the faith hope

an ongoing exploration of a thankless subject

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Location: Adelaide, Australia

Founding secretary of the Urbane Society for Sceptical Romantics, a club I take very seriously indeed.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

the unimaginability of oblivion and the adaptability of immortality

Watching or half-watching a program on the late Glenn Gould and was naturally alerted by a few remarks at the death (so to speak). Gould said something like that he had no difficulty in believing in the afterlife, as it seemed far more plausible than the alternative, that's to say, oblivion.

What most struck me about this remark was the 'rational' language in which it was couched (Gould's voice always had this clipped, incisive quality to it, which increased the rational feel), considering the highly emotive nature of the subject. The use of the word 'plausible' seems to turn the idea of an afterlife into a reasoned interpretation of available evidence, rather than a species of wishful thinking. For me, oblivion isn't so much implausible as unimaginable - in fact, far more unimaginable than an afterlife. In this respect, Gould was right. We can imagine an afterlife, no matter what it might be, because it would mean our continued existence, in some form, in some context. Non-existence, on the other hand, is completely outside our experience - it isn't experience. It defeats us, as it is the defeat of us.

This is important, because it's upon the meaning of death - oblivion or immortality - that the faith hope ultimately hinges. In their research article, 'Religion's Evolutionary Landscape', Scott Atran and Ara Norenzayan reported that supernatural beliefs increased markedly when experimental subjects were primed for existential anxiety relating to death, regardless of whether those subjects identified themselves as religious. The effect of this 'death prime' was much stronger than the effect of the 'religious prime' (when subjects were fed information sugesting the efficacy of prayer, for example). A strong belief in immortality as a buffer against death is commonplace and apparently cross-cultural, the researchers conclude. The essential question, of course, is why this should be so - what is it that apparently drives so many of us to deny our mortality, and can an understanding of ourselves as adaptive beings shed light on this phenomenon?


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