Does Dismissing the Afterlife Make Life More Meaningful?
Posted on 25 January 2016, 11:01
Does dismissing belief in an afterlife make life more meaningful? C. J. Blair, a columnist for The Oberlin Review, tells his or her fellow students that such is the case in the December 4 issue of the college newspaper. “When I accepted death as the definite end, I was far more excited to embrace things that had previously scared me before, and much less eager to do things I knew I’d regret,” the philosophical student writes in explaining his/her rejection of religion.
C. J. begins the column by admitting that he/she is afraid of death and saying that this fear was largely responsible for his/her having embraced Christianity as a child. CJ goes on to say that he/she has now discovered humanism, a belief system that rejects all supernaturalism and says that human matters should be given primary importance. The bottom line seems to be that CJ feels much happier now and is living life to the fullest.
I’m sure that C. J. is not alone among his/her peers in making a transition from religion to some form of humanism. As stated in my blog of December 14, a recent survey by the Pew Research Center indicates that “nones” – people who have no religious affiliation – now make up 23 percent of the American adult population, up from 16 percent in 2007. Some nones are atheists, some agnostic, and some so indifferent or so wrapped up in our materialistic world that they haven’t taken the time to figure out what they believe or don’t believe. The upward trend in nones is due to an increasing number of millennials – those people born since 1981 – turning away from religion.
Here is my response to C. J.:
Dear C. J.,
Like you, I don’t claim to have it all figured out, even though I have had some 60 years more than you to do so. And, like you, I believe organized religions, including Christianity, haven’t done much to help us figure it out. In fact, they have led us into very murky waters, even into some muck and mire. I suspect, however, that you mistakenly assume, as so many people do, that the teachings of orthodox religions represent all there is to consider about the afterlife.
My understanding of humanism is that it is materialism, secularism, and rationalism bundled together with ethical and moral concerns and constraints. Without the ethical and moral added in, it might be called hedonism, possibly Epicureanism, the philosophy being pleasure-seeking self-indulgence or eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. A century ago, a humanist was called a moralist, someone able to live a life of dignity and morality without subscribing to religious beliefs. That sounds like a very noble and honorable way of living, one governed by discipline, moderation and courage rather than fear of punishment in an afterlife. But that should not be taken to imply that the religionist is controlled only by fear and is devoid of discipline, moderation and courage.
All well and good if humanism gives you the necessary peace of mind and happiness at this time in your life. It is clear, however, that the ethical and moral concerns and constraints are not observed by a large percentage of young people and that humanism, as idealistic it might be, so often gives way to hedonism, as we see in much of our country and the Western world today. At least the fear of punishment can curb that tendency to some degree and thereby benefit society.
Beyond that, it has been my observation and that of many friends in my age group that the pillars of humanism erode and crumble as one ages – when a person’s loved ones gradually begin dying off and when the humanist himself begins approaching the abyss of nothingness. “Living in the moment,” which is what humanism seems to advocate, is much more difficult as we see ourselves nearing “extinction.” The escape mechanisms we use to repress the idea of death simply don’t work like they did when we were in our young adult years and so occupied with establishing ourselves in careers and raising a family – when there was little or no time to do any real deep thinking about what life is all about and what might or might not come after.
I infer from your column that you think that a belief in an afterlife means that the focus should be on that afterlife and not on this life. There may very well be a few religious people who believe that, but I’m sure it doesn’t apply to the vast majority. I like the way Steward Edward White, a popular author of the early part of the last century, explained it in one of his books. Believe the source or not, but at least consider the wisdom of it. White’s wife, Betty, was a medium and a group of spirits dubbed the “Invisibles” by White were communicating with him through her. They referred to the desired awareness of spiritual matters, including death, as “habitual spiritual consciousness.” Concerned that White might misunderstand and assume that they were saying that the focus should be entirely on the spiritual world, they explained: “This does not imply any retirement into some state of permanent abstraction, nor any priggish watchfulness to determine that your every move is transcendental. It means simply that each day, when you finish your practice, you do not close the experience like a book, but carry it around with you like a treasured possession. Instead of being completely forgotten, it remains in the back of your mind, communicating its influence automatically to your actions and reactions, and ready at any moment, if specifically called upon, to lend a helping hand.”
The Invisibles called “balancing” the earthly life with the immortal life the “art of life.” They stressed that one must be able to deal with life’s adversities by viewing them from the higher consciousness.
There is much to be said for “living in the moment,” “living in the now,” “living in the present,” “living for today,” “carpe diem,” however you want to put it. But so many people your age seem to interpret that to mean “have fun at any cost.” Moreover, they do not appear to make a distinction between fun and happiness. They don’t know where to draw the line between humanism and hedonism, between self-discipline and self-gratification. They opt for short-term pleasure seeking over long-term peace of mind.
You seem to assume that because organized religion has gone astray in its search for meaning that it necessarily follows that consciousness does not survive death. However, there is strong evidence coming to us through various phenomena, including the near-death experiences, credible mediumship, deathbed visions, past-life studies, and out-of-body experiences, all suggesting that consciousness does survive death. And, you don’t even have to believe in a god, at least an anthropomorphic God, to accept that evidence.
Yes, I know that you can find many “know-it-all” professors around your campus that scoff at such phenomena, finding it more convenient to accept the debunking theories of materialists who claim to have studied it. But the scientists and scholars who have thoroughly studied the phenomena can easily discount the debunking theories. Those professors who scoff at it are victims of scientific fundamentalism, just as you apparently were once a victim of religious fundamentalism. Scientific fundamentalism is a religion in itself and is just as misleading as religious fundamentalism.
The evidence further suggests that the humdrum heaven and horrific hell of orthodox religions is just so much hogwash. I can’t blame you for turning away from religions that teach we spend eternity floating around on clouds, strumming harps, and praising God 24/7. How boring all that sounds! Modern revelation indicates that we build up in this life a “moral specific gravity” that determines what level or dimension we initially find ourselves after death and from which we continue to evolve. What religion calls hell is really a temporary fire of the mind on the lower levels, much like having a nightmare. Those who have led a decent life apparently gravitate to a level that is much more pleasant and exciting. We are told that it is pretty much beyond human comprehension and language, but it is clearly not the monotonous afterlife that various religions teach.
“Let one realize the absolute continuity of existence and at once life becomes worth living,” was the advice of philosopher Lilian Whiting. That advice is in complete opposition to what you have suggested. I suspect that in all your youthful wisdom you will smirk at that advice, as it is so difficult to grasp at your age. If nothing else, I hope that it will plant a seed and be retained in your subconscious when despair begins to set in during your second half of life, when those loved ones start dying and you, too, begin approaching the abyss. Between now and then, I hope that you are able to make the distinction between “having fun” and “being happy” – happy in spite of the challenges which will provide you the opportunity to learn and advance spiritually. And I also hope you will keep in mind the sage words of pioneering psychologist William James that one cannot effectively live in the present without some regard for the future.
Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die is published by White Crow Books. His latest book, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife is now available on Amazon and other online book stores.
His latest book Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I is published by White Crow Books.
Next blog post: Feb. 8
Thanks for sharing all that with me and other readers. It sounds like you are in a particularly difficult place right now, and I wish you the best in overcoming whatever the adversity is.
Thanks also for sharing that Rector quote which came through on my birthday, although a few years before I was born. Coincidentally, I was just typing my next blog, in which Rector is mentioned.
In my old age, I sometimes do life reviews and have seen that all my failures led to something that benefited me,although I haven’t always immediately recognized the positive side of it.
As they say here in the Sandwich Isles, or at least they used to say it: “Hang Tuff!(sic)
Michael Tymn, Mon 1 Feb, 09:32
As a follow-along to what I said previously regarding predestination, fate or karma, Rector, one of the controls during the trances of Leonora Piper, on April 2, 1900 is recorded as saying “our teaching is—-our aim beneath all this is to teach thee how thou mayest find God, to teach thee to live in Him and obey His laws, to teach thee that thy life has been mapped out for thee and that we as prophets, are enabled to see it and foresee it. We are sent to enlighten thee and teach thee how to live so as to best meet what lies before thee.
It seems to me that Rector is acknowledging a principal of predestination or as I put it ‘assignments’ given ahead of time for living a purposeful life. - AOD
Amos Oliver Doyle, Mon 1 Feb, 00:52
What a surprise this morning hearing God, through you, ask me this very important question, “What would I do to live life to the fullest that I am not doing now?” You can’t know how right-on this question is for me at this time.
It is not appropriate on a blog like this to get too personal but in an attempt to explain I will say that, looking back on my 76 years, my life has been filled with fears and unfullfillment—- seemingly purposeful unfullfillments. I suppose that fear and unfullfillment are related perhaps but sometimes I feel that God had a hand in it. I often feel that He has given me assignments and I sincerely try to live up to His expectations, not necessarily to please God but to learn from those assignments whatever I needed to learn. In effect not my will be done but thy will be done.
It is interesting to look back. At a young age I suppose I was very religious, not in an ‘organized-religion’ way but I believed in God—-really believed in God. I tagged along with my father and grandmother and aunt to St. Patrick’s Catholic church but was not confirmed in that religion and stopped going with them when I was about 14 years old. Nevertheless, I spoke to God as a regular part of my life and I suppose I thought that He would insure that things would turn out all-right for me—-that I would marry, have children, have a fulfilling job, be healthy and be happy.
It didn’t work out that way. Life happened! And no matter how I tried to direct my life, My ‘assignments’ apparently took precedence. Now I think that fate or predestination is a principle to be acknowledged in life. Some might say (and I might say) that karma had something to do with it.
I could make all kinds of excuses I suppose but I will just say that I did the best I could under the circumstances. Now I am inhibited by old age and circumstances which I, out of my concern for others, cannot control. And after a lifetime of concern for others, I have no idea what it would take to provide a fulfilling life for me now. - Your friend, AOD
Amos Oliver Doyle, Sun 31 Jan, 15:05
Thanks for your comments, and thanks to all others.
I guess my question relative to your last comment is what would you do to “live life to the fullest” that you aren’t doing now? Short of winning the lottery, I can’t think of anything I would do differently if I were to stop seeking and searching. In fact, life would be much more boring for me. I’d have to begin watching more TV, playing cards at the senior center, reading more fiction, finding more escape mechanisms.
Michael Tymn, Fri 29 Jan, 19:30
Just a couple more things Michael. I guess I would be grouped along with the ‘nones’ because, given no other choices, I would also have to answer that I have no religious affiliation. I am part of that growing group that is ‘not religious but spiritual’. (I didn’t know that a belief in the spiritual is considered a religion—-maybe in South America but not in the U.S. yet.)
I also think that it is a relief to entertain the philosophy of “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die”, that is, it is a relief to stop searching for an answer; to stop reading to find the evidence that convinces me that my consciousness will continue after the death of my body; to stop questioning, to stop evaluating whether or not people are fabricating. There is a sense of calm to just give it all up, to say que sera sera and accept one’s fate and live one’s life to the fullest extent possible. - AOD
Amos Oliver Doyle, Thu 28 Jan, 14:39
I think C. J.’s childhood faith in a religious doctrine, fear of death, and subsequent rejection of it all is a common occurrence. It’s much easier to believe in nothing because morality and the rule of life just become one person’s point of view or the accepted wisdom of the tribe, which can always be challenged by anyone because it’s all relative. As Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” tells us, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.”
C. J. has made his or her bet. As Blaise Pascal posited in “Pascal’s Wager” (i’m paraphrasing), as soon as we are born every single one of us makes a bet that our thoughts and actions either have no repercussions after our physical death or they do. No one gets an opt-out; everyone has placed their bet, and many of us change our bet along the way as a result of our personal experiences.
Jon, Thu 28 Jan, 11:34
Your “letter” was absolutely excellent!
Yvonne Limoges, Thu 28 Jan, 03:16
What a surprise awaits (and our group sees it in the spirit communications we have received over
the last 35 years plus) those who return to the spirit world having lived a generally materialistic life without any belief in an afterlife (or a continuing spiritual life) whatsoever, and how they say if they had known
or believed they would have lived their material life here much, much differently.
Yes, “secular humanism” might be more appropriate, but it seems like an oxymoron of sorts, at least a redundancy. Those calling themselves humanists assume they are all secularists.
If we get into the semantics of it all, all religious people are humanists and spiritualists, i.e., not materialists, but most religious people would be offended if called spiritualists.
On the other point, to again quote William James:
Michael Tymn, Wed 27 Jan, 09:07
“The moralist must hold his breath and keep his muscles tense; and so long as this athletic attitude is possible all goes well – morality suffices. But the athletic attitude tends ever to break down and it inevitably does break down even in the most stalwart when the organism begins to decay,or when morbid fears invade the mind.”
Thanks to all others for their kind comments.
An excellent response and commentary Mike!! Like Stafford, I think this should definitely be published somewhere, preferably in the Oberlin Review.
Dr Howard Jones, Tue 26 Jan, 22:41
Great work Mike, as always.
N.Riley Heagerty, Tue 26 Jan, 19:21
” Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die…” I was thinking that that was probably what created that mysterious group of ’ One Percenters who hold such vast, incomprehensible wealth in our country. Or was it the last words of some of the former Enron employees on their way to Federal prison? I can’t remember.
Denialism sounds more like it would fit.
Excellent comments Michael. Very well written and thought out. I always enjoy your personal writing style rather than your reporting style.
I read CJ’s entire short article in The Oberlin Review and couldn’t help thinking that she was fulfilling a writing assignment for her journalism class. I also have to say that I felt some warmth towards her and smiled as she expounded upon her great newly-discovered truisms about life. I saw myself in her writing as I might have written something comparable 50 or 60 years ago. It may be with the passage of time she will reread her column and cringe as I have when I look through my scrapbook of youthful writings.
Don’t be too hard on her; she is just testing the waters.
Amos Oliver Doyle, Tue 26 Jan, 17:26
Nice job Mike. I really hope your response sparks some interest, motivating Blair to do some reading and research in the field.
Mark Ireland, Tue 26 Jan, 04:46
Thank you, Mike, for sharing your response to this young college student. There is much wisdom and knowledge in what you say.
It is interesting that Epicurus believed that fear was a majoy stumbling block to a happy life, so he said that death is nothing to us. Being an atomist, he believed that the soul, like the body, disintegrates at death. The fear of death is an impediment to a happy life, and for that Epicurus said that, although there are gods, they mean nothing to us. (He was wise enough not to teach atheism, for Socrates was put to death on the charge of atheism.)
But classical Epicureanism is not “hedonistic” in the usual sense of the word. Granted, the school taught that “hedone” (pleasure) was the goal of life; but it was what the Greeks called ataraxia (peace of mind) that was more central than physical pleasure. Ideally, the Epicurean community would be friends meeting and discussing ideas, sharing in fellowship and friendship, eating and drinking (but not too much), and enjoying the pleasures of the physical and mental life.
Interesting enough, you end your response by appealing to fear that a person will have as one’s friends begin to die and as oneself approaches death. For Epicurus, the “nothingness” of existence gives us peace; for those who believe in the afterlife, that belief gives them peace.
There is, as you nicely point out, a difference between fun and a life of pleasure, on the one hand, and a life of MEANING, on the other. A life of pleasure is not necessarily a meaningful life, and a meaningful life is certainly not necessary one of pleasure. But for humans, meaning is more important than pleasure, at least if the humans are wise.
Historically, the great humanists were not hedonists, but highly intelligent men whose emphasis lay on human, rather than spiritual, concerns, as I understand the tradition. It did not advise self-gratification, but rather the value of being human and engaging in meaningful human activities.
Thanks again, Mike, for your excellent response to this young person, and for sharing that response with your admiring readers.
John F. Miller III, Tue 26 Jan, 01:09
My good friend and able editor, Mike Tymn, makes some very good points in his thoughtful letter to C.J. Blair. The cock-sure certainty of youth and the herd instincts of academia, as Mike Tymn pointed out,may be the least useful and least fruitful sources to rely upon for helpful guidance in deciphering spiritual realities pertaining to death, afterlife and the nature of soul and spirit.
The innate view of youth is that death is so many eons into the future that it has no practical contemporary meaning. The inherent view of academia is that all talk of souls, spirit and the afterlife is nothing but politically incorrect, ignorant, stupid, unscientific prattle.
Mike Tymn’s favorite source of evidence of the existence of afterlife is the channelings of mediums who are passing on the perceptions of disincarnate spirits. But as Woody Allen once noted, “Just because you are dead doesn’t automatically make you smart.”
So what does make sense and therefore potentially helpful in our exploration of this issue? I have found that the writings of Elaine Pagels, Professor of Religion at Princeton University are quite insightful. Particularly her commentary on the Secret Gospel of Thomas in her brilliant book Beyond Belief. Here is what she says:
Dave Stang, Mon 25 Jan, 22:32
“According to Genesis, ‘in the beginning’ there was, first of all, the primordial light. For Thomas this means that in creating ‘Adam (meaning humankind) in his image’ as Genesis 1:26 says, God created us in the image of the primordial light. Like many other readers of Genesis, then and now, Thomas suggests that what appeared in the primordial light was ‘a human being, very marvelous,’ a being of radiant light, the prototype of the human Adam, whom God created on the sixth day. This ‘light Adam,’ although human in form, is simultaneously, in some mysterious way, also divine. Thus Jesus suggests here that we have spiritual resources within us precisely because we are made ‘in the image of God.’… the ‘image of God’ is hidden within each of us, secretly linking God and all humankind.
“Thus Thomas’s Jesus tells his disciples that not only he comes forth from divine light but so do we all: ‘If they say to you, “Where did you come from?” say to them, “We come from the light, the place where the light came into being by itself, and was revealed through their image.” If they say to you, “Who are you?” say, “We are its children, the chosen of the living father.’”
According to Thomas, Jesus rebukes those who seek access to God elsewhere and redirects the disciples away from themselves toward the light hidden within each person: ‘there is a light within a person of light, and it lights up the whole universe. If it does not shine, there is darkness.’ In other words one either discovers the light within that illuminates ‘the whole universe’ or lives in darkness, within and without.”
Now I’d say that Elaine Pagels and her mentor, the mystical author of the Secret Gospel of Thomas, may have shed some light on the topic.
I don’t think you meant it this way, but if I were C.J. I would take your remarks as disqualifying my ideas because I’m too young. Remember how you felt as a young man when your elders did that? She (I assume) might counter that , if humanism erodes with age, as you say, it’s because the old can no longer face reality!
Incidentally humanism was religious at the start, witness early moderns like Petrarch and Erasmus. It’s secular humanism that I think you want as your straw man.
Coyd, Mon 25 Jan, 20:38
Mike, this rings home twice: When I was young I was such a humanist/hedonist and was having fun all the way! But only for a while until I stumbled onto Edgar Cayce 50 years ago. Since then having studied many paths I now fully share your views (although I could never have put it in such eloquent and well measured words). Thank you. Hans
Hans Wilhelm, Mon 25 Jan, 20:06
Very well said, Mike. Did you send your response to The Oberlin Review? If not, you should.
Stafford, Mon 25 Jan, 19:30
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