In some previous posts (here and here) I've been discussing the doctrine of Christian Universalism, and I've been asking what this doctrine could mean (if anything) given an agnostic or skeptical view of the afterlife. In this post I want to say more about why this is an important question to ask.
I've been calling this a "naturalization" project (since it's a process of de-supernaturalizing a set of statements) but I should note that of course things like this have been done many times before. Perhaps most famously, the Demythologization project of Bultmann and many others in the early twentieth century is certainly relevant here. I'm talking about doing something roughly like what they were trying to do—to translate the claims of Christian doctrine into language which does not presuppose the existence of supernatural elements. Is there a difference between what they did and what I'm doing? Perhaps not an important one, though our motivations seem to be a little different. As far as I know, the motivation for the Demythologizing project came from a belief that modern humans simply can't believe supernatural claims anymore. Of course you might think that claim straightforwardly false. In the early twentieth century, plenty of "modern humans" believed plenty of supernatural claims. So you might suspect they meant "modern humans well versed in critical and scientific traditions, as we hope all humans will be someday soon." But this doesn't seem to be quite what they meant—Bultmann, for example, preached his demythologized gospel to wage laborers, for example miners. So he seemed to have in mind a very broad group, if not every single actual human being alive at the time.
But I've known too many well educated and knowledgable people who did in fact believe supernatural claims to be true. Not wanting to spend much time on the probably-useless and not-particularly-charitable project of deciding who counts as a "modern human" and who doesn't, I'll instead just make a stronger claim. It's not that I don't think anyone can believe supernatural claims. It's that I think they shouldn't. Or anyway, to back off a little from that—I don't think anyone should ever be moved by an unverifiable factual claim.
(Unverifiable moral claims are different. So I should clarify the distinction—in this post, I call a "factual claim" any claim that purports to describe an event, i.e., a composition of moving pieces that takes up some concrete space and time.)
Why shouldn't we be moved by unverifiable factual claims? When it comes specifically to claims about an afterlife, one reason is a moral one. Claims about an afterlife tend to serve the function of delineating rewards and punishments for one's behavior before death. But it is my experience of religion, and I do not recall ever having found any religious person who denies this once I brought the idea to their intention, that good religious beliefs encourage the religious person to see good actions as good in themselves, and not as good for the sake of a reward. Put simply, good religious values are supposed to be fundamentally unselfish. But actions motivated by reward are fundamentally selfish. So it would seem that good religious values themselves inherently demand an explanation of religious doctrine which doesn't make reference to reward or punishment in an afterlife. But what other purpose can there be for talk of an afterlife?
(Well, that's not quite fair. As opposed to carrot/stick style punishments and rewards, afterlife talk can be construed as serving a kind of encouraging function that doesn't involve reward per se. For example, Heaven can be thought of, not as a reward, but as the natural state of things which God is bringing about for his creation, and which we are encouraged to work towards not because it's good for us, but because it's good in itself. And among Christian Universalists, Hell is not always conceived of as "punishment" except in the sense that being divested of those illusions that seem like one's own self can be a "punishing" experience, i.e., painful. For example, the idea for me as a Christian (even prior to being a Universalist) is that you're not supposed to be motivated to avoid the pain of hell and so to "accept Jesus into your heart" or whatever, but instead, that seeking the truth by allowing oneself to be guided into it even when it means a shattering of illusions can be a necessary but very unpleasant experience. The function of thinking of heaven, in this case, was not supposed to be as a reward, but as something upon which to hang one's hopes. "Things are bad now, but they'll get better." That's not a reward, exactly. It motivates without making you think your actions will cause you pleasure. In other words, it gives meaning to your actions without trying to set up a causal relation between your actions and your happiness. So heaven and hell talk doesn't have to serve as a source of reward and punishment meant to motivate behavior in the fashion of a carrot and stick. They can be instead cast as encouragement, meant to motivate behavior in the fashion of an army sergeant reminding his soldiers that an end is in sight and everything that's happening is to the good.)
So far the discussion has involved a fairly narrow point about a specific kind of supernatural belief—belief in heaven and hell. Above I made a more general claim—that one shouldn't be moved by any unverifiable factual claims. How do I justify this?
Put simply, an unverifiable factual claim lacks any of the features that make factual claims useful for basing actions. For if the claim is truly unverifiable, then nothing I do in response to the claim will ever give me a reason to think the claim either true or false. (In other words, I'll have no way to learn whether the claim was in fact an accurate guide to action.) But if nothing will give me a reason to think the claim true or false, then I will do just as well to treat the claim as false as I will to treat the claim as true. (If this made a difference, then the claim would be verifiable, contrary to hypothesis.)
That's the argument in a nutshell, but put so succinctly it may be hard to parse. So to illustrate, take the following claim:
"Fairies exist, but are invisible, and never act in ways that can't be explained by purely non-fairy means, and will grant your wishes if they are made in a spirit of kindness."
If understood as unverifiable, then the features that make it unverifiable also render it useless for basing actions. For example, say I were to make a wish, and the wish was not granted. If the claim was useful for basing actions, then from this lack of wish fulfillment, I should be able to conclude that the claim was false. (And so, adjust my future actions accordingly.) But since the claim is unverifiable, I'm free instead to simply say my wish was not made in a spirit of kindness, whatever my impressions had been. Meanwhile, suppose the wish was granted. Well, since the granting of the wish, per hypothesis, could be explained without reference to fairies, the granting of the wish gives me no reason to think the claim verified. Once again, I've failed to learn anything about the truth status of the claim.
Its truth or falsity makes no difference in my world. In short, the claim is compatible with absolutely any sequence of events. But that very fact makes the claim completely useless to me. It teaches me nothing about how the world works. And so it is senseless to be moved by it. I may as well affirm it as deny it—it makes no difference either way.
But denying it is better than affirming it. For the fact that the claim turns out not to be amenable to verification means that believing it is a waste of time and mental resources, and more importantly, means that one should suspect the reliability of whatever led you to entertain the proposition in the first place. If that source is leading you to entertain unverifiable propositions, you should wonder at its usefulness, or if it is a person or group of people, you should wonder about its motivations.
So that's the argument that we shouldn't be moved by unverifiable factual claims. And claims about heaven and hell are unverifiable factual claims. One might argue that we may find them verified after we die. But this is not the kind of verifiability that makes a claim useful for basing action. If a man tells me that treasure lies beyond a door, but that no one can return after going through the door, then I have no way to test his claim without risk—but the risk is not justified unless I know the claim is true. So I cannot know ahead of time whether the risk is justified. Hence I cannot rationally take the risk. Hence I cannot rationally test the claim. This renders the claim useless for basing action. There's no principled way to act on it.
Since, then, claims about Heaven and Hell are unverifiable factual claims, we should not be moved by them. But if we should not be moved by claims about Heaven and Hell, then if we are to maintain the validity of Christian doctrines of Heaven and Hell, we must understand them as making something other than an unverifiable factual claim. Very few people think that they are verifiable factual claims if interpreted straightforwardly (I have known a few—a few years ago there were claims in some circles that a Russian oil drilling company had actually discovered Hell!). So it seems we have these choices:
- Claims about heaven and hell are verifiable, but do not mean what they seem to mean most straightforwardly, or
- Claims about heaven and hell are unverifiable, but are not factual claims (i.e. are more like value claims).
Either way, some kind of translation project is called for. That is my intention in this set of blog posts. In my previous post (link) you can see that I'm trying to cast claims about universal salvation as claims about how each person's life is to be evaluated "in the final analysis" (in a sense somewhat vaguely defined in that post). This sounds like a value claim, which means I'm going for the second option above. However it seems likely it will also involve a lot of claims about what people's lives are actually like, which would suggest an approach like the first option. I do not know yet if I'm going to settle on one side or the other of this dichotomy, or instead whether I'm heading for a kind of hybrid of the two. I'm making this up as I go!