The first thing that makes belief in reward after death dangerous, is that it isn’t real. When we die, we die. That we survive our own deaths to reap possible rewards is not true.
This is an easy problem to understand – whatever anyone thinks about reality, they’re sure to agree that the truth is valuable, and thus worth knowing, because of the negative consequences of believing in something untrue.
That holding true beliefs is beneficial, and holding untrue beliefs is detrimental, is something most religious people and non-religious people can agree on. So – is it true that we can all survive our own deaths?
Most of us wish we could, especially if we aren’t well aquainted with the vast, expansive meaning of unending ‘eternity.’ Why should we want to die? Not only do we love life, we’ve evolved to come equipped with a survival mechanism convincing us, instinctually, that death is a terrible, terrible thing.
Psychics say we can survive death. Some, like Sylvia Browne, go so far as to tell us exactly where heaven is, and “talk to” the dead for us. This apparent special ability can be explained by the completely natural tricks of hot reading and cold reading. Knowledge of psychology is a much better explanation for Browne’s ‘abilities’ than is the existence of life after death.
People who survive drastic surgeries, dangerous accidents, and the temporary stopping of their hearts, claim to have experienced beautiful lights and arial views of their own bodies while unconscious. This can be much more easily explained by phsysical neural states than by positing the existence of the soul, which creates far more questions than it answers. For starters, how do souls ‘see’? Do they have eyes? Are they shaped like people, but made of other “stuff?” What kind of stuff? Non-physcial stuff? How could we ever know anything about non-physical stuff?
People claim to have seen ghosts, but this is usually at night, when it’s easiest to mistake what one sees. How many of us, at one time or another, have “seen” a monster in the near-dark, only to find nothing but a pile of laundry once the light is turned on?
Sometimes, one might hear voices, especially while falling asleep. We could hear muttering and mumbling, usually of words too garbled to make out. Someone unaware of her own ability to have auditory hallucinations – especially when falling asleep – might claim her bedroom to be haunted. She has no good reason to make such a claim. It makes far more sense to credit such experiences to brain states.
Some so-called “experts” claim that the soul is “energy,” which leaves the body after death, citing the well-known claim that “energy can not be stopped, only transformed.” If this “energy” explains the soul, it would mean that the soul is physical, not supernatural, and thus measurable – and although scientists have tried, such a soul has never been measured.
It may seem like a jump, though, to claim that the existence of an eternal soul, which survives death, simply doesn’t exist. Why not be a total agnostic – why not say, “I don’t know what happens after death,” and leave it at that?
Total agnosticism is not the best approach because of the way we gain knowledge from evidence. We don’t usually say that anything we can imagine might exist, and thus take a totally agnostic position about dragons, unicorns, and flying spaghetti monsters. We realize these things are made-up, and while technically, there’s a very small chance they may exist, we don’t say “I don’t know.”
If every bit of evidence for life after death can be shown to be inconclusive, and if everyone who claims to have first-hand experience of the afterlife or of contact with the “other side,” can be shown to likely be spinning fictional tales or deluded, why say “I don’t know”?
We should instead say, “All evidence of any familiar concept of the soul existing, fails to support its claims, and so the soul does not exist.”
The mind-body problem is not solved by positing the soul as a solution. The idea of the soul, and using it to explain the sense of “self” which we all experience, merely complicates the issue by claiming a non-answer to be an answer. Magical solutions are not explanatory. Rather, they exemplify a submission to ignorance.
We know we should treat the soul as something fabricated. But why IS it dangerous to believe in something fabricated? Why not believe a lie?
Believing lies opens a person up to being tricked and taken advantage of, not only by “psychics” and other independant charlatans, but by religious leaders. Believing there’s a soul often comes coupled with belief in god, and thus in heaven and hell. If you’re “good,” you go to heaven when you die. If you’re “bad,” you go to hell. The power to act as the voice of god can be used to punish, to control, to inspire, to abuse, and to take money.
Keep in mind that all the rules are made-up, which means someone had to make them up. That someone has a level of control over every single person who believes the lies he fabricates or supports. This makes belief in the soul the key to control, used by parents over their children, by clerics over their congregations, by men over women, and by slaveholders over their slaves.
It’s those with authority who choose which biblical and koranic verses “count,” and which don’t. For example, gay is bad, and wearing mixed fabrics isn’t bad, although the Bible says they’re both reprehensible. Once, those in control used the bible’s support of slavery to justify race-based slavery in America; now, due to the freedom inherent in secular society, this has fallen out of favor, so they don’t use it anymore. Yet, the bible itself has not changed.
Belief in rewards and punishments after death does not lead people to do good. Rather, it leads them to follow the rules of a leader. These rules are just as likely to be immoral as they are to be moral.
To be truly moral, each individual must act based on experiential evidence and the inborn sense of empathy and compassion. Acting on fear or anticipation does neither of these things, and leads only to self-preservation and self-reward.
Belief in the soul, and what rewards and punishments one receives after death, is what allows some people to control other people. The controlled think they’ll be given succulent women and fruit after death, or that they’ll get to party with Jesus.
In exchange for this, they give their lives to the cause of their religion, and thus, that religion’s leaders. Some give their lives by blowing themselves up in crowded bus stations; others give their lives by spending them in servitude to an imaginary friend, thus missing out on life’s great questions, answers, and experiences.
Belief in reward after death is an important part of the system of religion. The god-centric religions of the west would fall apart without this belief, but it’s not a valid belief. Rather, it’s a means of control which can have long-term negative consequenses for human beings – like the unnecessary delpetion of resources, the tendency to miss out on the real and important philosophical realities of living a finite life, and even the deaths of large groups of people.