I was discussing ultimate things with an atheist friend and the topic of eternal life arose. She seemed quite indifferent to the whole concept, so I tried to hone in with a specific question:
“Do you desire eternal life? Do you feel something inside of you longing for life that is full and robust and filled with relationships, where you have time to do all the things you want, where your physical health remains perfect, with no end? I think the answer must be yes – that all rational people feel this, but I really am not sure how you will answer it.”
She sidestepped: “How about ‘maybe’ or only with certain conditions. Does eternal life have a single meaning? How come you get to decide what the meaning of eternal life is?”
Her response surprised me. I assumed that everyone shared a similar positive view of “eternal” life. Her question about why I get to decide confused me. I responded:
“Okay. I think I get you now. You mean that your desire for eternal life would depend on what that entailed? You’re thinking that you can imagine scenarios where perhaps oblivion would be preferable? I hope I don’t come off as arrogant,” I said. “I don’t ‘get to decide’ what eternal life is. I simply have a frame of reference that I’m seeing the world from, so at first I didn’t see that you were viewing it differently. In my frame of reference, eternal life isn’t something I acquire; its something I already have. That’s both good and bad news. The good news is obvious: this feeling that there is never enough time and that I always desire to have more time will get fulfilled; the bad news is that I may not like my circumstances.
For instance, if I embark on a life of crime or drug addiction, I will eventually reap what I sow – nature has consequences built into it – and the place I find myself might not be pleasant. So too is eternal life, in my view. The ‘I’ part of me is eternal, even though my current body is not. That’s why I say that I ‘have’ a body and not that I ‘am’ a body. Even linguistically, we realize that the ‘I’ part of us is something different – something ephemeral – from the physical part of us.
So therein lies the reason for my question to you. How can you be indifferent about such a question? I know you will say that no one has the answers, but don’t you think its worth an investigation? To satisfy yourself that you really can’t know? Take my drugs example. Since you’re young and healthy, you might be able to abuse drugs for quite some time, but it wouldn’t be a smart move for you to say that you really don’t care what effect it will have on you in 20 years. Looking down the road to the consequence of our choices is something we all need to do.”
Apparently not. At least not in her view. She responded:
“No, I don’t think it’s worth my investigation. I also don’t think I should spend my time investigating UFO’s, zombies, or Big Foot. I hate things that require lots of time and thought where you are virtually guaranteed not to accomplish anything or get a definitive answer.”
“Of course,” I responded, “the obvious difference is that you will never meet a UFO, a zombie or a big foot, but you will face the question of what comes when this life draws to a close. And concluding before examining the evidence that you won’t accomplish anything or get an answer stands in pretty stark contrast to millions and millions of people who have concluded that the opposite is in fact true.”
She wasn’t impressed:
“Well,” she said, “you are assuming people meet God; that’s a pretty big leap too. Who do you know who has met him? And I think most believers do so blindly; I don’t believe most of those people do any scholarly inquiry and draw conclusions based on evidence. They believe what they raised on, like me, or what they want to believe.”
“The fact that people believe what they were raised to believe,” I countered, “does not amount to a real argument. It’s a variant of the genetic fallacy. You’re trying to prove why believers might be wrong – they just were raised that way – without first proving that they are wrong. So, if I told you that I believed the earth was flat, and I was raised that way, you wouldn’t just shrug your shoulders and say I’m entitled to that belief. You would show me evidence that the earth is round and expect me to use reason to conform my view to the evidence. If I told you that you were entitled to that belief but you just believed it because you were raised by some round earthers and you never saw the whole earth so you couldn’t really know, then… you’d start to see how I feel.”
“One last analogy. Let’s say this was 50 years ago, and when I saw you, you were chain smoking cigarettes with your kids always nearby. I know where medical science is headed, so I tell you that you are hurting yourself, and your kids. You respond that no one can really know those things; after all, you can point to doctors who advertise cigarettes and smoke them themselves, and you feel fine when you smoke. I point to other doctors who think that its really bad for you. You respond, ‘see, it’s a tie, so stop bothering me. Each believes what they were raised to believe. Plus, other things can kill me too, so why should I worry about cigarettes? Or, maybe you say that even if I am right, you’ll be one of the lucky ones who won’t be hurt by it.
Do you see that the conflict between the doctors should not lead you to conclude that neither is right, or that the answer is not knowable? As a friend, should I keep trying to bring you back to the truth about cigarettes, or should I let you persist in believing something that is, in the end, hurting you and your loved ones?”
Again, she didn’t bite:
“Have you ever noticed how so many things are bad/wrong only at certain points in a cycle? Eat eggs, don’t eat eggs; give your kids soy, soy is bad; babies should sleep on their backs, no their stomachs, no their sides, no their backs etc., etc. When my daughter was born I would put her on her back to sleep and when I left the room my mother would put her on her side and when my mother left the room my grandmother would put her on her stomach. Over time the answer comes full circle. Why go around and around with it? What I am saying is not just throw up your hands and quit; what I am saying is that I do what feels right to me and that is the best I can do. Sometimes I listen to friends (and doctors) and sometimes I don’t. I think the ‘answer’ to many of these things is unknowable. At one time it would have been totally unacceptable to all of society for a mother to work and put a child in daycare 10 hours a day. Now, 10 hours of daycare is the norm. I get that most people think that daycare schedule is fine, but I don’t. I make up my own mind by doing what feels right. Have you ever considered that the answer doesn’t matter? Maybe the search is the whole point and maybe I am done already and you’re just slow.
I don’t think you can prove God like you can prove that the world is round. To prove the world was really round and have everyone believe, we needed real-time pictures from space. Bring me a picture of God and we’ll talk.”
I made one last attempt:
“These are good examples of things that change, but I hope you can see from them that there must be a ‘right’ answer. The right answer might be ‘it doesn’t matter.’ For example, a child might be equally safe on her side or her back. But for other things – like smoking – it will never come back around. Science will never say that smoking is good. It might say that it won’t necessarily kill you, but not that it will ‘balance your humours’ like they said 200 years ago. Same thing with child care: it may not irreparably harm your child to put her in daycare 10 hours a day, but your position is more than just a ‘feeling.’ So, the trick is, which is this? Are questions of eternal life like laying a child on her side, or like I’m smoking with my kids in the room? All questions are not of equal importance.
I hope you see the answer matters. If you were smoking 10 hours a day with your kids present, you would be harming them. Getting the right answer on that would matter. Getting the right answer on your relationship with God also matters, both to you and to the people you influence.”
But she really didn’t see… at least not yet.
Posted by Al Serrato