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Opinion | Life (and Death) Without God

Yancy: So your denial of the supernatural in all of its forms seems similar to Pierre-Simon Laplace’s response to Napoleon when the latter asked him about the absence of any mention of God to his system of the cosmos. Laplace said, “I had no need of that hypothesis.” For Laplace, at least, his response doesn’t claim that God doesn’t exist. It only says that he has no need for it. So, your experience of the world doesn’t need God or belief in a soul that survives the death of the body.

However, given that your experiences are constantly open and that even scientific inquiry is an open project, do you allow for the possibility that supernaturalism could come to play a more important role in your life?

May: That would certainly be true, although unlikely. Here’s why. Our explanations of particular things or happenings are not just one-offs. They’re part of a network of beliefs. If that network of beliefs is naturalist, then when things happen that I can’t explain I’m likely to look for naturalist ways of explaining them, or alternatively say that I can’t find an adequate explanation for them yet. This is just as true of someone with a supernaturalist bent.

For some Christians, for instance, the prevalence of evils like innocent children dying in poverty are difficult to reconcile with the existence of a benevolent deity. Rather than give up on the existence of the deity, though, one can offer a complicated explanation that preserves one’s faith or call it a mystery.

None of this is to argue that significant changes in the framework of beliefs are impossible. This does happen to people who either gain or lose a religious view. Many Jews, for instance, lost their faith in the wake of the Holocaust. Instead, it is to say that naturalism and supernaturalism are more like scaffoldings within which we usually test and modify our beliefs; the scaffoldings themselves are less often open to change.

Yancy: From what you’ve said thus far, you are not trying to “proselytize” others to reject supernaturalism. Yet, your rejection of an afterlife must be more than a rejection of say, blueberry pie, where this is just a question of taste. So, apart from taste, why should or shouldn’t those who are believers in the afterlife or God continue to believe in such things?

May: Hey, how did you know I’m not keen on blueberry pie? I never told you that.

Blueberry pie aside, however, it’s not just a question of taste. For those who take up a religious view — or at least take it seriously — the presence of the supernatural in their lives helps orient how they think about their place in the universe and how they live. It also affects how they think about their death. It isn’t a question of taste for them. It’s a question of the universe and their place and role in it.

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