Every Friday a selection of Cecil Adams' The Straight Dope columns is sent to my e-mailbox. This morning's edition included one devoted to the why of the popularity of Christianity. Cecil ended with this:
Today a few skeptics feel Christianity itself has run out of gas, but I'm not seeing it. Assuming you're not merely going to switch to some other well-established religious tradition, or else take up with the Shirley MacLaine crowd, what else is there? Sure, I know some profess to take solace in science. But who in his final hour rejoices at the thought, onward to the void?
The date for this particular column is 1995, so I believe today there would be many more skeptics convinced that Christianity is indeed running out of gas. I think Islam has experienced some incredible growth since the above was written as well, but Adams was specifically discussing Christianity. The current skeptical claim now, as I understand it, is organized religion overall is in decline, being replaced by "nones" (including the "spiritual but not religious" crowd) and especially the scientific skeptics.
This is supposedly good news. But it brings to me Adams' well turned phrase about the final hour for those who do take solace in science: "onward to the void!"
Yes, there are atheists in foxholes, and no doubt there are and have been atheists who go bravely and quietly into the void. Christopher Hitchins and his brave battle against throat cancer even as he continued to proselytize for atheism springs to mind. But I don't know whether to be impressed by their fortitude or dismayed by their closed-mindedness of even considering the widespread belief in the survival of human personality.
The poet Robert Service, Bard of the Yukon, wrote (in his poem Reptiles and Roses):
So crystal clear it is to me That when I die I cease to be, All else seems sheer stupidity. All promises of Paradise Are wishful thinking, preacher's lies, Dogmatic dust flung in our eyes.
But what could be more dogmatic than Service's lines above?
Inasmuch as I don't think hope is a bad thing, I'm not overly moved by those who would chalk up the idea of post-mortem survival solely to wishful thinking. I mean, sure, it is wishful thinking. But is that all it is? Is it possible - I have wondered (but only wondered) - that the spark of desire for immortality might be imprinted into our psyches by God?
There are, I think, some non-stupid reasons for at least considering personal immortality, even as I remain a hopeful agnostic on the subject.
One of these reasons is summed up as succinctly as I can recall seeing in the words attributed to former U. S. president Abraham Lincoln:
Surely God would not have created such a being as man, with an ability to grasp the inifinte, to exist only for a day! No, man was made for immortality.
Humans have sensed or intuited this from time immemorial. Of course this would carry zero weight for those who hold no belief in God; but for those who do it can fit quite nicely.
Perhaps the biggest hope for some of type of human immortality springs from the hypothesis of Nonlocal Consciousness, that is, that consciousness is not strictly material:
We swim in a sea of consciousness, like a fish swims in water. And like a fish that has become oblivious to his aqueous environment, we have become dulled to the ubiquity of consciousness. (From the article Why Consciousness is Not the Brain, in SuperConsciousness magazine's Fall, 2010 issue.)
Naturally such broad thinking is anathema to those who, as Cecil Adams says, "find solace in science." But some of us are not inclined to have "dogmatic dust" flung into our eyes by the "high priests" of modern science, either. We think of science as more open-ended than the believers in scientism do.
For me death is "Onward to the Unknown" rather than "Onward to the Void."