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An Atheists's Explanation for Life After Death

One of the excuses deists frequently throw at me for the value of having a deity is that a belief in an afterlife provides comfort, especially to the old, the terminally ill and their relatives. I don't have a problem with them believing this, incredible though it surely is, if it helps them to achieve a peace of mind. Of course I'd prefer it if they found that peace of mind from meditation or some more positive activity like mental challenges, music, arts, marveling at the complexity of the universe and our creeping comprehension of it etc. But if it works like a drug to ease stress and worry, then OK. Clearly the loss of a loved one and the approach of the 'grim reaper' are terrifying prospects, so relief of the stresses they cause is understandably valuable. Of course if this aspect of deity worship is then used to persuade otherwise open-minded children of some sort of 'truth' to explain the world, then it's very wrong. And unfortunately, as I type this on Easter Sunday, that's precisely what Christian deists are doing, and without considering that there might actually be some science behind this quirky add-on to the whole god thing.

My father-in-law, a very articulate man with a passion for science and learning - but also a devout catholic (oddly) not only threw me the old 'it's a comfort' argument, but being a qualified medic told me about research which discovered that the act of worshiping a deity increases the brain's endorphin level. God really is a drug, just like any chemical stimulant of this 'pleasure area' of the brain. Believing in god, and all the stuff surrounding it, is designed to make you feel good. So I started to think about why the brain does this. Why are humans programmed to believe in an afterlife? What is the genetic benefit? How does it enhance our evolutionary prospects? And therefore most intriguingly, why might belief in an afterlife improve our chances of survival? A question which at first glance seems wildly contradictory. Dying helps living?

Here's my theory. We know that many of our genes program us to behave not as individuals living in isolation, but as social animals. Our ability to survive and propagate our genes within an environment is not just about eating, drinking, shelter and warmth, it's about finding a mate (or more typically for primates, mates - better not get into trouble with the wife here, so I'll leave it at that for the moment) and protecting our offspring. Amazingly our genes care about not only what happens to us as individuals, but to themselves as they exist and move through future generations within our children and their children. The Selfish Gene protects itself at all costs. We protect our children with all our might. We'd even lay down our own lives defending them, and everyone else who will help them and therefore our genes, to survive and continue our personal strains in competition with everyone else's. This would include the versions of our own genes (albeit modified, but somehow close enough) within our wider family and ultimately our tribe and nation state. [An interesting psychology experiment would be to plot 'genetic distance' with 'propensity to defend'. Many a war might be resolved or at least better predicted if we could scientifically measure this aspect of tribal compulsion to fight].

So what helps a 'gene-defender' fight to the best of their ability, and crucially therefore without fear of losing their own life? Someone given extra strength in the belief that they will not really die, fights without fear, and therefore harder. William S puts the whole argument rather well, albeit before Charles D might have given him something else to think about (by turning Glory into an Evolutionary Imperative).

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call'd fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!' 

.... and your genes?


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