Religions thrive because people are afraid of dying and not being alive anymore. If death didn't exist, I doubt religions would either.
People can deal with other problems without religion. What gives life meaning? What is right and wrong? Is there an inherent purpose to the cosmos?
But death... that's a problem with no solution. Everybody dies. Everybody. No exceptions.
So those who want to live on after their body dies have only one choice: fantasy, imagination, wishful thinking. Religions fulfil a desire for immortality which can't be met in any other way.
Well, it can't be met through religiosity either.
But just as people are easily lured to buy into other schemes that promise a lot more than they can deliver (lotteries, for example), religions easily attract converts through the wares they offer.
Notably, eternal life.
The big question, though, is whether trading reality for illusion is worth the reassurance religious dogma provides to true believers.
Christianity, for example, likes to talk about the "good news" it brings. Basically, salvation. Death isn't the end! Jesus saves. God will be our best friend for eternity.
Sounds nice. But only if all this is true. If the good news is false news, then Christians are living a lie in what will be their one and only life. So are believers in every other religion.
August is blackberry time here in western Oregon. Luther Burbank, curse his non-existent soul, brought the Himalayan Blackberry to the northwest.
Now it is an invasive thorny plant-pest that grows everywhere. My wife and I labored for years to clear large patches of blackberries from our ten-acre property. We've succeeded so well, I have to pick and eat blackberries when I go for an evening dog walk around a nearby community lake.
Recently I was munching away on the tasty moist berries and suddenly realized, "One day there will be no more blackberry eating for me. In fact, no anything for me."
This wasn't as stark and startling a sensation as my fear of non-existence feeling. It was gentler, though no less intuitively truthful.
I was grateful for it.
The berries I was eating began to taste even better. Life seemed more vivid, more precious, more worth living. Walking home, I thought about what life would be without death. Could we even call it life, in the sense of how we look upon living now?
Seemingly it would be more akin to "existing," a word which connotes something other than the energetic, flowing, ever-changing, unpredictable nature of "living."
Not that I have a choice, but I prefer living over existing. This is the downside of religiosity: it injects a big dose of fantastical eternal existence into the reality of ephemeral life. Thus it dilutes actual living with the promise of eternal life.
"Sure, those blackberries taste good now. But just wait until you taste heavenly fruit! No comparison."
Well, of course not.
It is impossible to compare something real with something imaginary. The car in my driveway can't begin to compare with my fantasy car. However, I can drive and enjoy the car I actually have, which makes it incomparably superior to my fantasy.
Several days ago a rare summer thunderstorm journeyed up the Willamette Valley. Before the storm hit, hints of its arrival were in the sunset. Sitting on our deck, I had to grab my iPhone with an unbidden thought of "heavenly."
Not in the sense of supernatural, of course. Nature was producing the divine light show without any help from God. It was a special moment. But then, all moments are when we realize there will come an end to our experiencing of them.
This is the grace, so to speak, of not being a religious believer. We trade an abstract conceptual fantasy of eternal life for a more vibrant direct experience of living here and now. I'm happy that I've made that trade.
I'll end with a few quotes from John Gray's "The Silence of Animals."
Simenon's tales carry no moral lesson. But if there is an idea at work in them, it is that the impressions through which we pass are more real than the selves we think are authors of our lives.
...The world in which you live from day to day is made from habit and memory. The perilous zones are the times when the self, also made from habit and memory, gives way. Then, if only for a moment, you may become something other than you have been.
...He breaks out from the prison of his ordinary self not into a great oneness but into an outward world he had not seen before.
...The willful opening of the mind to the senses is a prelude to events that cannot be made to happen. Like that of religious mystics, contemplation of this kind involves nullifying the self. But not with the aim of entering any higher self -- a figment left behind by an animal mind.
God-seeking mystics want this figment to guide them to a new way of living. They are right in thinking that a life made up only of action is the pursuit of phantoms; but so is life passed on a fictive frontier between two worlds.
The needy animal that invented the other world does not go away, and the result of trying to leave the creature behind is to live instead with its ghost.
Godless contemplation is a more radical and transient condition: a temporary respite from the all-too-human world, with nothing particular in mind.
...Godless mysticism cannot escape the finality of tragedy, or make beauty eternal. It does not dissolve inner conflict into the false quietude of any oceanic calm. All it offers is mere being. There is no redemption from being human.
But no redemption is needed.