Is the Afterlife the Only Motivation?

I was recently debating against someone the concept of motivation. What makes us live our lives the way we do? Why do we follow laws and social norms? Why fundamentally do we buy things and not steal?

My side of the debate was that there are many sociological factors at play. I won’t go into detail, because sociology isn’t the topic of this post. The topic is the concept of the Afterlife, a life that supposedly happens after our own.

The person against whom I was arguing claimed that all motivation to live decently, or even to live at all, comes from the rewards in the Afterlife. He pretty much stated that the only point in life is to prepare for an Afterlife.

This may indeed be true for religious people, I conceded. But then I asked him, What about atheists? If the Afterlife is the only motivation, then why don’t atheists just all commit suicide because there is no point in life?

My opponent replied that he himself is an atheist, but he does believe in an Afterlife. Just not a religious version.

So my question back to him was: What about atheists who don’t believe in an Afterlife? What motivates these kinds of people? What keeps them going?

His conclusion completely shocked me: if it were the case that there is no Afterlife, then he would commit suicide.

The reason this debate got interesting is that I myself am an atheist who doesn’t believe in any afterlife. I believe that the human conscience is a byproduct of chemical processes occurring at rapid rates in the brain. Of course, science does not yet fully understand the brain. But still, there is no evidence to support that there is something special about conscience that cannot be explained by natural processes.

In this view, that conscience is the result of emergent properties from chemistry, once a person’s brain activity ceases, their conscience goes away. It doesn’t have to go somewhere else.

An analogy is that if you put out a fire, it’s gone forever. Relighting it doesn’t create the “same” fire as you had before. Once the fire is put out, it exists only in the past. Sure, it may have left behind evidence that it was there, just as humans leave behind legacies.

Looking at biology, we see no solid afterlife for there to be an Afterlife. The reason so many people believe in one, I’d argue, is due to societal reasons.

Historically, the belief in the afterlife has largely been to give someone a reason for obeying someone else, or for behaving themselves in certain ways, in order that a society can function.

In ancient societies, how do you get people to obey a ruler? You create a religion that makes the ruler’s power come from a higher power, so that nobody may question him.

How do you get the slacker to work, the thief to lead a noble life? Tell him that if he performs well this life, he will be rewarded the next, and that if he does wrong this life, he will suffer eternal torment. Historically, this is how human civilization came to be.

So what then?

Since ancient times, humans have had a dependency on religion. NewScientist had a pretty good article a while ago explaining how civilization pretty much depended on the unifying power of religion to start off.

Nearly all major religions say there is an afterlife, and most have some saying about what it is or how to live this life to better live in the next. The Ancient Egyptians built enormous tombs for their rulers so that they would be better off in their next life.

However, my question to this is: Is the afterlife necessary once a civilization is sufficiently developed?

That is, if we suppose we don’t annihilate ourselves on this planet, and when eventually we humans will be a space-faring species capable of interstellar and maybe intergalactic travel, are we still going to rely on religion? Or is there some point where we will get past it as a species?

Will we ever be able to unify for some other purpose than believing ancient myths? I think so. I predict that when humanity begins to colonize other worlds, religion shall be only a dusty exoskeleton shedded off by knowledge. It shall be but a legend of the past.

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