14 July 2020

Another danger posed by religion

Those of us who oppose religion are often criticized for undermining the comfort religious beliefs can provide, especially in times of loss.  If it helps a grieving person to believe that the relative they lost has gone to a better place, who are we to take that away from them?

Whether it's a good or bad thing to feel comforted by a false belief is, I suppose, a philosophical question about which reasonable people can differ.  But there's a more concrete problem here which is anything but philosophical -- one I recently experienced myself.

When people are sure a particular belief is true, they are likely to make decisions on the basis of that belief -- and if the belief is false, the decisions may be dangerously wrong.  To repeat an analogy I've used before, it might be very comforting and reassuring to me to believe that I had a million dollars in the bank.  But if I started making spending decisions on the basis of that belief, I'd eventually get into trouble.  Religious beliefs are even more dangerous because they tend to be about such fundamental things, such as the existence of an afterlife.

When my mother died in December, one of the consequent afflictions I suffered was a tremendous loss of purpose.  For nine years, my life had essentially revolved around her needs and problems.  Even in the last two and a half years, when the help she needed with day-to-day living became more than I could cope with on my own and I had to move her to a care facility, I still visited her every day, shopped for a lot of supplies, monitored how she was being cared for and took it up with the management if something seemed amiss, etc.  The sudden disappearance of such a huge and long-standing responsibility was almost more than my mind could adjust to.  I was haunted by dreams and visions that she was in some kind of afterlife, afraid and confused and still in need of my help -- that I should follow her there, just in case, to continue doing the duty which had dominated my life for almost a decade.

Those feelings have passed, of course.  It's been seven months now, and I've had time to adjust to a very different existence.  But if I had really believed in an afterlife?  Really believed that those dreams and images represented some kind of reality?  I honestly believe it's very possible I would have done it -- throwing my life away for a delusion.

As for the present, while I've never believed in the Christian concept of Heaven, I am obviously aware of it.  Again, if I believed I could see her again as she was before her mind started to deteriorate, visiting for tea and chatting about this and that -- well, I would feel tempted.  It's a pleasant thing to imagine, but if it became a belief, it would be dangerous.

Well, you might wonder, if this is a serious issue, why don't we see lots of suicides among religious people?  For one thing, some religions have a taboo on suicide -- their inventors probably realized that the promise of Heaven might tempt too many of their sheep to abandon what was, before modern times, a fairly miserable existence for most.  More important, most people in the West no longer believe very fervently.  Most people who have recently lost a relative don't behave as they would if they truly believed that the person had gone somewhere better and happier -- they mourn, they do not celebrate.  I strongly suspect that in earlier times, people in a similar position -- especially after the death of a child, a very common event in pre-modern times -- may well have taken refuge in behavior which was not technically suicide (thus evading the taboo) but achieved the same result -- neglect of health, less care to avoid dangerous situations, etc.  And those who are true believers sometimes do atrocious things, not even out of mourning, but simply to get to Heaven as soon as possible -- the obvious case being Islamist suicide bombers.  The 9/11 hijackers certainly believed they would be welcomed into Heaven for their actions, sacrificing their lives in the fight against the enemies of God.  In ancient times, some religions required servants and slaves to be killed when a ruler died, so that they could continue to serve him in the next world.

Even in the modern West, suicide and excessive risk-taking are surprisingly common.  While such behavior is obviously the product of a variety of factors, how many of those people were swayed by a belief that another existence was, or at least might be, awaiting them "on the other side"?  Without such beliefs, many of them might still be alive.

I am not taking a moral stand against suicide.  Self-destruction is a decision a mature and self-aware adult has the right to make.  Some people are in situations where they can make a sober and rational decision that life is not worth going on with, even if they don't believe in an afterlife.  But in such a case, at least that person is deciding based on actual facts, not on a delusion.

Religion imposes many unnecessary costs on its adherents in terms of quality of life; this video reviews some examples.  Yet it's the part of religion some people most eagerly defend as valuable -- the concept of the afterlife -- that is potentially among the most dangerous.


Blogger Sixpence Notthewiser said...

Sorry about your mom! After taking care of her for all those years I'm sure her passing threw you off balance.
Now, on to the afterlife question: I think religion holds the afterlife as both a prize and a punishment (of course) to emotionally blackmail you into adhering to its precepts. The -mostly- men in charge of keeping the reins of these cults use the promise of an eternal, blissful after life (or its counterpart) to get money and power but they themselves do not follow any of the rules those religions have. That should tell you all yo need to know about religion and its promises.


14 July, 2020 04:11  
Blogger Mike said...

When my mother died my dad was still alive. We all mourned together. When my dad died it was like I lost my last link to the past. Even though I have a sister, I felt like an orphan. When my dad was alive, if I saw something on TV that I knew he would like, I would head to the phone and call him. It took me two years to stop doing that.

14 July, 2020 08:33  
Blogger Regina M. said...

Wow! This hit home today. My cousin and I were very, very close despite living miles apart. We spoke on the telephone several times a week. More like sisters. After her husband died, when we would speak she would tell me there were times she could hear him calling to her. Since he probably did that frequently while he was confined to his bed prior to dying, I dismissed it and attempted to comfort her. Not too long afterwards I tried calling her several times to no avail. I called her physician and asked if he would check on her. (He was also a friend of my cousin and her husband.) Finally, I called her daughter who lived on the west coast. She contacted a neighbor. That neighbor found my cousin's body on her bedroom floor. She had overdosed. It took a very long time for me to mostly get rid of my feelings of guilt. So sad!

14 July, 2020 08:51  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Sixpence: Thanks. Yes, that's obviously another problem -- the belief in the afterlife makes people subordinate themselves to those who claim to speak for God. That's why the concept was invented in the first place. It's a cynical and cruel exploitation of human hope.

Mike: That sounds familiar. I still often catch myself thinking about how I would explain something to Mom, what she would probably think of a new piece of music I've discovered, and suchlike.

Regina: I feel for you -- that must have been a ghastly experience. Obviously my intincts were right and losing somebody very close can have strange and dangerous effects on a person.

14 July, 2020 17:15  
Blogger Victor said...

I offer you my condolences on your Mother, too.

My Mom's 88, and we're in an Assisted Living facility together. She's legally blind, and very deaf. The deafness kills her, because she was a singer her whole life. She even sang at Carnegie Hall twice - solo. Got good reviews from the NY Times, both times!

Going into assisted living with her was my choice: To make things easier for her in her last years..
Though I do have some health issues, with some occassional assistance, I could easily have my own small apartment. And, who knows, maybe I'll just stay here after she's gone.
But I want to stay with her now, because after my father died 8 years ago, a bit of her died with him. And I was her care-giver after that. She needs me. Who else will speak Russian with her? :-)

I cherish my time with her here.
And when she dies, I'll probably be at least as lost as you were when your Mom passed away.
But like you, I won't look to any heaven or god for solace.
I'll just try to remember the good times.

14 July, 2020 20:21  
Blogger RO said...

The loss of a parent is so heartbreaking, and I'm so sorry for your loss. You talk about several things that sort of hit home. As a kid who was raised Catholic, we were taught at an early age that suicide is considered a mortal sin, so dealing with that and the guilt of my mom's suicide when I was young was rough, and took me years to overcome. The irony is that every person close to me I've been able to see in dreams as their younger selves and completely healthy, but I never saw my mom. I believe in God, and like to believe I'll go to heaven, but I also respect those who see Christianity with differing views. It's always awesome to see all the thoughts and perspectives. Sending hugs your way. RO

15 July, 2020 05:10  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Hey Infidel, my condolences as for the loss of your Mom. Sometimes death, I look at, is less suffering for the person dying. I say this because my mom died young, and it was a dragged out death, being hospitalized with an infection that slowly ate away at her inner organs. For over a month (maybe 1.5+), I drove to Louisville (KY), every weekend from Dallas (835 miles one way, about 12 hours), where she was hospitalized, and took a day or 2 vacation with the weekend, taking friday and/ or monday, back and forth, to spend time with my mom on her death bed (because I left home and school at about 13/ 14 years old). My mom wanted to die, because of her suffering, the doctor said she was delusional or something, from the drugs, pain or whatever ... they insisted that she needs to live or whatever, it seemed like, and that she is just insane or whatever. It was difficult on me, because I didn't want my mom to suffer, and wasn't able to comfort her, or give her any hope, so I felt hopeless (this also happened with a couple friends who were dying at my side, and asked me for help ... again, I felt hopeless, and unable to be strong for them and help them, like I failed them). My mom died at a young age, from an infection in her blood stream ... so in a therapeutic way, the experience helped me understand when a person wants to die, even though it may seem unnatural, it may be a relief to the person suffering ... even if I don't want them to die.

As far as religion and beliefs, it don't matter to me one way or another what anyone believes or not ... if it don't interfere with me, I could care less. I mean, I have about as much reason and evidence to believe in a religious myth ... as about the same amount that I have reason or evidence to "believe" that politicians in Washington are going to change or whatever, and actually represent the majority of people these dayz.

15 July, 2020 06:56  
Blogger Unknown said...

I have looked upon life as a good thing. I would visit my my mom every Friday for dinner and a movie for the 14 months after her love of life (my dad) passed at 66 from a brain tumor. We would have a pleasant evening, but her angst was apparent. After a little over 13 months she had apparently contracted cancer. Within 2 weeks she was on her death bed at 60 and I could only look on in horror because of her belief that she would be with him in heaven. This belief was entrenched in her mind and she no longer had a will to live. Three days later she passed and she looked so content (I was at both of my parent's death beds.)

This was 25 years ago and in part of my mind for the past 25 years I want my mom to be with him in spite of the fact I have been an atheist for 50 years.

I wish there were ways we could deal with this contagion called religion.

Blind faith is not good exception as an excuse to keep believing that a death is worth the cost of our own lives.

I have met so many people and family in my life (and I miss those who have passed), but I believe that we need to take care of the present.

15 July, 2020 09:09  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

Infidel753, so sorry to hear about the loss of your mother. Many of us understand the pain of that loss.

As for the afterlife mythology, I came to accept that life is here and now and when we pass, it's over. I will return to wherever I was in the years before I was conceived -- oblivion. I'm okay with that because I appreciate every moment I'm alive and every moment I spend with the people I appreciate and love. It's the only thing that makes sense to me.

Best regards.

15 July, 2020 10:37  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Victor: Thank you. I'm sure it means a lot to her that you spend so much time with her. I've read that older people tend to live longer when they feel a sense of social connection -- and of course a woman's children are her most important social connection in most cases. And when the time comes, remember that you did all you could while she was alive. It made me feel somewhat better, knowing that.

RO: Thank you. That must have been terrible, losing your mother to suicide when you were relatively young. At least I'm 59 and have been psychologically independent for a long time.

Ranch: Thanks. I remember you telling me about that horrific situation. At least in my case, many years back my mother had signed a "medical power of attorney" document which gave me the legal ability to make medical decisions for her when she was no longer mentally competent to do so, as she very obviously was not for the last couple of years. Things never got as extreme as what you describe, but toward the end I was able to tell the doctors and nurses to prioritize minimizing suffering rather than prolonging an existence which had become pretty much meaningless in the last couple of days.

Ebon: 60 is quite young. Losing the will to live because of the expectation of something better probably does affect the ability to stay alive, unfortunately. I think we all wish we would see those we have lost later on. I don't totally rule it out, but I don't claim to have the kind of absolute knowledge religionists do claim on no evidence.

Shaw: Thank you. My mother occasionally read your blog, years ago when she was mentally coherent; she was never the type to leave comments, though. I know if I myself eventually face death, I will face it without yielding to religious delusions -- I'll keep my intellectual integrity, if nothing else.

15 July, 2020 15:49  
Blogger Richard said...

I am so sorry for your loss. My mom died in 2014 and I'm relieved she is not here to see this. She would have a hard time. When my friend got killed in a stupid accident way back in 2005 i thought maybe i should just go with him. But then he wouldn't have any one to remember him. So i stayed here. He still visits me in dreams. I don't know about any afterlife i just don't know. Be careful and good to yourself. There is no closure or getting over it. It doesn't hurt as much after the first year or two.

15 July, 2020 20:33  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Richard: I'm very glad covid-19 didn't happen while my mother was still alive. I probably wouldn't have been able to keep visiting her, and she wouldn't have understood why. It would have been a nightmare. I hate to think what others in the same position are going through now.

You're right -- I don't think people do "get over" something like this, and perhaps we shouldn't. Those we loved deserve their place in our memory.

16 July, 2020 06:28  
Blogger Lady M said...

My mother passed away almost 18 years ago and I still feel the loss regularly. I adored my mother so I understand your pain. I dream of her often and ask her in those dreams - "Where did you go, I have missed you so much." But in the end, I wake up and realize it is just the wishful thinking of my subconscious. After all, heaven is a concept with which I cannot get on board. As the Talking Heads said "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens". If everything were perfect all the time forever, then wouldn't it just be mundane? What makes life precious is that it is finite. Treasure your memories and look for new joy. I am happy to have your blog to inspire me.

16 July, 2020 18:36  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Lady M: Thank you for the sentiment. We have to accept reality even when wishful thinking is more pleasant.

The Christian Heaven sounds incredibly dull. I don't want life to be finite, but I would want it to be lived here.

17 July, 2020 02:45  

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