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Death and God

Death, Religion, God…

In one of those lovely English rural churches I sometimes visit during my long countryside walks I was accosted by a well-meaning elderly gentleman who for the life of him could not understand how anyone could be an atheist (I had told him that I like country churches but that I'm nevertheless a “non-believer”). For him, this was a perfectly irrational state of mind; all my attempts to convince him that my atheist convictions were the fruit of years of rational thinking were utterly futile. In a flawless show of complete symmetry, his attempts to convince me that there is indeed a personal god (as opposed to a vaguely defined pantheism, perhaps Ó la Spinoza) were just as futile. (I have since given up on this sort of discussion.)

For me, the question of whether or not there is a god has long been of secondary importance. It is my firm conviction that the human invention of gods or, more broadly speaking, of religion in general is based on the inescapable fact of death. We will die, sooner or later, and we are the only animal that has to live a whole long life with this devastating knowledge. Death is the one fixture we can't escape — and whatever we may pretend, we know it.

I found it always an illuminating fact that most, if not all, successful religions have, at their very core, some mechanism which defies physical death. Christians and Muslims have paradise (or the rather less well-received hell) to look forward to; Hindus and Buddhist have either reincarnation or nirvana. Other religions have other ways to make their adherents believe that the death of a person, though unavoidable, is not the ultimate end of the story for that person's mind or soul. It is at this point that for most religions their various gods come into play: they simply form the crystallising core, the sacred focus, the innermost secret, of most religions. Gods tend to be the inexplicable original creators of meaningfulness. (For some, gods also neatly solve the question of where and how the world came into being, where all this comes from: I've never understood how people can fall for such a clear-cut fallacy.)

These views — about physical death not being the end of it all for us humans — are certainly consoling; they have also been, to a great extent, a necessary stopgap in the slow development process that began many thousand years ago with the first stirrings of conscious human thought.

But are they rational? I don't think so. I am, after having received a thorough scientific education, a deeply rational person. (Note that this doesn't mean I (or other scientists) can't have my “irrational moments”: as Thomas Kuhn has shown in his “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, scientists are not always as rational as they themselves believe.)

None of what I wrote above about religion and gods is written to denigrate the exceedingly important role religion has played (and sometimes continues to play) in the cultural and social arena. Religion was crucial for the development of mankind as we know it today, but whether religion will be as important in the next 5000 years as it has been in the last 5000 years remains to be seen. In my view, the role religion played in the past is not unlike a ladder: humans needed to get up a steep precipice and we couldn't do that without a tool, namely the ladder religion provided — but once we were up, our horizons (should have) widened and we don't need the ladder anymore. (Perhaps there are other obstructions before us which require their own tools but I am sure that is something mankind will find out in due course.)

If I think I don't need religion, do I need a god, then? Again, the answer is no. What for? I am perfectly capable to give meaning to my own life without a god; I can already explain a lot about how the world (here understood as the part of the universe we can observe, study and construct theories about) came into existence and I am confident that future scientists will be able to explain even more. Whether or not humans will ever get to the point that they understand and can answer the deepest questions about how and why, I don't know: perhaps our brain is simply not structured in such a way as to enable it to solve all problems one could put before it. But in the philosophical and scientific frameworks I know and am most comfortable with, I can find no sufficient reason to introduce woolly concepts like gods, angels or miracles. (I also don't believe in Buddhist-style reincarnation, although Buddhism, if seen strictly as a system of philosophy (the Buddha himself warned his disciples against believing in gods — apparently without much success), has indeed a lot to go for it. But that's another story.)


$updated from: Death and God.htxt Sat 18 Jan 2014 13:14:24 thomasl (By Thomas Lauer)$