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Do we live for the report card?

February 12, 2010


My parents aren’t slouches when it comes to grades. While I had friends who comfortably earned Bs and Cs in elementary…and then junior high…and then high school…these things were fearsome things indeed. I know; when I made a couple in high school, there was fear and trembling.

But I never lived for the report card. I never learned for the report card. As a result, I’ve been somewhat lax with getting a slightly worse grade and learning more. Taking a more difficult teacher who has a reputation for actually teaching instead of simply shuffling. The experience of the class is better than the conclusive end.

(Now, I am competitive. Very competitive. I care about winning, understanding, and comprehending. This happens often to dispose me to wanting to beat out others.)

When I talk to some others about school, I get the sense that some of my fellow students don’t live for learning. They live for the report card. For the grade. So, the easiest class is the best.  And, this will probably be very uncharitable, but when I have some discussions about religion, atheism, and theism, I get the sense that some people live for the score card too.

These people ask: “How can you not believe in an afterlife?”

“How can you believe this is all there is? That things won’t finally and ultimately be resolved?”

Well, for these questions, I don’t really see much reason believe in some comprehensive else. Unlike classes, we don’t enter life with a syllabus that has all test dates and a grading rubric to match. Unlike classes, there is nothing certain about getting a grade at the end.

But, like classes, there is stark difference between some people who seem to find value from the grade, and others who find value despite or regardless of the grade.

Whenever I have heard someone criticize atheists or atheism with the question, “How can atheists have anything to live for if they don’t believe in God or an afterlife?” what I’ve immediately realized is that there is a deep disconnect between values.

If there is no afterlife, then when we’re dead, it really won’t matter anything that we did in life…true…because we will be dead. “We” — the thing in us that we call selves — won’t be alive enough to think about it.

But it does not follow from that termination that there is nothing to live for. When we live, we live for life. Not for an afterlife. We don’t live for the opportunity to find out whether we got it “right” and are going to “heaven” or whether we got it “wrong” and are going to “hell.” We don’t live for the opportunity to see every answer we got wrong (as well as go over the ‘right’ answers to the test), or even to have all of our wrong answers wiped clean with little or no effort from ourselves. We live for life, and in the context of life and our perception and living of it, things have impact.

I mean, really, the difference in values and valuation is astounding to me, because I think that even if I did believe in an afterlife, I wouldn’t live for the afterlife or ask such questions of people who didn’t believe (but then again, I probably am poor at stepping in shoes I’ve never lived in.)

That’s why I’ve always at least understood practical aspects of various religions. The idea: “If you do x, y, and z, your life on earth and your dealings with people will go much smoother” seems reasonable (even if different people can disagree on what x, y, and z are that will be so beneficial.) But when we are doing cost/benefit analyses with an uncertain eternity, I just want to throw my hands up and ask: what is the relevance?

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  1. Agree with you up to a point. But I feel you are over simplifying, and making assumptions, eg that if there is no afterlife it won’t matter what we do in life.
    Our actions in life continue to produce effects on others even after we have died.

    Your view suggests that it would be OK to be instrumental in killing large numbers of people as long as you die before the deaths occur. That’s close to condoning the actions of a terrorist /suicide bomber.

    How about a scientist on zir deathbed suddenly understands how to formulate a cure for cancer, but refrains from telling anyone because ze won’t be around to see his/her discovery save millions of lives.

    language is metaphorical, inherently ambiguous. The molecules/atoms of the physical body persist after the “death” of the organism. Metaphorically, that persistence equates to an afterlife.

    Re the”soul” or “spirit”, we still don’t know/can’t be sure. After all, non-material qualities and things do exist in the Universe/reality, eg thought, mathematical formulae, life, emotion, gravity, music, cooking recipes, etc.

    Also, “afterlife”, “heaven”, “hell”, “right” and “wrong” are not always related in the way you suggest they are. There are belief systems which include the concept of an afterlife but exclude the other concepts. You are selecting one particular model out of many to criticise.

    Anyway, this is an interesting topic, that I cover in some detail in my blog eg the latest post called ooga booga: what does it really MEAN?

  2. masterymistery,

    Well, the thing is, I’m not the person who believes that if there is no afterlife it doesn’t matter what we do in life. That is the position that some *others* take that has me just as much in disagreement as you.

    I guess I understated that in the post. Will edit to correct that.

  3. Excellent! What a timely post for me.

    I’ve come to think about this disconnection between values recently. Quite often I have stated what my values were but I never seemed to be able to live them.

    It’s a struggle to find all the disconnections from where my values desired and values lived have not converging. I’ve discovered that those values desired in which I’m not living, are really not my desires at all. They are left over values passed to me by peers, parents and church leaders. Once I recognize the disconnect I can take the steps to reevaluate them or reshape them to determine if they do indeed have any relavance.

  4. Andrew- I just wanted to say, I did not get:

    Your view suggests that it would be OK to be instrumental in killing large numbers of people as long as you die before the deaths occur. That’s close to condoning the actions of a terrorist /suicide bomber.

    …from your entry at all. The fact is, living the good life, and doing good here and now, makes a person feel happier. People want to do good because it makes them feel good, and they feel empathy for those who are on the same boat as they are.

    The ironic thing about using the example of a terrorist/suicide bomber is that it is something (not exactly the nicest thing to do) that atheists will point out as being a bad reason to believe in the afterlife, because it is the afterlife that radical extremists believe they are going to and being rewarded for when they commit horrible attacks.

    I really enjoyed this post. It reminded me a little of Alan Watts, and It was like chicken noodle soup for me, but for my mind. 🙂 (And that’s a good thing because I am really ill today.) 😛

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