While out canvassing last night, I fell into a conversation with a couple of Franklin Graham voters—i.e., fundagelicals who accept Graham’s easy thesis that if we just elect godly leaders, everything else will work out. I replied that I have yet to see any reliable correlation between a person’s professions of faith and their practical efficacy and trustworthiness. (See also Scott Westerhuis.)
My neighbors turned the conversation to the ultimate question (and yes, I know, bad canvassing—we’re well beyond the effective 30-second window, I should be knocking on more doors, not talking theology and social contract) of what happens when we die. I acknowledged that, given the way I bicycle and some Aberdonians drive, that could well be ten minutes from now. The lady of the house said the most important thing in life is to be ready for death and the Lord’s judgment that follows.
I disagreed as respectfully as I could. Calling on Socrates, I said we know nothing for sure. (I know! the wife insisted. I know what happens when we die and what we must do to be ready… and I can’t bridge that gap.) We may adopt on faith certain assumptions and assurances to get us through our days, but having never died, we do not know what happens when we die. No amount of mortal discourse or earthly empiricism will prove that our souls ascend or descend, reincarnate, or switch off like a fridge in a power outage.
While we know nothing for sure, I know some things more surely than others and far more surely than I know the ultimate fate of our souls. I know, with a practical and much substantiated confidence, that I live and enjoy liberty, learning, and leisure because I exist in a community, in society, not in anarchy. I know that I enjoy the benefits of society because a lot of people before me did a lot of work to create civic institutions that sustain society and give us the chance to raise families in relative safety, to create and invent, and to help others. I know that more people are coming after me who deserve as much of a chance at life, liberty, and property as I do. I thus feel an obligation to keep society going for those coming people, to maintain the schools, roads, courts, parks, and other social institutions we have and maybe build some new ones (e.g., asteroid defense, colonies on Mars and Titan, starships) that enhance my descendants’ chances of survival and opportunity to sit around thinking about answers to unanswerable questions.
I don’t know for sure what happens to me when I die. I do know, absent Apocalypse, what happens to everyone else: they go on living. They go on dealing with whatever earthly messes I leave behind. It seems both practical and decent that all of us, believers and nonbelievers, heaven- and dust-bound, try to keep those messes to a minimum, that we leave our planet and our democracy in better shape (Second Law of Thermodynamics, another certainty even Socrates would concede, be darned!) than we found it when we woke up to life.
That’s another reason I run. Pedal pedal, knock knock….