Until recently, I scoffed at the all the crazy stuff religion teaches. Heaven and hell, angels and demons, spirits, miracles, etc. all seemed like non-sense that could only be believed before science became a well-established method of finding the truth.
I’m still skeptical about the literal belief in these religious stories, but I’ve come to appreciate how powerful and attractive they are, even to someone with a secular and modern upbringing like myself.
For example, Islam teaches that there is a heaven and hell and that your actions in this life will determine which one of those you go to after death. Hell, however, is not permanent (for most people). It acts as a sort of painful cleansing process that will eventually allow you to enter heaven.
What this implies is that if justice is not served in this world and lifetime, it will be in the next life.
Viewing life with this story in mind lends significance to my actions. Instead of going through a process of meaningless motions everyday, every action becomes an opportunity to tip the scale in my favor on judgment day.
I still don’t “believe” the heaven and hell thing in the sense that I intellectually tricked myself into thinking there is a literal heaven and hell, but I’m beginning to act as if I do, which I think is far more important.
Jonathan Haidt has an excellent theory about why I find the Islamic concept of heaven and hell attractive, which he describes in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis. It’s the desire for coherence.
“The word ‘coherence’ literally means holding or sticking together, but it is usually used to refer to a system, an idea, or a worldview whose parts fit together in a consistent and efficient way. Coherent things work well: A coherent worldview can explain almost anything, while an incoherent worldview is hobbled by internal contradictions.”
I had a coherent worldview after high school. I went to college on an NROTC scholarship, I was training to become a Navy SEAL, and learning and doing my best to adopt military virtues. My life was focused on a single goal, and it felt great.
And if you do achieve coherence, the moment when things come together may be one of the most profound of your life. Like the moviegoer who later finds out what she missed in the first half hour, your life will suddenly make more sense. Finding coherence across levels feels like enlightenment, and it is crucial for answering the question of purpose within life.
This fell apart after I quit SEAL training and left the Navy. My experiences became fragmented and incoherent since then. I taught English in Egypt, bummed around in Portland, Oregon for a while, started a side business, etc. Some of it was fun, but ultimately lacked meaning.
Haidt uses the example of participating in a religious ritual that is not your own to describe the emptiness of incoherent behavior.
In contrast, think about the last empty ritual you took part in. Maybe you were asked to join hands and chant with a group of strangers while attending a wedding ceremony for a friend who is of a different religion. Perhaps you took part in a new age ceremony that borrowed elements from Native Americans, ancient Celts, and Tibetan Buddhists. You probably understood the symbolism of the ritual—understood it consciously and explicitly in the way that the rider is so good at doing. Yet you felt self-conscious, maybe even silly, while doing it. Something was missing.
I felt this way about religion for a long time. I attended various religious rituals on a one-off basis and it just didn’t do anything for me. It was action without meaning.
But the benefits of a religion come only after an extended period of immersion, study, and practice. In my 30-day experiments, I don’t see any benefits on Day 1 or 2. I see some small signs of progress after a week and maybe another sign of progress after several weeks. The benefits increase with participation and understanding of the religion.
People don’t necessarily need to find meaning in their national identity—indeed, in large and diverse nations such as the United States, Russia, and India, religion might hold greater promise for cross-level coherence and purpose within life. Religions do such a good job of creating coherence, in fact, that some scholars believe they were designed for that purpose.
Religion is incredibly smart. It can make the idea of heaven and hell attractive to someone who grew up without religion and is naturally skeptical about organized religion. It minimizes the role of belief (in the intellectual sense) and offers something more important, a coherent world-view and way of living.
Maybe it’s more important that we live a coherent life rather than one that depends on literal, scientific truths. If living as if heaven and hell were real adds meaning and significance to your day-to-day, what does it matter if it’s not “true?”