Eternity?

The entire point of religion, the reason for its existence, the promise it makes to convince you of its truth, is life after death. The promise is that if you believe in its claim of supernaturalism, you will be rewarded by a wonderful life after you die. In other words, when you die, either as an old man or woman after a life well lived, or early on as a result of a tragic accident or disease, you don’t really die, you just change form and continue to live. If you don’t think this is the point of religion, then ask yourself what the point of religion is, if you simply die at the end of your life?  Should we bother with Sunday worship, tithing, pedophile priests, flying planes into skyscrapers, jihad, suicide bombers, Pat Robertson, and all the other outward manifestations of religion, if we will simply die and rot in the ground when our lives are over? Why bother believing in all that clap-trap, unless there’s a Kewpie doll at the end of the rainbow (if you’ll permit the occasional mixed metaphor)?

The bottom line is that we put up with all this to get the grand prize – eternal life.  Most of your basic religions offer it. Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, they all promise a reward of some form of eternal life, but only if you follow the rules and regulations of their religion. This carrot on the stick is what keeps the faithful in line. It seems to me, however, that no one really thinks through this concept of an eternal reward. Exactly what is it we get if we believe to the end?

Is it even possible to wrap your mind around the concept of eternity? The human mind has limited experience with the term. In fact, we know it only in the abstract. It’s impossible to experience eternity. How long is it? By comparison, the universe is only about 12 billion years old. You could double, triple or even quadruple that number, and you wouldn’t even begin to come close to the number of years in eternity. OK, then. Let’s multiply it by a factor of 10100. Still not even getting close. 10100 is a drop in the temporal bucket compared to eternity. No, an atom in the temporal bucket would get closer, but still not be close to describing it.

Let’s look it at from another angle. Say you live 80 years. And during those 80 years,  the one activity you’ve probably done the most is sleep. It’s doubtful you could find another activity that you participated in for a longer period of time. Now let’s assume that you slept, on average, 8 hours a night your whole life.  That means that added all together, you’ve slept for a period of 26 2/3 years. Now compare this with the concept of eternity. Do you comprehend the vast space between your longest activity and that of eternity? You do? Well, you’re a better man than me, because that gaping chasm of time is incomprehensible to me.

Fundamentalist Christians tell us that if we are good boys and girls, and beleive in god, and keep his commandments (as silly as they are) we get to be with Christ in heaven for all eternity. I, for one, am not sure I want to spend eternity with a god I’ve never met, and who has really not done anything to make me feel all warm and fuzzy about being in his presence for such a long period of time. This is the same god that wiped out every living thing on this earth in a flood, who has sent countless number of people to a lake of fire just because they never heard of him, who created such horrors here on Earth as cancer, pedophilia and the Holocaust. What makes Christians think I would be compatible with this monster, and, for that matter, would want to spend all eternity in his presence? For all I know, he’s afflicted with halitosis, and you know what it’s like to be cornered at a cocktail party by someone with that problem.

Have you ever noticed that most religions seem to be very long on what we should do and be here on Earth, but very short on what to expect once we get to the afterlife? There is no real description of heaven in the Bible. Most artwork always depicts it as something floating on clouds, which seems moderately insubstantial to me, vague in a vague sort of vague way, if you get my drift. It’s as if the writers of the Bible really had no idea what Heaven was like, so they made it up out of thin air, which could explain all the clouds. Do I want to spend eternity floating on clouds? No. I want a better description before I’ll commit to that.  Would you book a vacation for a week on such thin information, much less eternity? I think not.

OK, admittedly, I’m blabbering here, and need to get back to my point, which is who is their right mind would want to live forever? What would you do … forever? Play board games, make small talk with Jesus, rearrange your sock drawer an infinite number of times? (Please don’t tell me that one doesn’t need socks in heaven.)

Anything done repeatedly for eternity has to be the definition of Hell, not Heaven.

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17 thoughts on “Eternity?

  1. > The entire point of religion, the reason for its existence, the promise it makes to convince you of its truth, is life after death.

    Not at all, as demonstrated by the plethora of religions that have nothing to say about what becomes of a person after they die.

    > If you don’t think this is the point of religion, then ask yourself what the point of religion is, if you simply die at the end of your life?

    You would do well to read Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell” for an answer to your rhetorical question.

    You hint at the contradiction in your position when you observe:

    > Have you ever noticed that most religions seem to be very long on what we should do and be here on Earth, but very short on what to expect once we get to the afterlife?

    This should be enough to at least hint that no, the afterlife is *not* the reason and point of participating in religion.

    Instead, I am of the opinion that the main point and reason for people to participate in a religion is social: to demonstrate, through repetitive and costly actions, that one is a trustworthy member of a particular social group. This meets a strong need in humans to identify as belonging to a group, to have a base of fellow humans who show, through their own costly demonstrations, that they share at least some of one’s own values.

    Eternal life in another world is a late-comer to the scene of religion. My experience talking with religious types is that their reason for participating is very little to do with metaphysics and questions of an afterlife, and much more to do with group identity and social structure.

  2. Name a few of this “plethora” of religions which “have nothing to say about what becomes of a person after they die.” The most popular religions (Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism) all have things to say about that, even the fringe ones like Scientology, Wiccans and Raellians.

    Eternal life is not a late-comer. Religions throughout history have had after-life components, even the primitive forms of ancestor worship involve belief that dead ancestor somehow can influence your life. I’d say that’s pretty evident of an after-life, no?

    What is the greatest motivation for subscribing to a religion is debatable, but the eternal life thing is a HUGE one. It is the root of most sales pitches for religion, especially the infamous Pascal’s wager. I would agree that suicide bombing doesn’t require religious belief in an after-life. An atheist can make a self sacrifice for the sake of others or for an ideal, but the idea that the sacrifice is not as absolute as it otherwise would be must make such a thing more enticing, especially when it comes with a harem of virgins. 🙂

  3. Actually, prior to Christianity, Ben is pretty much right. Judaism has very little to say about the afterlife (there’s the vague concept of “Sheol”, a sort of dingy ghost world, but no beer volcanoes), Hinduism and Buddhism are bigger on reincarnation than afterlives and Islam is basically a latecomer to the party, having nicked a lot of its theology from Christianity.

    The etrnal life thing is a big selling point for Christians and Muslims, though, I don’t think anyone could deny that. But given a moment of thought, it would be horrible! Eternity is a period of infinite time, and given infinite time, every possible event that could happen, would happen – an infinite number of times. That means that during your eternal life, you would experience the worst things possible, forever (alright, you’d also experience the best things as well, but you’d surely get bored with them after having them repeated over and over and over…). Sounds pretty crap to me.

  4. You ignored ancestor worship, which has no statute of limitations for how long after death you can influence the world and life of your descendants, therefore clearly implying eternal life of some kind (although giving little or no specifics about that “life”). Ancestor worship is considered one of the earliest forms of religion.

  5. I recognize that religions, like life, have evolved over time to reach their present form. This post is dealing with religion today; what the majority of people who are religious today believe. I’m not really concerned with what past religions believed. If you look at present day beliefs, most of them have something to say about how we live on after death. Reincarnation is just the Eastern religions’ particular take on the matter. So I think my proposition still stands.

    While the social aspect of religion may be important, both in the evolution and the current day to day practice of it, it’s still the promise of non-death that the religions are formed around. We are the first species to be able to anticipate and comprehend our own death, so it’s natural that a religion would use that to perpetuate it’s own existence, a la a meme. Take it away, and people can still fill their need for social interaction without believing in a god that, in the end, gives them no advantage over the finality of life. And most likely they will.

  6. Thanks for the chuckle. Been thinking a lot about people’s desire for mortality lately (since one of my posts on having children received the old immortality reply). I still can’t figure out why anyone would want to live forever. I can’t figure out why anyone thinks they are so special that they should live forever. I certainly can’t figure out why anyone would want to be in heaven with all those fanatics who never had a moment’s fun in their whole life (at least not without castigating themselves after).

  7. > While the social aspect of religion may be important, both in the evolution and the current day to day practice of it, it’s still the promise of non-death that the religions are formed around.

    No, the religion *isn’t* formed around the promise of an eternal afterlife, nor is that promise “the entire point of religion, the reason for its existence, the promise it makes to convince you of its truth”.

    The promise of an eternal afterlife is a very distinguishing feature in the doctrine of such religions, and one of the absurdities with which it’s easy to grapple. Indeed, it’s one of the points on which it’s quite easy to expose logical and philosophical contradiction and dissonance.

    But the point is that this grappling *isn’t* done by the majority of those who practice the religion, except when an outsider confronts them with it, because it’s *not* the reason why they practice.

    By claiming that the religion “is formed around” or “has as the reason for existence” the promise of an eternal afterlife, you set up a straw man. To you, the social aspect may be less important than the claims of eternal afterlife; but that’s not so for someone who has that religion as part of their daily life.

    Only by understanding that the religious are religious *primarily because of* the social bonds and group identity tied up with their particular religion, will you see why pointing out absurdities and fallacies in the philosophy is unlikely to have much effect on whether a person continues to believe. Instead, a person *also*, and *more importantly*, needs to be convinced that a social network and group identity is easy to have without the shackles of religion.

  8. Ben and Mel make good points.

    I’m a member of a cancer support group and also a group of people (veterans) who have undergone reconstructive surgery. I hear a lot of things.

    In the oncology clinic I hear a lot of people who have “gotten religion” or “returned to the fold” after a lifetime of indifference or simply observing days of obligation.

    They have quite a lot of things concocted to look forward to.

    A lot of it has to do with the fact that so many of them really avoided living in the first place, so they are awarding themselves a consolation prize. And quite frankly, they’ve got their Hell for the people who did them dirt.

  9. What I find absurd is someone stating as fact why most people are religious and summarily calling any other hypothesis a straw man.

    It’s impossible to know with absolute certainty why people are religious. You can survey the religious, research marketing and perhaps tally what types of services draw bigger crowds, see how many religious claim membership to a church and examine the degree of participation in that church or any of its social activities, and from all this form a reasonably supported opinion, or you can just do as SI has done and simply argue an opinion, but to state as fact that you know with certainty the minds of billions of people? I’d say sir, that’s maybe comparable to the audacity of the religious claiming they know the mind of their god.

    Only by understanding that you don’t fucking know with any more certainty than anyone else will you see why pointing out other’s opinions as fallacious is absurd. *Also* and *more importantly*, take a chill.

  10. Ben

    I certainly appreciate the role that a need for societal company plays in the rise and staying power of religion, as I’ve previously acknowledged. Hell, I’ve been there myself, and frankly, one of the things I miss as an atheist is just that sense of community you get in regular and good company.

    But there is a way to scientifically test it, though only conceptually, because in practice it would be impossible. Convince all the members of a church that the existence of the supernatural is nonsense, that there is no god and no afterlife. How many would still show up on Sundays, continue to pay money to the church, or be involved in church related activities?

    You can see the answer in those who deconvert. Do atheists remain members of the church after they stop believing? Generally, no. Yes, a component of that is that they no longer fit in, because the glue that holds these people together is a common belief in something that they would acknowledge they have no evidence of requiring mutual reinforcement of their beliefs, so there would be pressure from those left behind to leave. But say they all had a mass awakening? Would they voluntarily all stick together and continue the church, simply because it filled some need for company?

    I think not.

  11. Frankly, even when I was a believer, I thought heaven sounded pretty boring. I’m rather relieved that it’s just a lame fantasy.

  12. Eternity? How about just the hundreds of years the people in Genesis allegedly lived? In Genesis, Noah apparently lived about 960 years but his first son was born when Noah was 500. Do Biblical literalists really believe that Noah was a virgin for nearly 500 years? Imagine living with the same family and working the same job for centuries. We would probably all go berserk!

  13. Good point, Tommy. While it may have been historically interesting for me to have been born in 1100, and still be alive today, it would have been somewhat impractical. For one thing, I probably wouldn’t have survived the Spanish Inquisition. 8)

  14. In mathematics, eternity has about as much value as 0, because no number can represent eternity.

    No one gets to live forever anyway. And I for one do not hanker after the afterlife.

    Beast FCD

  15. I didn’t want to get all dogmatic on my son (now 11), so it was a while before the subject came up, but when I mentioned that I didn’t believe in God he said he did, “because otherwise, what happens when I die?”

    I responded as you’d expect, laying emphasis on “What we want doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with what’s real, honey.” Still, it struck me as being a very honest assessment of what is the genuine ‘hook’ in religious faith.

  16. I think I could see living for a couple hundred or even a couple thousand years. I think humanity is possibly on the brink of becoming interesting for the next little while. I’d like to see how it unfolds.

    But after a couple thousand years, I’m pretty sure I’d be stark raving, batshit insane and a danger to all (seriously, I’d have ray-guns, a jet-pack, as well as all the crazy). I’d probably have to be put down like a rabid dog.

    An afterlife forever as opposed to actually being alive for a good long time before winking out . . . sounds like the difference between light beer and beer. Heaven is a weak-sister not worth all the saved calories. Even if it were, an eternity of wenching and boozing and Tetris would still get tired after the first 2.87 billion years. And I seriously doubt Christian Heaven has any of that. Christian Heaven is probably a lot like Salt Lake City. Only without all the Mormons.

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