Category Archives: Perspectives of a Psychologist

The Afterlife: A Note on Numbers

The Afterlife: A Note on Numbers

Duane McClearn

Sept. 2019


Recently I was reflecting on a lengthy conversation I had during my college years with two guys who wanted to convert me to their brand of Christianity. Among other things they were convinced that when Judgment Day arrived, only a very select few would ascend to heaven. The overwhelming majority of the remainder of humanity would be flung into Hell, to suffer everlasting pain and anguish. A small slice of the population would be allowed to exist in a sort of limbo, neither Heaven nor Hell. Of this they were absolutely convinced. The number who would be allowed into Heaven, based on their reading of the Book of Revelations, was exact: 144,000.

Not getting in.

I had a few questions. Who would get into Heaven? Not surprisingly, one requirement was to have received Jesus into one’s heart—in a very specific way, which would pretty much rule out anybody who was not a member of their particular church. People who refused Jesus and failed to meet the other requirements were locked out. I asked: What about people who had never been exposed to the Bible because of an accident of birth, for instance, they were brought up in rural India or China or some such place and didn’t get the message. Well, the response went, they couldn’t really be blamed for their ignorance, so they would go into a sort of limbo when Jesus returned to Earth. What about infants and toddlers who are too immature to understand language or the concept of Jesus. Well, they also couldn’t be held accountable, so they would go into limbo as well. What about mentally impaired individuals who can’t understand concepts of immortality, God, and so on. They too would be placed in limbo. And people who lived before Jesus existed? They also would pass into limbo. I don’t know if the two proselytizers with whom I was conversing were representing their church accurately, but I got them to admit that the number of people who would be sent into limbo, instead of being a small minority of all humanity, would actually be the bulk of it.

What about the number going to Heaven—the very precise number 144,000? Years ago when I spoke to the two Christians, they admitted that this was a small proportion of humans indeed.  There were billions of people living at the time of the conversation and billions who had already lived, so that meant that the percentage of humans granted acceptance to Heaven was trivial. I think I estimated that it would be about one person in 50,000. Even if members of their own church were the only people allowed in, there would still be great competition. And here they were, trying to talk me in to joining their group; if I did so, I could potentially bump one of them out of a coveted slot.

Today I looked up some population numbers. There are now living on Earth about 7.5 billion people. It has been estimated by the Population Reference Bureau that 108 billion people have ever been born. The 144,000 figure represents about 2 of every 100,000 people currently living. And it corresponds to slightly more than 1 per million of the figure for people who have ever lived. It would appear that by this particular Christian group’s calculations, Heaven is a very selective place indeed. Incidentally, based on the number of current members of this church, and if only current members of this group are allowed into Heaven,only 2 percent of them will be admitted. If we take into account members who have already died, that would mean by their own reckoning only about 1 percentof them would be allowed into Heaven if Jesus returned today. And, like I said, this assumes that there will be no admittance for members of any other faith, for atheists (of course), or even for Christians of other denominations.

If the two proselytizers from my college days were correct about the limbo status for certain people after death, it would appear safe to conclude that, by their own calculations, the overwhelming majority (99% or more) of members of this particular church will be spending eternity in limbo with ignorant Chinese peasants, infants, and the mentally impaired.





Comments Off on The Afterlife: A Note on Numbers

A New Book on Atheists? Some thoughts by Duane

A New Book on Atheists

Duane McClearn


In recent years a spate of books has been produced addressing the veracity of God or the morality of religion (sometimes Christianity, in particular), or both.  Several of these books have enjoyed tremendous popularity, attesting to the fact that there is a keen interest, at least in some sectors of the public, in critically examining the tenets and practices of religion.

For instance, in “The God Delusion” (2006), noted biologist Richard Dawkins argues pointedly against the existence of God.  His positions are grounded in logic and science; he roundly condemns the inconsistency, irrationality, and hypocrisy of those who embrace religion.  Beyond this, he shows that religion is inherently lacking in morality, and specifically that religious believers are less moral in their thinkingatheistand behavior than atheists.

Quick on the heels of “The God Delusion” came “God is Not Great” (2007) by essayist and oft-ascerbic gadfly Christopher Hitchens.  He takes much the same approach as Dawkins in first arguing against the existence of God, and then against the higher morality of the religious believer.  The subtitle to his book, “How Religion Poisons Everything,” is a telling indication of the views expressed in the text.

A.C. Grayling, in his very recent book “The God Argument” (2013), puts forth a philosophical and scientific rationale for denying the existence of God.  He refutes one by one the debating points of Christian believers.  He also argues for the moral superiority of secular atheism over religion.

In the vein of morality, Jack David Eller takes several religions to task in “Cruel Creeds, Virtuous Violence” (2010).  As the title connotes, this work details the tremendous suffering perpetrated in the name of God or religion.  Sometimes the motivation cannot be mistaken, for the atrocity is dictated by God himself, as when the Israelites are commanded to slaughter all their enemies, including babies, and show no mercy in doing so.

In “Crazy for God” (2007) author Frank Schaeffer recounts, among other things, his extensive associations with members of the Christian right, particularly within the evangelical movement.  He describes his disillusionment with the leaders of the movement, decrying their hypocrisy, mean-spiritedness, and propensity for self-aggrandizement.  He faults the leaders as well as the run-of-the-mill believers with a failure to consider deeply the ramifications of their beliefs.  Ultimately, he converts to the Greek Orthodox Church, considering it to be truer to the ideals of Christianity.  Thus, although critical of many facets of Christianity, at least as practiced by many in the mainstream, he does not reject Christianity outright.

Dan Barker was an evangelical preacher who describes his rejection of Christianity (and religion more generally) in “Godless” (2008).  Currently he is one of America’s leading and most outspoken atheists.   His book describes his personal odyssey from devout believer, through many stages of questioning his faith, to his ultimate conclusion that there is no God.  He argues that the Bible and Christianity, far from being guiding lights for proper behavior, are fundamentally immoral.  He further takes the position that atheists can (and do) lead moral, happy, and fulfilling lives.

One aspect of atheism that has been relatively unexamined is the thinking of everyday atheists, as opposed to high-profile religious figures who have turned away from one or more features of religion (such as Schaeffer and Barker).  The current project, undertaken by Tom Arcaro, Chrys Stevenson, and me, seeks to fill that void.  Tentatively titled “The Atheist Next Door,” it has as its goal not to argue against the existence of God, as has been done forcefully and eloquently by Dawkins, Hitchens, and Grayling.  Its point is also not to attack the morality of the Bible or religion more generally, as has been done by Eller, Barker, and Shaeffer, as well as Dawkins, Hitchens, and Grayling. Rather, it seeks to describe atheists primarily in their own words, although it adds force to its observation by the use of statistical analyses.  And the number of atheists it describes is huge—approximately 8,000 self-described non-believers from dozens of nations responded to a lengthy survey about their attitudes toward religion, reasons for embracing atheism, and problems associated with being a non-believer.

(Very) preliminary examination of the results shows that atheists have felt quite stigmatized for their beliefs, and degraded in society.  Many who have not been open about their atheism fear that their beliefs will become public knowledge.   The atheists in our sample indicate that they feel that they are just as moral as religious people, if not more so.  They also feel that they lead reasonably happy and productive lives, in spite of being stigmatized.  They do not for the most part report a huge gap in their lives without religion.  All in all, the atheists in the study come across as being normal people—they have normal jobs, seek normal pleasures, and have normal expectations.  The stigma that believers so often place upon atheists turns out to be misplaced and undeserved.


Some preliminary numbers coming from the data

Some Numbers on Atheists

Duane McClearn


It has often been noted that atheists are, as a group, not particularly popular.  A variety of polls and research studies have shown that the general public, most of whom are believers in God, view atheists in a quite unfavorable light.  A primary reason is that they think that atheists, lacking a belief in God, must therefore suffer a lack of morality (insofar as believers tend to view God as the source of morality).  Further, many believers see atheists as being psychologically maladjusted.  After all, if belief in God is, in their estimation, so obviously warranted and the foundation of correct thinking and right behavior, then it stands to reason that atheists must be lacking in mental health.   Not surprisingly, many atheists feel unfairly stigmatized.  They claim that the negative assumptions of the general public (believers, in particular) are simply not justified.

Rarely addressed are the views of atheists on these matters.  The survey research headed by Tom Arcaro has uncovered some interesting findings about what atheists think about religious believers.   The comments made in this essay take into account the responses of the subset of the American respondents, who numbered a bit over 3,800, or about half of the total number of respondents.

One item on the survey asked, “How do you view the morality of religious believers compared to the morality of atheists?”   Over 55% of the respondents indicated that believers are either somewhat less or much less moral than atheists.  A bit less than half (44%) indicated that believers and atheists were equally moral.  Less than ½% said that religious believers are more moral (either somewhat or much more) than atheists.   In other words, a staggering 99.5% of the respondents indicated that atheists were either equally moral or more moral than believers.  Atheists are clearly not neutral in the issue of their morality.  It would appear that whatever misgivings believers have about the morality of atheists, atheists themselves return the sentiment in spades (although no doubt for different reasons).

And what about the role of religion in the world?  Arguments have been made about the relative weight of good deeds done by religion (helping the poor, succoring the ill, etc.) and the bad ones (the misdeeds of the Spanish Inquisition, wars of conquest in the name of God, and so on).  An item on the survey dealt with this issue directly.  It asked, “How do you view the net impact of religion in the world?”  Here the results were even more lopsided than in the previous question.  A huge majority (87%) of respondents viewed religion, overall, as a moderate or strong force for bad in the world.  A mere 11% viewed religion as roughly equally good and bad.  And a paltry 2% indicated that religion was a force for good in the world.

What about the perceived psychological well-being of religious believers?  A further question on the survey asked, ”What is your view of the comparative psychological health of believers in God and atheists?”  Over half (56%) answered that believers are either somewhat or substantially less psychologically healthy than atheists.  About 39% said that believers and atheists are equally psychologically healthy.  Only 4% indicated that religious believers are more psychologically healthy than atheists.  Thus, atheists overwhelmingly  think of themselves and each other as being at least as psychological healthy as believers.

Another question on the survey was, “Do you feel any social stigma related to your atheism?”  Only 14% percent indicated that they felt no social stigma.  Thus, the overwhelming majority (86%) said that they personally felt some degree of stigma (the options being slight, moderate, and strong social stigma).  A bit over half (53%) felt moderate to strong social stigma associated with their atheism.

In sum, atheists view themselves generally to be at least as moral as believer and at least as psychologically healthy.  They view religion generally to be a force for bad in the world.  And indeed they do feel themselves as unfairly stigmatized.

One might ask: Are the respondents who see believers as substantially less moral than atheists also the people who view religion as a strong force for bad?  Are they the same people who indicate that believers are substantially psychologically less healthy than atheists?  And are those who indicated feeling personally stigmatized for their atheism more or less likely to view religion less favorably than those who feel less stigmatized?

Preliminary statistical (correlational) analyses of the American respondents have provided answers to these questions.  In brief, it was found that the respondents who viewed religion or believers the most negatively for one question also viewed them most negatively for the other questions.  Also, the respondents who felt most stigmatized were, on average, most likely to hold religion and believers in lowest regard.  The findings were quite robust, from a statistical point of view.


1 Comment