Religions may do more harm than good by telling people a life after death awaits them. In all probability, many terrorist attacks and other tragedies would not occur in the absence of that belief.
The Sept. 11 terrorists thought Allah approved of their suicidal acts and they would be eternally rewarded as martyrs. In a letter discovered after the attacks, their ringleader told them they would soon be in paradise “with beautiful angels” who have “put on their most beautiful dresses.” He also urged them on by saying, “The virgins are calling you.”
The Koran supports his belief by describing the rewards awaiting Muslims after death. “But for the God-fearing is a blissful abode, enclosed gardens and vineyards; and damsels with swelling breasts for companions; and a full cup.” This is where “reclining on beds they will ask for abundant fruit and exquisite drinks, all the while next to them will be blushing virgins as companions.”
Terrorist leaders use these promised rewards to recruit the young and motivate them to commit murder-suicides. But this method of inciting terrorism wouldn’t work if the targets of the recruiting didn’t believe in an afterlife.
Richard Dawkins says belief in an afterlife has immunized not only Middle Eastern terrorists against fear of death but also countless other warriors in history. The promised heavenly rewards made death in battle appear attractive.
In describing the effectiveness of this propaganda, Dawkins exclaims: “What a weapon! Religious faith deserves a chapter to itself in the annals of war technology, on an even footing with the longbow, the warhorse, the tank and the neutron bomb.”
Bertrand Russell makes a similar observation: “At a certain stage of development, as the Mohammedans first proved, belief in Paradise has considerable military value as reinforcing natural pugnacity.”
But what goes around can come around, and the same belief was soon used against Muslims. In the Middle Ages, rewards of eternal bliss in heaven were promised to Christians who joined the Crusades against Islam.
In the 1980s, assurances of heavenly rewards motivated many Iranian boys – between 9 and 16 years old – to give their lives in the war between Iran and Iraq. They agreed to run through mine fields to clear the way for advancing Iranian soldiers. The promised rewards also caused parents all over Iran to encourage their sons to participate in these “human wave attacks.”
Robin Wright, who witnessed the boys’ actions, wrote in Sacred Rage that “wearing white headbands to signify the embracing of death, and shouting ‘Shahid! Shahid! (Martyr! Martyr!),’ they literally blew their way into heaven.”
Similarly in the 1990s, the hope for martyrdom motivated many of the fundamentalist Islamic soldiers who enabled the Taliban to control most of Afghanistan. The Taliban became a supporter of terrorists, including the ones responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.
If people realized there is no evidence for an afterlife, the thought of dying a warrior’s death would be less appealing to them. Instead of welcoming death or viewing it casually, they would likely value this life much more.
Believing in an afterlife can also lead to murder. The Humanist philosopher Corliss Lamont reports that some ancient societies killed their aging members before they reached a state of decrepitude. It was thought that this enabled the victims to spend the afterlife in a relatively healthy body.
A more modern example is the case of John List, a New Jersey accountant and Sunday school teacher who killed his wife and three children in 1971. When finally captured many years later, List explained that his wife was drifting away from Christianity and his children might do the same when faced with worldly temptations. So he decided to kill them while they were still Christians, thereby ensuring they would go to heaven instead of hell.
A lesser-known case occurred in Baytown, Texas, in the mid-1980s. A 31-year-old mother killed three of her children with a knife, while a fourth child survived the attack. The mother had written she wanted to send her children to Jesus.
The same motivation existed in the infamous case of Andrea Yates, the devoutly religious Texas housewife who drowned her five children in a bathtub in 2001. According to Newsweek, Yates told a jail psychologist that her bad mothering had made the children “not righteous,” which would cause them to “perish in the fires of hell.” She explained that because she had killed them while they were young, God would be merciful to their souls and “take them up” to heaven.
Susan Smith, the South Carolina woman who drowned her two young sons in 1994, likewise believed in an afterlife. While parked on a boat ramp and deciding whether to send her car into a lake while the toddlers were strapped in their car seats, Smith thought the boys would go to a happy existence with Jesus immediately after death. As she sits in prison, she still believes that’s where they are.
Northeastern University criminologist James Fox states that belief in a better world beyond the grave is not unusual among parents who kill their children and themselves. “Frequently, the parent thinks this life is miserable and rationalizes that the family will be happily reunited in the hereafter,” he reports.
These motives for murder couldn’t exist without belief in an afterlife.
Not only terrorist suicide attacks and murder-suicides within families, but also other types of suicide can result from the notion of a heavenly abode. Corliss Lamont gives an example from the 1930s.
It involved a U.S. congressman who killed himself shortly after his wife died. The man explained in a suicide note that his wife had been calling him to join her and their young son in heaven.
His act was not an isolated incident. Lamont says there are “numerous cases on record of people killing themselves to preclude being parted from the beloved dead.”
Belief in an afterlife caused the mass suicide of the religious group known as the People’s Temple. Their leader, Rev. Jim Jones, relocated the group from the U.S. to Jonestown, Guyana, in the mid-1970s. Jones believed that he and his followers would eventually die together and go to a place of eternal bliss, and they practiced for mass suicide.
In 1978, after his security guards had killed a visiting congressman and several others, Jones feared retaliation and decided the time had come for the group to do the real thing. So he led them in a mass suicide, resulting in his own death and the death of 913 of his followers, including nearly 300 children.
Beliefs about an afterlife produced the 1998 mass suicide in the Heaven’s Gate religious group in southern California. The group thought the Hale-Bopp Comet was accompanied by a spaceship that would take them to a higher realm of existence. So 39 members killed themselves, believing that by shedding their earthly bodies they would be transported to the spaceship.
Rejecting the idea of an afterlife would eliminate these motives for suicide.
Believing in an afterlife also causes people to engage in unproductive acts. This is seen among many ancient peoples, but the most famous example involves the Egyptians and their practice of mummifying the dead. The Egyptians felt that preserving one’s corpse was necessary for a satisfactory existence in the Great Beyond.
Members of the Egyptian nobility and the wealthy class therefore spent huge sums for mummification and other means of maintaining their remains in perpetuity. And tremendous amounts of labor and resources were used to construct the pyramids. The purpose of these gargantuan structures was mainly to protect the bodies of deceased Egyptian kings.
In describing the wastefulness of such activities, Robert Ingersoll said the Egyptians “were believers in immortality, and spent almost their entire substance upon the dead. The living were impoverished to enrich the dead. The grave absorbed the wealth of Egypt. The industry of a nation was buried.”
A similar problem occurred in czarist Russia. Many members of the nobility and upper classes bestowed vast wealth on the Russian Orthodox Church to have daily prayers recited and other intercessions made for their departed souls. The money and time could have been used much more productively to benefit the millions of Russians who lived in dire poverty.
Likewise in the Catholic Church, considerable emphasis has been placed on prayers and masses for the deceased. These practices have been a source of immense income for the church. So have the indulgences the church sold supposedly for improving the well-being of people’s souls in an afterlife.
Mormons spend an enormous amount of time and money studying genealogical records in order to baptize deceased relatives, ancestors, and others into the Mormon Church. The founder of this church, Joseph Smith, taught that departed souls can accept what is done for them on earth.
Absent such beliefs in an afterlife, the work being done on behalf of the dead could be refocused to greatly improve the conditions of the living.
Some orthodox Christians, says Edmund D. Cohen, are so preoccupied with thoughts of an afterlife that they devalue and ignore many important matters in this life.
Cohen states that for these persons, “all but a few aspects of earthly life are reduced to unimportance, and the next life is ‘where the action is.'” It’s hard to imagine an attitude less conducive to solving the world’s problems.
In fact, the “powers-that-be” in this world are usually more than happy to see people focused on an afterlife. So they often encourage it. They know that people engrossed with thoughts of other worlds are less likely to notice or care about exploitation and abuse on earth.
As Kevin Phillips writes in his 2006 book American Theocracy: “Economic conservatives often warm to sects in which a preoccupation with personal salvation turns lower-income persons away from distracting visions of economic and social reform.” He says that as a result of such preoccupation in the U.S., “the corporate and financial agenda not only prevails but often runs riot.”
Moreover, when people believe that injustices will be punished in another world, they aren’t so concerned about stopping evil or seeing that wrongdoers face justice in this world. Their attitudes make it much easier for the wicked to prosper and escape punishment.
In summarizing these problems, Corliss Lamont states: “As long . . . as a future life is conceived to exist, people will devote to the thought of it much time and attention that could be used for earthly enterprises.”
The belief in an afterlife leads to much unnecessary harm. And it’s irrational: there’s no more evidence for believing that humans are immortal than for believing that trees and insects are. If people realized this, much evil could be avoided and more attention placed on improving the world.
Of course, believing in an afterlife is a source of consolation for many. The pain caused by the loss of loved ones can be alleviated by thinking that everyone will be reunited in the hereafter. But the serious harms caused by this idea seem to far outweigh the benefits.
Today, the terrorism that the belief produces – particularly if the terrorists obtain nuclear weapons – is a threat to the lives of millions around the world and to the continued existence of the United States and Western civilization.
For those who cannot bear the thought of the final extinction of themselves and their loved ones, the hope for an afterlife – as opposed to the belief in one – can be a harmless source of consolation. As Robert Ingersoll stated, “Hope is the consolation of the world.”
In the nineteenth century, the agnostic Thomas H. Huxley seemed to leave room for this hope by saying: “I neither deny nor affirm the immortality of man. I see no reason for believing in it, but, on the other hand, I have no means of disproving it.”
Simply hoping for an afterlife, rather than presuming to know it exists, brings solace and need not result in a devaluation of this life. People who employ a scientific outlook and have that hope know it’s very possible, or even highly probable, this is their one and only life. They will not, therefore, throw it away or think little of throwing away the lives of others.
The hope for an afterlife was even held by great humanistic thinkers such as Robert Ingersoll and Thomas Paine.
It’s important, though, to prevent this hope from developing into a belief. In addition to the many harms the belief has caused throughout history, the results of the belief today could be catastrophic on an unthinkable scale.
Those who cannot give up the idea of an afterlife would be wise to follow Cicero’s advice. He said a future state is “to be hoped for rather than believed.”