The greatest threat to the modern world can be found in the revival of a belief from the Middle Ages: the pursuit of pain is a good thing. As Stephen Greenblatt points out in his recent book The Swerve, once upon a time there was a notion that inflicting pain upon our sinful bodies was a holy pursuit. To mimic the kind of pain that the Savior experienced on the road to Golgotha would allow us to share the sanctity of His suffering, so it was not unusual in those benighted times to wear a hairshirt, or to find groups of flagellants publically flogging themselves with iron-pointed whips, or monks beating each other with rods, all in an effort to imitate Christ.
Common sense would dictate that this is a bad idea. It calls to mind that unfortunate group of young people today who are cutting themselves in order to feel the pain. Any parent who finds their child has sunk into this practice will get that child to a therapist as quickly as possible. Homo sapiens is programmed to pursue the pleasures of life, not the pains, but in the Middle Ages a powerful force overrode this basic instinct. That force was belief in the afterlife.
Yes, the afterlife… The Great Beyond… The Happy Hunting Ground– or the Not-So-Happy if you have been a sinner and failed to get right with God before the end. As Greenblatt reminds us, Sir Thomas More’s 16th century book Utopia which was so progressive in many of its policies (sharing the wealth, universal health care, freedom of religion) drew a hard line in the sands of that fabled island: if you did not believe in the rewards and punishments of a heaven and hell, you would be executed immediately. Rejection of an afterlife was dangerous in Utopia, because without the fear of hell, More felt that people will always try to lie, cheat, and murder their way into greater wealth and power. We only need jails and punishments in the here and now because people don’t believe in the punishments of the hereafter.
Sir Thomas may have been right about the power of the fear of God. Certainly there is no sign since the Enlightenment began increasing the ranks of the atheists that we’ve created a Utopia anywhere, though Scandinavia may be getting close. But More was beyond a doubt wrong about making the afterlife the foundation of his belief system. Under radical Islam, that belief is what is causing so much senseless death and destruction every day, coupled as it is with a revival and glorification of the medieval pursuit of pain. Who would ever have believed that this cult of death would take root in the 21st century, a cult where suicide bombers and martyrdom become the highest form of community service, where men and women are encouraged to undertake “missions” that they know will lead to their painful deaths, all for a misguided idea that a reward awaits you in Paradise?
Some might argue that it’s not belief in an afterlife per se that is the problem, but rather, the particular afterlife that is being peddled to these would-be heroes. But the problem here is that, if you are a rational creature, you would like some evidence of which afterlife that’s being offered by the religions of the world is the genuine article and not some knock-off fakery. How would you talk a suicide bomber out of his belief that the koranic Paradise is really there, just waiting for him if he blows himself up in the right spot? By offering him an alternative view? Christ on the cross? Abraham’s bosom? Angels hosanna-ing?
What would therapy be for a deluded young person whose greatest aspiration is to be a martyr? Perhaps if we do in fact need the fear of God to keep the world from disintegrating it should be the God of Compassion–focused on making this life as pleasant as possible for as many as possible without reference to what happens when we cross that unknowable Divide.