From Mortality to Morality – The Key to Religious Power

Posted by on June 23, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 8 comments

The biggest question a human can ask during a lifetime is the question of what happens when we die. The short answer of course is, we don’t know. We can’t know. It is an unanswerable question, and yet the fact that religions say they have the answer is the one thing that gives them power.

Why can’t we answer this question? It is because we live our lives in a state of awareness, this thing we call consciousness, our ability to know our physical and mental beings, which reacts to their surroundings all under the control of the brain. And when we die, the brain stops functioning, so our ability to know anything ceases. In order to know, the mind must continue afterwards, after the physical mechanisms which allow it to function have ceased. Of course, as far as we can tell, this is impossible. I’ve likened this idea to a light-globe that continues to shine long after the batteries have run out of power. If this were the case we wouldn’t need batteries at all, lights would be able to shine on their own. Likewise, once the energy which powers our brains runs out, so does the brain activity.

Some would like us to think that beyond the physical natures of our brains there is something else, something independent of the laws of biology and physics, which gives us our personalities and our sense of self, an ethereal and supernatural soul. And because this is supernatural, we can’t see, detect or measure this; it’s beyond understanding. According to these people, the soul continues after the body ceases to function, and therefore, death is not the end, but rather the beginning. Why would we think this in the first place? Why this yearning for the soul to continue in the first place?

As we all live and grow, we experience death in many forms; the first dead animal we encounter, the death of our first goldfish, and onward until we experience the deaths of those we know, those we love, and finally, we experience our own deaths. There are a lot of individuals in life that we meet and interact with, many whom we come to treasure and love, so it’s a difficult proposition to imagine these people just stop existing after they die. We admire qualities about others, we see the joy and pain of life, and through our empathy, we experience these things with them. We in ourselves are so vital, so alive, and we have our own thoughts, our own experiences, a lifetime’s worth of memories; how can it be that when we die that all this life simply disappears?

Firstly I’d say that our yearning for others in our lives, those whose presence will be missed by us as we continue to live, is the first place the idea of a soul starts. It makes our lives a lot easier when we imagine that our dead loves ones are still around somewhere, looking over us aw we toil on alone. It’s easy to imagine, and it’s a comforting thought, that we don’t have to live this life alone.

Once humanity convinced itself of the idea of the mind and memories continuing on after death, we then had to explain where these souls are. We live life as a three dimensional existence, and we seem to move forward in time, watching as the internal workings of the plants and animals around us continually grow and die, and we know we can’t see the souls here in our everyday existence. So in order for the idea of the unmeasurable soul to exist, it must exist in another dimension, one we can’t see, hear, detect or measure. This ghost world is apparently outside of our understanding also, and this being the case, it is impossible to know.

Again, we can’t know. If we can’t know, then doesn’t this all start sounding a little like a poorly imagined film script? A fantasy novel designed to lull us into a false sense of security? If the soul is continuous, doesn’t it mean we can stop worrying so much about our lives here on earth, because there is another eternal life hereafter? Can’t we therefore do whatever we like after this life, without fear of consequences?

The instigators of religion have already thought of this. They tell us that in order for our afterlives to be pain free, one where we live in a paradise forever, then there are a few rules we must follow, and there will be a test at the end to surmise whether or not we are worthy of living in this paradise. If not, we get thrown into hell where we suffer eternally. This notion of rules then therefore calls for an arbitrator, a ruler who will be the judge of us after we die. If he/she/it deems that we have followed the rules, as laid out by the instigators of religions, then we will be granted passage to the hereafter, up in the sky with him/her/it.

So here we have it. Life is too precious to end at death, therefore the must be a soul. The souls must be eternal, as it has survived this life, therefore there must be an afterlife. The afterlife must be pain-free, or what is the point of eternity? If the afterlife is pain-free, then the lives we lead now are of less consequence. To ensure the anarchy doesn’t happen, we then load the current life with all the responsibilities of following a set of rules in order to get to the afterlife, therefore people invented the rule books. In order for the rule books to be judged, there must be an arbitrator, therefore we need god. And finally, in order to make the afterlife something we desire, we must offer another, far less pleasant alternative, therefore we need hell.

It’s a terribly long and arduous train of thought, to start from the desire to have our loved ones and ourselves continue after death, to then have a possibility of eternal torture, don’t you think? But because all this is unknowable, and since humanity seems to continually be asking questions along these lines with no good answer, when someone comes along claiming to have this knowledge, we seem to be more than willing to listen.

Many have come before claiming to know the answers, and this is where religion gets its power from; the claim of absolute knowledge over these unanswerable questions.

If, however, we look at life as a single journey, one that each of us gets to take only once, and strip away the afterlife from the picture, what are we left with?

Our lives become far more immediate, our actions are of a far greater consequence, the effects we have on others are real, and the fact that we only get once chance at this life becomes of utmost importance. The theists claim that without this “morality” they have laid out for us in their rule books, the nihilism of soullessness means nothing but anarchy and chaos. This claim is made out of the fear they have of destabilisation by people who dismiss their claims of knowledge.

If we remove the soul from the question, then religions topple, for they hold no power over people.

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  1. Our bodies are like that light bulb. They are not the energy that makes that light bulb work. That energy is neither created nor destroyed. it is just used by the light bulb. That energy is then transformed. It’s not destroyed. that energy always has and always will exist. The light bulb is just a vessel for that energy.      Nothing is either created nor destroyed. You should know that. You are making an assumption that all we are is skin, bones, organs, brain. That is not the case. We are the energy that makes those synapses fire in our brains. That energy is who we are. That energy is our consciousness. And that energy also follows the laws of nature and cannot be created nor destroyed. No need to picture heaven nor hell. Those are stupid fantasies made up by man. But what isn’t made up by man is the fact that nothing is neither created nor destroyed. The real reason why we cannot accept that that energy is then destroyed as you suggest. For nothing is and we know that.  So It’s not our fear of death that makes us want to believe that we will not cease to exist (be destroyed) It is our knowledge that nothing is destroyed. that everything just evolves to the better adaptation of our enviroment. That makes us realize that that energy which for some reason you choose not to even accept as a real force. Just because it’s not a physical part of us, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It obviously exists. And it will not be destroyed. for nothing is. it will change form as well. Just like everything else in Nature.  Thinking this Energy is going to be destroyed is what is irrational considering we know nothing is created nor destroyed. This is not separate from the laws of biology and physics. It’s part of it.  You are making an assumption that you know isn’t true. You are assuming that there is nothing but the physical world. You are denying the evolution and transformation of our energy.  Our energy doesn’t just disappear.  Nothing does. For it to disappear it would have to be destroyed and you know that that goes against the laws of nature.  Maybe we are all apart only when in physical form. maybe that’s why we yearn for others. Maybe our energies will unite after we die. We don’t have any answers for what happens to our energies. We just don’t know. All we know is it cannot be destroyed. Just because this is the case doesn’t negate that we have to still struggle in this life. Just as we shall probably always struggle. For life is continuous energy. Obviously it has always existed. Obviously it shall never be destroyed. What we don’t have to worry about is the destruction of our energy. Something you seem to assume will happen. Against the laws of nature. For nature tells us nothing is destroyed. What happens to our energy has nothing to do with organized religion. No heaven, no hell. Just another struggle in another form.

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    •  @pjdelcampo2attn Nothing is destroyed? Animals get destroyed all the time. In slaughterhouses.
      Sure its atoms stick around in the dirt, but that carrot it ate for a last meal is most definitely destroyed.
      >>We are the energy that makes those synapses fire in our brains. That energy is who we are. That energy is our consciousness.
      That’s body-mind dualism. A nice idea. Just unscientific. All minds we know of are running on living brains.
      No matter how much it looks to the casual observer like this or that collection of atoms is crawling wherever it wants to; if it’s brainless, it’s also mindless. Whatever a has, it doesn’t have a mind.
      We can clearly imagine disembodied minds (spirits) but can’t verify any outside those fictions our minds tell us. If they aren’t out there in the real world, they’re very likely imaginary.
      Besides which Einstein tells us energy is nothing mysterious, simply mass …multiplied by a constant (e=mc^2).

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  2. Great post. Most religions (at least outside of the Abrahamic ones) are WILDLY different from each other. One of the very few things that they all have in common is some form of afterlife. How convenient. Life after death is a great recruiting tool.
    Even if there was an infinite God who never dies, this doesn’t mean the same power would or should be extended to us. Convenient.

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  3. Great post, Martin and a very cogent connection from our human desire for coping with death and grief to foundation of afterlife and religious morality.

    I have seen the fatalism of theists manifested in statements such as, ‘it’s all for naught anyway’ as though THIS life they are living means nothing. This predestination mentality of theism allows complicity toward heinous behaviour since nothing immediate matters anyway. Philsophers have been pointing to the flaws of this fatalistic & predetermination philosophy as harmful to society for many hundreds of years.

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  4. Great post Martin.  I always find it curious when Catholic Bishops talk about the growing secular movement as a “culture of death” and Catholicism as a “culture of life”.  I would have to say they have it backwards.  As you point out, without a fascination on death, they lose much of their power.  Yet, us secular folks are very much aware of our lives and the importance of making the most of it.  It is the religions of the world (at least the monotheistic ones) that are focused on death.
    This ties into the frustration I always feel when the topic of morality comes up with theists.  A set of rules, designed to lead to an eternal reward (or damnation if not followed) is absurd.  For one, as you point out, the idea of an afterlife is unknowable at best, and sheer nonsense at worst (I vote for the latter).  Second, basing one’s morality on the promise of an eternal reward is hardly moral—it is just looking for a prize.  A person who does the “right thing” without the promise of a reward is the more moral person in my view.

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    •  @reasonbeingblog This is a chicken-egg dichotomy. Taking a historical perspective we see secularism’s “culture of death” egg emerged from catholicism’s “culture of life” chicken.
      And like so much of monotheism, I think we can trace church teachings about life (death, afterlife) back further to our pre-religious beliefs.
      In this case, both in terms of evolution and development. Our beliefs in eternal life (trusting in the future) tend to give way to carpe diem (seize the day) — a line which very interestingly us eggheads appear to have continued reading: “quam minimum credula postero” (that is, “putting as little trust as possible in the future”).

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      •  @blamer Interesting point bud.  However, I do not see Catholicism as having a “culture of life”.  So much of their power comes from the fear humans have of death.  The entire religion is based upon spending eternity in heaven and bliss—after we die.  If remove the fear of death from Catholicism, the entire religion would crumble.  To me, they rely on a “culture of death” to survive.

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        •  @reasonbeingblog I see merit to what your saying.
          Presumably catholics would dismiss any external assessment as inferior.
          In my view “shuffling off this mortal coil” rhetoric most commonly assumes the framing of life + death + minds-outlasting-brains. Dualism. So when catholics are talking about death they’re talking about living souls. They’re talking about (capital L) Life, with all its personal spiritual strings attached.
          Meanwhile skeptics want to talk about (lowercase) this life, so our framing implies a degree of agnosticism or closure that must sound to spiritualists as truly morbid. So profane.

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