Tuesday 18 May 2021

Question: What is the essential difference between religions? Answer: What they say happens after death

My answer is that religions differ essentially in terms of what they believe happens after death. 

(By 'death' I mean biological death of the body.) 

This can be understood as what different religions 'offer' to their adherents after death; or alternatively as what the adherents of religions want to happen to themselves after they die.

All religions agree that death is not the end - or need not be the end. 

And there are a wide range of proposals about what happens after death.

What happens after death, including the factors that affect what happens after death, has implications for this mortal life - and this is why different religions end-up with recommending different behaviours and beliefs in this mortal life.

But the 'behavioural' differences between religions may be less obvious than the similarities between them - so the life of adherent of different religions may overlaps considerably, and even be superficially indistinguishable. 

In summary, the behaviours of religious people of different religions may vary only quantitatively. 

It is in terms of post-mortal destinations that religions show their qualitative differences; because if one thing happens after death then another thing cannot happen. 

If you reincarnate, you cannot resurrect; if you become a spirit after dying you will not have a body; if your personality and self are lost then they are not retained; if you assimilate with deity then you do not live-with the deity etc. 

This is what makes religions distinct. And this is why the commonly-expressed idea that ultimately, at root, 'all religions are one' - is completely false

However, if death is regarded as the end of everything that is a person in life - if death is annihilation of body, spirit, soul and everything else - then that is Not a religion. 

That is where the boundary between religion and not-religion should be drawn. 

So, religions differ in what happens after death - but all religions believe that some-thing remains 'alive', persists after death of the body. 

In essence: religions are systems of ideas relating to what happens to men after biological death. 

But when an ideology believes that nothing of a person remains after death, then it is not a religion.   


jas said...

I might be wrong, but Judaism doesn't really have a clear message on life after death?

HofJude said...

It does for "the righteous," which includes every Jew who repents, but part of what happens after an individual's death happens in the continuing human history of the Jewish people, and eventually to all the other nations before history ends. There is a definite sense that the righteous, and -- eventually, but you must be patient -- all you righteous Gentiles too! will live with YHWH.

Grey said...

It's not simply the afterlife, but the teleosis of life, that marks the difference between religous and metaphysical philosophies.

Vedic beliefs include reincarnation, but more importantly the great sages of those religions, like Buddha, view the cycle of reincarnation as a cycle of suffering, and the goal of detachment is to escape suffering. Nirvana is aptly described as ceasing to exist, and thereby escaping all suffering. To that end there are parallels between Stoic philosophy (which does not include reincarnation) and vedic philosophy, their aims (to cease suffering) are very similar, so their means become similar.

Those are the religions of the soul. They seek to quantify pain against pleasure and ultimately find that on balance not existing is better than existing, because at least then you break even for pleasure vs pain. For this reason they value detachment, and logically from that they view attachment as the great evil in the world. Liberal Utilitarians and pragmatists follow this kind of religion, and in that light much of what they do makes more sense. Attachment to race, religion, or nation is evil. Their efforts are focused on alleviating suffering of anyone, anywhere no matter if they merit it or not in any way, and the seemingly contradictory view that human numbers should be reduced or eliminated actually flows consistantly with their wider faith.

The carnal religions simply seek all the physical pleasures of the world. Pagan religious belief is mostly like this. Valhalla, Elysium, and Muslim Heaven are all no more or less than limitless sex, booze, and food with no work or bad side effects. These religions value obedience and tend to be very carrot-and-stick. They are unsatisfying for philosophers and that disatisfaction is part of what make Greco-Roman society so ripe for Christianity. That's aslo why it was stoic and gnostic ideals that seriously competed with Christianity in the first centuries, rather than the encumbant Roman polytheistic religion.

Mormonism is special, in that it bridges the gap between carnal pleasure religions and spiritual religions. Mormonism does not had its faithful infinite pleasure and ease, rather it hands them extreme potential. That potential is presented in very relatable, human terms. The terms of family and pioneering and creating a human civilization. These terms are carnal, but the aim itself reaches towards trancendenence. I think you lauded them another time for reasons similar to this. Anyway since their aim is most like deification their means are most like orthodox Christianity.

Orthodox Christianity aims that each of its members be deified to be sons of God in such a way that they become something rather like God and be in perfect harmony and union with Him. This aim is one of unlimited potential, and quite likely eternal growth and effort. This idea isn't on the forefront of lay Christian thought, they tend to think of heaven on carnal or philosophical terms. But the failure of the theologians to describe Christian Heaven is because in truth what is being proposed as the Christian aim is quite literally indescribable. It's a state of constant growth and constant overcoming and constant adventure, all while having peace and joy and not suffering from the stress of such an existence. It's St. Paisos's crudely described but apt 'celestial toll booths' it is Lewis's eternal mountain climb going ever higher, ever deeper, ever greater. It is true what Wesley said that perfection was the beggining of the Christian journey, not the end. One who has attained perfection is merely one who is ready to start truely knowing God.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Grey - That's well expressed. But when you compare Mormon Christians with (I presume) eEstern Orthodox Christians, then you are not comparing like with like.

Because your account of Mormonism is derived from mainstream popular descriptions (missionary manuals for example); while for your 'Orthodox' Christianity, you are apparently quoting the view of some few and selective, mystical and theologically sophisticated individuals - maybe some of the advanced monks or Saints.

It is therefore inevitable that Mormons here seem rather simplistic, whereas the Orthodox seem transcendent.

But my understanding is that the equivalently simplistic 'mass consumption' version of Orthodoxy regards the Heavenly life of sons of God in a passive, contemplative way - and not being individually and uniquely creative, compared with what you say. My understanding is that what is aimed at in communion-with God - Man and God separate but in perfect harmony.

However I don't think the Orthodox - despite their exemplary emphasis on theosis - would regard individual resurrected Men as able actively to contribute something *personal and new* to God's continuing creative work. That is the real difference with Mormonism.

And it ultimately derives from Mormonism's pluralism versus Orthodoxy's monism; Mormonism regarding time as sequential and linear versus Orthodoxy having a Platonic idea of divine time as being outside of linear-sequential time and being (in effect) all times simultaneously.

Grey said...

Thank you. Your reply gives me some things to think about.

By orthodox I merely mean historical mainstream Trinitarian. Though my personal branch of western Protestantism has a higher than normal level of influence from eastern sources.

About Mormonism, is there like to consider? My ideas on the Mormon philosophy are bent towards the fundamentalist Latter Day Saints because I have experience with them. I fully admit that if BYU produced some more nuanced take I would be unaware of it. I have read some of your archives on Mormonism and they are very insightful, but it does seem to me that you and I have met a different mormonism in many ways. Would it be fair to say your experience is more high academic?

On the on the other hand having a more carnal/physical outlook with a more spiritual/growth end was not intended to be a dig against Mormons. Pure carnality is shallow, but making the trancendent relatable is very powerful.

I suppose your position is that the teleosis of mormonism is not in fact substantially different than of mainstream Christianity?

I admit I would find that proposition difficult, though it would be good if it was true.

I don't think I understood your 2nd last paragraph properly. It seems to me you are getting at something important. But it just confuses me. What could a man possibly contribute except it be personal? How could something be a personal creation without it being new? How could man create any good thing without participating in Gods creative work? Even in this life.

I have a hard time with the last paragraph for different reasons; I tend to see the Platonic/Aristotlian divide within the branches of Christiandom as differences of meditative perspective rather than theology. Both eastern and western Chriatianity use both prespectives heavily and simultaneously, despite apparent contradictions. In the same way I think if you got down to the brass tax with Christian theologians they would tell you that to divinity time is both fully sequential and fully simultaneous, but we cannot comprehend that prespective so it's a moot point. In the same way Trinitarianism is a pluralistic monism.

*an error in my previous post, it is Fr Seraphim Rose that talked about celestial toll booths, not St. Paisos

Bruce Charlton said...

@Grey - Oh yes, my engagement with Mormonism is almost wholly theoretical! Mormons themselves are very seldom interested in theology and metaphysics.

But Mormonism developed what seems to be the basis for the most original and profound philosophical basis since the Ancient Greeks - yes, really! It is based on such a different understanding of reality - which yet is coherent.

A truly astonishing metaphysical achievement of the first magnitude; and almost unknown - even (or especially!) among Mormons.

The Mormon model of theosis is that God is the creator, and we live in God's creation - but there is no limit to the theosis of Men in principle; and it is *possible* for a Man to become a creator of the same 'ability' as God - although he would always be secondary to God in the sense that 'the Man' was created-by God and developed 'inside' God's creation.

But Man and God are of the same 'kind' (being Parents and Children) - and differ quantitatively and by precedence rather than qualitatively and by infinite degree.