Monday, January 2, 2012

Death - Motivation for Belief

A year has passed since my deconversion, and I feel I'm beginning to better understand the motivation for belief in Jesus. For many people, belief must provide something that non-belief doesn't offer. Until recently, I'd always believed and so couldn't make the comparison.

My latest understanding has come through contemplating death, which can be very depressing. If death is the end, then the following brief list is true:

Upon death,
* I can no longer enjoy the people I love and cherish. I'm unaware of them, thoroughly severed from them forever. I am dead to them and they are dead to me.
* I cannot participate in the lives of my descendants, whom I've worked so hard for. I can't share in their hopes, joys, successes, or struggles.
* Everything that matters to me will no longer matter to me.
* Everything I've worked for will be gone from me.
* I have not even memories to ponder.
* All experience ceases. There is no me. I don't exist and have no awareness that I ever did.

If that's the truth, I don't blame anyone for saying "fuck the truth."
If that's the truth, it may still be better to believe something else.

The above list is unacceptable to many people's minds, and understandably so. It's bleak. It's at odds with the innate optimism that countless studies have identified in the human species.

Optimism gives us motivation to put forth effort and take potentially beneficial risks. Optimism not only improves our health, but has helped our species evolve. Optimism says my future will be better than my past. The list says that my future is ultimately void.

Optimism is a vital quality, and must be maintained. If the above list destroys my optimism, then I'm much better off rejecting the list regardless of whether or not it's true. Having decided that the list is unacceptable, what alternative belief should I replace it with? Well, I'd turn to a belief that offers hope, that motivates me to behave the way I think is right, a belief I can have in common with others, and a belief which values an intellectual basis rather than being unabashedly delusional. In this context, Christianity is a great option.

I'm convinced that rejection of the above list (or the likes) is the most common basis for turning to belief in Jesus, much more common than being won over intellectually by the arguments of Christian apologists. I am convinced that the primary effect of Christian apologetics is not to persuade non-believers, but to reassure believers that Christianity is not anti-intellectual. It is the fear of death and need for optimism which first motivates us to believe, and apologetics which help us feel like our belief is not a mere psychosis, especially given the intellectual attacks from the outside.

In the absence of such a motivation to believe, I don't think Christian apologetics alone would hold sway with many people. To those who aren't otherwise motivated to believe, the proposition of an ancient human deity sounds silly, and the supporting arguments offered are uncompelling. But given the motivation of rejecting the above list, the proposition is appealing. One can look for the merit in the argument rather than the loophole, and take the affirmative side: Yes, Jesus rose and gave us eternal life!

So it is not my mission deconvert people. Even if religion is simply the "opium of the masses", let's not forget that opium is a highly effective pain reliever. Death is a disease we all have, and knowledge of our impending death is a very painful symptom. Religion can be a great treatment. The tough part for me is balancing condoning religious belief and opposing the nastier effects of belief like bigotry and excessive absurdity.