberate. Anyway, we’ve given up ‘The Plan’, and God is just a judge. Heaven is an exclusive club of pretty much all the most boring people ever. Sure, there are some good ones in there, but let’s face it, hermits, martyrs, the chaste, and the pure can’t really have many interesting anecdotes to pass the time with. And you will have a lot of time to pass, an eternity in fact. I know it’s an old joke, but all the fun people will be in hell, along with all the evil ones, the not-so-bad-but-didn’t-make-the-cut ones, and the actually-wonderful-people-who-didn’t-believe. Which makes heaven seem really unfair and boring.

Centaur & a Lapith in battle

Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr

It wouldn’t be so bad if religion had just left heaven as an unknowable state of being. They had to go and make it a place, a thing, a kingdom with walls and subjects, of eternal peace, and limited imagination. And that’s just stupid. Even so, an unknowable heaven is only slightly less redundant. You could say “but, you admit, it’s unknowable, you don’t know that it doesn’t exist, you can’t prove its non-existence”. You got me there, that’s a humdinger. I also can’t prove the non-existence of basilisks and centaurs, but just because we can’t prove something magical doesn’t exist doesn’t mean that it does. I’ll wait here until you bring me evidence of an afterlife; evidence, mind you, not the collected ramblings desert nomads and delusional parasites, feverish hallucinations, or other such deceptions .

You didn’t exist for millions of years before just recently, and you will cease to exist again quite soon. Enjoy a moral life while you can, because you won’t get a second chance; you’ll just be dead, forever.

Ceterum autem censeo, religionem esse delendam