A Load of Bright
An atheist's views on religion and the supernatural

The Credit We Deserve


The idea of death affects me a lot worse now that I’m an atheist than it ever used to before. Not just my own death, but everyone else’s too. People dying is bad enough to comprehend and deal with when it occurs from natural causes, to people who have lived a reasonably long and fulfilling life. Unnecessary deaths, pointless killings, natural disasters – these leave me inconsolable.

A few years ago, if I heard on the radio that someone had been murdered, I’d certainly be moved. “Poor, poor guy” I’d mutter, “bloody world’s gone mad”. Now, when I hear similar stories, I want to cry and scream at the top of my voice, to lie face down on the floor and bang my fists and kick my feet against the ground, like a toddler throwing a tantrum in a supermarket.

The reason for the change is this. I used to be very open to the possibility of an afterlife. So, while it was tragic that someone had been murdered, I still considered it a distinct possibility that they were enjoying some sort of heavenly rewards in the beyond. I’m still open to the possibility of an afterlife, but having examined the evidence, I consider the odds to be astronomically against it. I believe that this life, here on Earth, is all we have. I don’t believe it through faith, I believe it based on evidence. When someone dies, no matter who they are, how old they are, what they’ve done or how they’ve conducted themselves, I believe that they are gone forever. I don’t believe that they have gone to a better place, or a worse place. I don’t think they’ve gone anywhere, more succinctly, I don’t believe they are anywhere, other than the memories of those who knew them. No second chances. No reprieves. When a human being dies, a supremely complex and sentient organism, capable of experiencing great pain and happiness, compassion and malice, creativity and sloth, is lost to the world forever. And yet, so tragically often, it is other human beings, capable of all the same emotions and experiences, who deliberately terminate their own kind.

Gold is worth more than iron. (Just to pre-empt any confusion before I continue, for the purposes of this essay, I’m not talking about sentimental value, only market or trade value.) Why? Because it is more pleasing to the eye? No, it is worth more because there is less of it. This is a universal principle that applies to anything that can be quantified, the less there is of something, the more it is worth. It applies to goods and currency, to materials, to human skills and qualifications. Anything of which we have an infinite supply is worthless. Without air, we would die, but as we have an infinite supply on this planet, you’d have a job selling it to anyone. If, at some point in the future, though, we set up communities living in artificially built residential areas on other planets in the solar system, then breathable air may become a commodity.

This principle also applies to time. If there is an eternal afterlife, then wherever we are destined to go when we die, be it Heaven or Hell, time is worthless to us, because it is infinite. Our life on Earth is relegated to the status of a mere entrance exam, only nobody knows what the criteria are to pass. Our fleeting ownership of a physical body is rendered superficial. If we are going to live in some form or another for all eternity, then why should we really care about our life on this planet? More to the point, why should we care about other people’s lives? Belief in an afterlife undermines and devalues the importance of human life.

If, however, there is no afterlife and this is all we have, our human lives and our time on this planet are infinitely more valuable. Our very existence in this world becomes the most treasured possession we will ever own. Our interests and well being are our own concern, there are no supernatural beings for us to worry about, and no supernatural beings to worry about us. We can all work together with the common goal of maximising total human happiness in whatever form it comes, and minimising human suffering, instead of the appeasement of a deity, or the conversion or elimination of the followers of other deities. The complexity of our bodies and the joys and pains that lie therein are a wonder to behold. The company we enjoy and the relationships we hold with our friends, family and loved ones are of greater significance, and the awe of the universe we inhabit all the more special.

Would I swap the pain and anguish I feel about human death for the warm, blissful comfort of a spurious belief in an afterlife? Not for the world! Aside from the little matter of truth, my beliefs do more credit to the value of human life than any supernatural belief system entailing an afterlife. The despair I feel at the futility with which human life is viewed, is the very thing that makes me human. The capacity to feel that emotion is what makes me, like every other human being, amazing. To seek suppression of my true emotions, is to deny what I am. Give me my pain, for a human being I am.

Murders and other senseless killings are not carried out because the killers believe their victims’ souls will survive their deaths. It isn’t that simple. We live in a society that is very open to the possibility of an afterlife, and never really questions or scrutinises it as a claim. Ghost stories, mediums’ platitudes, religious doctrines and past-life-regression anecdotes are banded about without restrain or criticism. It is this apathy towards the question of an afterlife that creates an environment in which human life is so utterly devalued as to be considered expendable. It is only with the growth of atheism on our planet and therefore the development of scepticism towards the concept of an afterlife, that the price of our Earthly time will be recognised, by all, for the priceless treasure it is. We don’t know if there is an afterlife or not. We do know we have life on Earth, and this is what we should defend and uphold to the last. Not just our own, or even those of our loved ones, but of all human beings, of all creeds, races and religions. Embrace what you are, revel in all your emotions for they make you what you are, and strive for the truth whatever it may be. Give yourself, and your fellow human beings, the credit you deserve.

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12 Responses to “The Credit We Deserve”

  1. Beautiful, sir, simply beautiful – I can’t say it any better than that. I started applauding while I was reading this, I truly did.

    Well done. :)

  2. Very well said!! Some years ago I read where environmental philospher Holmes Rolston said that (to parphrase) the second rarest thing in the universe is life. The first is intelligence. Maybe even more rare is the proper use of intelligence.

    Thanks for a great piece.

    Jim

  3. Wonderful.

    When I see fundamentalists saying things like “I hate this world, I want to go home” and stuff, it makes me want to slap some sense into them, how can anybody hate this wonderfully precious amazing life? Religion destroys some people’s ability to care about the things we should be caring about, our own lives, and the health of the planet we live on.

  4. Great post. I certainly agree that stripping the superstitious wish-fulfillment from one’s worldview makes life much more precious. As we recognize that wanting something to be true does not make it true, we are able to more fully embrace the truth of reality. I think this is a big part of what humanism means to me – enjoying what is rather than what I wish would be.

  5. Great post! very well said. Since I embraced secular humanism as my philosophy for living my life, I love myself & mankind so much more then I ever did as a Christian.
    I’m even optomistic! it drives people mad. They go out of their way to tell me how rotten people are. :)

  6. This post is really fascinating and really resonates with me.

    Why? Because you’ve discovered the economics of religion.

    It’s pretty obvious, really, when you start talking about the value of gold and iron, and eventually about the value of time. When you get down to it, the most basic economics is the study of how people spend time.

    If you look at it this way, it’s real easy to start looking at the economics of religion. Why do people go to church? Why *spend* all that time?

    A good economist realized that as long as the perceived benefits of all that time (i.e. getting into heaven, aid on earth from God, world peace, etc.) outweighs the cost (say, the time it takes to go to church, the money spent on donations, the lost chances to have fun on earth when you’re actually on your knees praying). So the issue comes down to faith: faith that the payoff is worth it. In fact, religion is like a used car. You spend the money on the faith that the car won’t break down and will last you for a long time.

    You can evaluate the faith as long as you want; you can examine a car for hours. But the ultimate fact is that you cannot prove that the car will last you forever… but you have faith that it’ll be worth it.

    Faith in religion is similar – as much as you can prove that life on this earth can be really awesome, you can’t scientifically prove that there is nothing after death. Personally, I don’t think there is. But I can’t do anything to prove it – I can’t come back to life and tell people there’s nothing, I can’t receive word from God that He doesn’t exist, I can’t stick a meter into the afterlife and measure its nonexistence. It’s all a matter of faith.

    So when you say that “I’m still open to the possibility of an afterlife, but having examined the evidence, I consider the odds to be astronomically against it.” you must realize that the way you measure the evidence is not the same way that everyone else measures it – just as all mechanics won’t look for the exact same things in a used car.

    Anyhow, I’m still fascinated by your post and will keep on reading avidly ;-D

  7. Amissio said:

    So when you say that “I’m still open to the possibility of an afterlife, but having examined the evidence, I consider the odds to be astronomically against it.” you must realize that the way you measure the evidence is not the same way that everyone else measures it – just as all mechanics won’t look for the exact same things in a used car.

    The burden of proof is on the claimant, and the soundbite “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” is wrong. We can account for all of our emotions and thoughts within the physcial brain. We don’t need to posit a ‘soul’ to explain anything. Ebonmusings has a brilliant essayon this. I don’t see how there can be different ways of viewing this evidence.

    Anyhow, I’m still fascinated by your post and will keep on reading avidly ;-D

    Thank you for the compliment, and thank you to all commenters on this article :)

  8. Amissio,

    There are two fallacies in your argument, the one tobe38 pointed out, and also there is the matter of probabilities. When considering two unknown propositions, (“there is an afterlife”, or “there is not an afterlife,” you cannot automatically decide it is a matter of an equal probability. You have to carefully add up the evidence. Since there has been overwhelming evidence that people die and cease to exist, and scant (really NO) evidence of anyone experiencing an afterlife, we have to conclude that the probability of an afterlife existing is vanishingly small.

    Though the probability remains non-zero, the idea of wagering a large portion of one’s life and time on a vanishingly small probability is a poor one. What other wager would you make on such poor odds? If an afterlife does await, we can be nearly certain we will be far better equipped to cross that bridge when we come to it.

    tobe38, thanks for an eloquent post. A pleasure.

  9. Yes. Beautiful.

    Back when I believed in reincarnation, if I missed out on some great experience, I used to say things like, “Oh, well, I’ll do that in my next life.”

    I don’t say that any more.

    And because I don’t say that anymore, I consider the opportunities I run into a lot more carefully than I used to. I take advantage of them more than I used to… and I try harder to really experience them and be in the moment of them.

  10. I’m utterly baffled when religious people state, in complete seriousness: “If life is not infinite, then it’s worthless” (although they generally refer to an “afterlife” rather than infinite life), or “if we weren’t specially created by a god who considers us the most important thing in the world, then we’re worthless” or something. Thanks for this post; I’m often irritated by people who essentially say we should throw away what we have because it isn’t what we wish we had.

    That said, the value of something is not directly connected to its rarity; value is determined by what someone is willing to pay, and while this is generally correlated with rarity, there are some key exceptions. You’d be hard-pressed to sell air, but there are people who make lots of money selling water! Despite being (effectively) as abundant as air, people are willing to pay $2 or more for a bottle of water they’ve already paid for through their taxes. /nitpick

  11. You might want to read some of Frank Tipler’s work (and those of his colleagues) about a scientificallly plausable afterlife, including his monumental work, The Physics of Immortality. Don’t dismiss it until you read his work.

    Jim Cronburg

  12. even though this is just the same as saying there’s a religion what of the thought that we aren’t given proof of an afterlife cause if we were and we knew we could mess up cause there’s a second chance life wouldn’t be valued. The fear and thought of never having another chance does its best to keep us in line and trying to be good and experience things. I’m not saying this is what it is, just a fun thought like a science fiction story. I have no religion. I’m just interested in what the world thinks. I hope I was clear enough. But if we did know there’s an afterlife it would be “lord of the flies” but we don’t so it keeps us somewhat at bay.


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