Friday, December 14, 2012

Is Heaven Worth the Price?

While picking up a prescription in the local drug store, I noticed a book on a rack of Christian literature entitled "Heaven is real." Which started me thinking ...  . 

One possible explanation of religion is that it is wishful thinking. People do not want to die, so they want to believe in life after death. One problem with that explanation is that several of the most successful religions include both Heaven and Hell. The quiet of the grave does not sound very attractive compared to an eternity of bliss. Compared to an eternity of torture, on the other hand, there may be much to be said for it. So why are people attracted to a system of belief that offers the possibility of the former but also the risk of the latter? How high do the customers have to believe the risk is before they would prefer not to buy? Putting it in the jargon of my field, what are the relative Von Neumann utilities of Heaven and Hell?

Heaven and Hell make much more sense as an incentive system, promised reward and threatened punishment as a way of getting people to follow the dictates of a religion. That is a good reason why some people would want others to believe in them. But it does not explain why people choose to themselves believe in them. Perhaps wishful thinking is not, after all, the right explanation.

For an alternative explanation, see an old post of mine that started with the same puzzle.


jimbino said...

Religion is irrational. Being irrational, it is not amenable to reasoned analysis.

Every night I listen to talk radio, which is full of endless Hail Mary's, flying saucers, distant viewing, near-death experiences and all sorts of similar nonsense.

Trying to explain such irrational thought is as futile as trying to understand the silly behaviour of lemmings, sheep, moths and sardines.

I can't even figure out why otherwise intelligent folks have kids, cats and dogs.

wtanksley said...

Actually, inasmuch as "wishful thinking" works as an explanation for religion, it also works as an explanation for the durability of hell. You simply use wishful thinking to think yourself (and the people you care about) out of it.

But I don't think "wishful thinking" works very well. One problem is that it doesn't explain the huge prevalence and common features of religion, nor the way religions spread and change. (And no, heaven and hell are not common features; ultimate justice might be.)

It strikes me that one has to use a more detailed analysis than a single narrow "cause." It seems to me that religion is actually a function of humans, however it may have gotten there.

And jimbino, that's nothing like an answer. The people who believe in those things may conceivably be irrational; but that hypothesis runs into some pretty serious trouble once you meet some of those people.

I do think you're onto something when you compare religion (indirectly) to other behavior you don't personally understand. I don't understand some of that either (definitely not keeping cats and dogs!). But that doesn't make it possible to dismiss those things as "irrational" unless you have a precise meaning for the term beyond simple "silly behavior".

Daublin said...

It's a rationalization. You've decided, for some reason you can't admit, to do things a certain way. Because you can't admit it, you say you're doing it to avoid going to hell.

jdgalt said...

I don't think any religion was really invented by its believers. They were imposed by leaders as a way to get credulous people (often children) to obey the leader. Eventually this leads to the kind of "religion as a state bureau of thought control" that Hobbes advocates in Leviathan.

As far as I can tell, the only reason any religion survives in places that no longer mandate it is habit. (Plus the fact that no prosecutor dares charge the leaders of a popular faith with fraud upon the public, even though that's exactly the business model most of them follow.)

John Dougan said...

Possibly the belief in Hell is more to have a place where the irritating others can go than a place for yourself. If you think they are going to get punished in a next life it may make you a bit more patient.
Another possible factor is that even if you are in Hell, you are still presumably a conscious entity... which may still be seen as better than not being at all.

Glen Whitman said...

I sometimes wonder how much of Heaven and Hell can be explained by the preferences of parents. When someone has died, parents want a comforting thing to tell their children ("Grandma has gone to a better place" rather than "Grandma is gone forever"). And when the children are inclined to misbehave, parents want a threat to keep them in line.

As an atheist who may have children someday, I sometimes wonder what I will tell my children to comfort them when someone has died.

Jonathan said...

Religion is ancient in origin, and most specific religions date from a time when the risk of death at any age was much higher. So death was a much more ever-present phenomenon, and I suppose people wanted something to make it more bearable.

The idea that the good people have a happy afterlife and the bad people suffer is reassuring. Few people think of themselves as bad; it's others who are destined to go to hell. Furthermore, if you have the idea of a forgiving God, that gives you a Get Out Of Jail Free card.

Jehu said...

We're living today in an era of 'salvation inflation'---that is, most people think most people are going to Heaven. That wasn't the case throughout most of the history of Christianity---many thought only a tiny fraction were going to Heaven or Purgatory and pretty much everyone else was going to hell, including most nominal Christians. Notice how in Dante's Inferno, very few of the souls above the very worst levels of Hell are particularly ashamed of the fact that they're in Hell. This is because going to Hell was considered the default state of humanity. Since that belief was pretty prevalent throughout of of Christian history, it's hard to make too much of a case for 'wishful thinking'.

Kid said...

People may not actually believe in religion, just believe that they believe in it. ( ). The environment they grew up in may have rewarded certain beliefs.

The incentives from the environment to believe or not believe in religion seem to be more important than the "internal" incentives of religion.

Why did some religions become more popular than others? It's not the strength of their rewards to the believer, but the strength of the incentives in the culture surrounding the religion.

Simon said...

I think notions similar to the torments of Hell are quite pervasive.

1) Violence in popular culture, e.g., western movies, action movies, popular fiction, &c. I suspect I'm not the only one who experiences pleasure when the creepy bad guy is blown up.

2) Violent punishment in religious mythology, e.g., the flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, &c.

3) Contemporary environmentalist and political narratives like the population bomnb and global warming, which we are told will kill lots of people.

What these examples suggest to me is that humans are quite comfortable with violence, even when some innocents are among the victims, but uncomfortable with moral ambiguity. So a scenario that resolves moral ambiguity is attractive, even if it is also painful and violent.

Joe said...

Even the incentive system can be thrown out in some cases. The church I go to pretty much says "If you accept Jesus as your savior, you go to heaven, irrespective of what sins you commit before or afterwards."

According to that, the reason people do good is from a personal desire to be godly, guided by the holy spirit, which comes into you after you accept Christ. However while you get to go to heaven anyway, good deeds result in "better rewards" in heaven.

I don't know how common or recent this attitude is. Another commenter mentioned "salvation inflation", this could be an example of that.

Berna Bleeker said...

I think explains it very well. People are hardwired to look for intentionality, and often see it even when it isn't there.

Jonathan said...

Jehu: You make an interesting point that I hadn't heard of before, and you may be right for all I know (I'm no expert on the history of Christianity). However, it seems perverse for so many people to believe in a religion that damns them to hell. I'd have thought there would be a considerable incentive to start doubting such a religion.

Social pressure can force you to appear to believe in a religion, but it can't force you to believe sincerely. I wonder what percentage of Christians were sincere in olden times. Hard to tell, I suppose.

jimbino said...

I think Glen Whitman is on to something. Hearing the reports of the Connecticut school slaughter, we again have to put up with the endless talk of religion, open church doors, half-staff flags and "pray for the parents" etc.

We have less comfort to offer the parents than we had to offer Job. People want to do something, so they talk about "I firmly believe in an afterlife where you'll be reunited" and prayer. The gummint, helpless too, but responsible for a great part of most misery, responds by flying flags at half-staff. Religion is the last gasp of the recognition of helplessness.

Hedegaard said...

Actually, David, you're wrong. The very reason it works is that want to subdue themselves to the rules of the religion.
What might often seems as odd rules to ud - modern, western people - have very reasonable socialogocal explanations and people subdue to theese rules in expectations that others do the same which they know will benefit them.
'Thou shall not kill', well fine but my neighbour better not kill as well then.

Religion is a contract.

Tibor said...

I think most people actually do not choose their religion. Maybe today it is more common, but in the past it was pretty much something you were born with as it was such a dominant element in one's society. Of course, the question (mentioned by someone above) is how many people actually believe (believed) the religion. My conjecture is that very few people in any era have actually strongly believed in their religion. If I believe that doing things like stealing or murdering is going to mean an eternity in hell for me compared to an eternity in heaven, if I am actually completely confident about that, then I am not going to do those things (and other things considered as sins).

This however does not explain how the religions came about in the first place. It seems to me, religion is like social websites and communications today. The mechanics of the market are such that the more people use it (belive in it) the better for me to adopt the same thing (and again the question in religion is how sincere I am in my belief). If in the far past you have a lot of different religions relatively equally big, then the most atractive will probably become dominant. After that, the new ones that are better may or may not be succesful - they have to be much better, because they need to overcome the mass usage benefits. And those benefits can artifically created by the rulers - when you have a state religion it is easier to control people and for the people it is better to be a part of that state religion and they can make racionalizations to convince them they actually believe that, which makes it easier for them to cope up with the situation.

But I don't think that initial assumption of religion choice is very realistic. Religion is something that develops almost in sync with intelligence - not even the first people could choose their religion, it evolved with them. And the new ones had to overcome those problems I mentioned above.

The first religions (maybe that is not even the proper term) were (I believe) pretty much a piece of evolution. Some behaviour in a group is going to let you be more succesful and have higher chances or reproducing. If something in your brain tells you that behaviour is good (and it may as well be some kind of a quasi religion), then you are more likely to do those and reproduce. So maybe the fact there is religion at all is that it provided an evolutionary benefit to the first humans. And if we follow that road - in the beginning you have this default hardwired something that explains morals to you and on that there is a social layer that tries to explain some other phenomena (lightning for example, or what happens when you die) using those notions already in people's heads. Most of the older religions in the world do not have a mention of heaven or hell (or something similar to that), they just have all the people go to the same place when they die (although the german religions reward death in battle...and jewish faith is also quite old...but these are heavily culturally and ethnically bound which lowered their atractiveness).

Then slowly the notion of heaven and hell develops - and I think the first articulated version (well, there is tartaros and elysium in greek religion but I think these were rather minor parts of it) is in zoroastrianism. And that was a major challenger to christianity during the Roman times. Heaven and hell were simply so much more attractive than everyone having the same fate than it overcome the social benefits and grew in numbers.

And maybe I am wrong but I seem to see the same pattern today with budhism. It seems to me budhism is growing in popularity in the west (where to social benefits of the same religion are no longer that high) as it basically tells you that you will get the eternal bliss eventually, you might just reincarnate a couple of times before that (and reincarnation itself is good enough for most people I think...definitely much better than hell or nonexistence).

Joe said...

Hedegaard mentions religion being a contract, and that makes sense when you consider that Christians often spend time with other Christians, the bible encourages it.

I think many churches can be viewed, from a secular perspective, as a group of people who have made an implicit agreement to be nice to each-other, and to follow certain other behaviors.

Wirkman Virkkala said...

There seems to be a continuum between "wishful thinking" and "just-so story-telling." Primordial human experience includes dreams and death. We tend to associate the one with the other. Add hallucinatory experience of the recently departed, and much of religious myth and cosmology appears in ovo ... sans science.

To a person without any scientific tradition behind him, mythic cosmology seems realistic — the best explanation for common experience. After this irritant beginning, religion evolves like a pearl in an oyster, with social control factors and memetic elaboration as part of the environment that forces development.

Still, wish is perhaps a bit too passive a conception for understanding prayer, for example. Mencken, in A TREATISE ON THE GODS, boils religion down to magic, the technology of making wish into reality.

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TheVidra said...

I recommend reading the section on evolution of religions in H.G. Wells' A Short History of the World. It is a very plausible theory of how religious thought has evolved. The whole book is amazing, especially the prehistoric stuff, although the ending is a bit wacky (as in utopic), to me. Mircea Eliade has interesting views also.

TheVidra said...

To those of you doubting that a large percentage of people actually believe in the religion they profess in public, having lived in the Middle East I can tell you that most people I met deeply and sincerely do believe in the religion they have grown up with. This includes Islam (for most laborers, mainly from the South Asian subcontinent) and Catholicism (for the Filipinos). Of course I cannot prove what's in their mind 100%, but their behaviour is completely consistent with that of a true believer of the various tenets.

Tibor said...

Well, maybe you're right. But it seems to me that if my religion clearly states (I dunno if islam does, but various christian religions do) that if I lie for example, it is going to get me to hell (or on a way to hell at least) for eternity, if I truly believe that, then I will never lie (which almost everybody actually does sometimes, even though it can be rather harmless lies for most of us most of the time). Also, many muslims (I dunno if in the Emirates, but definitely in Tunisia or Egypt) drink alcohol at least from time to time, while it clearly is something that is supposed to get them closer to hell and further from heaven. If I TRULY believe that is true, then I will give up that minor pleasure for the eternity of bliss. If I am 100% sure I will get, say, one million dollars in half a year for not eating any candy in the meantime, I will not do it (and pretty much everyone will do as I, I think). But when I am about 1% sure that is true, I will be much more inclined to eat candy when I get the craving. I think it works the same with the religion. There are actually not that many who are 100% (or so) sure.

Izgad said...

I would point to what Adam Smith said regarding human economic irrationality. People place too high a value on their own talent and luck. Hence people choose to enter law school and the military and buy lottery tickets instead of insurance. Even most Calvinists, who are supposed to believe that the odds of salvation are slim, tend to assume that they are part of the saved. Confident that they are not going to Hell, most people are willing to accept Hell as a form of revenge against their enemies.

Anonymous said...

By coincidence, this week's episode of "This American Life" is about an evangelical preacher who, at the height of his success, loses his belief in Hell.

His original problem is reconciling the axiom of a just and loving God with the axiom that people who don't accept the Gospel (even those who have never been exposed to it) are condemned to Hell. He chooses to keep the former axiom and loosen the latter. From this, he goes on to doubt the very existence of Hell, and therefore the need to be saved by the Gospel in order to avoid it. His friends and followers desert him and declare him a heretic.

For this particular religion, at least, the existence of Hell is necessary to the existence and identity of the religion. Which doesn't answer the question of why it's valuable to the adherents of that religion, only why it's valuable to the leaders.

Benjamin. said...

I must say, David,
have you never considered that the explanation might be that the afterlife does exist?

Jonathan said...

Benjamin, there may or may not be an afterlife; we're not in a position to know. Even if there is, that doesn't explain why people believe in it.

I don't deny the possibility of some kind of afterlife. The universe is pretty strange and who knows how it really works? I just see no particular reason to believe in an afterlife without good evidence of it. I find it odd that I seem to be in a minority, worldwide.

Tibor said...

Jonathan: An interesting thing is that our country (czech republic) is I believe the most ateistic in the world (I think about 80% of the population). But I think that first of all the reasons are historical (there were protestant movements here in the late middle ages supressed by a violent recatolization and then there was 40 years of a communist religion that condemned all the other religions) and also that it is not true. It may be that most people here do not belong to any particular church, but that just creates a space to be filled with all that eastearn mysticism and new age stuff and belief in "sacred places" or "power stones," tarot cards and so on. A lot (just a guess, I have not seen any statistics, I doubt there are any actually) of people here are willing to buy "protective gems" and similar trinkets, so they have maybe just very vague religious beliefs, but still I would not call them atheists. It seems to me that religion is somehow hard-wired in the brains of most people. Also, for some reason, I it seems to me that women on average tend to be more sensitive to these things, although I don't know why.

Simon said...


"I would point to what Adam Smith said regarding human economic irrationality. People place too high a value on their own talent and luck."

I was intrigued to learn that Adam Smith discussed that topic, I didn't know. I recently finished reading Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow" which makes a similar point, but with no reference to Adam Smith.

Dick White said...

It appears that a number of comments focus on the superficial (a descriptive not a pejorative term) features of religion when considering heaven and hell. We necessarily consider these two results with our limited human minds.
Consider for a moment why one wants to be in the company of a good friend or relative. Perhaps we enjoy the camaraderie, the conversation, the physical appearance of this person. Whatever it is, we really really like to be around this individual. It is this feeling written large that represents Heaven. The religious term for this is the beatific vision through which one actually sees God. Presumably the better one's life here, the clearer the beatific vision, i.e., the greater the reward.
As many commenters have observed, most of us consider ourselves moral persons and in no need of religion. But religion does promote (but not ensure) an understanding of the gospel. And it is in the gospel, this "good news' of God, that we are instructed to "ask, knock and seek", all active voice terms.
While it is true, as many faiths affirm, that our past and future bad behavior has been forgiven, It is through this "asking, knocking and seeking" that we complete the process of redemption by endeavoring to amend our lives.
These faiths also believe man has a free will and may elect not to ask, knock and seek and thereby amend. Those souls assume some risk that they will be denied this beatific vision for all eternity and that is essence of hell. The burning fires and other horribles represent, in my judgment, our human, albeit inadequate, metaphors for this condition.

Simon said...

Maybe the content of religious beliefs depend on a combination of factors, rather than just one.

Among all the things we could possibly believe, there are
(1) Some that we are hard-wired to believe easily
(2) Some that other community members want us to believe
(3) Some that people in power want us to believe

The beliefs we are most likely to have may be those that are in the intersection of (1), (2), and (3).

Simon said...

David's earlier post suggested that

"the belief in the immortality of the soul is a consequence of the way in which our visual system processes information"

or (I paraphrase)

(1) Belief in an afterlife may be caused by our expectation of object persistence
(2) Our sense of object persistence is produced by our visual system

I think both (1) and (2) are wrong.

While the expectation of object persistence certainly exists (it has been confirmed and studied in infants) and is of some use in visual cognition, it is not specifically a vision thing -- blind people also expect objects to persist.

And we don't always expect things to persist. The logs in our camp fires turn into ashes. And we (typically) don't imagine that the clouds drifting across the sky will be stored forever in a cloud archive somewhere.

Anonymous said...

You're stuck on the blackboard, people.

Just as two dimensional blackboard stick figures cannot imagine the existence of a three dimensional world, non-believers, because they don't believe, can't imagine a world they can't see, hear, feel, or taste.

I was once on the blackboard. Then for His own reasons, God reached out to me and showed that I was living in His love and as unaware of it as a fish is of water.

The Spirit of God is the Word of God. It is the same Word that you are reading now and more importantly is the same Word that makes up the conversations in your own mind.

This "extra" dimension of self aware language is spirit. And you can choose whether the Spirit of God dwells in you or other spirits do.

Heaven and Hell as per our expectations may or may not exist after death but most surely the Kingdom of God exists here and now for those who live through, with, and in God.

Every doubt of the most intelligent skeptical observer can be put to rest with a truthful understanding of God. And that take allowing Him to renew your mind so your mind becomes more like His mind.

Is Heaven worth the price? This is not a scarce economic good that has a price. It is the unlimited unimaginable free gift of God who loves you and what is best for you. Be transformed and move out of man's economy of buying and selling and into God's abundance of giving and receiving.

Simon said...

"two dimensional blackboard stick figures cannot imagine the existence of a three dimensional world"

If God is unfigureoutable and beyond understanding, why do we expect an afterlife that lines up with our earthly moral intuitions?

Would be fun if Hell actually existed but the people who ended up there were the pious ones.

Eli said...

Most people who I know who believe in hell don't like the idea. it brings them no joy what-so-ever. But its an idea that they're stuck with because of their first philosophical principles of believing solo scriptura.

They believe it because they think its true. There is no ulterior motive. There is no asking "why" someone bases their philosophical foundation where they do, "why" assumes that they have anything more basic than their foundation. They don't.

Jonathan said...

I think the question "Why do you believe in X?" is a reasonable question that makes sense. Someone who can't answer it at all would seem to be either muddled or fundamentally irrational.

I suppose being irrational isn't objectively inferior to being rational, but people who are trying to be rational may find it disturbing.

David Yosifon said...

I don't know how it is for other religions, but for Christians hell is the willful alienation of God from one's heart, the willful turning away of love and the embrace of its opposite. The suffering comically depicted as fire is the burning the soul suffers in its self-imposed desolation. Under conventional economic analysis, therefore, hell is welfare maximizing to those who choose it.

Tibor said...

Eli Eby: Yeah, but the question is much rather "Why did religions with hell become so widespread as opposed to those with no hell"?

I think what also gives a partial answer is that we have a a hard-wired sense of justice and fairness in us (I heard even chimps do to some extent...they were trying to do some experiments with them involving some act by the chimps that is rewarded by some food. Now, they were given the same amout of food for the act for a while and then some chimps started getting more for the same. The other chimps got angry). And the dual concept of heaven and hell is something that can help people sleep when their hard wired sence of fairness is disturbed - "this guys is a crook and is well off, but that is ok, because he will end up in hell". I think most people actually believe it is all the others who end up in hell (so hell is favourable for them for the fairness reasons) while they manage to get to heaven anyway - something already suggested here by someone before me

jim s said...

In addition to religion, I have seen "wishful thinking" distort people's perception of reality in many areas of life. I have seen highly educated scientists and engineers persist in believing theories even when massive amounts of evidence contradict the theory. In baseball a fan will disagree with a call vehemently and say it is obvious the umpire was wrong if it goes against his team until slow motion replay shows the truth.

I have known several people who believed in reincarnation. For some reason all of them had been kings, queens, or important people in their previous lives. None had been farmers or farmer's wives even though the vast majority of dead people were farmers. I think this is another example of wishful thinking.

Jonathan said...

Jim, I seem to remember that years ago my mother reckoned she was a Russian peasant woman in a previous life. I don't remember where she got that idea from (maybe a dream?). I think she took it only part-seriously. She's never been religious, so she didn't connect the notion with any particular religion.

Jersey Patriot said...

Once the idea evolved that personality was permanent, it makes sense to extend justice over the entire life of the personality. Heaven and Hell balance that justice: suffering for the bad who didn't suffer enough. pleasure for the good who didn't enjoy it enough.

It became so prominent in Christianity because Christians needed to give meaning to the suffering of Jesus. His death made no sense on Earth, but it makes sense in eternity.

Hell is prominent in Islam because Islam is a crappy knock-off of Christianity. That is offensive and cruel but also true. In most other religions - including Judaism - Hell either doesn't exist, isn't real in a fire & brimstone sense, or is temporary.

Anonymous said...

Believers are not inteligent enought. All religions are ridiculous and a waste of time. We rather be self thinkers. Don't learn and store any information without the doubt of asking why a lot of times until something is verified by other ways to proof it. Truth is simple, religions need huge information to mantain lies with brainwashing. Believers infect their sons. Ambiguous is the excuse when you get to the point. The cheaters holy writers were ignorants. i.e.: What about the dinosaurs or anaerobic creatures living in h2so4 older than atmosphere? My lonely club is poor, but plenty of freedom.