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

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Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He's a regular contributor to the St. Austin Review.

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