I was once asked a very interesting question. “Would I change the way I lived my life if I was given incontrovertible proof that there was no life after death?”
It is a very interesting question, one for which there is no simple answer.
My initial reaction was – probably. After all, if there is nothing beyond this one, why not take everything from everyone I can manipulate, bully, outsmart or simply overpower? Why not take advantage of everyone and take everything I can so that I can live in luxury? If there is no greater power than anyone more powerful, more manipulative or aggressive than me, what should I be afraid of?
A Humanist would immediately argue that my ‘basic goodness’ would prevent me from doing that. They would argue that mankind have an innate morality which prevents us from such excess, but history seems to me to disprove that – the greatest genocidal acts, the worst atrocities have all been committed by atheist leaders who were also first class manipulators and propagandists. They were men and women who believed that belief in any higher power was something to be exploited to their advantage in those they ruled.
The atheist would, of course, be delighted by such a revelation. Such a proof would give them exactly what they want – proof that they are right and everyone else totally wrong. But would it lead to a better world? Or simply to a world without any restraint other than those made by man – which, again, history shows us very rapidly degenerates into tyranny?
Then another thought began to form. If there was proof that there is no hope of something better beyond this life, what does this say to those who have lived lives of suffering and deprivation? What does it say to those for whom this life has been one long struggle to raise, feed, clothe and house a family in the presence of neighbours enjoying plenty and unwilling to share?
That thought filled me with sadness. If there was no life beyond ours, nothing beyond the grave to hope for, then there is nothing for any of us in this existence but the pursuit of self-gratification and self-fulfillment. What a pointless existence. In fact, only those born to wealth, power and all that accompanies that, could really enjoy life to the full. For the rest of us there would be nothing but years of work, perhaps some small rewards and finally oblivion. For those crippled by any number of childhood diseases, and some adult ones, there is even less. The term from a TV show comes to mind – “Suffer, baby, suffer – there is nothing else to look forward to.”
All very well for those, like Dr Dawkins, in good health and in well paid positions, living comfortable lives in professions and careers which gave them fulfillment and rewards. Tough for the genius born into the family of a heavy drinking dustman without ambition, compassion or civility. Perhaps this was what drove those who have attempted to impose socialism upon the world, arguing that this was the only way to ensure ‘fair’ distribution of wealth. Notably, of course, only they should determine who is ‘wealthy’ and who not and who should give up what they had earned and worked to achieve, and who not – and naturally, they were among those giving up least. Notably, many of those who espouse this ideology are also atheists or humanists and freely attack those of faith – from which the ideas they now attempt to manipulate originated – and do so from their comfortable positions in well paid professions and from the material fulfillment of their very comfortable lives.
So what do they say, what do we say, to those who do not have the good fortune to be born to comfort and loving homes? Here’s a handout? Join a gang and take everything you can because life is short, brutal and a free-for-all? This is where we really do run into a problem with morality. Why shouldn’t they beat up old ladies, break into and rob your home of the possessions you have worked so hard for? The Socialist would say to you that it is the desperation of poverty that drives people to crime; that your refusal to give up some of your ‘wealth’ in order to ‘combat’ that poverty is what causes crime. But is this necessarily so?
No - I do not believe that it is, though it may be a part of the overall problem. There was far greater poverty and a far greater gap between rich and poor before the 1950s, yet, with the notable exception of the Mafia gangsters in the Prohibition period, crime had not reached the proportions it has today. Today, at least in Europe, we live in a society that provides for the jobless, for the ailing and for the retired. Interestingly, though there is always a great emphasis on raising retirement ages and ‘freezing’ or reducing pension entitlements, no one ever dares to take a hard look at the runaway benefits system which grows by leaps and bounds.
If there is no ‘life beyond this’ then it is easy to justify handing out endless ‘benefits’ to those who do not work and even to those who have never worked and to justify reducing what we give to the aging as ‘they’ve had the benefit of employment’ and have ‘assets’ they can sell to live off. After all, you can’t take it with you even if there is a life beyond this.
Now this all leads back to the original thought, if there was proved that there is no God, no life beyond our present existence, then we are utterly without hope. Not just those at the bottom end of society, but all of us, the rich, the comfortable and the poor – because now you have nothing but man-made and man enforced ‘laws’ to guide us. Nothing at all to restrict us, since laws can be manipulated, changed and even ignored.
Would such proof change the way I live? Yes, it would. It would make me very wary of the intentions of those around me. It would make me behave in a manner that brings out the ruthless side of me, and it would certainly make me a far worse person than I am now.
Fortunately, despite the best efforts of the Humanist Society, Dr Dawkins and now Professor Hawking, I am still convinced that the Gospels are correct and that they do reveal a life beyond this one, a life to which even the Dawkins', Hawkings' and members of the Humanist Societies are invited.
Hope in higher power and in a life to come is what makes our societies work and holds them together. Why should I believe that a politician canvassing my vote for his party is more likely to give me what is not in his power anyway – and not in a life that God Himself has promised? For millions of people of all faiths, the life they live now will never be more than one hard struggle, and one which, if they are lucky, may be very short. Our early ancestors decorated vast caverns with images they hoped would guide them into a ‘spirit life’ which would offer some easier aspect. Even Neanderthal men buried their dead with tenderness and care decorated graves.
Does it not seem strange that in the 100,000 years that modern man has been around, no one has yet ‘proved’ there is no afterlife? In fact, increasingly, there is growing evidence that there is. Perhaps that is what gives rise to the question with which I began and which, I am happy to say, I do not believe will ever be the case.
I do not look forward to death and I do not seek it. I confess to being uncertain as to what precisely awaits and to facing it – especially as it gets closer – with some trepidation, but I am convinced that once I have passed through the pain of parting from those here that I love, I will find a welcome.
I dare to live in hope and faith – and through holding to them, I live in the Love of a God who loves His creation – all of it. As St Paul wrote almost 2,000 years ago; “And now abide these three, Faith, Hope and Charity – and the greatest of these is Charity.” In language of the King James Bible, “charity” was the same as the Greek “philos” – the love that is without eroticism or expectation of reward.
Yes, I dare to live in the hope of the “Charity” and that moderates the way I live my life.