Traditional religions insist on some form of afterlife. In Christianity, we are going to join Jesus Christ and God in heaven. Pre-condition among the Catholics to go to heaven is good behavior and repentance for sins, otherwise one will go to hell, where all sorts of pain will be experienced as described in Dante’s Inferno. In Islam, we are going to a state of rest after death, and wait until resurrection, which happens after Allah passes judgment on us. Non-Muslims may join heaven with Allah, but only after a purgatory. In Sufism, the person will judge himself whether he wants to go to heaven or hell. In Judaism, the concept of the afterlife is not set in stone, and there is usually leeway in beliefs, ranging from reincarnation to heaven. In Buddhism there is a constant death and rebirth cycle, which can only be overcome by freeing ourselves from desiring anything from this world. In that case, we will be able to reach nirvana, or a state of nothingness, which is perceived as complete liberation. In Hinduism, there is a changeless core, the Atman, in all of us, which is trapped in the death and rebirth cycle (samsara), and we are subject to the law of karma, whereby good and bad deeds are reflected in our next life (a generous person will be born as a rich man in the next life etc.). We can only overcome this endless cycle if we can perform certain rituals and gain proper knowledge to reach a destination called moksha. Very sinful people are sent to the purgatory or temporary hell after which they are returned to the life cycle. (For more read here)
What all of these religions have in common is that they receive a lot of popularity among humans, because they respond to fundamental human needs to know
- What is the purpose in life?
- What happens after our death?
Regardless of what we hear about especially courageous individuals, who can defy any odds and be self-confident about many problems in life, we do have a very strong craving for establishing certainty, even about things of which we are not very sure of. Religions, which usually start as sects, were developed by some very creative people, who have developed a set of explanations that can help us answer these two really important questions. From a Durkheimian perspective, having people believe in one religion is really functional in that it can ensure group solidarity and the proper continuance of society. One would imagine a society, where people are so concerned about these two questions that they fail to work and provide for their children, or would even fail to reproduce (though sexual needs are very much ingrained in us as well).
Responding to the first question is a big enough of a task, and I will confine myself to just deal with the second question. There is an intense fear, uncertainty and repulsion among humans to contemplate death. All of life’s happy and sad moments seem to fade into the background, as if it were background noise, when we are confronted with death, either personal or those of other people that are close to us, such as friends and family. People, who have reported a near-death experience, often return to life with different goals either becoming more ambitious than ever, or less inclined to push for big goals and instead enjoy smaller accomplishments like having a family. Near-death experiences themselves are reported as a sense of peace, well-being, painlessness, out of body experience, receiving a life review, going through a tunnel and viewing light at the end of it.
In my opinion, there really is no reason to develop such intense fears and anxieties about death. And here are my reasons for it.
- The fear of death is only possible for those of us, who are still living. When we are dead, there is no soul and no mind that can worry about it. This statement may not help us, while we are still here, but it puts things into perspective. The people with near-death experiences generally are very reluctant to return back to life, because they perceived dying as so comforting.
- Animals do not worry about death and an afterlife. One day is lived like the next until death hits. As far as I know, there has been no animal, who has founded or believed in a religion. Many dog-owners say that they keep dogs because they are easy to deal with. Hell is other people, as Jean-Paul Sartre (“No Exit”) writes. This statement about animals may also not allay our fears, and we insist on being humans and being different, but I am, again, only putting things into perspective.
- Worrying about death does not prevent it. This is another simple and pragmatic statement. Many Chinese kings have wasted huge amounts of efforts to find some medicine that will make them live forever, and they all failed. It is in general more pragmatic to worry about things that can be changed, such as one’s socio-economic status (though that in itself is no easy endeavor), and not things that are beyond our control, though we humans will always try.
- In the last analysis, the timing of death is irrelevant. Seneca has written extensively about death, and the liberation associated with it. He contemplated suicide to consciously achieve death. When Nero found Seneca to be conspiring against him, Seneca was instructed to kill himself, which he promptly did with hemlock, cutting his veins, and drowning in the bath and in his blood. Seneca treated his suicide with pride rather than with scorn (unlike most contemporary religions do- again, Durkheimian functionalism: one imagines a collapsing society, where suicide is approved of, and many people carry it out without inhibition). Seneca’s example shows that it is possible to choose one’s death rather than having to wait until one’s days are numbered naturally (usually by disease).And the question really does become whether living as long as possible is all that beneficial. There are people, who spend millions of dollars to prolong their life by a few days or weeks when faced with terminal illness. End-of-life care is wasting huge sums of money, and partly explains the high cost of health care in this country (though not the main reason, because it is the bureaucracy and the profit-machinery, which causes most of the costs). But is one more life experience really necessary? Does it matter if we have more sex, money, fancy cars, mansions, travel experiences, conversations, books to read, good food, new technology? After all, none of our experiences can be preserved anyway. They only exist for us and when we die they disappear.There are only very few people, who receive the distinction to be remembered forever, such as famous poets, musicians, political leaders, intellectuals etc., and I really have no ambition to be remembered as a famous or important person. Many Asians practice ancestor worship, but this activity is rather a formality, which has the goal to discipline the living descendants to do the right thing on earth, such as not gambling away the family fortune. Such worship of dead people is really irrelevant to those dead people.
I will conclude with my own thoughts about afterlife, but first will summarize the two common perspectives.
- There is certainty about an afterlife. This is the position taken by all of the major religions, especially the monotheist ones. With Buddhism and Hinduism, it is more a “It depends”, but supposing that one is reborn in the next life, then I will count that as afterlife as well.
- There is uncertainty about an afterlife. This is the position taken by most agnostic people, who simply refuse to think about questions that they can never positively answer. This is the default position of an increasing number of people that live in Western societies, though I also have the notion that wherever you have urbanization, informalization, the weakening of traditional family and community ties, and more opportunities for divergent thinking, agnosticism is becoming more widespread as well.
My perspective is one of certainty that there will be no afterlife. It will be like moksha or nirvana, a state of nothingness, but it will be irrespective of your actions in the current life. I can not imagine that what will exist after death will be so much different from what we had experienced before our conception. We all can trace back- with some hard thinking- the first memories that we have about life, usually as a toddler, playing with our parents or siblings, or trying to walk and talk. But beyond that it really is not possible to make a clear picture of ourselves. Before conception, we do not even exist biologically.
In my opinion, all the religions have been invented to give us a satisfying response to the afterlife question, such that we will not suffer a ‘failure of nerve’ as Gilbert Murray (“Five Stages of Greek Religion”) had depicted it. (Though I am really twisting Murray’s statement, because for him the failure of nerve depicts the shift from Greek intellectualism to other-worldly mysticism, or the very religions that I am describing here. In other words, religion is the result of the failure of nerve, and not as I stated, religion being the preventer of the failure of nerve.) To some degree, I can even sympathize with that view. As a teenager I was very much enamored by Christian theology, because
(a.) there was a sense of community when going to church or collectively studying the Bible in groups. You would talk to other people about how great it felt to believe in a God, and the mutual reinforcements and prayers strengthened those beliefs.
(b.) One felt like the “child” of God. Since Jesus and God were the adults, we the believers did not have to take on any complicating questions in life. In fact, if I were still a regular churchgoer, I would probably not be able to bring myself to write this paper, as I do now. Being in a protective cocoon can strengthen one’s resolve, and some studies do seem to show that fervent religious believers can more easily defeat diseases and get well quicker. (I must add, though, that the Christian cocoon does not always make one feel good, because this religion is heavily based on guilt. But any notion of guilt never led to despair, because one was embedded in the spiritual framework.)
But for those, who have decided to venture above the comfort and security of the religious cocoon, the stark existentialist charge prevails, and we ourselves have to decide what is right and not. In Sartre’s (1946) words, “Man is condemned to be free.” My own personal hero is Socrates. He was condemned to death and decided to drink hemlock, but his disciples had tried to convince him to flee rather than accept death. But Socrates rejected and argued that death had to be welcomed because one will either go to heaven or will experience nothing. But in either case, it would be a desirable outcome.