Pride in death

Human attitudes toward death are often negative: the transition is met with fear among many, and outright terror by some. Positive emotions, such as relief from suffering and the hope for something better afterward, are occasionally associated with it, but the general feeling humans feel toward death is a negative one, as if it were an undesirable event that should be procrastinated as much as possible. We fight it until the very end, even though death is guaranteed to win. It’s not our fault that we’re this way; we’re biologically programmed to be so. So we have a deep-seated tendency to put everything we have into keeping death away from us as much as we can. This has a negative side effect: when we cannot hold it back any longer, and when death rushes in, many people around the dying person take an attitude of defeat. This attitude toward death and aging I find very harmful. That said, acknowledging the certainty of death, I’ve often wondered if the process is deserving of a different and somewhat unconventional emotional response: pride, not in the vain sense of the word, but in a self-respecting and upright sense. I don’t mean to suggest that one “should” take such a counterintuitive attitude toward death, but only to suggest the thought experiment surrounding what if one did take pride in one’s mortality. What, exactly, would that look like?

Death is a big deal: an irreversible step into something that is possibly wonderful but certainly unknown. If any process can be called uncertain and risky, death outclasses anything else that we do, by far. Moving to another country? That’s nothing compared to dying. Death is a major transition, and the only reason we do not associate it with courage is because it is completely involuntary and universal: everyone, including both the most and least courageous, must do it. But if lifespans were infinite and death were a choice, it’s not one that many people would make. Death, in this light, could be viewed as immensely courageous.

Before I go any further, it’s important to state that suicide is generally not courageous, at least not in the self-destructive form that is most common in this world. Self-destruction (whether it results in death or merely in lesser forms of ruin) is the ultimate in cowardice. That said, choosing to die for another’s benefit, or to escape life when terminally ill, are different matters, and I don’t consider those deaths “suicides”. Suicide, in the most rash and revolting form, is an overstepping act of self-destruction driven by bad impulses and fear or hatred of one’s own existence. To attempt to give up on existence or eradicate one’s self is not courageous, but that’s not what I’m talking about. When I say that death is courageous, I do not go so far as to say that forcing it to come is a courageous act, but more that offering oneself up for it, if this “offer” were not an inflexible prerequisite for physical existence, would be considered extremely courageous. To venture into what is possibly another world, and possibly nonexistence, with no hope of return? Even with the best possibilities of this journey being far superior to anything this existence can offer, few (even among the religiously devout and unwaveringly faithful) would take it. I’m not even sure if I could bring myself to do it. For a person freed from death’s inevitability, whether or not to die would be a very difficult decision, and probably one that even most religious believers, solid in their belief in an afterlife, would procrastinate for a very long time.

That said, modern society does not view death as a process that may be full of promise. Instead, our society’s attitude toward death is negative and mechanistic, so far as it views death as the ultimate in failure. We describe a car or computer as “dead” when it fails beyond repair, and (accurately, biologically speaking) describe a cell as dead when it can no longer perform necessary biological functions, such as self-repair and reproduction. That which is “dead” has failed beyond hope and is now of such low utility that, on account of its mass and volume, it’s now a burden. This analogy applies to the human body– its failure is the cause of biological death, and it is utterly useless after death– but to the human person? The comparison, I think, is unfair. After a life well-lived, the soul might be in a victorious or brilliant state. We really don’t know. We know that we have to deal with a corpse, and that a person is no longer around to laugh at our jokes, but we haven’t a clue what the experience is like for that person. Being mostly selfish creatures– I make this observation neutrally, and it applies to me as much as anyone else– we reflexively view death as a negative, mainly because of the incredible pain that others’ deaths bring upon us. We don’t know what it’s like to die, but we hate when those we love die.

The image of death in our society is quite negative, and possibly unfairly, but it is natural that a society like ours would despite death. We view the suffering it causes every day, and even if it might have incredible subjective benefits for those who are dying, we never see them (and those who have seen them, if they exist, don’t blog). Our view of dying is even more disparaging. We view death as something that overtakes people after a long and horrible fight that has exhausted them. In the traditional Western view, a person dies when there is nothing left of that person. Dying isn’t treated as the graduation into another state, but the gradual winding down into nothingness, a reversal of the emergence from oblivion that is held to exist before conception. This view of death leads us to view the dying and dead as frail, defeated, failed creatures; rather than beings that have bravely ventured into the unknown– an unknown that may even entail nonexistence.

This attitude of pride in death may seem untenable. As I alluded, can something be courageous when it’s utterly involuntary? I’ll freely admit that such an attitude may seem bizarre. But equally and differently bizarre is the idea (unspoken but implicit in the modern Western attitude toward death, despite being passively rejected by most people in the West) that death certainly leads to nothingness, or to divine judgment; or, for that matter, any claim of certainty regarding what happens after death. For this, it’s the incredible uncertainty in death that makes going into it, in a way, courageous. Or, at least, it must be possible to go into death with courage.

Should death be feared? I would argue “no”. At this point, I venture into a sort of benevolent hypocrisy by saying there is no point in fearing death, since I certainly have not extinguished my fear of it. I know that my death will come, but I certainly don’t want it to come now. I’m not ready. I don’t know when I will be ready; I hope this won’t be the case, but maybe I’ll feel, at age 90, just as unready to die as I feel now at 27. I’ll certainly admit that I have no desire to hasten the process, and share the general desire to prolong my life that almost all humans have. We naturally have a deep-seated fear of anything that reduces our reproductive fitness, and death has this effect in a most dramatic and irreversible way. We also have an intellectual dislike for the concept of nonexistence, even though nonexistence itself cannot possibly be unpleasant. Finally, what most terrifying about death is the possibility of a negative afterlife.

In order to assess whether fear of death is warranted, we have to attack these valid reasons for people to be wary of it. First, on the biological aspects: death does reduce an individual’s reproductive fitness, but dying is also something we’re programmed to do: after a certain point, we age and die. In this light alone, death in advanced age cannot be viewed as a failure; it’s just what human bodies do. On the more cerebral concept of nonexistence, there is not much to say about this other than the fact that there’s no reason to fear this, since it is not experienced but is the absence of experience. I would not like to find out that I am wrong and that there’s nothing after death; luckily, if there is nothing after death, I will never find out. For this reason, to fear nonexistence makes little sense.

Negative afterlife possibilities deserve a bit of discussion. History is littered with peoples’ attempts, many quite successful, to use the uncertainty associated with death to their own benefit, and to gain political power by claiming (under pretense of divine authority) that behaviors they find undesirable will result in extreme and terrifying post-death results, painting a picture of a world run by an insane, malicious, and wrathful God who almost certainly does not exist. I say that such Bronze Age monsters “almost certainly” do not exist because the world makes too much sense for such a being to have created it, and the explanation that this invisible beast was created by a power-hungry person in his own image becomes infinitely more likely. Still, most extant religions contain vestiges of these coercive and perverse behaviors– assertions of divine sadism and vengeance. As a deist who believes one can reason about divinity by observing human existence, I reject such assertions. Filtering out everything in this stuff-people-made-up-to-get-power category, we blast all certain claims to knowledge of the afterlife and are left with moderate-but-inconclusive evidence and deep uncertainty. But there is evidence, if certainly not proof! Subjective experiences of those who have near-death experience suggest a profound and spiritual nature to death– not the fade-out expected of a failing brain before it winds down for good, but a powerful and quite often (but not always) positive experience– and, although in its infancy, research into the matter of reincarnation is promising. What little we know about existence after death suggests that (1) the vengeful gods invented by coercive religions are cartoon characters, not beasts we shall face after death, (2) it is more likely that consciousness persists after death than that it does not, though we do not have, and probably never will have, sufficient knowledge to rule out either, (3) post-death experiences tend to be positive and spiritual, insofar as we can assess them, and (4) that these observations combined with death’s inevitability make it pointless to view death with hatred or fear.

All that said, I don’t think it’s appropriate or useful for me, on this topic, to expound on what I think happens after death, since I don’t really know. In this body, I haven’t done it yet and, once I do, there will be no reliable way for me to report back. For this reason, let’s take a different tack and consider the concept of pride-in-mortality from a pragmatic viewpoint. If one can view one’s impending death with pride and courage instead of fear and hatred, what does that mean while we are still living?

First, to take pride in death allows for it to be an inherently dignified process. Many illnesses and modes of death are horrifying and I wouldn’t wish those on anyone, but the painful process of dying is probably not all there is to death, just as the pain of birth is certainly not the entirety of life. Death itself can be dignified, respected, and even admired. That we will all do it means that we are all dignified creatures. All living things desire happiness, dislike suffering, and will die. The third of these is a deep commonality that deserves respect. Many Buddhists will agree that, since all people are dying at all times, each of us is deserving of compassion. I’ll take it further. Since each of us is going to plunge headlong into deep uncertainty; for this, if nothing else– and some people make it hard to find a single other thing worthy of admiration– each living being deserves to be admired and respected. I am not the first to remark that, in mortality, we are all finally equal.

All this said, a death’s most relevant feature is that it is the end of a life. To make death dignified and to die courageously is good, but these accomplishments should be considered merely consequences of a much greater (and all-encompassing) project: to make life dignified, for everyone, and to live courageously. That is the much harder part, and it does not make sense to approach one project without tackling the other.

A Nonconventional Philosophical Argument for Survival

In this essay, I present one case for the existence of an afterlife. It is not a scientific argument. It’s certainly not a proof, and offers nothing in the way of scientific evidence. There is, as of now, nothing nearing proof of any sort of afterlife, and although reincarnation research is promising, it’s in such a primitive state right now that nothing it offers can survive the sort of hard rigor science requires, and if its findings were to be true, they would only raise a host of new questions. Hard evidence is scant on all sides of the debate and, scientifically speaking, absolutely no one knows what happens after death.

In fact, I’d argue that the physical sciences, as they are, intrinsically cannot answer many questions of consciousness including, most likely, the matter of the afterlife. Physical science relies utterly on a certain pragmatic reduction: two physically identical objects– that is, two objects that respond identically to all objective methods of observation– are considered equivalent. Scientists need this reduction to get anything done; if carbon atoms had individual “personalities” that scientists were required to understand, one simply couldn’t comprehend organic chemistry. So scientists generally assume that a carbon atom in a specific state is perfectly identical to another carbon atom in the same physical state, and this assumption proves valid and useful throughout all of the physical sciences– biology, chemistry, and physics.

Where this reduction fails, and probably the only place where it fails, is on the question of consciousness. Let’s assume the technology exists, at some point in the future, to create an exact physical copy of a person. (It’s unlikely that this will ever be possible with sufficient precision, due to the impossibility of reproducing an arbitrary quantum state, but let’s assume otherwise for the sake of argument.) Assuming that a “spark of life” can be injected into the replica, this person is likely to be indistinguishable from the original to all observers except for the individual copied and the copy, who might retain separate consciousnesses. Will this newly created person– an operational biological machine, at least– have a consciousness or not? I’m agnostic on that one, and there is no scientific way of knowing, but let’s assume that the answer is “yes”, as most materialists (who believe consciousness is a byproduct our purely physical processes) would. Will he or she have the same consciousness as the original? Everything in my experience leads me to believe that the answer is no, and the vast majority of people (including most monists) would agree with me. The original and the copy would, from the point of creation, harbor separate consciousnesses (they are not physically linked) that would begin diverging immediately.

This, to me, is the fundamental strike against mind uploading and physical immortality. It may be physically possible to copy all of a body’s information, but commanding its consciousness (after destruction of the original) to bind to the copy is impossible. It’s extremely likely that humans will defeat aging by 2175, if not long before then, meaning that the first 1000-year-old will be born before the end of my natural life (ca. 2065). But I do not expect any success whatsoever in the endeavor of mind uploading; destruction of the whole brain will always spell out the same fate that it does now: the irreversible end of one’s earthly existence. (Fifth-millennium humans are likely to confront this problem by storing their brains in extremely safe repositories, while interacting electronically and remotely with robotic “bodies” in the physical world as well as virtual bodies in simulated worlds.) With this in mind, as well as the probable impossibility of physical immortality given the likely eventual fate of the universe, it should be obvious even to the most optimistic transhumanists what nearly all humans who have lived have taken, and most humans even now take, for granted: we will all die. This, of course, terrifies and depresses a lot people, involving a credible threat of nonexistence and even the (very remote, in my opinion) possibility of fates far worse.

I’m going to put forward an argument that suggests that, if there is a reasonable universe, our consciousness survives death. This is an argument that, although it proves nothing and relies on an assumption (a reasonable universe) that many reject, I have not heard before. At the least, I find it viscerally convincing and interesting. Here is that argument: virtually every phenomenon humans have ever investigated turns out, in truth, to be far more fascinating than any hypothesis offered before the truth was known.

1. Math

I’m going to start this discussion in mathematics with a familiar constant: pi, or the ratio between a circle’s circumference and its diameter. Believed in Biblical times to be 3, it was later estimated with ratios like 22/7, 201/64, 3.14, or the phenomenally accurate Chinese estimate, 355/113. Archimedes, applying contemporary knowledge of geometry to the regular 96-sided polygon, painstakingly proved that this ratio was between 3 10/71 and 3 1/7, but could not determine its exact value. One can imagine this fact to be distressing. All of these estimates were known to be only approximations of this constant, but for two millennia after the constant’s definition, it was still not known whether an exact fractional representation of the number existed.

A similar quandary existed surrounding the square root of 2, which is the ratio between a square’s diagonal and the length of one of its sides, although this number’s irrationality was far easier to prove, as the Pythagoreans did some time around the 5th century BCE. Before the Pythagorean proof of the irrationality of the square root of 2, and Cantor’s (much later) proof that an overwhelming majority of real numbers must be irrational, it was quite reasonable to expect pi to be a rational number. Before the Pythagorean discovery, the only numbers humans had ever known about either were integers (whole numbers) or were, or could be, the ratio of two integers. No one knew what integral ratios the square root of 2 or pi were, but it must have seemed likely that they were rational, those being the only numbers humans had the language to precisely describe. Of course, it turned out that they were not, though pi’s irrationality was not proven till the 18th century, more than two millennia after the establishment of irrational numbers.

At least some people did not want this. They desperately wished to find the ratio that was pi, and only found in the end, that none existed. Even the advent of algebra in the first millennium CE did not make pi accessible, since the number is (again, as proved much later) transcendental: unlike the square root of 2, which can be algebraically extracted (the solution to x^2 – 2 = 0) from the rationals, pi cannot. This made life and mathematics a fair bit more difficult, and many may have met the discovery of irrational numbers with displeasure, but it certainly made mathematics far more interesting.

Pi emerges, sometimes unexpected, in all of mathematics. Just for one particularly elegant example, the infinite sum of reciprocal squares (i.e. 1/1 + 1/4 + 1/9 + 1/16 + 1/25 + …) is pi squared, divided by 6. Although no more than 100 digits of pi are needed to provide sufficient accuracy for any physical purpose, we have algorithms today that enable us to generate pi’s digits (into the billions) extremely quickly. The number may be inaccessible through ratios and algebraic expressions, but we can very easily compute it with as much precision as we wish, which is more than can be said for the truly inaccessible noncomputable numbers. Still, we can’t answer some basic questions about it. Whether the digits of pi are normal (that is, behave as if generated by a uniform, random source) is an open question. Strange statistical patterns (such as a paucity or even eventual absence, possibly after 10^200 digits, of ’3′ digits) may exist in pi’s digits in some base, but it is utterly unknown whether any do.

The beauty and “interestingness” of mathematics are difficult to put into words, but I would argue that they stem from apprehension of the infinite. As soon as the concept of prime numbers existed, people must have desired to attain a list of all of them. People are natural collectors, and the acquisitive drive must have led many to wish to “have” all the prime numbers. Using a beautiful argument that a modern high schooler could understand, Euclid proved this impossible: there are infinitely many of them. This marvelous result established that, although we cannot “reach” the infinite, we can reason about it in non-trivial ways. In my opinion, Euclid’s theroem is the birth of modern mathematics, which (even in its finite and discrete manifestations, where asymptotic behaviors and general patterns within the finite are the true objects of study, due to humanity’s insatiable curiosity about what is next) is the art of reasoning about infinity.

From such findings, a magnificent number of beautiful, surprising, and awe-inspiring results followed. Cantor proved that not all infinities are equal, but that for each infinity we can define a far larger one. Later, as formal mathematics is an infinite collection of statements generated by a finitely-describable set of statements, Gödel helped establish the ability of mathematics to reason about itself, in fact proving the incompleteness of any formal system: no logical system capable of arithmetic will be able to decisively prove or disprove all statements. (A byproduct of his doing so was Gödel’s embedding of a list-processing language into number theory, arguably inventing an ancestor of Lisp.) Alonzo Church and Alan Turing established analogous results regarding computation, and a consequence of their work was no less than laying the foundations for modern computer science.

Despite the obvious epistemological problems with “counterfactual mathematics”– pi simply could not be any other number– I’ll note that if pi had been rational, had the list of primes been finite, or had formal mathematics been complete, the world would have been a far more boring place, and much less would have been done with mathematics.

2. The physical sciences

In mathematics, people generally agree on what they know and what they don’t. If the question of the completeness of formal systems could be put in a way that would have made sense to a 5th-century BCE mathematician, he would admit that he had no idea whether the proposition was true or false. In the natural world, this is true among scientists, but it’s not true among people as a whole. At least in the context of large groups willing to believe the most credible explanation put to them; people, when they don’t know something, seem to make up stories about it. For as long as humans have existed, they’ve invented explanations for natural phenomena. Those explanations have mostly been wrong and, moreover, quite frankly a bit boring.

Ancient Greeks, at least among the less educated, seemed to believe that lightning was a bolt of fire thrown by an ill-tempered man named Zeus. Boring, and wrong. In fact, it’s the energy transfer admitted by the motion of subatomic particles, governed by attractions and repulsions of truly immense force; an energy source that, if harnessed properly, enables a host of extremely powerful technologies that are only in their infancy to this day. Interesting, and right. Before Newton, earthly objects were believed to fall because they possessed an intrinsic material property called gravity, while the heavens possessed levity and could remain aloft. Boring, and wrong. We now know that these behaviors can all be explained by a single force (gravity) that not only allows us to reason about cosmic machinery, but also admits such bizarre beasts as black holes and general relativity. Interesting, and right. Likewise, the stars were once held to be tiny holes in a giant black dome behind which a brilliant fire burned. Boring, and wrong. In fact, they’re massive nuclear-powered furnaces, borne of gas clouds and gravity, that glow for billions of years, occasionally eject hot, ionic material, and sometimes die violently in a style of explosion (supernova) of such atom-smashing force as to create chemical elements that otherwise should not exist, and we require many of those elements for our existence. Interesting, and right. Finally, it was once believed (and by some, it still is) that our bodies and those of all animals were designed from scratch and immutably fixed by a deity with specific tastes but a tendency toward slightly sadistic design. Boring, and (almost certainly) wrong. We now know that all of these species emerged from four billion years of natural selection, that an enormous number of powerful and strange animals once existed, and that accelerations of this evolutionary process began happening (in the context of an immensely complicated and frenetic terrestrial ecosystem) half a billion years ago, and continue to this day. Interesting, and right.

The general pattern is this: humans invent an explanation that is the best they can come up with at the time. It turns out to be primitive, wrong, and boring. Accumulation of knowledge and the invention of superior tools allows people to discover the truth and, although it offends many greatly, it ends up being far more interesting, and inevitably ends up opening a number of fruitful questions and applications. The right answer is always more fascinating than the explanations given, and it always opens up more questions.

3. Afterlife

I’m a deist. I do not believe in an anthropomorphic, interventionist deity, and certainly not in the villainous, supernatural characters of Bronze Age works of literature that, if taken literally, are almost certainly heavily fictional. However, I have faith in a reasonable universe. I admit that this is an extraordinary claim. For example, it’s not impossible that, in the next 5 seconds, my consciousness will, with no cause, abruptly leave my body and enter that of the man shoveling snow outside my window, or of a 7th-century Chinese peasant, or of an extraterrestrial being in another galaxy. I simply believe it will not happen. I likewise admit that it is possible that I am suddenly eradicated by the sudden dematerialization of every atom in my body, but I regard even asteroid strikes and random heart attacks as far more credible threats to my existence.

If we live in an unreasonable universe, we can’t reason about or know anything. In an unreasonable universe, I might exist only this second and my memories of previous existence may be false.  There is truly nothing we can know, reason about, or credibly believe in an unreasonable universe. There is just absurdity. An unreasonable universe doesn’t mean that we can’t use reason and do science– on pragmatic grounds, we can, so long as they work. An unreasonable universe merely admits the possibility that they might stop working– that, two seconds from now, the gravitational constant may begin doubling every nanosecond, collapsing our world instantly into a black hole.

Most religions posit a fundamentally unreasonable universe governed by capricious gods, but materialistic monism also establishes an unreasonable universe. Although the abiogenic origin of life and the evolution of complex organisms can be explained (and in evolution’s case, already has been adequately explained) by natural processes, the emergence of qualia, or consciousness, out of an elaborate pinball machine posits an unreasonable universe in which conscious beings pop into existence merely because a sufficiently complex physical system exists. It is deus ex machina, except with somewhat less impressive beings than gods emerging from it. Such a universe is an unreasonable one. This does not mean that materialists are wrong! It is reasonable and defensible to believe in an unreasonable universe, and moreover it is unreasonable to outright reject the possibility of an unreasonable universe, when absolutely no proof of a reasonable universe has been made available. It is faith alone that leads me to believe in a reasonable universe.

For a note on that, I acknowledge that the “reasonability” of a universe does not always correlate with its plausibility, as I see it. The materialists, for all I know, could be utterly right. In fact, I find the unreasonable universe of the materialist atheist far more credible than the perverse and semi-reasonable universe of Biblical literalism (which has the obvious markings of people making shit up to terrify others and acquire power) from any Abrahamic religion. If I were forced to believe in one or the other, I would take the former without hesitation.

I believe in a reasonable universe, and I find myself asking, “What happens after death?” I must admit that I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows. The best I can do is look for patterns based on the (possibly ridiculous and wrong) assumption of a reasonable universe. However, the pattern that I’ve seen, as I’ve discussed above, is that virtually every question about the world turns out to have an answer that is far more interesting than any explanation humans have invented. It is reasonable, although not certain, that the same pattern applies to death. When the truth is revealed (as it is to all of us, unless there is no afterlife) I expect it to be far more interesting than any scenario humans have invented.

Afterlife scenarios invented by humans are always either insufferably boring, or (in the case of hells) non-boring only on account of being so terrible (but if eternal hells exist, we do not live in a reasonable universe). Materialists believe that consciousness is purely a result of physical processes and therefore annihilated upon death. Boring. “Pop” Christianity posits a harp-laden, sky-like heaven in which the dead “smile down” upon the living– a modern form of ancestor veneration wherein heaven is like a retirement community. Boring. Biblical literalists believe in a final battle between “good” (represented by a murderous, racist, ill-tempered and misogynistic deity) and “evil” in which the final outcome is already determined. Boring. Ancient Greeks believed the dead lingered in a dank cave overseen by a guy named Hades. Boring. All of these have the markings of being the somewhat creative but utterly boring ad unfulfilling explanations that humans invent when they don’t understand something.

I haven’t yet discussed reincarnation, some sort of which I believe is the most likely afterlife scenario. It’s not boring, but “reincarnation” is not so much an answer as a proposition that raises more questions. “Reincarnation” is not a specific afterlife so much as an afterlife schema admitting a plethora of possibilities. Questions raised include the following. What, if anything, happens between lives? Is our reincarnation progressive, as indicated by what seems like an intensifying trend of increasingly complex consciousness (and incremental improvements, over the course of history, in human existence) in this world, or is it stagnant, chaotic, cyclical, or even regressive? Does a deity assist us by lining us up with appropriate rebirths, or do we decide on our rebirths, or is the process essentially mindless? Can humans reincarnate as animals, or as beings on other planets? How atomic is the “soul”, i.e. does it carry a personal identity, as Hindus assert, or is it as much affected by the forms it takes as it affects them, as many Buddhists assert? What is the role of the impersonal, almost mechanical force known as karma, do any deities intervene with it and, if so, how and why?

I have my beliefs, not perfectly formed, on all these matters, and I admit that they are artifacts of faith. They emerge from my (possibly ridiculous) faith in a reasonable universe and my estimate of what a reasonable universe, after death and from a vantage point where these questions might finally be answerable, might look like. I am, of course, just one human trying to figure things out. That is the best I believe any of us can do, since such animals as “prophets” and the gods they have invented almost certainly do not exist.

I’m deeply agnostic on many matters, but if asked what happens after death, or what is the meaning of life, I’d answer as follows. No one knows for sure, obviously, but I’m overwhelmingly convinced that the answer is far, far more interesting than any explanation put forth by humans thus far (including any that I could come up with).

With that, I yield the floor.

Deism: why I’m neither a Christian nor an atheist

As a humanist and rationalist, I value reason highly; but I’d be lying if I said that I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about death (my own, as well as the abstraction) and the matter of afterlife, about which reason alone can tell us little. Science has answered many of humanity’s most pressing questions, but death is a boundary it has not been able to cross. What I believe happens after death (reincarnation) shall be delayed to another post, as shall my views on whether humanity should eliminate aging and death (transhumanism) when it develops the ability to do so. I am, instead, going to talk about religion.

Perhaps it’s not polite to admit such a thing, but I like some religions a lot better than others. Buddhists, Quakers, Unitarians, secular humanists, and the most liberal quarter of the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam)? All on my good side. Islamic fundamentalists and Christian evangelicals? Not so much. This is especially relevant in 2011, as a perverted, arch-conservative, anti-intellectual and uncannily mean-spirited strain of Christianity threatens to drag the United States of America back into medieval barbarism, and places much of the world in danger of unjust military action or invasion. The “conservative” strain of modern religion is inherently anti-rational, racist, misogynistic, reactionary, and anti-humanist. Christopher Hitchens is right about it: it poisons everything. Spirituality is one of humanity’s best attributes, but religion, when abused, can be toxic.

I’ll jump, abruptly, to a more positive and personal topic: what I believe. It’s awkward for me to say that “I believe in God” because I simply don’t believe in any of the anthropomorphic gods that humanity has invented. All three thousand (or so) of them are ridiculous cartoon characters, and most of them are assholes of whom I’ll say that I’m very glad that they (almost certainly) don’t exist. I wouldn’t like it, for example, if a woman I cared about were raped by Zeus. I do, however, believe in a Divine Spirit. I only use the word “God” because that is the language I was born with, and I use “him” by convention only, as I doubt highly that God has a gender. Still, I will say it: I believe in God. Or, more to the point, I believe in divinity. I believe there is an existent and accessible consciousness of pure love and wisdom that is most right, calm, and peaceful, and that we, through billions of years of biological evolution and spiritual transmigration (rebirth), are moving toward it. We are not “saved” or “damned” based on a few actions or our beliefs over one 80-year interval. We move a little bit forward or backward with every thought and action. We are eternal, but constantly in flux, and every moment counts.

What is God? God is a consciousness that we can experience, if we’re willing to listen. He gave us (and possibly some other animals) a bit of consciousness that enables us to unleash immense creativity, beauty, wisdom, compassion, love, and goodness. Quakers call it the “inner light”; Buddhists have a number of names for different aspects of it– the inner teacher, the heart chakra, Buddha-nature. God may not seem, in this depiction, like a single (or atomic) being at all, but “he” is, in my estimation, far more “atomic” and unified than we are. The notion we have of ourselves as atomic beings is a comfortable illusion, but quite false. The person I was at 6 has been replaced entirely by someone very different from him. We’re constantly in flux, innately interdependent, and utterly doomed to abrupt and jarring changes in the future (including, most notably, the inexorable failure of one body and rebirth into another.)

I believe that it is reasonable to believe in God and the likelihood of an afterlife. Evidence for reincarnation is strong (although not strong enough yet, in my opinion as well those of most researchers leading such work, to be called “proof”) and the experience of divinity recommends a spiritual nature to this world. I also believe it is acceptable and right to apply rationality to matters of divinity and religion, something that mainstream Christians find hubristic and arrogant; they tend to believe God is “beyond mere reason”. Why do I believe this? Because reason is one of the greatest gifts God has given us, and “he” has created a world which rewards rationality and compassion while punishing ignorance severely. If God is reasonable, he wants us to use, rather than reject, reason and science.

God also created, I’ll observe, a world in which it is equally possible for a reasonable and good person to believe in him or not to believe in him. Some of the best and most brilliant people believe in a God; and some of the best and brightest people are agnostics and atheists. In my 27 years, I’ve discovered no correlation at all between being a good person and believing in a God.

This leads to my first and most major beef with evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity: their contention that non-believers are “wayward souls” and, if not converted, will be sent to eternal torture in hell. I believe it is wrong, and I find that someone could wish for such a thing to be utterly heinous. A supernatural being who would provide only subjective evidence (and only to some people) of his existence, then subject some of his best children to eternal torture for the “crime” of not believing in his existence, is not a compassionate and just God but a pervert and a monster. (I am more flawed, and therefore more likely to be arrogant and spiteful, than God and I will readily volunteer that if you do not know of or believe in my existence, I wish absolutely no harm upon you.)  Thankfully, I’m almost entirely certain that no such beast exists. Rather, he was made up by authoritarians who invented a bigoted god in their own image: someone powerful who hates all the same people (atheists, homosexuals, liberals) they do.

The matter of hateful and depraved religion is depressing and deeply divisive, but it’s an important issue. The worst elements of Christianity are a dominant force in American politics, and a deadly one that threatens the future of the world. This is because the conservative strains of the leading religions are utterly nihilistic and positively seek the world’s destruction. Take the Christian variety of this attitude that is seen in American conservatism. It believes that this world is a disgusting and sinful place, one that will be swept away by an angry God at the Last Judgment, and one whose destruction and replacement should be brought on as soon as possible. They actively work, as seen in their disgusting politics, to bring this catastrophe about. Universal healthcare is useless toward the goal of bringing about the End Times, but violence in the Middle East? It’s required. This perverse goal, of course, is about as anti-humanist as it gets. For a note, much of the support for the idiotic and atrocious war still being fought in Iraq came from those who wished to bring violence to Mesopotamia in order to bring about the End Times and the Rapture, allowing the “faithful” a blissful escape from this world while the rest of us (“Left Behind”) perish in misery. If that is not a depraved and just plain fucking evil ideology, I don’t know what is.

I don’t believe this world is all there is, but we’re in it and will be for a long time, and God wants us to treat it well. It’s a gift from him, not some sin-stained ball of mud he wants us to destroy in order to set the stage for a divine hissy-fit.

There are, of course, plenty of great, brilliant Christians. And the same applies to Islam and every other religious tradition. Although I respect the best strains of these faiths, I do not share their beliefs, as I reject revealed religion and miracles. As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one miracle: us. Consciousness, that is. While it’s entirely possible that complex robots with powerful computation centers, such as humans, could evolve through materialistic processes, I find nothing in science alone that explains consciousness or existence. Biology, chemistry, and physics explain the world quite well. They don’t explain why we, as conscious beings, exist at all, much less are in it. But we do, and we are. That, I believe, is probably the only miracle that occurred, and it’s the only one we need.