A famous Christian gospel hymn titled “This World Is Not My Home” sums up how religious views of an afterlife shape believers’ views of this life:
This world is not my home,
I’m just a passing through,
My treasures are laid up
somewhere beyond the blue;
The angels beckon me
from heaven’s open door,
And I can’t feel at home
in this world anymore.
For millions of people, this verse is more than a metaphor. Huge numbers of religious people sincerely and fervently believe that this life is just a proving ground, a temporary way station on the road to a far more important destination. And when a person truly believes that, their actions cannot help but follow suit – treating this life as if it was unimportant, feeling detached and disconnected from this world, and missing out on all the richness and wonder it has to offer.
For instance, C.S. Lewis espouses this view in The Problem of Pain. In it, he writes of how God deliberately withholds lasting happiness from his followers, granting them at most brief and occasional flashes of merriment, so that they do not become too fixated on this world:
The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world…
I’ve written elsewhere about the most pernicious manifestation of this belief, namely theists who eagerly anticipate the apocalypse. But even in more mundane ways, this belief drains the brightness and color from life. Believing that this world is just an imperfect reflection of what is to come inevitably engenders the desire to get it over with, to get on to the real thing. And those who perpetually look forward to another life, those who think of themselves as “just passing through,” are far less likely to seek or value happiness for themselves here and now.
This world is our home. Our species evolved here; we grew up here. We are all inextricably part of the fabric of nature. This life is the only one we know for certain that we have, and those who reject or downplay it are throwing away a certainty for a mere possibility. This world has more than enough intricacy and beauty to fill our lives with richness and meaning. Why dismiss it all for the mere unfounded hope of something even better?
Kendall Hobbs writes in “Why I Am No Longer a Christian“:
But, much to my surprise, I have found life, the universe, everything to be much more wondrous and beautiful without God. When I was a Christian, I considered this world to be just a sign of the next world, the really real world. The beauty of this world was merely a reflection of some other world. The beauty I experienced in this world was derivative. Now, however, I see that this is the real world, this is the source of all the beauty, as well as all the misery, the joy and the sorrow, the fulfillment and the frustration. It is not derivative. It is all here. That allows me to appreciate this world in ways I could not as a Christian.
Brenda Peterson sums it up in an editorial from 2005, “I’ll gladly stay behind“:
My neighbor looked at me, startled, then fell very quiet as we watched a harlequin float past, his bright beak dripping a tiny fish. Happy, so happy in this moment. The Great Blue cawed hoarsely and stood on one leg in a fishing meditation. Wave after bright wave lapped our beach and the spring sunshine warmed our open faces.
I put my arm around my neighbor, the driftwood creaking slightly under our weight.
“Listen,” I said softly, “I want to be left behind.”
Left Behind to figure out a way to fit more humbly into this abiding Earth, this living and breathing planet we happily call home, we call holy.
Slowly my neighbor took my hand and we sat in silence, listening to waves more ancient than our young, hasty species, more forgiving than our religions, more enduring. Rapture.