Thursday, April 18, 2019

Your Get-Out-of-Hell Free Card

Here's an unremarkable, everyday example of what I mean when I insist that religion is a human invention and should be evaluated in that light.
A great, good, and holy man has passed. Friends know well, he would sign every note, “pray for me.” I ask the same - please pray for the repose of Fr. James Schall, S.J., the best of men, and a good and faithful servant.
I had never heard of James Schall before this morning, but this memorial to him turned up in my Twitter feed this morning.  I don't doubt that he was a great, good, and holy (whatever that means) man, though any Christian ought to remember that their Lord said that no one is good except God.  (On "the best of men," see my recent reflections on that kind of inflation of merit.)  What interests me are the assumptions underlying the request to pray for Schall's "repose."  One is that death is like sleep, and that the person somehow is still there.  Another is that the default of the after-death state is restlessness, whether it's conceived as a hungry ghost craving revenge on the living or torment in some placeless place. Yet another is that the living can help the dead find repose, either by appeasing the vengeful spirit or, as in this case, praying for them to receive an upgrade to first class, where they'll be able to rest.

It's common for infidels like me to explain such beliefs by claiming that those who hold them have been "brainwashed" (people keep using that word) by the Church, by wicked Priests, by fairy tales written by Bronze Age shepherds.  (Those shepherds are evidently immortal, and amazingly powerful.)  I don't think that explains anything.  Why did those wicked people invent the belief, and more important, why is it so durable?  Christian churches have been trying for two thousand years to brainwash believers to do or refrain from doing many things -- calling people good, for an easy example -- but without much success.  In many cases the offenders feel no guilt at all.  I think it's reasonable to suspect that when believers conform, it's less because they were brainwashed than because they are the kind of people who'd invent those beliefs in the first place.  Either they feel strong anxiety about their own lives, or are full of resentment toward others they'd like to see punished.

The belief in a painful afterlife is not only Christian, after all.  It may not be universal, but it's very ancient and widespread.  Even biblical Judaism, which supposedly has no doctrine of the afterlife, imagines the dead in a dark, shadowy place called Sheol; if you want to invoke Bronze Age shepherds, that seems to have been how they thought of it.  I've written before about Korean Buddhist beliefs and practices that were not very different in principle from Roman Catholicism.  I once read a scholar who claimed that in his parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, which revels in fantasies of eternal post-mortem torture, Jesus didn't mean to describe the geography of the afterlife but simply borrowed imagery from Egyptian sources among others.  It's a false distinction anyway, but I would ask why Jesus preferred that imagery.  Why not imagine both Lazarus and Dives comfortable, reconciled, at an eternal and joyful banquet?  Why believe that anything happens to them after their deaths at all?

But not only that: along with belief in Hell (or whatever you want to call it) goes the belief that the living can help the damned to escape from it by what I can only call magical means, by prayer, by Masses for the dead, by baptizing the living on behalf of the dead, and so on.  Christianity, like other religions of salvation, is at its core preventive magic to keep you from being sent to Hell in the first place.  I don't know how accurate the accounts I've read of ancient Egyptian religion are, but the idea that the hearts of the dead will be weighed to decide their posthumous fate can hardly be blamed on Christianity, and the basic principle is the same: to learn the password, the secret handshake, the necessary bribes to get past the gatekeeper to eternal safety.  But the default setting is torture; "punishment" may not be the right word, because the suffering is free-floating, apart from anything the sufferer may have done.

So: why all this?  Death is scary, whether it's our own or the death of other creatures.  Nobody knows why we die, nobody knows if there's any kind of existence after we die.  When I've raised this point with some believers, they often invoke a version of Pascal's Wager: well, we don't know, so we're playing it safe, it does no harm to pray for Father Schall, etc.  Like the original form of the Wager, there are problems, highlighted by the variety of beliefs and practices people have.  What good will it do to light lanterns so the dead can find their way to paradise more quickly, if they're going to Hell anyway because they weren't baptized in the name of Jesus, the only name in which we are saved?  If there is a real danger of posthumous suffering, we need accurate information about how to avoid it, and there is none.  (If we knew that this was the geography of the afterlife, it would be different, but we know nothing about it.)  Yet many (most?) people cling desperately to belief that the danger is real.  Some get very upset at the idea of giving up the belief, of admitting that no one knows and that there's no reason to believe that we go on existing after we die.  Certainly my skepticism about the call to pray for the dead will upset some people.

A common reaction is to demand "respect" for the dead.  I am not sure what that means, but I have as much respect for Father Schall as it's possible to have for someone I've never met and know nothing about.  I don't think he should go to Hell; I don't think anyone should go to Hell.  Demanding "respect" is just flailing around.  My point is that we should be aware of and examine the assumptions that lie behind these beliefs and practices.  Getting rid of "religion" -- whatever that would mean, given that no one knows what religion is, where it ends and not-religion begins -- won't help.  In principle you could have religion without these strange and (I think) malign assumptions about death, but I think there would be powerful resistance to getting rid of them.  Many, probably most people, prefer to think of the universe as a giant booby-trap, laid for us by a Cosmic architect who loves us and wants to see us slip on the banana peels he put in our path, and you can't change that preference simply telling them they're stupid, brainwashed, and superstitious.

I think that resentment is a major factor in that resistance.  If Donald Trump or Ilhan Omar isn't going to be punished horribly, if the bully who took your lunch money in third grade or the stuck-up girl who didn't invite you to her birthday party is just going to get away with it, then what is the point?  Again, this resentment can't be wished away; I feel it myself.  The trouble is institutionalizing it in our moral systems, as all the systems that postulate punishment after death do.  Nor will you find it only among fundamentalists: think of the liberal Christians who fantasized violence against Paul Ryan for his views on poverty.  Think of this biblical scholar, showing his superiority to an antigay Christian who spoke against Pete Buttigieg in Iowa.  Such resentment is a cause of (certain aspects of) religion, not an effect.  It's easy for me to see why it's so tenacious.  Making the world better (by ending poverty, for example, which you recall Jesus had no interest in doing) is hard, perhaps impossible.  Making it worse, by throat-punching a bigot with the binding of your Scripture, or punching Paul Ryan in the face, or - better -- fantasizing about it, is so much easier. If you hang on to an unsupportable belief so doggedly, it's because you like it: you want to see the world that way.  A lifestyle choice, if you will.

To try (perhaps vainly) to make myself clear, I'm not saying that people who encourage us to pray for the dead are wicked.  I'm asking that we, and they themselves, pay attention to the assumptions that lead them to encourage it. They are not benign assumptions. They express some weirdly negative attitudes towards life and the living that I imagine these people would repudiate. But they hold them nonetheless.  Those of us who reject religion need to be aware of those attitudes, in the conventionally religious and in ourselves, if only to understand them in hopes of correcting them.