A sizable segment of the American public is weary of news about religion – based perturbations. The daily incidents of Islamic terrorism around the world, human rights abuses justified by beliefs in ancient traditions by Zionist Israelis, including the continued building of settlements in disputed territories that inflame tensions in the Middle East, Hindu mass murders of Muslims and occasional Christians in Pakistan and India, pedophile Catholic priests in America and, of course, the hate speech rants by many fundamentalist Protestant preachers are a blight on the earth. But, there is another, less deadly but still highly annoying problem with religion, in my humble and occasionally outspoken opinion.
Nearly every day, true believers, usually devout Christians, put up epic battles against dying, either themselves or in resisting the passing of close relatives or friends. This week, we have the drama in Oakland (California) of a 13 year-old girl declared brain dead by attending physicians. The family denies this verdict based on their idea that God defines death some other way. The parents want their daughter to have additional surgeries, then moved to a care resort to await recovery, presumably by prayerful interventions. No matter to them that the child has been pronounced clinically dead by attending physicians.
Not surprisingly, the devout Schiavo family has involved itself (through their death denial foundation) in the case.
If true believers in religion really expect a paradise after death, why carry on so in hopeless situations? I suspect it’s because many, if not most religionists, don’t really believe the promises and dogmas attached to their religions. Many such notions are just too preposterous and contrary to laws of nature, science and rational inquiry.
Try as they might, it may well be they can’t make themselves believe, at the deepest level, that a heaven, about which nobody, not even the Pope, knows anything, awaits.
This manifests in forms that affect society in largely unrecognized ways, one of which seems to be the impact on U.S. health care system spending priorities. Despite the promise of heaven, few believers (suicide bombers excepted) seem anxious or even willing to go there. Quite the contrary, many appear to do everything possible to stay right where they are, on earth, alive, regardless of how dead they almost are, not to mention the amount of pain being endured and other indignities being suffered. As in the Oakland case cited above and the Schiavo follies a few years ago, they kick and scream and spend money freely to batten down the hatches and bolt shut the doorway to heaven, namely, death.
What’s with this? If believers really expect a paradise in the next life, why prolong this one? Why spend so lavishly on the final days of misery and woe when joy and whoopee lay straight ahead? As Yul Brynner memorably remarked portraying the King of Siam in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I, is a puzzlement! But, cling to life the faithful do – it seems not to matter how wretched it has become, with near-zero prospects for improvement. Again I ask, why?
I’ll tell you why. Right now. Without delay. Coming up – why I think the truly, deeply faithful pull out all stops to stay alive, until things are beyond hopeless and they can’t go on acting foolishly forever.
But first, let me say that I hope I haven’t said anything to offend you. However, if I have, well, it’s your choice to be offended. You could just as easily be delighted, bored, inspired or whatever you want to be. Your choice. We are all responsible for our feelings – they are not beyond control. I mention this in part in case this essay arouses you but, more important, in the event you find yourself stressed most of the time or a lot. It happens if you allow yourself to take offense easily. Examples might include being offended when Bill O’Reilly goes on about an imaginary war on Christmas, or when someone exercises or defends certain rights of which you don’t approve (e.g., for women to choose if they want to be mothers – or not) or when some folks fail to show suitable respect for certain of your beliefs, such as this very good earth being part of a 6,000 year-old universe.
Suspicions About Heaven
But, I digress. I would like to know more about why so many believers appear to lack conviction about heaven. There is one possibility, and it’s as simple as this: While believers raised to love God and get on his good side in order to enjoy the best of times to come in heaven find that idea pretty appealing, it comes with a pretty fearful alternative possibility! You know what I getting at, don’t you?
Maybe the explanation for holding off death is rooted in the fear that an alternate destination awaits. In his 1890 address entitled, The Holy Bible, Robert Green Ingersoll said this of believers, They remember heaven, but they forget the dungeon of eternal pain. Actually, when at death’s door, it might be just the reverse: they forget about heaven, but they sure do remember the scary visions of hell painted by the nuns, priests and Hieronymus Bosch.
Damn! I think I’d want some part of me, any part, kept alive as long as possible to delay the prospect of being pitched into the flames forevermore. Holy hell. Compared with that, Bernie Madoff’s 150 year sentence is but a slap on the wrist. And he does not even have to endure excruciating tortures at all, let along till hell freezes over.
The Medical System
Consider how supernatural belief system of eternal Russian roulett affects life or death decisions that tend to bloat the nation’s $2.75 trillion health care system. If you think a better place awaits, why would you want to devote large amounts of health care dollars, including scarce Medicare resources, on limitless high technology to remain alive, more or less, at end stages of life? It makes little sense. Maybe there’s something to my worst case believer scenario.
In Medical Nemesis, Ivan Illich described religious-based death denial as pervasive in modern medicine: The medicalization of society has brought the epoch of natural death to an end. Western man has lost the right to preside at his act of dying. Health, or the autonomous power to cope, has been expropriated to the last breath.
In The Life of Reason, George Santayana observed, We should have to abandon our vested illusions, our irrational religions and patriotisms. Good idea, but not so likely. The reality, as Pierre Bayle noted a long time ago, is that no religious beliefs are supported by reason and claiming to believe in heaven is no exception. (Source: The Historical and Critical Dictionary, 1692.)
An Alternative to Staying Alive – At All Costs
The alternative to irrational spending on hopeless cases is to recognize that we do not have the option of living forever, or much beyond the four-score and then a few, at least not in a qualitative manner, for very long. Better we should devote most resources to living well and ameliorating pain, and going off either to oblivion or paradise when the time comes.
If you can’t really bring yourself to believe in heaven, at least try to get used to the idea that maybe oblivion ain’t that bad and that hell is BS. After all, you were nowhere for gadzillions of years before you were born – you should be used to it by now! But, if not, you will assuredly have another chance, pretty soon.
On that cheerful thought, I wish you happiness.