Americans Disagree About the Afterlife

That’s why we need religious liberty…

Fresno Bee, November 28, 2021

Most Americans believe there is life after death. A recent survey from the Pew Center reports more than 80% of Americans believe in some form of afterlife. Sixty-one percent believe in traditional accounts of heaven or hell. Others believe in some alternative, such as reincarnation. Only 17% do not believe in an afterlife.

The headline for this report focuses on political differences. Republicans are more likely to believe in a traditional idea of heaven and hell than Democrats. Our polarization seems to extend beyond this world.

One disagreement concerns who gets into heaven. A third of Americans believe that the path to heaven is through “one true faith” (a belief that is more common among Republicans). But many Americans are open-minded about this. A majority of us think that believers of “many religions” can gain eternal life.

Of course, opinion polls are not theology. These questions run deep and the answers are shrouded in mystery. These are things to ponder in the glow of firelight on cold and foggy winter nights. Even the theologians disagree. Some claim the “narrow gate” to heaven is reserved for believers. Others believe in “universal salvation,” which is the idea that everyone goes to heaven.

And what part of you will survive? Some say your body will be resurrected. Others think the soul lives on. Others suggest that even though you die, it is the memory of you that lives on in the mind of God.

Debates about the afterlife are ancient. Socrates said death was either a dreamless sleep or a journey to another world where good is rewarded and evil is punished. In either case, a good person has nothing to fear in death. If death is a dreamless sleep, then we won’t suffer from being dead. And if the religious stories about the afterlife are true, good people will be rewarded.

Plato believed in reincarnation. He suggested that the virtues we develop in this life help us choose our next life wisely. Plato’s elaborate scheme of transmigrating souls was rejected by materialistic philosophers such as Epicurus. Epicurus taught that death really is the end. He suggested that we should stop worrying about the afterlife and focus on happiness in this life.

Christianity rejected Epicurean philosophy by insisting on the importance of resurrection and the idea of divine judgment. One worry is that without the promise of heaven and the threat of hell, we may lack the motivation to be good. There is also the need for consolation in the face of suffering and evil.

Some good people suffer and die miserable deaths. And some evil people get away with murder. The universe does not seem fair if good folks go unrewarded and evil people don’t get punished. Immortality and divine judgment appear to resolve this discrepancy.

As we ponder these issues, it might help to know that Americans have often disagreed about them. One famous disagreement is that between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson most likely did not believe in personal immortality. Jefferson was a materialist and a deist who was sympathetic to Epicurean philosophy. He seemed to believe that personality was situated in the brain and that the soul disappeared at death. Jefferson also suggested in a letter to Adams that Plato’s account of immortality was “nonsense” produced by Plato’s “foggy mind.”

But Adams believed otherwise. His belief in the immortality of the soul was central to his religious faith. In a letter to Jefferson, Adams said, “If I did not believe in a future state I should believe in no God.” In another letter, Adams said, “A future state will set all right. Without the supposition of a future state, I can make nothing of this universe, but a chaos.”

And so it goes. Adams believed that the afterlife gives meaning to this life. Jefferson thought such ideas were nonsensical.

This leads us, in conclusion, to the need for religious liberty and freedom of thought. Great minds disagree about immortality. And so do we. These questions are not answerable in this life. This means that we should be free to disagree. At some point, we will each confront this mystery directly. In the meantime, let’s leave each alone to ponder the imponderable.

There is No American Religion

Fresno Bee, July 18, 2021

New poll shows 23% of Fresno County residents don’t affiliate with an organized religion

American religiosity is declining and diversifying. A recent Census of American Religion from the Public Religion Research Institute confirms a trend scholars have noted for decades. There is really no such thing as a typically American experience of religion. And lots of people have rejected organized religion.

This is what religious liberty looks like. In this country, you can change religions, marry someone from a different faith, or simply stop going to church. You can also openly criticize religion without fear of prosecution for blasphemy or apostasy.

Other countries lack this kind of liberty. When the State Department issued its annual report on religious liberty in May, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “Religious freedom, like every human right, is universal. All people, everywhere, are entitled to it no matter where they live, what they believe, or what they don’t believe.”

Blinken identified Iran, Burma, Russia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and China as nations that harass religious minorities and punish religious dissenters. He accused China of committing genocide against its Muslim Uyghur minority.

American religious liberty is a rare and precious thing. But it is also messy and complicated. It means that we lack religious unanimity. It means that quacks can start cults. It means that some people will turn their backs on religion. It means that we all need to work harder to understand each other and the value of our freedom.

This is not good news for Christian nationalists who want the U.S. to be a Christian nation. Of course, the idea is problematic. Christianity is a big tent with substantial diversity. This includes many Christians who reject the idea of Christian nationalism.

A widely shared statement from “Christians Against Christian Nationalism” says that Christian nationalism distorts “both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy.” They argue that Christian nationalism is idolatrous. And the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of any religion as the national religion.

Christianity is the identification of 70% of Americans, according to the PRRI Census. But Christianity is complex. It includes Protestants and Catholics, the Orthodox and the Mormons. The census also broke religious affiliation down by racial and ethnic lines, distinguishing, for example, between Black Protestantism, Hispanic Catholicism, and White Evangelical Christianity. One wonders how much there is in common between a white Mormon living in Utah, a Black Baptist living in Georgia, and a Hispanic Catholic living in Fresno.

Furthermore, nearly one in four Americans (23%) is not affiliated with an identifiable religion. Fresno County is typical in this regard with the same percentage of non-affiliated people (23%) as the rest of America. The Central Valley is generally more religious than the rest of California. In San Luis Obispo County, 36% are unaffiliated, for example. California is generally more diverse and less religious than the Midwest or the South.

The unaffiliated are not necessarily atheists. Only 6% of Americans claim to be either atheist or agnostic. Unaffiliated people may be spiritual, but not religious. These folks believe in God or spirits, but are not members of any specific religious community.

One interesting data point is that there are as many atheists and agnostics as there are adherents of all non-Christian faiths combined. Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists each account for 1% of the population. Hindus came in at 0.5% (Sikhs were not accounted for separately).

This census confirms that this is a big country, where people are free to believe whatever they want. But religion cannot be ignored as a social force. There are regional differences. And religious differences track race, ethnicity, and political party affiliation.

This census implies that change will continue. Young Americans are more diverse than older generations. In the 18-29 age cohort, only 54% are Christian, 36% are unaffiliated, with non-Christians making up the rest.

This suggests an optimistic outlook for the future of religious liberty. Young people are exercising their liberty and creating a future that will contain more religious diversity than their grandparents encountered. Young people will need guidance as they re-weave the religious fabric of the nation. They need education about religious diversity and religious liberty. But the youth can also lead the way by showing the rest of us what freedom looks like.

Is it Better to Die or to Pass Away?

Whispered euphemisms obscure the difficult finality of death.  When people die, they are gone forever.  This is tragic and true.  But it’s better to confront hard truths than to sweeten them up with fragrant words.

A couple of months ago, we had our dog euthanized.  He had been sick for a while.  During the last few days, he suffered terribly.  The polite way to speak of this is to say, in the passive voice, “our dog was put to sleep.” 

This may be suitable for parents breaking sad news to children.  But adults should be honest and forthright among themselves.  More than one person has said, “I’m sorry your dog passed away.”  They are trying to be compassionate.  But the dog did not gently “pass away.”  He was suffering and we asked the vet to kill him. 

This was not easy.  But it was the right decision.  It was very sad.  But the dog was better off dead.  It sounds cold to say it.  But it is true.

Euthanasia is Greek-based jargon that avoids the old-fashioned phrase, “mercy killing.”  Euthanasia seems less blunt.  But “mercy killing” honestly admits that this is a kind of killing.   

One problem is that killing seems evil.  But killing is not absolutely wrong.  It is not wrong when it comes from a place of compassion and respect.  It is more honest to admit this than to confuse ourselves with euphemisms. 

Death is veiled by euphemisms.  Consider phrases like “passed away,” “passed on,” or simply “passed.”  There is a kind of cloying phoniness here.  Indeed, “passing” connotes a kind of fakery.  We use this verb to describe what happened when counterfeit money is passed or when someone passes themselves off as someone or something else.

“Passing on” makes death out to be a transition to some other state.  The Bible teaches that this form of life passes away (see 1 Corinthians 7:31) and that “there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

“Passing” is also passive.  We pass footballs and kidney stones.  The object passed is passive in the process.  To say that a person passed away takes away agency.  To my ears, it sounds more respectful to say “he died” than that “he passed away.”  It is nobler to imagine dying as something we do—our last and final act—than to imagine being passed around by fate or the gods. 

If we must speak this way, I suppose “passed away” is preferable to “passed on.”  To say that Jane Doe “passed on” assumes she went somewhere else.  That might be true.  But we don’t know where Jane has gone.  She may be in a worse place or a ghost trapped in limbo. This spookiness can freak you out.  The idea of “passing away” is simpler.  It tells us that Jane is gone without asking us to speculate about where she went.

Sometimes this expression is shortened and people simply say, “Jane Doe passed.”  This phrase seems to require an object like a kidney stone.  And it is ambiguous.  To say Jane passed might mean that she got a C on an exam.  One recent newspaper article used the expression twice to refer to two different deceased persons.  The author is trying to be polite.  But the phrasing is annoying.  Jane Doe is dead.  Let’s not beat around the bush.

For some, there is a taboo or phobia involved in saying words like “dead” and “death.”  Maybe folks fear that these words will somehow conjure up the Grim Reaper.  But honesty is the best antidote for fear.  It is the whispers, the speculation, and the innuendo that causes the shadows to grow.  Dying is a part of life.  Everyone we know will do it someday—including you and me. 

Sometimes it is even better to be dead, as in the case of my dear suffering dog.  It is better to affirm our mortality than to pretend that we merely pass away.  It is better to shed light on death than to pass over it with euphemisms that obscure its sadness and its finality. 

Beyond Self-Care: Cultivating an Active and Engaged Self

Self-care is a common theme for 2021.  One wellness website said: “focus on yourself this New Year’s Eve” and “indulge in these self-care strategies as you enter 2021.”  The article recommended “allowing yourself to indulge in a night of luxurious me-time.”

This is not a bad idea.  A little self-care is fine from time to time.  But self-indulgence is occasional.  It is not a way of life.  We need something larger and less transitory.  Self-care should become self-cultivation. 

The self is not an infant we care for or a set of appetites to be indulged.  The self is a dynamic system that seeks fruitful activity.  The adult self is a growing and changing, goal-oriented being.  The self thrives when it is challenged; it prospers when it produces lasting goods such as love, art, science, virtue, and wisdom.

The pampering indulgence of self-care is aimed at stressed out people.  Self-care is an antidote to the rat race and a response to the tragedies and suffering of 2020.  But “me-time” should not climax in onanistic withdrawal.  2021 will require the active intelligence of an engaged self.

There is some wisdom in self-care.  The self-care movement often affirms modesty and mindfulness.  This affirmation of simple pleasure is useful for those who are wound up tight by our cranky, competitive culture.  It is OK to unwind on occasion.  Drink some wine.  Soak in a tub.  Take it easy.

Sometimes the self-care movement offers clichéd common sense about hygiene and mindfulness.  Yes, we should drink more water, be present, and take walks in nature.  But this often becomes sappy, self-indulgent pampering—an apology for sleeping late or over-eating.  And self-care is often merely a marketing ploy for spas, lotions, and chocolate. 

The self-care movement is quite broad. On the one hand, it includes the discipline of yoga.  As one yoga website puts it, “Yoga is a great form of self-care.”  On the other hand, self-care is about… well, something else you do with your hand.  An article in The Oprah Magazine celebrates masturbation as part of a “self-care routine.”  The author reports that some evenings she even cares for herself twice!

There is nothing wrong with pleasure.  But moderation is essential.  And pleasure is not an end in itself.  Happiness and morality often require us to forego pleasure.  Work, discipline, and focus are essential for the self to thrive.  Stress and anxiety are essential parts of a creative and ambitious life.  When other people are suffering, self-care is selfish.  Justice and compassion impel us beyond self-care toward care for others.

This discussion can be traced back to the conflict between Epicureans, Stoics, and Christians.  Epicurus suggested we should live modestly, avoid controversy, and enjoy simple pleasures.  The Stoics rejected this.  They emphasized strenuous duty, while claiming that pleasure makes us soft.  Christians also rejected Epicureanism, focused as they were on suffering, death, and resurrection.  Epicurean self-care is too sensual for Stoics and too secular for Christians. 

Ideally, we would weave these ideas together by connecting self-care with self-cultivation.

Care is rooted in a kind of worry.  A care-free person has no worries.  When we care for something, we worry about it.  The problem of self-care is that it is a kind of worrying about the self.  It can be onanistic and self-absorbed. 

Cultivation is much more affirmative and dynamic.  When we cultivate something, we grow it.  Cultivation is related to “culture.”  Culture is a dynamic process that is the result of labor, interaction, and imagination. 

Human beings are not only focused on pleasure and relaxation.  We are also concerned with love, justice, courage, compassion, knowledge, art, and wisdom.  When we are absorbed in fulfilling activities, the self fades away.  The self-oriented path of indulgence is limited in comparison with the self-less activity of inspiration, insight, and interconnection. 

So here is what I propose for the new year.  Instead of retreating to the bathtub, let’s put our hands to work.  Learn.  Teach.  Create.  Make music.  Do science.  Love your neighbor.  Fight for justice.  Pursue wisdom.  These are the goods of a fully human life.  The challenge of 2021—and of life in general—is to cultivate a self that loses itself in inspired and engaged activity. 

Secular Values are Worth Defending

Fresno Bee, May 29, 2015

According to new data from the Pew Research Center only 70% of Americans are Christian. That’s down from 78% in 2007. Non-Christian religions — Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus — grew slightly from 4.7% to 5.9%.

The number of “unaffiliated” people grew more rapidly. More than 22% of Americans do not belong to any religion — up from 16 % in 2007. In California, 27% of us do not claim any religious affiliation. The number is even higher for young people.

Some unaffiliated people are spiritual but not religious: they have turned away from organized religion. But the unaffiliated also includes a growing number of atheists and agnostics, who make up 7% of the population — that’s more than all non-Christian religious believers combined.

These statistics have alarmed conservative pundits such as Pat Buchanan. In a recent column, he cited this data as portending the death of American Christian culture. Buchanan links declining Christianity with moral decay, citing broken families, assisted suicide and abortion. He concluded, “As Christianity dies, individualism, materialism and hedonism replace it.” Buchanan fears a wave of “barbarians” threatening Europe and America “from the south.” He ominously warns that we are committing cultural suicide.

This rhetoric is dangerous. Fears of barbarian hordes and cultural suicide can prompt the need for radical — and possibly violent — reaction. Beneath the fear-mongering, Buchanan fails to see that many come to Europe and America to escape religious fundamentalism in their home countries. They come here because of our secular system.

Even if immoral “barbarians” were really attacking core values, the solution is not reactionary religious intolerance. We can’t make church mandatory, as an Arizona legislator recently proposed. Rather, the solution is better secular education. We defend against “barbarians” by teaching them the virtues of secular democracy.

Modern secular culture is complicated. Science has opened new vistas unimagined by ancient scriptures. Technology creates new ethical challenges. And new voices join our public debates. All of this is difficult. But it is much better than a cramped world of forced conformity.

A secular legal system recognizes religious liberty as a basic human right. This means that some people will choose new religions or will leave religion behind. That sort of diversity is the price of liberty. And it is a great improvement over the stifling orthodoxy of previous centuries.

The worry about religious decline is based upon misplaced nostalgia. It is a myth that there ever was a time of religious harmony and homogeneity. Galileo was threatened by the Inquisition. Columbus left a world where Christians fought Muslims and slaughtered Jews. He discovered a world with completely unknown religious ideas. The world has been fractured by religious controversy for millennia.

Long centuries of violence within Christendom eventually gave way to our secular system, which allows us to live in peace despite deep differences. One result of secularism is that people will question traditional pieties. So what? As long as we treat one another kindly, tell the truth, pay our taxes, and take care of business, it makes little difference whether we are Christian or not.

And yet, Buchanan is right that individualism, materialism and hedonism are problematic. But you don’t have to be a Christian to understand that. The Roman Stoics warned of similar dangers — as did Confucius and the Buddha.

The great moral traditions teach a core of ethical common sense. Love your neighbor. Find something larger than yourself to believe in. And recognize that there is more to life than short-term pleasure.

Critics may argue that without God, morality loses its anchor. But basic moral truths do not rely upon any particular religious story. And secular culture does not require anyone to give up his personal anchor. It merely allows each of us to find our own way forward within common moral limits.

The growth of religious diversity and non-religion is not a sign of cultural suicide. Rather, it reflects the robust health of our secular system. In some parts of the world today non-believers are massacred. But we have found a better way.

Hedonism and materialism are problems. But intolerance and religious violence are worse problems. The only acceptable solution to any of these problems is more freedom, better education, some historical knowledge and a healthy dose of ethical common sense.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State. Contact him: fiala.andrew@gmail.com