Philosophy of religion has much to say about the origins of religion. Under no compunction to accept religious claims as fact, philosophy of religion can look at the root causes. In vernacular terms, the explanation tends to be that religion evolved due to early humanity’s attempt to explain that which they did not understand. The list of confusing phenomenon included everything from the weather to death itself. The idea of an unseen agent observing one’s actions helped keep group mores enforced. The priests, shaman and spiritual leaders likely enjoyed the recognition and power it brought and began to use said power to overtly control others by enforcing orthodoxy (right thought) and orthopraxy (right action).
While the above explanation is a good one it does not capture the pathos of why religion is so tempting to humans. I will argue the driving force for the evolution of religion is death itself. The soul (if you will permit me the term) of the continuing appeal of religion today is the fear of one’s own death and the need to understand the death of our loved ones.
Lest you think this discussion is in the abstract, I would like to make this personal. I am writing this within arms reach of my mother’s ashes. Eight months after my loss of faith my mother somewhat unexpectedly succumbed to the disease of alcoholism and drug addiction. I had to face the stark reality of her death without the comfort of my previous faith. She is gone. She will not one day be resurrected with a body impervious to addiction. I will not be seeing her again.
It is from this perspective that I would like to discuss how powerful a motivator the need to explain death can be. In my early not-a-Christian state I will admit it was tempting to fall back to the comforting self-delusion that I would get to see her again some day. Worse than that was dealing with the rest of my believing family showering me with similar platitudes that rang profoundly shallow to my ears. Not to mention, the misplaced attention on me by the family pastor who knew I was an atheist during my mother’s funeral.
We humans have a number of psychological defense mechanisms regarding death. We have the amazing capacity to ignore its inevitability until it is thrust in front of us. When we are young we are invincible. The understanding of our mortality slowly grows on us as we age. Some handle this gracefully, others rail against it until the end.
I am sympathetic to those who still believe and even more so to the early humans living in a hostile world they did not understand. The idea of our loved ones living on after death is a powerful one. Our minds take evasive action in order to protect ourselves from the grim reality that not only will we not see our loved ones again, but one day we too will cease to be. It is so much easier to tell ourselves a beautiful story about heaven, and easier still to ignore the evidence to the contrary.
Our cognitive goal is not one of truth but of validation. Opposition results in cognitive dissonance, a psychological conflict that is seldom resolved by the abandonment of belief. Consonance is restored through refutation, support, and proselytism. — Neil Brown
Accepting the truth that there is no life after death and the inevitability of one’s mortality has benefits beyond just being true. For one, I was able to truly grieve my mother’s loss without the pressure to “Buck up, because you’ll see her again someday,” I could allow myself to feel the pain of her loss, to weep with all of my being and to be inconsolable without the guilt of not having enough faith piled on top of my grief. This allows the eventual and even inevitable acceptance to feel freer and more complete. She is gone but the love that we had for each other continues on in me for a time.
Understanding at a deep level that this is the only life I get to live makes each moment more poignant. My time with my wife and children is invaluable to me precisely because it is finite. To be a mortal human is a glorious and terrifying thing.
As we as atheists* interact with and debate theists we must keep in mind the many powerful motivators pushing people toward faith. Our logic may come up short against the visceral need to believe life continues after this one. We need a bit of Secular Grace for them in our interactions.
Have you lost a loved one? Are you worried about facing death as an atheist? Need a bit of Secular Grace yourself? Tell me about it in the comments or on Twitter.