Agnosticism, Atheism, Christianity, Faith, God, Sacrifice

Is Belief in an Afterlife Pragmatic?

I thought the following comment from Dave (whose blog you should definitely check out) deserved its own discussion thread:

I’m almost finished reading a book called Joker One and part way through the book the author (a former marine lieutenant who served in Iraq) starts to talk about God. He is recounting his time in Iraq and just described the first loss of life that occurred within his own platoon. He decides that it is better to believe in God and his logic goes something like this:

If there is no God then there is no hope for his dead comrade. He is gone forever and has served and died for no ultimate purpose.

If there is a God then there is hope that this man is still alive in Heaven and has sacrificed himself for the greater good serving a higher purpose.

I think the point he makes brings up a good question: Would we be better off having hope in an afterlife from a pragmatic point of view? Would we be happier and less prone to become depressed if we at least clung to some *hope* that there is a better life waiting for us after we die? Would this hope do us any harm in the here and now or is it possible that holding on to this hope could make us a better person?

Let the discussion commence!

76 thoughts on “Is Belief in an Afterlife Pragmatic?”

  1. IMHO , belief in an afterlife tends to keep people from living this life 110% . If they don’t achieve much here, they will have eternity to make up for it.

    That’s why I posted this saying on my blogsite title.

    “Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming…Wow! What a ride!”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is an amazing used of motivated reasoning (“If there is a God then there is hope that this man is still alive in Heaven and has sacrificed himself for the greater good serving a higher purpose.”) What does there being a god in heaven have to do with a reward for a soldier in a just cause? First, finding the War in Iraq to be a just cause is a very big stretch. Since soldiers were following orders, I do not think they can be blamed for taking part, but if they committed atrocities or through neglect allowed others to be harmed, there is cause to worry about “punishment.”

    Soldiers, historically, have fought for things like “duty” or “glory” not for a reward in heaven. Yes, possibly to take their place among other warriors in the afterlife might have been a goal but if one believes in Heaven, then one also has to believe in Hell. So, being put into an impossible situation, as our soldiers in Iraq were, then the level of thinking of this person will result in many assigned to Heaven and possibly even more assigned to Hell.

    This is reassuring?

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I have a friend who’s a Christian, and he and his wife lost one of their daughters in a tragic accident when she was only 8 or 9. It was really horrible. I’m sure that they hang on to the idea that they’ll see her again one day in Heaven, and honestly, I wouldn’t want to disabuse them of that. So I can understand why someone would get comfort from such an idea.

    But this also brings up other issues. For one, the author of Joker One suggests that one can decide to believe in God, rather than having to be convinced of it. But does that really work? It sounds like Pascal’s Wager, and I don’t think it represents true belief. I might think a world with Santa Claus is preferable to one without him, but that doesn’t mean I can actually make myself believe he’s real. So in some ways, the entire question may be moot.

    I think KC and Steve have both made excellent points about the downsides that come from such a belief. On the one hand, does it make us lose focus on the one life that we know we have? And on the other hand, if you latch onto God and Heaven, why should we choose the Christian version? And can we really get those two things and ignore Hell?

    I think this kind of outlook may only work for people who don’t think very deeply about things.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Good question and one that I’ve asked myself but never got around to really answering. I think the answer may depend heavily on the person in question. As I see it there are both pros and cons and personality would certainly influence the relative cost\benefit analysis. Regarding belief in the afterlife, I distilled this down to two pros and two cons:
    Pro #1: Reduced death anxiety
    Pro #2: Diminished sense of loss when loved ones die
    Con #1: Insufficient value placed on earthly life and “temporal things”
    Con #2: Potential for anguish over the fate of “unsaved” loved ones

    So, for example, if you’re a very anxious and emotional person then the pros may outweigh the cons. That said, there are mitigations for all of these that could tip the scales. There are psychological techniques for reducing anxiety and managing grief would which may be equivalent (or better) options for realizing the pros that come inherent to belief in an afterlife. On the flip side, adherence to certain doctrines – such as stewardship and universalism – could mitigate the cons that may come with Christian belief. Ultimately it will depend on what actually works best for any one person, which is a very difficult judgment to make.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m with Steve on this one. The torment foreshadowed in Hell well and truly outweighs the advantage of Heaven.

    An afterlife with Heaven only, yes, but an afterlife with Heaven and Hell, emphatically no.

    I think Hell is the most monstrous concept imaginable. That so many Christians can reconcile this with love just boggles my mind.

    I was reading on one blog it was argued that because God is infinite then justice demands eternal punishment for any offence against him. If someone thinks that is justice well I give up.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Peter, I argued against a similar argument (the “we’re just filthy rags” idea) in this post from a while back. Thought you might find it interesting:

    Using this kind of logic, I could make the same case about dogs. When you compare one dog to another, there’s little difference. But when you compare a dog to a human, it’s suddenly quite clear that dogs are filthy, stupid, and completely uncivilized. That’s why we are well within our rights to wipe out all dogs. It’s what they deserve for not being as clean, intelligent, and civilized as we humans. In fact, the dogs would completely agree with us, if they could ever come to understand just how much better than them we really are. If we decide to spare any dogs, it only shows how merciful we are.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What is interesting is that as people move a more liberal theology, one that is guided by their conscience, Hell is invariably the first thing to go. What does this mean? Are people intrinsically more merciful than God?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Dave, I see no harm in people believing in a god or in an afterlife, necessarily. If it helps people cope with the loss of loved ones as well as deal with their own mortality, or even if it helps give them a bit of courage in dangerous or desperate situation, then I would not fault them.

    It would be nice. I once held those same views. In some ways I envy them, but in others, I do not as I prefer the truth whether I like it or not, and since I think Christianity is not the truth, and that the truth is also that no god has been revealed (and certainly no real promise of an afterlife) then I’d prefer to personally be done with that view.

    But can it be good? I think so, but we have also seen where it can also be bad. I know, that whether I like something or not, or regardless of how much or how little something gives me comfort, that those things in no way validate a belief or speak to reality.

    Soldiers and Marines believing their close comrades are being taken care of in an afterlife, or grieving parents believing that they’ll see their deceased children again at some point… I could not criticize people like this. I feel badly for them and often wish I could get lost in their fantasy. I wish it were so, I am just very doubtful that it is any more than wishful thinking, as sad as that may be.

    For good or bad, people die. There’s nothing we can do about that.


  9. I think Travis is right and it really just depends on the person and your situation. Some of us just don’t see the need for this kind of hope because we think more logically rather than emotionally.

    The marine lieutenant who authored the book was dealing with self-doubt and depression and needed a coping mechanism so that he could continue his job and focus on leading the remaining marines under his command. One of his men confronted him and told him that no one blamed him for the death and that this soldier was now in heaven so it was okay. Obviously his men could tell that he was having some issues. He was able to get past these issues by telling himself that God exists and this dead marine was now in heaven.

    Basically, it was not a question of whether God actually existed or not, it was a question of “what works best for me and which outcome would I prefer?”

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Steve,

    I believe most Soldiers and Marines go to war for several reasons, and may hold some religious belief. Many even thought the war itself was unjust, but still view their individual actions on a much smaller scale.

    Duty is a factor, excitement and adventure can be, but also love of country and probably the biggest I’d argue is the love of their comrades next to them. Why they are in war, or are their orders fair or not, probably register very little in the grand scale of a soldier’s or marine’s though process – more likely, “we’re here, and I want to live and make sure the man next to me stays alive.”

    The film “Sgt York” is a good one that illustrates this also. Many times they kill the enemy as an action they view as saving their palls.

    It may not make sense all the time, but I have no problem seeing how a believer would take great comfort in knowing a fallen brother is being cared for eternally and how living soldiers can take extra courage while fighting, believing that if they die, that they will be cared for likewise.

    BUt like has been said, the Lt doesn’t believe in God because of the afterlife, he takes comfort in an afterlife believes he believes in the Bible. Doesnt make it right, but it’s all too common an error for people to not think that far ahead. And who can blame him? he’s grieving after all.


  11. What I have no issue with is people believing in a god for their own comfort.
    However, reality is not based on how comfortable we are with it. Just because a thought gives a person comfort doesn’t make it anymore “real.”

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Good question. I agree with Nate that it sounds very similar to Pascal’s wager when you think about the structure (Both ask, are we better off if we pretend there’s a god? Don’t we lose less that way?)

    If I’m remembering correctly, there have been studies that suggest that religious people are happier in the long run. But doesn’t the saying also go “ignorance is bliss”? I think choosing ignorance, or in this case an incorrect worldview, just because it makes you personally happy is pretty irresponsible. As an adult, I know there’s a lot more to the world around me than the good things I’d like to see, and even though I can’t fix everything, knowing about the bad things and at least voting with them in mind (donating to charities too, volunteering when I can, etc.) makes me a better citizen than if I simply choose to maintain the belief that the world is perfect and nobody ever starves or becomes terminally ill or gets murdered. Death is a reality we all have to face, and people base big decisions on religion (how they feel about women’s reproductive rights, LGBT rights, etc.)

    Maybe the individual feels better in the long run believing in an afterlife, but if that belief is only self-serving and actually leads to poor decision making that ultimately affects other people’s rights and wellbeing–which it does, then no, it’s not better to believe just to feel better. If anything, it’s pretty irresponsible.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. It’s a very good question you raise. The short answer I’d have is that belief in an afterlife is what people make of it. Sure, some people can use it to motivate themselves. But others can use it justify terrible actions. This all goes back to perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Interestingly, people have tried to do some science on these questions. Below are just two. Do other folks know more. Since they are empirical questions armchair speculation is the weakest form of evidence.

    (1) Belief in Afterlife does not reduce anxiety of sick people

    (2) Belief in Life after Death is linked to lower anxiety


  15. Ken nailed it. Granted, there are emotional benefits to such a belief, but ultimately such beliefs retard the human condition. Our greatest duty is to humanity, not the self, and any investment made in some make-believe supernal hearth is an investment not made here. In this regard, theism’s most insidious, treacherous act is in convincing frightened but otherwise sane individuals that this planet, here and now, is not their home.


  16. @ John Zande,

    “Such beliefs retard the human condition.”
    Any evidence for that?

    I am not even sure that claim is made in such a way that it could be tested. And as such, it is ironically very close to the same nature of claims that many religious folks make.


  17. All you have to do is read the lyrics of many gospel songs about heaven to know people are looking for a better place than where they are presently residing.

    Here are a few lyrics from Heaven Song

    “I want to run on greener pastures
    I want to dance on higher hills
    I want to drink from sweeter waters
    In the misty morning chill
    And my soul is getting restless
    For the place where I belong
    I can’t wait to join the angels and sing my heaven song
    I hear Your voice and I catch my breath
    ‘Well done my child, enter in and rest’
    Tears of joy roll down my cheek
    It’s beautiful beyond my wildest dreams”

    There are hundreds if not thousands of these songs about people wanting to exit this life sooner than later to be in heaven. No this isn’t scientific, but compelling never the less.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. We know religion prospers when there is either economic or physical insecurity. Such comforts may offer hope and lift the human condition. Perhaps help them strive harder.

    All to say, broad claims should be tested or pointed out as untestable. Otherwise, it is a matter of people getting together and slapping each other on their backs about the stuff they like or hate together. No? Sort of like singing those types of hymns.


  19. @ John

    Your claim was “ultimately such beliefs retard the human condition”.
    No, Sept 11th does not support such a claim. I won’t go into the details of why. I can tell easily when people value rhetoric more than reason – be they religious or not.


  20. I won’t go into the details of why.

    Oh, please do, Sab. You love making your snide remarks, so back it up.

    Yes or no… were the 19 hijackers promised heavenly delights, honey water, and virgins for their martyrdom?

    Or, perhaps, are you arguing the 11th of September wasn’t a retardation of the human condition?

    That would be an interesting case to make.

    While you’re considering your answer, here’s a little clip


  21. “” No, Sept 11th does not support such a claim. I won’t go into the details of why.”

    “I can tell easily when people value rhetoric more than reason – be they religious or not”

    How does one respond to this ……………………………….

    Liked by 1 person

  22. I’m with you on this kccheif, I would have felt that Sept 11, was almost like exhibit A. If not I am really missing something.

    Liked by 2 people

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