I recently noticed some heartfelt advice from an atheist on a message board that I sometimes watch.
“Life is a one-time roller coaster ride,” he said. “Revel in it. Feel the warm sun on your skin and the cool wind in your hair. Feel the climb up, and take in the rides to the bottom. Don’t spend the entire experience preparing and fretting for what others in the line told you about the exit and what they think comes after, otherwise you will miss the entire experience.”
I have little doubt that his advice was sincere. But it’s also misdirected.
There’s no reason to suppose that typical religious believers feel the warm sun and the cool air less than unbelievers do. They’re not exempt from the climbs up and the sometimes terrifying rides down.
And, no matter how devout they may be, there’s no evidence that most believers devote so much time preparing for the next life, and so much energy fretting about it, that they miss this one.
Sure, there have been some bizarre hermits and grim ascetics, but they have been outliers, far beyond the religious mainstream.
In fact, as I’ve noted before in this column, religious people — of all faiths, even after allowing for differences in wealth, education, and age — are significantly happier, on average, than are nonbelievers. (See, for example, "Religious people are happier, studies show.") Even more to the point, those who expect life after death are roughly a third more likely than nonbelievers to call themselves “very happy.” However, those who deny life after death are 75 percent more likely to say they’re not very happy.
Thus, that message board atheist would serve his readers better if he advised them to work toward developing religious faith rather than encouraging them to abandon it. Although mortal life is indeed a roller coaster ride, he shouldn’t be urging them to ignore the fact that when it ends, they will all need to pass through the exit.
Religious believers are convinced that there is an unfathomably vast world out there beyond the exit gate for this particular ride. To continue the poster’s metaphor, those who have come to the amusement park with tickets for other attractions, money to buy food when it’s lunchtime and jackets to wear in the evening will be able to enjoy much more than just the one feature.
They are going to have a better time than those who are focused so intently on enjoying their “one time roller coaster ride” that, at its end, they lack the resources or ability to enjoy anything else.
It would be unwise to advise anybody not to spend any of today preparing for tomorrow. Most of us don’t work only for what we’ll spend before the next morning.
We work in order to make future purchases, take a vacation next summer, prepare for our children’s college expenses, help others when needed, invest for our retirement, buy groceries for next week, cover next month’s rent and pay the mortgage off for a house in which we intend to live beyond tonight. We may or may not love lifting weights or running, but doing so improves our long-term health. We plant in the spring for fall’s harvest. We repair our roof in the dry season so as to be ready for the coming rain. To willingly do otherwise would be foolish.
This is scarcely news: In Aesop’s famous ancient fable, a grasshopper has spent the warm months of summer singing while its neighbor, an ant, has been busy storing up food for winter. Come winter, of course, the starving grasshopper, explaining how it had spent its summer, begs the ant for something to eat. The ant replies that, in that case, the grasshopper can spend winter dancing.
It’s appropriate for us to devote attention to the future; we’re likely to spend much more time there than just today’s 24 hours. Although obsession with tomorrow shouldn’t rob today of all value, thoughtful preparation for what’s to come can, indeed, take some toll on present pleasures; the ant had less time for singing than the grasshopper did. But prudence makes for a better overall life than does irresponsibility.
There is no evidence that those who think of the future miss out altogether on the present. In fact, evidence suggests the contrary: Religious believers, if they’re correct, get a better future. In any case, they apparently get a better today.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson and speaks only for himself.