“To be, or not to be, that is the question.”
It’s not just a fictional question by the vengeful medieval Danish prince Hamlet in a Shakespearian play.
It is the central, timeless question of humankind.
The glory and curse of our species, Homo sapiens, is our penetrating self-awareness, which constantly reminds us that we are fragile, finite beings, whose fleeting lives easily can be snuffed out forever in an instant.
The grand irony of many, if not most, supernatural religions is that they appear to have been invented by human beings to delude ourselves into believing that the end is not only not nye, but never.
In other words, as Christian doctrine tells us, each person embodies an immortal “soul,” which never dies, and — depending on a person’s unique circumstances and choices in life — will live on forever after death in heavenly bliss or hellful agony.
So, as Alfred E. Neuman, the satirical MAD comic book character, famously said, “What, me worry?”
I am thinking about this after reading a very compelling piece in the August/September edition of Free Inquiry, a magazine of the U.S.-based Council for Secular Humanism’s Center for Free Inquiry, which promotes a secular society based on reason, science, humanist values and free inquiry.
The Jeremiah Bartlett article (available only by subscription) in the magazine’s Living Without Religion section, explains:
“One of the more intriguing aspects of life, human or otherwise, is that once a life has ended, it is as if it never happened. … Those who remain alive may remember that life, that person, for a brief period of time, and their memories embody the only form of ‘immortality,’ or life beyond this life on earth, about which we can be certain.”
Of course, remembrances in books, monuments and culture can extend that public memory of a person’s life, but remembrance always has a shelf life, which can indeed last millennia for the most famous among us but eventually must crumble into dust and permanent oblivion in the grand scheme of things.
Also ironically, law often unwittingly reveals its deference to religious ideology, as in the case of humanity’s purported soulful immortality. Laws seem to accept a sense that death is somehow not permanent. As Bartlett notes:
“As humans, we devise penalties for those who deliberately take another human life. The fact that these penalties vary according to the ‘severity’ or circumstances of the crime means we do not fully comprehend the gravity of what has been done. When someone’s life is taken, he or she can never reclaim it. That particular life has ceased to exist — forever.”
Logically speaking, the purposeful ending of a person’s life should be seen as the ultimate crime unequivocally requiring the ultimate penalty, not one weighed for its level of “severity.”
But if the people who make laws and impose sentences believe, perhaps only subconsciously, that each person will continue on after death to a new reality, why be extreme or inflexible in the here and now? Who knows what “God” has in store for each of us in the hereafter, right?
Bartlett reasonably views supernatural religion as a natural outgrowth of beings terrified of their own impending mortality, passionately trying to find a way to credibly disbelieve it. The concept of “soul” was thus invented.
“The presence of a soul … [is] a gift bestowed upon the human race by a supreme being, the creator of the universe,” Bartlett said, explaining the concept’s genesis, “who has done so out of love for his creation and in return for their pious worship.”
However, the concept of “soul,” much less of “God,” are both “unproven and in all likelihood unprovable,” he writes.
“To those who believe in a spiritual reality, whatever proof is necessary is clearly evident,” Bartlett contends, “whereas to those who do not believe, such proof is no more than a byproduct of faith, assuredly sincere but nonetheless misguided.”
A good argument could be made, then, even considering broad acceptance of ethical abortion in Western nations, that religious nonbelievers value human life even more than believers.
After all, protection of each of our private, sovereign, self-aware lives is the supreme human right, not the right to worship invisible deities.
Another good reason to keep church and state completely separate.