From Mortality to Morality – The Key to Religious Power
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.