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Chapter Four: Why people believe

Section 5: Death and despair

Fear of death underlies much belief in God, but it is not evidence of God's existence.

Caravaggio: Death of the Virgin

None of us want to die. We either enjoy life so much that we do not want it to end, or our lives are so miserable that we hope to live long enough that things will get better. If we live long enough we will recover from this illness, meet our perfect partner, become rich and happy and find whatever else is missing from our lives.

Nor do we want loved ones to die. For their sake or ours, we want them to live, if not forever, then at least as long as we do. The parent who sees their child die young, the man or woman left behind after their partner has died, bereaved friends and siblings all experience a loss when death intervenes.

4.5a A better world?

How wonderful it would be if we did not die! Or if we must die, how about a compromise - life after death? Then we can all meet up afterwards. My father died before I was born, but I'll get to meet him in Heaven. After fifty years of marriage, I miss my husband, but soon we'll be together for eternity.

Only faith - not science - offers this wonderful solution of everlasting life. Even better, it promises (because promises are cheap and there is no comeback if you are wrong) an even better life than the one we have today. The sick will be healthy, the mutilated whole. Divided families will never be parted. The poor will be wealthy in the love of God (the wealthy will probably be in Hell - but the question of God's justice comes up in the next section).

These attitudes can be summed up in the phrase "there must be a better world" - the idea that the life we have is not good enough and there must be somewhere better to compensate for the unpleasantness that we go through here.

Is this fear of death? Love of life? Love of others? Whatever you call it, it's a powerful

The deep roots of belief

Despite reason and evidence indicating that God does not and cannot exist, billions of people across the world continue to worship him in one of his many forms.

Belief in God draws its strength from a wide range of sources and provides a sense of security and wellbeing for many. Transforming that belief into an understanding and respect for rationality takes time and much effort.

4.1: The origins of religion
Where did faith come from?

4.2: In the genes?
Are we programmed to believe?

4.3: Community and identity
Defining ourselves through faith

4.4: Peer pressure
Faith as fashion

4.5: Death and despair
There must be a better world

4.6: A sense of justice
Evildoers must be punished

4.7: God and meaning
Religion gives us a purpose

4.8: The power and the glory
They reflect on us too

4.9: Against the tide
Converts and natural-born rebels

4.10: Nature calling
A glimpse of God?

4.11: Pick 'n' mix
What are your reasons?

4.12: Summary

Finished this chapter? Move on to

Chapter 5
Faith in action

People create God in their own image. What happens when they not only believe in God but put their faith into action?

The results are predictable: good people do good things in the name of religion and bad people do bad things. They act in God's name but God is irrelevant.

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factor in many people's faith. Life can be harsh and disappointing; if there is any possibility of a better afterlife, surely we should grasp it? Otherwise we might fall into despair.

It is not surprising, therefore, that those whose lives are most difficult - the hungry, diseased, rejected, imprisoned - are often those who cling most strongly to faith. When you have nothing, hope gives you something - and faith gives you the strongest hope of all.

4.5b Fear is not proof

Unfortunately, fear, hope and all the other emotions are no more than attitudes of mind. Fear of death is not proof of God. The longing to see someone who has died is not evidence that you will see them again. The harsh reality is that we die, that millions die when still young, that again and again death separates us from those we love.

Besides, as we discovered earlier, at first glance the idea of an afterlife is seductive, a promise of eternal joy, but the closer we examine it, the more it fades, becoming both impossible and undesirable. Death is cruel, inevitable and often, to our eyes, unjust, but we cannot avoid it. Accepting the reality of death is much wiser than hankering after the illusion of eternal life. And it is wise also to recognise that while fear of death underlies much belief in God, it is in no way evidence of God's existence.

"Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly ... the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing - fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death."
Bertrand Russell, British philosopher & Nobel Prize Winner, in 'Why I am not a Christian'

Chapter Four: Section 6 A sense of justice

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If God existed, he would...

admire the beauty of a universe that he did not create

recognize that eternity is meaningless

deny both heaven and hell

disown all men and women who speak in his name

denounce the harm caused by religious "morality"

help the human race to thrive without him

If God existed, he would be an atheist.

What is the difference between science and faith?

science is certain of nothing and requires proof of everything

faith is certain of everything and requires proof of nothing

Which do you trust?

"I know there is no God"
"I believe there is no God"

Check the answer

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