Why would believing in life after death make us act more morally?
Religions argue that if people didn't anticipate some sort of afterlife – the nature of which depends on behavior in this life – there'd be little motivation to do the right thing here on Earth.
To my mind, there's an even better argument in the other direction: a belief in immortality creates an atmosphere where life as it is here and now is disrespected, disparaged, and downplayed.
A plane crashes. There's a disaster in a coal mine. A stray bomb kills innocent children. Religious believers say to themselves, "The victims have gone to a better place. They're in the hands of God/Allah/Guru/whoever now."
But what if the dead are just that: dead. They had one chance to live a life. And now it's gone.
How precious does life now seem? Does earthly existence appear to be more or less of a treasure if it's viewed as just a way station on a much longer journey?
I say, less. So if you want to foster a culture of life, don't believe that it continues after death. Nurture life now. Protect life now. Embrace life now.
Consider stem cell research. Or providing condoms to prevent AIDS. Or global climate change. Or any of a host of other social issues where action isn't taken to alleviate a clear and present problem partly because religion preaches that the focus should be on an unseen heaven rather than evident reality.
Since most people believe in the survival of a soul, there's a pervasive, if largely unconscious, attitude that what doesn't get done in this life can be taken care of later on.
Whether it's called karma or God's will, the notion is that whatever apparent wrongs are committed on Earth will be made right in another lifetime or state of existence.
Maybe. But "maybe" is a shaky foundation for morality. It'd be a heck of a lot better if people did what needed to be done out of a clear-eyed compassionate recognition of how life could be made better right here, right now.
If this life is all there is, it's infinitely precious. Every life cut short because of inadequate health care is a freaking tragedy. So is every life lost from any other preventable cause: war, famine, violence, accidents.
Yeah, I'm hearing the song in my head. Maybe you are too. Let's sing it together. And imagine.
[Update: Here's another argument against religion-based morality. There I was a few days ago, waiting at a red light to turn left. Watching kids at both ends of the crosswalk, I didn't immediately notice the left turn arrow turn green.
A nano-second later the guy behind me in an big extended cab pickup, with a large dog hanging out the passenger side window, honks his horn at me in my humble Prius. Not just once, as a signal, but twice -- as a sign of irritation.
I turn left. A ways down the street he floors his truck and passes me on the right, on a two lane road, just to show me, I suppose, how he's still pissed that I held him up for a few seconds.
This sort of behavior is rare in Oregon. I've seen drivers wait through an entire green light behind a car that didn't notice the signal had changed. I've done it myself.
I think, "I don't want to disturb that person unnecessarily. They'll probably notice the light soon. It's no big deal for me to wait a while." I don't act the way I do because of some religious commandment. It just seems right.
But what if a supposedly holy book that lots of people believed in said, "Thou shalt honk when a driver fails to start off immediately when the light changes."
An intuitive sense of right and wrong, which in Oregon at least (don't know about New York City) generally manifests as patience, would be replaced with an artificial code of behavior that isn't as caring and compassionate.
The idea that people are selfish creatures whose negative tendencies are held in check only by religious authority isn't borne out by facts. Our social nature, honed by evolution, urges us toward cooperation and mutual back-scratching.
Religion says "Love your neighbor." But we already knew and felt that. Religion also says, "Do this because you're told to." Man-made commandments get mistaken for genuinely moral principles, leading to religiously inspired craziness.]