The most prominent argument in favour of religion is the claim that religion provides the basis for our system of ethics. Clerics and ministers are frequently paraded out for discussions on morality, and those who vote for politicians on faith related grounds consider religiosity to be proof of ethical sensibility. This belief is based upon two assumptions: that our ethics are based largely upon religious texts, and that the belief in the afterlife acts as an inhibition upon selfish acts and a spur towards moral behaviour. But if you consider seriously both the texts in question and the real consequences of belief in the afterlife, it becomes clear that at the very least, both can act as justification for even the most ethically bankrupt of moral positions.
Consider, for example, the Bible. Compiled and edited by the Council of Nicea, the same body which formulated the Nicean Creed, the Bible was essentially a work establishing the tenants and agenda of the ancient Church. This agenda can be seen in the laissez-faire attitude of the Catholic Church for Fascist and Neo-Fascist regimes: Mussolini, Franko, and, closer to home, Duplessis in the Canadian province of Quebec. This agenda was expressed succinctly by Pierre Trudeau and his allies against Duplessis: Power comes from Above. The position of the early Church, the Catholic Church, and indeed, of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, can be summarized in this statement. It is a profoundly anti-democratic idea--it means that the opinions and decisions of the populace carry no weight. This attitude made the strongholds of these churches susceptible to totalitarian rule. Far from being the opponent of Stalin, the Russian Orthodox Church prepared the ground for his rule, by encouraging a mood of political apathy amongst the people of Russia. As in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Quebec, the Russians accepted without question the dictates of their leaders. Believing they had no power, they gave it away.
This attitude is not only inherent in the Nicean Creed, but in the Bible itself. The Council of Nicea was governed by Constantine the Great, Emperor of Rome. Traditionally, the Emperor had been declared a god. But if Constantine could not be a God, he could be the closest thing to God. But to do this, Jesus had to be taken out of the way. He had to become God himself--if a Judean peasant could be a great spiritual authority, then any man could question the dictates of political authority. This would not do. Jesus had to become the One Begotten Son of God, as was the ancient pagan custom of Roman and Hellenistic mythologies. This is heretical both to Judaism--and Christ was a Jew, above all else--and to Christianity. The Lord's Prayer begins with the words "Our Father," and Jesus called himself the Son of Man, not the Son of God.
And so, in the New Testament, Jesus becomes the supernatural hero, the Resurrected Son of God. Not the frail, fallible, man who pitted his own life against the odds, who died not knowing whether it would ever come to mean anything. The reality, that he died for a truth that he never knew anyone would ever appreciate, is trivialized by the myth that he went to his death a god, knowing that he would rise in triumph. A mere few hours of torment, and his return to supreme power is assured. For a god this is nothing. For a man this is everything. The power of faith is that a mere man could do this. The official lie was that only a god could.
And this lie is a discouragement of what Jesus himself said, that others greater than him would follow. Constantine could not allow this. That would be a challenge to his authority. And so, entrenched in the Bible itself, the Divine Right of Kings was born. To this day, Bishops govern by Divine Right, the equivalent of Kings within democratic societies, awaiting the day of their return to power. So too do the fundamentalist demagogues. In the theocracy they dream of, they will be the final arbiters of morality, untouchable by the concerns of mere citizens. Theocracies cannot be bothered with democracy. That is a notion of the enlightenment, the primary target of the religious right. Lurking within the Bible are the ethics of Roman Empire at its most decadent, when the democratic senate was reduced to a mere rubber stamp, and the people lulled into complacency by bread and circuses.
As for the afterlife, you must realise that evil men never consider themselves evil. Hitler himself believed that heaven lay a cyanide pill away. He expected a hero's welcome in heaven immediately after his death. He had, after all, killed all those evil jews. He was, in his own eyes, the hero, not the villain. Nor is he unique in this regard. Stalin, Ceausescu, Mao, Kim, Pol Pot, and Sadam Hussein all believed themselves to be heroes. So does Osama Bin Laden. Their protestations of innocence and heroism are not mere posturing--these people actually believe that they are what they say they are. To these people, the afterlife, should they believe in it, is a tremendous comfort and reassurance in times of difficulty. It gives them the resolve to stay the course, and pursue their genocidal goals. Only God can judge them, and they are convinced that God has already rendered his judgement. Prosecution is therefore not a concern. The worst that can happen is death, and heaven awaits them eagerly.
These people are morally insane. Much of their rational ability is intact. Far from giving them pause, the idea of the afterlife is a source of tremendous encouragement. The consequences of their actions in this life are of no concern. There is always an out. No need to compromise--if they lose, they still win. Such are the consequences of the belief in the afterlife. Of course, there are many people who believe in the afterlife who seriously consider that they might be doing wrong, that their actions might damn them. But these are precisely those people who have a strong moral sense. Even if they were atheists, these people would still be concerned with their own perception of themselves are ethical people. No one wants to believe that they are in the wrong. The genuinely evil are set apart by they ability to rationalize the extraordinary. For them, a belief in the afterlife will never be an obstacle, only an escape clause. It makes their evil easier, not harder.