Atheists often wonder at the refusal of theists to face the truth and to their ability to content themselves with a delusion unsupported by credible evidence. One reason is the desire for life after death promised by religion. This passage below is from an 1873 paper by Fredrick Barnard, quoted in the recent book The Origins of Creation. The authors there have omitted certain portions so I went back to the original to find the full quotation. Nothing else I can recall expresses so clearly the ardent craving for immortality. Despite its length, I believe it is worth giving in full.
Fredrick Barnard was President of Columbia College before it became Columbia University. Barnard College is named for him because he was instrumental in establishing a college for women on the Columbia campus. Despite his almost total deafness, he was a mathematician, chemist, physicist, and a scholar of English and classical literature.
That an intelligent and educated man of considerable stature could take this attitude speaks to the strong appeal of its sentiment and shows how difficult it is to counter with reason. For that reason I think it is of interest for the psychology of theism. We know the logical arguments against theistic beliefs quite well, but sometimes we fail to appreciate its emotional appeal even to men of science.
This strikes a chord with me, Allen. I have a good friend who's very bright, sarcastic, and downright sardonic in his take on the absurdities of Christianity, but he nevertheless can't accept that we're only here for the brief span between birth and shuffling off this mortal coil. The appeal of this belief, even to people who know it's "deceitful", is fascinating.
Barnard is interesting because of his intelligence. He was committed to science and in addition to serving 24 years as President of Columbia, he was also President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and promoted higher education for women. He studied theology and was ordained as a deacon and his inaugural address as President of Columbia was titled "The relation of physical science and revealed religion." At that time he felt that evolution would be disproved shortly along with spontaneous generation and the physical basis of mind.
It is impossible to dismiss him as uninformed or unintelligent and that only points up the enormous appeal of life after death. He seems to have suspected the truth belied his wishes, but as it required laying down all the theological baggage he had accumulated in his lifetime, as well as his hope of immortality, he could not face it. His inaugural address at Columbia has one great line uttered in defense of scientific truth:
Truth cannot be frowned out of existence, nor is there any weight of human authority heavy enough to keep it down.
It is impossible to dismiss [Barnard] as uninformed or unintelligent....
Allan, it is also impossible to dismiss his intelligence as a tool of his emotions.
Consider the conclusions in his long fourth sentence: But if. in my study....
The belief forced on him?
His life is but a mere vapor?
A truth he cannot receive with gladness?
What are those but the conclusions of a man who'd been taught to see himself as a victim?
There's more; I will continue below.
Unable to copy and paste from the pic above, I'm now using my dictation software.
Barnard's prose, more eloquent and sometimes shorter than mine, dismisses his own accomplishments.
...if the final outcome of all the boasted discoveries of modern science is to disclose to men that they are more evanescent than the shadow of the swallow's wing upon the lake, ....
That beats the butterfly flapping its wings in China but it ignores the career-long efforts of politicians to put buildings, roads, bridges, parks, dams and more in their home districts and achieve a kind of immortality by attaching their names.
... In my simple ignorance, ....
Barnard's ignorance might be simple; constructing my ignorance required years of study of science, mathematics and various other subjects.
If he too was a victim of religion, he wrote the above before he found a remedy.
He knows he is in denial and I don't read comfort in his statement. Hope? Yes! "Folding the drapery of my couch about me? Is that all he wants is the pleasure of that? He speaks not of being with family, friends or colleagues. Is he only being brief or did he not find pleasure in their company? He obviously cared deeply for the education of women. Did he not find pleasure in that endeavor?
Clearly he knows god is a myth and the promises of life after death are false. Yet he willingly compartmentalizes his science away from his commitment to serve and change society under the banner of religion.
I wonder if his deafness influenced his desire to pull the drape over himself on his couch for eternity?
As president of Columbia College, Barnard successfully oversaw further steps in the transformation of the College into a university; including the founding of the Faculty of Political Science (1880), later a part of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; the School of Architecture (1881); the Industrial Education Association (1886), later Teachers College; and the School of Library Service (1887). Tireless in his efforts to promote coeducation Barnard fought unsuccessfully against trustee, faculty and student opposition to the inclusion of women students at Columbia College. Despite Barnard's strong opposition to a separate women’s college (in his opinion, men and women should be educated side by side), following his death, the newly affiliated women's college was named in his honor.
Perhaps he hoped that in the afterlife he would no longer be handicapped with deafness.
By the way his brother was Superintendant of West Point and a general on the northern side in the Civil War. Good genes.
He was generally kind and polite, but when his plans for the University of Alabama were criticized by a former Governor and member of the Board there in very personal terms, he responded that it was "not within the power of a broken-down politician to browbeat men of sense." He was not granted the privilege to speak in person to the board when the governor asked for his removal, but only allowed to respond in writing on short notice. He pointed out that he had not criticized anyone in a position superior to him and that therefore the board had no jurisdiction in the matter, which could be handled by the courts. The board dropped the matter entirely.
it was "not within the power of a broken-down politician to browbeat men of sense."
~ F.A.P. Barnard in Columbians Ahead of Their Time.
Yes, the hope of immortality. The religious have that hope because of their "faith." Even though legends show many worldwide to have risen from the grave and conquered death, there is only ONE who has done this according to believers of the Bible. They say that man is Jesus Christ.
Everyone wants to be like him. Even today people argue on Internet forums about others who were in a coma, maybe brain dead, and eventually they came back. Yes, they were dead and came back to life, we are told.
I always point out that this is not true. It's just modern medicine. The proof of my statements is in rigor mortis. So far nobody has returned to life after rigor mortis sets in, and that includes your legendary Jesus Christ.
But Barnard had his hope too.
What I found interesting when I read the whole paper was that he did not express any regret for the potential loss of belief in God through the advances of science—only the loss of his own personal hope for immortality. Egocentrism.
Daniel, I hope your retirement allows you to write! You put words together that touch the intellect and the imagination. You write powerfully! Such a great gift and printed words live beyond your death.
In the meantime, I am grateful for you and the journey we shared.
My hope is to see the end of privilege and all have access to affordable health care.
We're programmed to have an abhorrence of death, from which it follows naturally that life is cherished to the point of not wanting it to end, but I think the line between the love of life and the fear of death is so thin as to be almost non-existent. People are notoriously fickle when it comes to they're likes and dislikes; todays enthusiasms are tomorrows boredoms. Eternity is a bit of a stretch of the imagination when it comes to keeping oneself occupied no matter how concerning it may be to face the lights going out. A lifetime without end just doesn't make any sense.
That seems more or less the right attitude. It is quite reasonable to fear violent death or early death, but at 80 I really do not think I could legitimately complain if suddenly I were faced with a death that was not too painful. I've had my life, my career, three sons, some interesting travel—not without bumps along the way, but not especially awful. The writer Paul Bowles said:
If I knew I were going to die tomorrow, I'd think, so soon? Still, if a man has spent his life doing what he wanted to do, he ought to be able to say goodbye without regrets.
And Carl Van Doren wrote:
One desire by which the human mind is often teased is the desire to live after death. It is not difficult to explain. Men live so briefly that their plans far outrun their ability to execute them. They see themselves cut off before their will to live is exhausted. Naturally enough, they •wish to survive, and, being men, believe in their chances for survival. But their wishes afford no possible proof. Life covers the earth with wishes, as it covers the earth with plants and animals. No wish, however, is evidence of anything beyond itself. Let millions hold it, and it is still only a wish. Let each separate race exhibit it, and it is still only a wish. Let the wisest hold it as strongly as the foolishest, and it is still only a wish. Whoever says he knows that immortality is a fact is merely hoping that it is.