26 July 2020

A Belief in an Afterlife as the Beginning of Morality

I post all the time about politics, policy and stats that seem to describe our world because I have to live with the consequence of your vote and you with mine. There is nothing private about the consequences of politics so I love the notion that we can at least better understand what thinking (or instincts) lie behind particular models of the world. Shared stats and perspectives can make those worldviews - and thus our votes - better.

Religion, though, is a private matter and so I stay away from that. Unlike your choice to vote for someone, your choice to be Catholic or atheist or Scientologist doesn't impact me and is none of my business. But I do want to talk about the afterlife.

I have developed this theory that morality is enhanced by a belief in an afterlife.

"A man finds himself, to his great astonishment, suddenly existing, after thousands of years of non-existence; he lives for a little while; and then, again, comes an equally long period when he must exist no more. The heart rebels against this, and feels that it cannot be true."
- Arthur Schopenhauer

By afterlife, I don't even mean that if you live a good life you'll be playing harp on a cloud or be reincarnated as someone's spoiled dog. By afterlife I mean something more simple: after your life, the world will go on and the lives in it will be just as important as those of you and the ones around you that you love. Perhaps even more important because there will be so many more lives.

Years ago I read a fascinating thought experiment. Imagine that you knew with great certainty that at the moment you died, life for all humanity would end. Giant meteor, terrible pandemic ... whatever. Everyone gone. How does that change your own life?

I think for a lot us, honestly believing such a thing would tend to gut you. It would make so much of what animates you suddenly seem laughable. "What does anything matter?" you might ask. And that thought experiment seems to me proof that our lives are generally animated by a belief in an afterlife and a sense that it's important.

Morality is certainly about now, about caring how we harm or help others. I think it's also about later, making provision for the future we'll eventually be excluded from. Believing that an afterlife matters allows us to take actions on what has the highest impact: things that take years, decades, or even lifetimes to play out.

I don't even think that a belief in an afterlife is a religious matter; it seems to me a demonstrably moral one based on a simple premise: what matters most in the world is so much bigger than me or my lifetime.

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