Throughout the course of this pandemic, a lot of misleading and mean-spirited narratives have been bandied about by influential figures whose intentions are, shall we say, less than noble. These types of people have always existed and will continue to exist for a long time to come, which is why I don’t experience anger or frustration anymore when I encounter them on social media. I’ve learned to accept that they’re here to stay, and that all I can do to deal with the problem is to push back against biased narratives whenever I see them and hope that others will do the same.
To that end, I’ve made it a point to pay close attention to and promote public figures who have demonstrated their commitments to accuracy, honesty, and fair-mindedness. But I’ve also made it a point to remember that we all suffer from biases both natural and learned, and that these biases sometimes lead even the most truthful and well-intentioned individuals to questionable conclusions about complex topics.
I believe that is what happened to Steven Pinker, a highly respected scientist and author of whom I myself am very fond, when he recently remarked on Twitter that the “belief in an afterlife is a malignant delusion, since it devalues actual lives and discourages action that would make them longer, safer, and happier.” Pinker’s remark was made in response to a Washington Post piece about how evangelical Christians have reacted to the coronavirus pandemic.
Pinker eventually deleted the tweet, though not before it caught the attention of several notable right-wing figures, such as conservative talk show host and author Ben Shapiro.
I’m not at all surprised that Pinker feels the way he does. He’s an atheist and scientist who has long favored a data-centric approach to the search for truth, a position which conflicts with the faith-driven approach favored by some religious people. Nevertheless, I would argue that his tweet was, at best, a lazy and overly broad generalization that is nearly impossible to defend.
The argument that the belief in an afterlife causes people to “devalue” human life is a proverbial dead horse that gets yanked up out of its grave every now and again, though it rarely provokes anything other than a few fruitless, fiery exchanges between atheists and believers. Simply put, it’s an argument that assumes there is no incentive for you to try and preserve or improve the lives of your fellow human beings if you believe in an immortal human soul that will ascend to heaven, or some variation of it, upon the death of its physical host.
In other words, why bother trying to prolong a person’s life here on Earth when death brings with it the promise of eternal paradise?
At first glance, Pinker’s position may seem perfectly logical, or perhaps even self-evidently true. But what happens when we turn the looking glass around on the lack of a belief in an afterlife? Will we find, as Pinker’s tweet implied, that not believing in an afterlife incentivizes atheists to place a higher value on human life than religious people do?
There is an argument to be made—and has in fact been made by many religious people and religious apologists—that atheism, when taken to its logical conclusion, is a one-way street that necessarily leads to either nihilism or something very close to it. The idea is that if there is no higher power or cosmic force in the universe; that if there is no such thing as an afterlife, and that death therefore marks the ultimate end of one’s conscious experience of reality; and that existence itself is not the invention of a supernatural designer, but rather an accidental occurrence that came into being purely by chance; then life itself has no intrinsic value, objective purpose, or any real meaning whatsoever.
It’s an argument that’s tough to refute and might strike you as technically correct. But even if it is correct, does this necessarily mean that atheists are therefore obligated to eschew any worldview that promotes the dignity and value of human life?
No, it does not.
While atheism might occasionally turn a person into a real-life Rust Cohle—a central character from the show True Detective whose first-season soliloquies on the pointlessness of life are, in my opinion, some of the most well-written scenes in modern television history—it also leads many people to adopt life-affirming philosophies, such as secular humanism and existentialism. At the end of the day, it really all comes down to personal choice. Some atheists may choose to live like Rust Cohle, but the vast majority do not.
That there are countless atheists who choose to live in defiance of the (alleged) meaninglessness of existence just goes to show that the degree to which a person values human life does not depend exclusively, or even mostly, on whether or not that person believes in an afterlife. The same can be said for religious people who subscribe to complex, dynamic belief systems that lend themselves to different interpretations, interpretations which are sure to be heavily influenced by the cultures, politics, and economies of the times and places in which they arose. Generally speaking, you can’t just isolate one single belief from one single philosophy from one very narrow window of human history and then use that to make sweeping generalizations about all of the people who share or have ever shared that belief. That’s just not how it works.
Besides, if it were true that a belief in an afterlife served to discourage evangelicals and other religious people from caring about the lives of people living in the here and now, how could one explain the existence of Samaritan’s Purse, the evangelical organization that established its own 68-bed field hospital in New York City’s Central Park to help treat residents stricken with COVID-19? Or the extensive network of more than six hundred Catholic hospitals spread out across all fifty states of the U.S.? Or the international Christian organization Mercy Ships, which sends its hospital ships to impoverished regions of the world to provide free, life-saving medical care?
The answer to that question can be found in the holy books of the various world religions, including Christianity, that believe in an afterlife, books which contain dozens upon dozens of edicts and allegories that emphasize the value of life and prioritize its preservation. If you’re looking for examples, the biblical parable about the Good Samaritan is a good place to start.
I like and respect Steven Pinker. When he releases his next book, I’ll be the first in line at my local bookstore to buy it. I value his thoughts, his opinions, and his contributions to the world of science. Humanity needs more thinkers like him, and this controversy hasn’t changed my mind about that. But on this issue, I believe he got it wrong.
Your valuation of human life is almost certainly dependent upon dozens, hundreds, or perhaps even thousands of variables that work in conjunction with your personal experiences to construct a unique perspective on this issue that belongs exclusively to you. The belief in an afterlife, or lack thereof, may indeed be one of those variables. But even if that is the case, it is still just one variable, and nothing more than that.