God rewards the faithful, either in this life or the next. The faithful do not know when these rewards will come, but they can be confident that they will come—eventually. Moreover, God does not ask for much in exchange. God requires only that the faithful be faithful, that is, that they trust in him and manifest their trust by praying, joining in worship services, supporting their church (or mosque, temple, whatever), and following his commands—as interpreted by self-appointed spokespersons, naturally. Distilled to its essential core, this is and has been the message of most religions from ancient times to the present. Sure, there are variations. Typically each religion now has a deity instead of deities, and today’s deity seems more concerned about what we characterize as moral rules than some past deities whose concerns focused more on ritual observance. But these differences are nuances in the core message.
And it’s a powerful message. Its power is exhibited by the fact that it remains attractive to most inhabitants of this planet, even when belief in supernatural agents has lost all intellectual respectability. In the infancy of humanity, belief in supernatural agents had some empirical justification. The existence of the gods seemed to explain things that otherwise escaped our understanding. If our ancestors did not understand the natural causes of wind, rain, drought, flooding, fertility, disease, and so forth, it’s not surprising that they attributed such phenomena to an agent or agents, and obviously such agents had to possess powers far exceeding our own. But for modern humans—except for those who are ignorant, willfully or otherwise—the gods explain nothing.
Belief in gods has lost any evidence-based foundation it may have once possessed—hence the reliance on “faith.” The appeal to faith would have no effect, however, if there were not a strong motivation for belief. Few are going to accept the reality of an invisible, undetectable used car based on faith, but many still accept the reality of an invisible, undetectable deity. While our epistemic capabilities have matured, humanity’s basic emotions and desires remain little changed from prehistoric times. Freud called religion “an infantile delusion,” and if one interprets that assertion to refer to a stage in humanity’s development, Freud has hit the mark. It’s not that the individual believer has the mind of a child; rather, the believer seeks emotional reassurance in ways similar to early humans.
It’s a commonplace that humans turn to the gods because of anxiety over death. There’s some truth in this observation, but it is both too broad and too narrow. It’s too broad because not all humans, not even all early humans, have associated belief in gods with personal immortality. Certainly, many millions today neither believe in the gods nor appear terribly concerned about their inevitable deaths. The statement is also too narrow because it’s not just existential anxiety over death that the gods relieve but also anxiety over the uncertainties of life. How will I support my family? Will my child be hurt and suffer? Will I find love? Which opportunities should I pursue? Will I have any opportunities?
In ancient times, people would seek specific answers to these questions by consulting oracles or other messengers from the gods. God is more distant now, and most believers accept that God expects us to draw up preliminary plans on our own and make some effort to implement them. Believers proceed, however, with the assurance that, ultimately, they cannot fail. What may seem like failures to others are just transient setbacks and challenges, because, in the end, God will reward the faithful.
As indicated, there is some reciprocity involved. God’s offer of absolute love comes with a couple of conditions. Rewards are guaranteed only if God is shown proper respect and his rules are obeyed. Theists unashamedly point to this reciprocal relationship in arguing that religion provides more secure grounding for morality than any secular worldview. The faithful can be relied on to do the right thing—usually—because they know God’s favor is conditioned on their doing so.
Remarkably, it’s not only the religious who buy into this argument. There are some secular individuals, including some well-known ones, who “believe in belief”; that is, they think it’s important for most people to retain faith in the gods. It’s also inevitable. An example of this viewpoint is a recent essay by Mario Vargas Llosa—a member of the International Academy of Humanism, no less—which appeared in the influential Spanish paper El País. In this essay, titled “La fiesta y la cruzada” (“The Celebration and the Crusade”), Vargas Llosa comments on the pope’s visit to Spain in August 2011. In doing so, he argues that religion is a good thing as long as we maintain a strict separation between church and state. He thinks atheism or humanism cannot replace religion “except for small minorities.” (All translations from Spanish are my own.) “The majority of human beings” can find answers to life’s existential questions only in religion. Furthermore, “a democratic society cannot effectively combat its enemies—beginning with corruption—if its institutions are not firmly supported by ethical values, if a rich spiritual life does not flourish in its bosom as a permanent antidote against the destructive forces … that usually guide individual conduct when a human being feels free from all responsibility.” Finally, “the idea of annihilation will continue to be unacceptable for the ordinary person … who will continue to find in his faith hope for a life beyond death.”
Whew. I’m not sure you could find a more despairing view of humanity’s limitations outside of Dostoyevsky’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor. If Vargas Llosa is correct, only “small minorities” of humans will ever be able to live without false religious beliefs.
Religion’s Counterfeit Reassurances
I do not think Vargas Llosa is correct, but I will concede this much: for some believers, it’s not sufficient to defeat theism intellectually. At least with respect to a personal, all-powerful deity—one who answers prayers, performs miracles, and can become a man, a golden shower, or a burning bush—that battle has been fought and won. The evidence against the existence of a personal deity is overwhelming. Anyone who thinks to the contrary just hasn’t received the news yet.
But although arguments against the existence of gods are sometimes effective, for many they are unpersuasive. More than a few contemporary believers cling to their religion not because of the familiar folktales about a personal god but in spite of them. They rationalize away evidence against the existence of gods, allowing their emotions to determine their beliefs, because when believers part with the gods, they may feel that they are also abandoning their hopes. In many cases, we must not only make believers understand that the hopes they harbor are built on fantasy instead of reality, but also that, when examined, those hopes do not provide the desired solace or reassurance. Religion’s reassurances are counterfeit. They reflect a truncated understanding of the human condition.
Let’s take the fear of death and the hope for immortality that is supposed to relieve anxiety over death. What is it that immortality in heaven is supposed to provide believers? Many imagine that it’s somehow a continuation of life on Earth and that the valued relationships they have had while they were alive will continue beyond the grave. To use the oft-uttered phrase, the dead “will see their loved ones again.” But this projected existence cannot possibly satisfy our human longings. The reality we live in is dynamic, ever-changing. If heaven is supposed to be a continuation of our lives, how can one reestablish a relationship with parents, spouses, children, and friends who died years before? Have they been frozen in time? Have they not changed since their deaths? Would they not have established new relationships in their heavenly abode? Would they even care to see us? Similarly, if we were to be eventually reunited with loved ones who live on after our deaths, would we retain any emotional connection to them? Would your two-year-old who you left behind remain a two-year-old forever? Wouldn’t you actually be meeting a stranger, not the child you remember?
Leave loved ones out of the picture. Maybe you’re a loner. However, you long for immortality because you’ll finally be able to do what you always wanted to do: write a novel, discover a cure for lupus, provide medical assistance to those in need, hold political office, be a judge. But whatever your personal goals or ambitions, heaven will not give you the opportunity to complete your projects or fulfill your ambitions. Your activities necessarily come to an end with your death. Even if in your spiritual realm you were placed in a laboratory with all the equipment one could possibly want, your “work” would be meaningless. You’d just be going through the motions. It would be as pointless as life in the Matrix, but with the added burden of your awareness that it was pointless.
There is no need to go through all the various scenarios regarding the afterlife, including theologically sophisticated speculations about the “beatific vision” or a timeless unity with God. (What’s the difference between existing without awareness of time and being dead?) No matter what the story, upon examination we find that none of them adequately addresses death-related anxieties and concerns. They all project a mode of existence that is utterly alien to our lived experience.
Instinctive resistance to death and occasional sensations of dread when contemplating death are to be expected. We are animals; moreover, we are animals who have the foreknowledge that there is a threat to our existence that, ultimately, we cannot escape. But Vargas Llosa is unduly pessimistic when he predicts that the ordinary person can never be reconciled to the thought of extinction. There are already tens of millions of “ordinary” people who accept the reality of death, in part because they recognize not only that is there no empirical evidence to suggest continued existence beyond the grave but that such an existence would have no meaning. It is actually condescending to ordinary persons to assume they are incapable of such a realization.
The Challenge for Humanism
Secular humanism goes “beyond atheism”—at least that is our claim. Part of what is implied by that claim is that we go beyond merely arguing against the existence of deities. With respect to death, we point out the poverty of the religious promise of an afterlife. This promise is not only nebulous but incoherent. Furthermore, we explain how a finite existence invests human lives with meaning. Death provides the context for our actions: what we do matters precisely because we do not get second chances.
Of course, fear of death is not the only anxiety connected to religious belief. The complex of psychological attitudes that motivate religious belief includes anxieties about many of life’s contingencies. Here the humanist must show that security, consolation, and hope are not the exclusive province of religion; to the contrary, trust in God should come in a distant second to reliance upon oneself and the assistance of others.
Atheism, in and of itself, does not have an ethics; humanism does. Central to the humanist ethic is a commitment to the worth and dignity of all humans. We recognize that we have obligations even to those who are connected to us only through our shared humanity. These obligations include unwavering support for certain fundamental freedoms—such as freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of conscience, and freedom to pursue a profession or career—that guarantee an individual will have the autonomy to shape his or her own life.
I would also maintain that these obligations imply a commitment to provide material assistance to others simply because they are humans in need. Liberty is a fundamental good, but one must have the means to make use of one’s liberty if one is to have a fulfilling life. Humanism does not have a detailed economic or social program; humanists can have legitimate differences over fiscal policies or the structure of our social safety net. But that we should have a safety net of some sort seems to me beyond dispute.
Some sociologists have argued that there is a connection between the breadth and strength of a society’s safety net and the extent to which its population is irreligious. Scandinavian countries are often cited as examples. Secularization (just like religious belief) is too complex a phenomenon to have any one cause, but community support for those in need is likely to play some role in weaning people from religion. Those troubled by misfortune have to turn somewhere, and if we do not help them, they will entreat the gods. Begging for help from an imaginary being doesn’t seem quite so silly if the only alternative is silence and indifference from one’s fellow humans.
As humanists, we must confront religion not only at the intellectual level, but also at the emotional level. We must respond to human needs and vulnerabilities to establish that hope for a fulfilling life can be a realistic expectation. Reason can carry us only so far. If humanists do not address the motivations for religious belief, then in much of the world, only “small minorities” will be able to resist religion’s seductive message.