Replacing Religion, part 2

In this series of posts, I will be looking at a variety of different human needs, exploring how they are filled by religion, and attempting to find secular ways to fill those needs instead. By doing this, I hope to discover whether the claim that “people need religion” is true or not. Can religion be replaced?

In part 1, I wrote about how people often look to religion to give their lives meaning, and how using religion to do this is, in fact, quite selfish. The many secular options, on the other hand, not only add meaning and purpose to life, but can also improve the lives of others, as well as improve our world.

The next thing I want to consider is the fear many humans have of death, and their need to be assured that something comes after.

Despite the claims of people who have come back from so-called near-death experiences, nobody has ever actually died and lived to tell about it. This leaves the truth about what (if anything) happens after one dies a mystery. Because of this, all we can do is make conjectures based on the study of consciousness and the brain (which suggests that death is the end), or make up stories which, because of their reassuring nature, have become accepted as truth.

Such stories are the promises made by religion – promises that death is not an end, but rather the beginning of a blissful existence in paradise, a chance to be reincarnated to try to better oneself in the next life, or some similar hope-filled fiction that you or your soul will continue to live, often in a “better place,” after your body dies.

Of course, religion doesn’t give you this chance at eternal life for free. You have to believe in the correct deity, accept the right savior, give your money to the proper church, or – in some sadly extreme (and increasingly unsettling) cases – kill yourself and take as many “infidels” with you as possible. Otherwise, paradise, heaven, or whatever chance you have at eternal life is closed. Actually, it’s even worse than a mere closing of the pearly gates, for most religions threaten you with eternal torment if you die without believing the correct thing. No wonder some people are afraid of death!

You might wonder what’s wrong with believing the religious fiction that there’s a better life after this one. After all, doesn’t it give people hope and make them less scared of dying? That may be true, but is it really good or right to live your entire life based on a lie? It’s as if you’re at a banquet where good food is being served, but you are told not to eat any of it because you’ll be going to another banquet later where your favorite foods will be served – and then you never get to that second banquet. The first banquet is, of course, your life. If you waste it because you think something better is coming, you’re going to go hungry.

Religious people who spend their lives following the lead of someone or something because of a promise that there’s something better when it’s over are missing the chance to make the very most of the one life they definitely do have. It’s even worse when someone decides to become a martyr for their religion and kill themselves and many others, thinking they will get a reward afterward. Not only have they wasted their own life, but they’ve destroyed others.

How interesting it would be to see the reaction of a suicide bomber when he or she learns the promised paradise isn’t waiting after death. Unfortunately, none of them will ever learn that, because once you’re gone, that’s all there is. Your brain – the seat of your awareness, your consciousness, what religions often refer to as a soul – is gone, as is the ability to learn anything.

This may seem like a bleak outlook, but I believe it’s preferable to living a lie. A realistic, secular view of death cannot reassure you with the promise of eternal life, but it can give you the chance to appreciate the amazing fact that you are alive at all (against astronomical odds), and allow you to make the most of that life, to spend each day marveling at and appreciating the wonder and beauty around you, and take advantage of every moment that you have to make the most of yourself and improve the world for those who will come after. I believe that’s far, far better than wasting your life trying to win your way into a fictional paradise.

In my next post, I’ll take a look at the idea that humans need religion to be moral.

One Response to “Replacing Religion, part 2”

  1. Hmmm…. a fan is waiting patiently for your next dissertation… :-)

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