* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Monday, November 16, 2015

Asking the Right Questions -- Afterlife

Some people have a problem discarding the idea that a particular book is more sacred than any other. At first glance, discarding a sacred text seems to mean that there is no way to gain authoritative information about some important things. Who decides what's important, though? Many religions make assertions about what questions are important, because those are the questions religious doctrine can answer. But if the questions are nonsense in the first place, the answers can't be very meaningful or valuable. Apart from blindly trusting the assertions of a religious tradition, how do we determine what questions are meaningful? Until we do that for ourselves, we won't really know whether it's safe to discard a potential source of meaningful answers.

One question that religion seems to spend a lot of time on is, "What happens after I die? And how do I make sure that it's pleasant for me?" This is a nonsense question. First of all, after you die, you start to decompose, and possibly you nourish the earth a little bit. That sounds painful, but you won't feel it. Because you'll be dead. Dead people don't have brain activity. It's part of the definition of being dead. No brain activity, no sensation. Once your brain stops functioning, you're pretty much done experiencing anything you're going to experience. Death is an ending.

But what about the soul? Where does my soul go when I die? Another nonsense question. Of course, we would have to define "soul" to know how much nonsense the question is, but there are really only two definitions that make any sense in this context. Sometimes when people say "soul" they mean an spirit or immaterial part of a person. This suggests that people are essentially some sort of ether inhabiting a physical form for a time, and that they continue to exist ethereally after the physical body is used up. The problem with this idea is that rigorous examination has never yielded any evidence that people have such an immaterial component.

Wait a minute, you say, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Wrong again. I know it's a clever phrase, and there's some truth to it, but when rational and scientific inquiry has examined a matter over and over again with consistent results, one can draw some reasonable conclusions from that consistency. Ghosts, spirits, and other supernatural entities make for great stories, but they are not part of reality. A part of us does not actually continue to exist once our bodies cease functioning. So the question of where our soul goes is a meaningless question, if by "soul" you mean an immaterial and immortal part of a person.

"Soul" can also mean a person's essence -- not an immortal intelligent part of them that continues to have will after their bodies are used up, but the core qualities and ideals they embodied. In this case, one can say that a person "lives on" in the memories of others. A person can leave a legacy that continues to influence the world long after they have died. People create works of art, initiate or contribute to institutions and organizations, usher in social change. All sorts of things that people do continue after they have died. Just in influencing one's own children, family, and friends, we continue to have influence after we are no longer alive. We don't have any choice about how that influence happens once we're dead, but we might consider that our essence continues to persist in this way.

So nothing happens to an immaterial part of you when you die, but your influence continues in the lives of other human beings. That means that what matters most is not some eternal destiny, but how you influence things in the present tense, while you are still alive and aware and making decisions. The question, then, is not, "How do I ensure a pleasant afterlife?" because there is no such thing. The question is, "How do I live in such a way that I'll be satisfied with the influence I have in the world and with the legacy I leave behind?"

Wait a minute. What about Heaven and Hell? You know that I'm going to say this is another meaningless question if you're asking about your own actual future existence. It makes sense that we would have developed these ideas as a species. We've never really known what to do with death. Some of the most ancient human-created structures that still exist were built as tombs, places to honor the dead and usher them into some sort of afterlife. Whatever beliefs we developed were designed to provide comfort to the living, though. These beliefs do not describe reality. And it doesn't matter how many people believe in something, just believing something doesn't make it true. Heaven isn't going to pop into existence just because a lot of people believe it exists. And you're not going to develop an immaterial immortal essence just by believing hard enough.

Religious ideas do offer us some great metaphors, though. The idea of heaven and the idea of hell are very useful. The problem is that so many people seem incapable of understanding what a metaphor is. When you start taking things literally, you abuse the image. Now, people use the idea of heaven as a spiritual carrot and the idea of hell as a spiritual stick. The metaphors have become tools of coercion. If it's possible to free the idea of heaven and the idea of hell from the literal interpretation that seems so prevalent today, they can still be useful metaphors. If we use them as metaphors, though, it's our responsibility to be clear that we're doing so.

Knowing that a large number of people interpret these ideas literally means that we have to be overly cautious if we want to communicate clearly. Just like we might be sensitive that young children are in the room while Santa Claus is being discussed. It's a shame that our culture encourages people to be rational about believing in Santa Claus, but then discourages rational thought in so many other areas, particularly where religion or consumerism is concerned.

"Where do I go when I die?" should certainly be on a list of meaningless questions. Any resource that seems to make that question important is a resource we can safely discard. That is, unless we find it useful in a more metaphorical sense, in which case we ought to be very clear about how we're using it. A more meaningful question is, "How do I live in such a way that I'll be satisfied with how I influence the world around me?" A resource that seems to speak to that question is worth examining. That doesn't mean every answer is equally useful or credible, but at least we can begin to articulate the question more clearly.

We'll articulate some other big questions before looking at where to discover meaningful answers.

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