If There Was No Afterlife

What if all human beings believed there was no heaven, hell or afterlife? How would they behave? Would it change how we view death and would that change how we resolve conflict? Would we value life differently? So many questions. Yet if we didn’t believe in an afterlife how would we live?

Sarah Bowman
Sarah Bowman, Humanist studied theology, social work, some philosophy, anthropology

I’m not sure if it is possible to take an example from history. Many, if not all, religions believe in some kind of afterlife or karma or post-death punishment/reward system based on this present life. And humans have been overwhelmingly religious for so many thousands of years it is difficult to know what life was like before (or without) religion prior to the rise of deism and atheism of recent centuries. Yet there have always been individuals who did not adhere to their society’s gods or religion. Examples are the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus and the sixteenth century “father of science” Galileo who challenged the Christian Church’s idea, based on Holy Scripture, that the sun was the centre of the universe.

Epicurus

Epicurus, in Principle Doctrines, answers most of the questions listed above. Let me clarify that there is far more to Epicurus’s writing than the famous/infamous quote about God’s ability to prevent evil, which theists discuss in depth on Quora here. Epicurus believes very definitely that death is the end and that there is nothing to fear from death because it is merely the ceasing of sensation. For the most part, I am amazed at how closely his ideas fit my own. For example, he says the basis for evaluating right and wrong should be the natural world, i.e. nature, and human sensation or the senses. He also mentions reason, which I take to be the sum of the whole of sense in tandem with nature. He says if we reject one of our senses in lieu of belief in teachings about the universe (gods, spirits) we suffer confusion and fear.

I disagree with him that extreme pain does not last long but perhaps it is modern medicine that prolongs the extreme pain of terminal illness; were it not for medicine the patient would probably die much more quickly so that Epicurus’s observation may have been true in his day. He does mention that laws (specifically justice but this could also apply to truisms like this one) apply only so long as the circumstances of the times fit.

The best way to be safe/secure from other humans or our neighbours, he says, is to be friends with everyone. Relationships should be so pleasant that there are no regrets when one dies before his time. His words: the survivors did not mourn his death as if it called for sympathy. I assume that means they don’t need sympathy to help them bear regrets for harsh words, etc.

So that is how people would behave in an ideal world if there were no belief in an afterlife. NOTE: I am not saying that in the ideal world there would be no belief in an afterlife; I am saying that in an ideal world people would behave pleasantly toward each other, with no harsh words so that there would be no regrets or strife or vandalism, etc. Being pleasant, according to this doctrine, is the best safeguard against violence from one’s neighbours. It certainly resonates with me and a lot of other Secular Humanists. It is another form of the Golden Rule.

I think that also answers the question on how to resolve conflict: Try to find compromise that will keep everyone happy.

Would we value life differently?

Epicurus does not deal with the gap in wealth or with the problem of psychopaths. Socialism, where the rich share their wealth with the poor, is perhaps the best solution for the distribution of wealth problem. Since the horrors of Stalinist Communism in the former USSR, many countries and jurisdictions have improved on the idea and come up with the much more humane welfare state. I realize this is an extremely controversial issue in today’s world but the first Christians practised it more than eighteen centuries before Marx (Acts 2:44; Acts 4:32) and Karl Marx explained its application to the modern world very rationally beginning near the bottom of Page 14 in his Communist Manifesto.

If no one believed it was God’s will that certain people lived and died in poverty (a biblical concept, Matt. 26:11, John 12:8), would not society have been much more compassionate in taking care of its needy centuries earlier? But the most religious Western country, the United States of America, is also the most anti-socialist when it comes to things like medicine and social welfare. In my opinion, that’s a hold-over from traditional Christian European policies that have in recent times been replaced by more humane systems.

Many people argue that we need believers in the afterlife for things like hospitals, orphanages, soup kitchens, and charitable organizations because it is churches that set them up and keep them going. I disagree. For many centuries the Church was the only power in the land and composed the civil government as well as the religious government. Care for the needy automatically fell to its care. However, this no longer is the universal case. There already exist a lot of secular and even some atheist-funded charity organizations and there is no reason to think this could not be the case worldwide. All countries, whether Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, or other, have their systems to care for the needy. Humans naturally have compassionate feelings for each other and do what they can to take care of the less fortunate of their species. I would dare say that if no one believed in an afterlife, the need to make this life a quality life, would be of much higher priority. That is a big way in which we Would we value life differently.

Religion vs Secularism and Quality of Life

In this secular welfare state where belief in the afterlife does not rule and where psychopaths are not made out as being possessed of demons but as human beings in need of medication and humane accommodation, scientists and medical personnel are able to treat dysfunctions to make this world a better place. Belief in a deity that controls the afterlife and invisible spirits with the power to inhabit physical bodies caused great harm to humanity in the past several thousand years. Epicurus refers to some of this harm, incidents that obviously occurred before the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust…

I think it is possible for a peaceful society despite religion if humans pick and choose the peaceful parts of their religions, the parts about love and mercy and forgiveness/forbearance/tolerance, and forego the parts about pushing their beliefs and judging those who disagree with them. However, belief in a blissful vs horrific afterlife (based on how well humans measured up to a set of rules in this present life) and the kind of “love” that obligates religious people to force their beliefs on others is going to maintain the misery and torture of past centuries.

Conclusion

I am sorry if some people dislike this answer; they have only themselves to blame. Be nice no matter what your personal beliefs and people will like you, just like Epicurus says. I know some truly good religious people and some really nasty non-believers. It matters how you personally live your own life in this world. I am only pointing out some general principles.

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