What if you spent quite a bit of time doing something that was very serious and important to you? And then you came to understand it was a joke and useless. How would that make you feel?
Probably, disturbed that you'd wasted so much effort on something so laughable. Yet also happy that you reached your realization before frittering away more of your life on a big bit of nothing.
This is how I see religions now. As jokes, but without a punchline.
Often a joke isn't funny until the very end. That's when we see the humor in the tale. For example:
A woman gets on a bus with her baby. The bus driver says: ''Ugh, that's the ugliest baby I've ever seen!'' The woman walks to the rear of the bus and sits down, fuming. She says to a man next to her: ''The driver just insulted me!'' The man says: ''You go up there and tell him off. Go on, I'll hold your monkey for you.''
But the reason so many people take their religion so seriously is that they never get to the punchline -- the absence of an afterlife. So they pray, meditate, go on pilgrimages, attend church, worship, and do their oh-so-serious rituals, visualizing that in the end, life won't be The End.
Now, do I know for certain there isn't an afterlife? No.
However, I'm 100% confident that everybody who is born, dies. And there is zero demonstrable evidence that any person has continued to exist as a conscious entity after his or her death.
So that's why I get the joke about religion, while billions of my fellow mortal humans look upon their chosen faith with solemn eyes and a serious mien.
What's funny -- and also dreadfully sad -- is the spectacle of so many people sleepwalking through life in a religious daze, anticipating that they'll wake up in a marvelous supernatural reality after they die.
If they're wrong, if each of us has only one chance of experiencing existence, then it is incredibly misguided to look past the living that is here and now in an effort to prepare for a fantasy afterlife there and then.
In Kevin Nelson's book, "The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain," which persuasively argues that near-death experiences are entirely physical, a passage from Dostoevsky's "The Idiot" is used to show how the brain distorts the passage of time in a stressful situation.
These are the final thoughts of Prince Myshkin, a condemned man:
He had only five minutes more to live. He told me that those five minutes seemed to him an infinite time, a vast wealth; he felt that he had so many lives left to live in those five minutes that there was no need yet to think of the last moment, so much so that he divided his time up.
He set aside time to take leave of his comrades, two minutes for that; then he kept another two minutes to think for the last time; and then a minute to look about him for the last time. He remembered very well having divided his time like that.
He was dying at twenty-seven, strong and healthy. As he took leave of his comrades, he remembered asking one of them a somewhat irrelevant question and being particularly interested in the answer. Then when he had said good-bye, the two minutes came that he had set apart for thinking to himself.
He knew beforehand what he would think about. He wanted to realize as quickly and clearly as possible how it could be that now he existed and was living and in three minutes he would be something -- someone or something. But what? Where? He meant to decide all that in those two minutes!
Not far off there was a church, and the gilt roof was glittering in the bright sunshine. He remembered that he stared very persistently at that roof and the light flashing from it; he could not tear himself away from the light. It seemed to him that those rays were his new nature and that in three minutes he would somehow melt into them.
Well, almost certainly not.
But in this tale Prince Myshkin is only going to spend three minutes before his least breath contemplating an imagined afterlife. If that makes him feel better, so be it. I wouldn't want to take away comforting thoughts from a man about to die.
What this story brought to mind, though, is that each of our lives, in its entirety, is nothing more than five minutes (or a lot less; I haven't done the math) when compared to the 14 billion years since the big bang brought the universe into existence.
We don't have much time to live, compared to how much living the cosmos has done, and will continue doing after our deaths.
We shouldn't waste it on imaginary things, imaginary pursuits, imaginary fantasies. We shouldn't waste it on religion.