In 1904, less than six years before his death, William James made a revealing statement in response to a questionnaire circulated by his former student James Pratt. To the question, "Do you believe in personal immortality?" James answered, "Never keenly, but more strongly as I grow older" "If so, why?" "Because I am just getting fit to live."
Not a ringing endorsement perhaps, but James was sure of one thing: that the common arguments against immortality need not deter us. In his 1898 Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality, James set out with his usual relish to kick over the obstacles to belief. Chief among those obstacles was a general climate of learned doubt.
Our situation today is not so different. Although social surveys indicate that roughly 80 percent of Americans believe in life after death, it is a belief cherished against the grain of perceived official skepticism; and among academically trained religious thinkers, one finds a greater measure of skepticism than in the population at large. For many, immortality is not a matter for reasoned debate, but is simply ruled out of play, along with guardian angels and statues that weep. It is taken for granted, as if it were a premise accepted by all reasonable people, that no one seriously believes in Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory, in the life of the soul, the resurrection of the body, or the personality of God as the concrete realities they were once imagined to be.
One thinks especially of Rudolf Bultmann, who made it a cornerstone of his New Testament hermeneutics that the three-story structure of the cosmos (Heaven above, Earth in the middle, Hell below) is over, finished; it cannot be "repristinated." Similarly, Jurgen Moltmann began his 1967 Ingersoll Lecture by observing that the old ways of thinking about the future life "have dried up like fish in a drained pond."
More than any particular objections, this assumption that the traditional mythos can no longer speak to us weighs heavily against belief in immortality. The burden of proof shifts from the skeptic to the believer, and the believer finds that not only his reasons but also his motives are under suspicion. Belief in immortality begins to look shabby and self-serving, like something we fall back on in weak moments but rise above when we are at our best.
The specific objections to immortality are secondary, and can be briefly stated. Belief in immortality is criticized on moral grounds as self-aggrandizing, on psychological grounds as self-deceiving, and on philosophical grounds as dualistic. Concern for the soul is faulted for making us disregard the body, neglect our responsibilities to the Earth, and deny our kinship with other life forms. We share 90 percent of our genes with mice. Even the lowliest bacterium is our cousin. Why do we persist in imagining that there is some fifth essence in us that sets us apart?
To the first objection, we can say that there is no correlation between narcissism and belief in personal immortality. We feel the need for immortality most acutely when we are made sensible of the inexhaustible value of another person or the tragedy of a life cut short. None of the developed traditions about immortality fosters self-absorption. What are our images of eternal life if not ways of picturing a wider sphere of existence, a more generous personal life, less closed in upon ourselves, less fearful and grasping, more real in every respect? It is by contrast to the real person we hope to be in Heaven that we realize how self-absorbed we are most of the time here below.
As for dualism, much has been said of the violence it does to our unity as psycho-physical creatures, but this is questionable. Multiplicity and disunity are as strong a feature of our existence as psychosomatic unity. We are legion, as the demons say. It is a marvel that all our different parts work together. At best, we are a symphony; but the second violins have quarreled with the wind section, and as we age these quarrels increase. …