Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker said Thursday that the push for reopening society from lockdowns comes from Christianity’s “malignant delusion” of belief in an afterlife.
Atheists who believe in this life alone are more concerned with health and safety, Professor Pinker suggested in a Tweet, while Christians tend to devalue “actual lives” and live a riskier existence.
Belief in an afterlife is a malignant delusion, since it devalues actual lives and discourages action that would make them longer, safer, and happier. Exhibit A: What’s really behind Republicans wanting a swift reopening? Evangelicals. https://t.co/ppo2bwiVGn
— Steven Pinker (@sapinker) May 21, 2020
Pinker was responding to an article this week in the Washington Post, which examined findings that Democrats take the virus “more seriously” than Republicans and are more willing to support restrictive government edicts in response to the pandemic.
In that article, contributing columnist Gary Abernathy declares that a “literal belief in eternal salvation — eternal life — helps explain the different reactions to life-threatening events like a coronavirus outbreak.” He states:
Evangelicals take it to heart when James reminds them, ‘What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes,’ or when Paul writes, ‘I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us,’ or when Jesus asks, rhetorically, ‘Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?’
It should be no surprise that a person’s deepest beliefs about the world influence how they measure the risks they’re willing to take.
So, when ruminating over why there are millions of people who don’t seem to panic over a global pandemic or other life-threatening event, critics should remember that, right or wrong, it often involves a belief in something even bigger than people named Trump, Hannity or Limbaugh.
Historically, Christian belief in eternal life has rarely resulted in disengagement from the common task of bettering the world and looking out for the needs of others. Nor is belief in the afterlife the exclusive domain of evangelicals, but forms part of the common creed of all orthodox Christians.
To take just one example, the Catholic Church asserts explicitly that belief in eternity should spur Christians on to work for the good of human society in this life.
“While rejecting atheism, root and branch, the Church sincerely professes that all men, believers and unbelievers alike, ought to work for the rightful betterment of this world in which all alike live,” states the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes from the Second Vatican Council. The text states:
Therefore, while we are warned that it profits a man nothing if he gain the whole world and lose himself, the expectation of a new earth must not weaken but rather stimulate our concern for cultivating this one. For here grows the body of a new human family, a body which even now is able to give some kind of foreshadowing of the new age.
Study after study has found that such “theory” is borne out in practice as well, with religious people proving far more generous with their time and money than atheists.
In one of the largest studies of its kind, the massive Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey in 2000 found that religious people are 25 percentage points more likely than secularists to donate money and 23 points more likely to volunteer their time.