So you can go to heaven / stay out of hell
This is my favourite theist justification for God being necessary. Well loved by the Catholics. A very potent emotional argument (especially in foxholes, and with children), which makes it a very successful recruitment strategy.
Why would otherwise reasoning, intelligent, modern (even scientific) humans believe in this most supernatural of concepts? Simple; fear of death is the most primal of instincts all animals have, including homo-sapiens. It is the most basic survival mechanism programmed into our genetic memory.
Tapping into this extremely potent psychological and physiological trigger, often during early childhood, by suggesting there is a way of cheating death (via a soul which leaves the body) is a not so subtle form of mental and emotional blackmail.
Layered over the top of this fear is the magical place called heaven, with a promised level of happiness exceeding all human comprehension (nothing like overdoing the up side).
But it’s not all clouds and angels. There is a stick to go with this carrot; a rather nasty place called Hell.
However, it is obvious that Hell and it’s boss are becoming less and less prominent in the sermons of the “progressive” sects. They seem somewhat embarrassed by the notion (like much of their ancient myths today). Many now even refer to Hell and the Devil as solely figurative creations to explain the concept of sin to the simple folk. I note that they still hold onto the carrot side though, which is clearly illogical and somewhat hilarious to us rational thinkers.
And what do you have to do in order to get the greatest carrot in the universe and avoid the biggest stick? Pretty simple really. Believe in their God and do everything they (sorry He) tells you to.
“Wait”, you say, “I don’t think I’d be able to follow those rules for my entire lifetime. That looks pretty hard”. No problem, some of them have a process for clearing the slate of any bad deeds every so often, so you can still get in through the magical gates, even if you’ve been very naughty.
Put like this, the whole thing looks ridiculous. However, the battle is between the intellect and a very primal, very powerful psychological response. Psychologists and psychiatrists would agree that most of the time intellect loses out to instincts much weaker than fear of death.
I’ve seen theists write many times in justification, “well if you’re right and there’s no god or heaven, I’ll be no worse off than you when I die, but if I’m right and you’re wrong, you’ll be damned”.
The motivation behind these “bet each way” arguments is most transparently fear of death itself, but they also have an attractive twisted logic that dares you to bet against a fairy tale being true with your (after) life. Perhaps that’s why I consider atheists to be the bravest of people.
Getting back to my case against needing God. If there is a heaven and hell, one first needs to establish which one of the many Gods and associated derivative religious sects one needs to follow in order to get in (or stay out). This presents a very considerable challenge. One would surely need to use a logic far more rigorous than “the one my parents follow” in order to discount the possibility that perhaps the other side of the world thinks equally similarly. You can’t both be right, surely?
The logic of “my ancient book trumps your ancient book” doesn’t look sturdy enough to bet eternity on either.
Somewhat confusingly I’ve even heard some theists argue that if the only reason you’re following God is to get into heaven, he’ll know and you won’t get in anyway.
So let’s assume you thoroughly researched each possible method to eternal life in heaven and picked Roman Catholicism. When I hear Catholics talking about their God these days, they often refer to him as being all loving and all forgiving (hence the avoidance of talking about hell any more).
What if when you get to heaven, there’s all these Muslims standing outside the gates saying “I changed my mind. Obviously we were wrong and should have followed Jesus. We couldn’t be expected to know. Our parents and neighbours threatened to cut off our heads if we didn’t praise Allah. We didn’t kill any Christians and behaved better than many of them during our lives. Please let us in”.
Do you think the loving, forgiving, Catholic God would let them in, or send them straight to hell with an “I’m sorry you happened to be born in Iran, not my problem buddy”.
If God lets them in, what about the atheists, who were just asking (with the intellect God gave them) for a bit of evidence?
OK, what about the babies who weren’t christened. What about the mentally disabled?
Are there any exceptions, or is everyone but fully confessed Catholics damned for eternity?
Which brings us to another confusing anomaly. If Jesus is so forgiving, why does he send some people to hell for ETERNITY, but let’s “his” people off with a warning? That sounds like a pretty egotistical, vengeful and unforgiving Jesus to me.
So, if you start making exceptions of who can get in to the Catholic’s heaven, then the whole “follow me or be damned” reasoning starts losing it’s (flimsy) logic and most of it’s fear based impact.
But what if your God isn’t so modern and forgiving? What if he’s the original Old Testament Yahweh? Well, that being the case most of the “progressive” derivative sects are off to hell with the rest of us atheists and pagans, and you’ll need to believe ALL the ancient stories as physical reality and conduct yourself in accordance with pre-BC rules and punishments to be safe. (I know, I know, some of you still do).
So I put to you; if you believe there’s a reasonable and forgiving God, you’re pretty safe to get into any afterlife heaven and avoid hell without following him whilst your alive, but;
if he’s a vengeful and unforgiving piece of work, you better go ultra-fundamentalist-orthodox ; although you’ll still be gambling that you picked the right hard hitting God and sect.
So according to my logic all of humanity is only gambling either that;
(a) there is or isn’t a God and associated heaven and hell;
(b) if God exists whether he/she is forgiving or not;
(c) if God isn’t forgiving, whether we picked the right vengeful God and sect to follow;
So either all of us should be equally afraid of death because there’s no way “on earth” to prove we have chosen the right option, or no one should be afraid because there is no God, heaven or hell, or there is but he’s so loving and forgiving he’ll let us all in anyway.
So when facing death there should be little psychological comfort for any reasoning adult to be found in following any God (at least not exclusively).
If my gamble (atheism) fails and I wind up in fairytale hell I will content myself with the fact that at least I saved a lifetime of effort in assuaging the same make believe God as all the theists with me who chose incorrectly.
On second thoughts I might start worshipping Zeus again. You never know!
So what does an atheist think about death? That’s like asking what do atheists think about chocolate cake, because there’s no such thing as an atheist view on anything other than the existence of a God.
Despite the theists ignorant allegations to the contrary, atheism is neither a religion, organisation, dogma, system or philosophy. It is simply a word describing people who don’t believe in a God.
We atheists each determine our own personal approach to the question of what happens at death. I’m sure many of us are afraid of death, just like many theists are.
Logically a theist is just as likely to be wrong about their God and the afterlife, as an atheist about all of them. However, using logic is not how many theists operate.
I ask the theists to acknowledge that in following their God they have used some form of discrimination in order to exclude all the others, and the possibility that none exist. Therefore seeing as you’ve made a decision, at least be able (and willing) to explain your decision process. We atheists can.
At best the difference between belief in a particular God and no God is a cosmic dice roll before death. Hardly a convincing argument (to me anyway) for any particular God being necessary. However it’s clearly enough for the theists to scare children into joining up with their God for life (and death).
Even though this thesis is really about whether God is necessary in your life, not after your death, I’m willing to concede here that if you believe in heaven and/or hell then (conveniently) God the gatekeeper is necessary.
However, no one said it is necessary to believe in heaven and hell, and it is circular logic to suggest that you need to because God said so.
Is the belief in a heaven and hell necessary, or even of some benefit in the physical world? I suggest not.
How many acts of terrorism have been committed by people believing they would receive a huge reward in the afterlife that would be worth sacrificing their actual lives (and killing all the others)? This “afterlife repayment” for a glorious death in battle has been used for thousands of years to inspire the mass murder of war.
But surely the afterlife story provides comfort to the dying and loved ones left behind after death? Grief or fear should not be reasons or excuses for fostering mental delusions in my opinion, especially if you want to honour their lives with dignity.
What about a dying child, or orphan? To make up a story to comfort a child without the intellectual or emotional capacity to deal with death, is obviously acceptable. We make up stories to explain all sorts of complex phenomena to the primitive intellect of a child. But in doing so we are aware at all times that it is a fictitious mental sugar pill, and we will eventually have to provide the truth.
To continue on that fantasy into adulthood is not only unnecessary, but becomes irresponsible if one’s goal is to develop a society of intelligent, reasoning adults.
The fact that an ancient supernatural fantasy explanation is the easiest or least painful option does not make it acceptable, it certainly isn’t necessary, and I believe I have demonstrated it can be very dangerous.