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.
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.
A lifetime without end just doesn't make any sense.
Ah, an opportunity to excise a syllable. Thank you, Gerald.
Does the inevitable inevitably make more sense than the evitable?
There was a time in my life when I was scared to death of dying. Some of the reason for that was the underlying teachings of religion. Pentecostalism to be exact. I was taught to study a book and learn of god, then become upset with myself if I was not "living right" or doing what god wanted me to do. You're just a dirty Shriner! (Ops! I spelled that one wrong.) This is how religion gets to you with its "guilt." You feel guilty and shamed so you deserve the punishments that your religion promises you. Now you are scared of dying.
But wait! Death is natural and it comes to everyone. Not that you want to die, but you lose the fear of death once you lose the fear that was bestowed by religion. Certainly you do not want your death to involve any pain. I lost my fear of death when I fully realized that if a god exists it's very unlikely that the god's words and commandments are written in some ancient book somewhere. The falsity of all this even becomes laughable.
Might there still be some form of something that we call "god?" Something that was our creator or first mover, something intelligent that is behind it all? I cannot deny something of this nature as being possible, but there is no proof of it, and certainly no proof that any such intelligence (if it existed) cared for you in any way. There are no magic men in the sky trying to get in touch with you, straighten you out, give you a plan, or do anything at all.
Live your life. Do so in a way that you treat others fairly. Someday you will die and it will become much like it was in the millions of years before you were born. You will live on in the minds and memories of those you have left behind.
Michael, in a cultural anthropology course I took decades ago, I learned of tribes in which people are considered dead when no one still living remembers them.
Many people adopt some of that way of thinking. I've heard people say that they feel the deceased ones stay with them - not religious but emotionally. The eleven cats that shared part of their lives with me are still with me too - call me crazy if you want to.
@Tom and Chris.
I think this would be correct.
Nietzsche thought that recollection of the dead in dreams was the root of religion:
"n ages of crude, primordial cultures, man thought he could come to know a second real world in dreams: this is the origin of all metaphysics. Without dreams man would have found no occasion to divide the world. The separation into body and soul is also connected to the oldest views about dreams, as is the assumption of a spiritual apparition that is, the origin of all belief in ghosts, and probably also in gods. "The dead man lives on, because he appears to the living man in dreams." So man concluded formerly, throughout many thousands of years."