Blogging Through Augustine/Martin’s Anthology “The Myth Of An Afterlife” Part 1

Blog Post 1 on The Myth of an Afterlife (ed Martin and Augustine)

This series of blog posts will look at the question of whether or not there is a afterlife by blogging through the Augustine/Martin anthology “The Myth of an Afterlife”

Steve Stewart-Williams (Foreword)

Stewart-Williams points to the difference between evidence consistent with an afterlife (eg., predicting one’s own death), and evidence of an afterlife.  Such evidences seem to pile upon one another across the world to apparently give credence to the afterlife hypothesis.  Stewart-Williams suggests supernatural interpretations are completely unnecessary given reasonable naturalistic ones, and we wouldn’t even have recourse to supernaturalistic explanation except that we have such traditions from our culture. 

I understand Stewart-Williams  here in the sense that we all know, for instance, it is possible to invoke an invisible, magical leprechaun to explain the mysteries in quantum gravity, but reasonable people prefer naturalistic explanations.  Even Religious Studies scholars, when they have their “historian” hats on, understand that divine explanation are bracketed in principle in historical inquiry, being articles of faith, not scholarship.  For example, liberal Christian scholar Dr. James McGrath explains the possible origin of Jesus resurrection belief in this way:

One can only speculate about what the first post-Easter experience of “seeing Jesus” may have been like. It is alluded to, but ultimately left undescribed, in 1 Corinthians 15:5, where Paul writes simply that he “appeared to Peter.” The challenge to the historian is to reconstruct a plausible scenario that could have given rise to the evidence available in later sources. Perhaps, as we have suggested above, Peter returned to Galilee and to fishing. He wrestled with the failure of his expectations, with his own failure in denying Jesus, and perhaps with questions about whether things might have turned out differently had no one drawn a sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant that fateful night (Mk. 14:47). On one particular day he goes fishing, taking some of Jesus’ other closest followers with him. They catch nothing, and much of the time is spent in silence. Then, they see a figure on the shore. The figure asks if they have caught anything, and they say no. He tells them to try again, and suggests a spot. They lower their net – and catch a huge number of fish. Peter makes a connection. Isn’t this the spot where he first met Jesus, who did something similar on that occasion? He looks up. Perhaps the figure on the shore has already vanished. Perhaps he is still standing there, and they have breakfast without exchanging many words, as suggested in John 21. In either case, at some point after the figure has departed, Peter suddenly has a flash of insight: it was Jesus. He tells the others, but at least initially, they are skeptical, and for a time they remain unpersuaded. Peter spends much of the days that follow in prayer, seeking information and advice from rabbis and experts in the Law. What do the Scriptures in fact say about what the Messiah would be like? Could the Messiah suffer? Could the Messiah return from the dead? Could the Messiah enter the messianic age of the resurrection ahead of everyone else? Were there passages that left open such possibilities, texts that had been neglected but which might allow for such an unthinkable, paradoxical, surprising Messiah? After much reflection, exploration, and soul-searching, Peter contacts the rest of the Twelve, and they gather to hear what Peter has to say. They listen, and when he is done explaining to them what he has come to believe, he leads them in the prayer Jesus had taught them.  “Father…” they begin. When they reach the words “Your will be done,” they mean it as they had never truly meant it before. “Not our will, but yours.” A sense of peace washes over them. A sense of certainty that Peter is right, that Jesus has in fact been raised. And in their dreams, and in glimpses in crowds, in mysterious encounters with unknown individuals, and even in mystical visions, they too experience this phenomenon of “Jesus appearing.” Could this be the way events unfolded, and Christian faith in the resurrection of Jesus arose? What we have written in this section is admittedly speculative. There seems to be little hope of gaining access by means of the extant written sources to the actual experiences that early Christians had, the ones that convinced them Jesus was alive. Even Paul only alludes to his own direction-changing experience, and never describes it. Perhaps this is appropriate: religious experiences are regularly characterized by those who have them as ineffable, as “beyond words.” The Gospel of Mark suggested that Jesus would be seen, but doesn’t describe the experience, at least not in our earliest manuscripts. Our two earliest sources thus leave little for us to work with at this point.

– McGrath, James F. . The Burial of Jesus: What Does History Have to Do with Faith? . Patheos Press. Kindle Edition.

And so, we have a perfectly reasonable naturalistic explanation for the birth of the easter story.  It may be something supernatural happened, but more reasonably we might simply suppose Peter was just distraught and confused.

Stewart-Williams suggests belief in the afterlife can arise from a host of causes such as

Some claim that the belief in an afterlife is wishful thinking; others that it’s a way of promoting socially desirable behavior; and others still that it represents ancient people’s best effort to explain strange phenomena such as dreams. More recently, it has been suggested that religious beliefs, including afterlife beliefs, are the handiwork of evolution by natural selection, or byproducts of various evolved psychological capacities… [and] they might fit together within the overarching framework of a memetic approach.

– Martin, Michael; Augustine, Keith. The Myth of an Afterlife . Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Stewart-Williams suggests the wishful thinking explanation is best understood in the light of an addiction analogy, not so much that it comforts us, but it’s painful to try to give up.  And, fear of hell, though widely believed is hardly wishful thinking. 

Another explanation is the social glue theory whereby good behavior is rewarded by heaven, and bad behavior with hell.  A variant of this is the social control theory, which I have written an essay about here: .  Stewart-Williams says there is a grain of truth here, but religious beliefs have also torn societies apart, so the whole story isn’t here.

A further explanation for religious belief is honest attempts at explaining things like why you dream, hallucinate, or for the ancient Greeks why the sun goes across the sky.  However, Stewart-Williams reminds us that “it doesn’t explain why, if religious beliefs are primarily explanations for puzzling but commonplace experiences, so many religious beliefs are so completely disconnected from the evidence of human experience. Again, the approach may be a piece of the puzzle, but we must avoid mistaking it for the whole puzzle.”

Some point to evolution and natural selection to explain religious beliefs, but religious beliefs regarding the afterlife vary so drastically between cultures that the culture seems to be the deciding factor, not biology.

Another possibility for origin of belief in the afterlife relates to how we construe the world:

For instance, we construe physical objects, but not mental states, as possessing spatial dimensions. This makes it easy for us to imagine that minds are something distinct from bodies. It doesn’t force this conclusion, and it certainly doesn’t force the further conclusion that the mind could exist independently of the body or survive bodily death. But it does mean that these ideas come naturally to us. They’re easy for us to accept because they fit the natural contours of our minds. Thus, a curious byproduct of theory of mind is that we are prone to believe, falsely, that the mind (or soul) is something distinct from the activity of the brain, and that it could ascend to Heaven, or be reborn into another body, or merge back into some kind of collective consciousness. I’m

– Martin, Michael; Augustine, Keith. The Myth of an Afterlife . Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

After going through the various traditional explanations, Stewart-Williams explains a theory that ties the others together:

With each of the earlier approaches, thinkers have identified a psychological or cultural “selection pressure” acting on religious memes. These are: (1) selection for beliefs that comfort us or comfort the people we care about; (2) selection for beliefs that foster social cohesion; (3) selection for beliefs that help us manipulate other people’s behavior; and (4) selection for beliefs that explain (or give the appearance of explaining) the world around us. No doubt there are others as well. As with biological evolution, these selection pressures can come into conflict with one another and pull in different directions. So, for instance, we may want to believe something because it is comforting (selection pressure #1), but be unable to do so because it would clash too violently with the evidence of our own eyes (selection pressure #4). This suggests that one kind of memetically successful religious belief would be a belief that promises to provide comfort and consolation, but which is also not too readily falsified in everyday life. The belief in life after death fits this description perfectly.

– Martin, Michael; Augustine, Keith. The Myth of an Afterlife . Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

In our history, high intelligence was selected because of its usefulness, but had the side effect that we became aware of our own death, and so religious belief arose to allay that.  Afterlife beliefs may be tens of thousands of years old.

Societal cohesion tends to break down at numbers above 150 people, so societal institutions needed to be in place to fix that:

However, with the advent of agriculture, the selection pressure for memes useful for this purpose might have dramatically increased in strength. Afterlife beliefs (and religious beliefs in general) may have become progressively better adapted for fostering social cohesion in large-scale human societies.

– Martin, Michael; Augustine, Keith. The Myth of an Afterlife . Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Over history, we see an evolution of the concept of the afterlife from the tragedy of the Greeks to the bliss of the modern theist as attempts to attract and control became more and more sophisticated.

But this need not just be a decision of people, but a way the memes themselves evolved, and so:

There is no need to suppose that anyone sat down and thought up this tactic for retaining believers. Instead, it may just be that the afterlife beliefs that have survived in our culture are those that happened to get attached to such notions as that, without these beliefs, life would be bleak and unbearable.

– Martin, Michael; Augustine, Keith. The Myth of an Afterlife . Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.