Does Belief in the Afterlife Diminish Man?

It is commonly asserted, especially among atheists, that belief in an afterlife cools one’s enthusiasms for this life on earth.  This God-centered or theocentric view allegedly prevents human beings from truly being themselves and living up to their full potential.  As a consequence, they fail to appreciate fully the richness and rewards of this world.

Two most influential champions of this man-centered or anthropocentric (or secular) view are Auguste Comte (1798-1857) and Karl Marx (1818-1883).  For Comte, the Father of Sociology (which he initially termed “social physics”), belief in an afterlife produced “slaves of God.”  In order to develop “servants of Humanity,” according to Comte, men had to turn away from the fictitious notion of a life after death and concentrate on the life they are living.  His grand objective was to bring about “the triumph of sociability over personality.”

Karl Marx held that belief in an afterlife robbed man of his only opportunity to be fully himself.  The practice of worshipping an unreal Supreme Being, he claimed, alienated man from his better self.  Therefore, Marx could say that “It is easy to become a saint if one does not want to be a man.”  “Atheism,” he wrote, “is a negation of God and seeks to assert by negation the existence of man.”

Historically, anthropocentric humanism has not fared very well.  Evaluating the devastating influence that it has had on the modern world, Jacques Maritain observed that it brought about a tidal wave of irrationalism that swept Western culture in the form of racism and materialism.  Albert Camus asked the piercing question, “Why did the enlightenment lead to the blackout?”

There is no basis, however, for the contention that belief in an afterlife causes a dulling or loss of interest in this life.  No one argues, for example, that students lose interest in high school because there is higher education ahead, or that minor leaguers do not apply themselves too hard because the Major Leagues beckons to them.  No one believes that we must get rid of higher education and the Major Leagues so that high school students and minor league athletes can perform un-distractedly and at their best.

Orthodox Christianity teaches that there is continuity between this life and the next.  A true Christian does not think of himself as someone standing at a bus stop and doing nothing more than waiting for the bus (that will take him to heaven).  He understands that what he does in this life determines his reward in the next.  If we are faithful to the commandment to love God, ourselves, and our neighbors, that love will secure our place in heaven.  The existence of the afterlife should supply people with a strong motivation to live well in this life.  On the other hand, if there is no afterlife and we are all headed for oblivion, what is the point in being loving and decent human beings in this life?  Under such circumstances, life would be comparable to the uneventful tenure of a lame-duck politician.

The real problem is scarcely ever stated.  And it is this:  by clinging to the present world, believing it to be the only world that is real, we can become highly reluctant to recognize its faults, no matter how glaring they might be.  It is like a doting parent who cannot abide any criticism of his only child, or the youngster who cannot tolerate anyone disparaging his baseball card collection.  Human beings have an inveterate propensity to overvalue what they have and turn a blind eye to their imperfections they contain.

The Christian regards his life as a gift from God and holds it sacred.  He also valuates it in terms of an ideal, which is to say, something more perfect.  Heaven is the reward for a life well lived.  But if a person identifies his life with the ideal, it may not occur to him that it stands in need of considerable improvement.  As a result, he loses an important incentive to work hard to improve himself.  Would a factory worker expend himself if he knew that at the end of the month, there would be no pay check?

The theocentric view is inclusive inasmuch as it includes man, whom God embraces with his Love.  The anthropocentric view, by definition, excludes God.  But it also excludes, by implication, man, since it closes him off from the Infinite to which he is naturally inclined.  In other words, the anthropocentric view, in addition to denying God, diminishes man.

It is only in the light of what should be that we can properly evaluate our present state.  Can America, in her present moment in history, he sufficiently critical of her faults to take the necessary steps to overcome them?  Or will she remain morally complacent at an hour when pornography sweeps over the country, when traditional marriage is routinely defiled, when the out-of-wedlock birth rate is over 40%, when education sacrifices itself on the altar of political correctness, when illegal drugs are a national plague, when sexuality is reduced to a banality, when the Bible is scorned, and Christianity mocked?  Secularism is not self-sufficient even though it is self-congratulatory.  The real problem is that when God and the afterlife are denied, society loses all sense of higher standards and lapses into egoism.  And egoism is the catalyst for mayhem and brutality.

The individual person is an evolutionary being.  He must pass through many changes and moral renovations.  But his evolution does not lead to or terminate in death.  There must be something beyond death that offers him the crown of his evolutionary journey.  To be with God is both man’s end and the reason for embracing the challenges presented to him in this world.

Donald DeMarco


Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow of Human Life International who writes for the St. Austin Review and the Truth and Charity Forum. He is Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, CT.

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  • Ford Oxaal

    “The real problem is that when God and the afterlife are denied, society
    loses all sense of higher standards and lapses into egoism.” How true — just look at the art produced by a given culture. Our culture cannot reproduce and build upon, for example, Bernini. St. Peter’s would be impossible to build today. We are only capable of building big metal, utilitarian boxes. The landing on the moon is the great fruit of our culture, and while pretty interesting, it was only for a few select astronauts. Anyone can walk into St. Peter’s and feel their jaw drop.

    Besides, it is rational to believe in the afterlife, and therefore irrational to not believe in it. This is from a work in process by a philosopher/artist I know arguing for the rationality of a belief in the afterlife:

    “Epistemologically: ….To conceive of not conceiving is a contradiction as it requires conceiving. Since death includes one’s not conceiving, it follows that one cannot comprehend one’s own death. Your own death is not comprehensible to you. Life on the other hand is knowable to you as death is hardly conceivable and incomprehensible. Death is a notion while life is evident. What is incomprehensible and unknowable cannot be reasonably believed over its opposite which is conceivable, comprehensible and knowable.

    “Metaphysically: …..While my body is “mine” it is not me. To diminish the body of its parts does not consequently diminish that I am me as a whole. If I lose a finger, hand, arm or leg I am still me. Eventually loss may kill my body. Either I am altogether me or not at all. The one remains whole as the other may be diminished in part. Etc.

    “Ethically: The fundamental motive of all that lives is self-preservation. Even the worm if disturbed will naturally avoid danger and do what it can to augment its safety and well being. Humans in doing “what it can” utilizes a reach of mind enabling us to anticipate dangers not yet present. This reach of mind enables us to grasp that we must die. Given this reach, the law of self-preservation would motivate us to attempt avoiding a final end in death. It is for us an act of self-preservation to earnestly seek life after death. To heedlessly ignore impending death is to be like the animal devoid of this reach. It would be for us sub-natural and in judgment foolish.” Etc.

    • Other Joe

      Extremely small point: to conceive of not conceiving is not a contradiction. To say so is a category error. To think about the cessation of thinking is still a thought I might have. To think while not thinking is a contradiction.

      • Ford Oxaal

        Well, but you can’t comprehend that 1 + 1 = 14. Nor can you comprehend Nothing — and I suppose it’s a “category mistake” to even utter the word Nothing. Here’s the cool thing I get my children to think of once in a while: think of Nothing — never was anything, never will be anything, there ain’t no nothin’ ever…. and think of this until you freak out. The kids are best at this when they are around five — then they have a harder time getting in the zone. But it can be done, and the benefit is somehow realizing that though God may seem impossible, Nothing is even more impossible.

  • Other Joe

    The most frightening thing about atheistic totalitarianism is that it requires its citizens to die by the millions and to live in deprivation with no hope of salvation. Even Stalin recognized this as he sent millions off to die in World War II. After the war it was back to scientific materialism business as usual. Suffering there will always be, but to deny the suffering a higher purpose is a great evil indeed.

  • Brian

    How do you explain the brutality of Klansmen? How do you explain the brutality of Islamic fundamentalists? How do you explain secular humanists who really do try to make things better for the flesh-and-blood human beings around them? I’m sure that any critics of religion who come across this will want an explanation.

    • HigherCalling

      How do you explain the undeniable, demonstrable brutality of atheistic secularism? Probably the same way Christians explain the brutality of Klansmen, and the way Muslims explain the brutality of Islamic fundamentalists: they are perversions of the true religion. The KKK is an insane and brutal perversion of the virtuous religion of Christianity. Whereas secular humanism is a virtuous subset of the brutal religion of atheistic secularism. Where there is the great hope that the brutal Klansman will discover and live out the truth of his religion, there is the great fear that the virtuous secular humanist will discover and live out the reality of his. You can never live in a culture free from religion. Killing God does not kill the religious impulse. Instead, that impulse gets redirected into political religions that are God-less and always brutal. The great hope for secular humanists is for them to realize that humanism can only work in the fullness of virtue, in the fullness of truth, in the fullness of the religion that has been making things better for flesh-and-blood human beings for centuries, and from which they hijacked those virtues and removed those truths in the first place.

    • Ford Oxaal

      And don’t think you are somehow exempt. Check out Stanley Milgram — tried to understand Nazism — he devised an experiment he thought one in ten thousand would fall for — but more than 60% of people, i.e., you and me, will kill someone in cold blood if cleverly induced to do so by a trusted authoritarian figure — in this case, a scientist working for the public good — a “do gooder”.

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  • BrianKillian

    The continuity between this life and the afterlife is the resurrection.

  • Marie

    “…pornography sweeps over the country, when traditional marriage is routinely defiled, when the out-of-wedlock birth rate is over 40%, when education sacrifices itself on the altar of political correctness, when illegal drugs are a national plague, when sexuality is reduced to a banality, when the Bible is scorned, and Christianity mocked? ”
    Such a succinct description of the US in 2012!
    It is difficult to have hope, but we must.

  • “It is commonly asserted, especially among atheists, that belief in an afterlife cools one’s enthusiasms for this life on earth. ” Of course it does. As Christians, we have our true home with God. The greatest saints knew it only too well and referred to the earthly life in unflattering terms (for example, St Teresa of Avila called it “a night spent in a bad inn”). However, that does not mean that we should neglect our duties on Earth.

    • mark

      “It is commonly asserted, especially among atheists, that belief in an
      afterlife cools one’s enthusiasms for this life on earth. ”

      This is the kind of FALLACY that is disseminated by atheists.

      They carefully ignore the fact that the reward of Heaven is actually DEPENDENT upon how carefully you have lived according to the Ten Commandments and Christ’s teachings. To be a Christian is to have your sleeves rolled up and be ready for some REALLY tough assignments. If you fail to work use your talents and work conscientiously, you can kiss good-bye to any possibility of Heaven.

      So the atheists are dead wrong!