To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream:
ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause:
… But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
When I first began to write about this subject, the idea that Hamlet’s fear was still current in today’s day and age seemed to me as bizarre as the fear of falling off the earth if you sail too far to the west. And yet several people have identified the prospect of an 'undiscovered country from whose realm no traveller returns' as an important consideration when contemplating death. This is, apparently, neither the rational existential desire to avoid annihilation; nor the animal imperative to keep living under any circumstances; but a fear of what lies beyond.
The belief that humans have an awareness that continues after the body dies is common to most religions. It may be said that this is the common defining feature of a religion. The details vary. Some religions believe that the body, or some aspects of it, travels with the soul, in some ethereal away. Some religions believe that our experience in this life is a shadow or dimension of something real happening elsewhere, where life is eternal; others that there is an eternal component that passes from body to body through time. Yet others believe that a soul is created when we are conceived and then becomes immortal.
This essay disputes these long and widely held beliefs.
The mind body divide
Almost every human culture on the planet holds that the mind is separate to the body. Modern physiology reveals that this ‘perception of an observer within’ is a characteristic of human brain, related to our ability to empathise with others; to plan and to imagine ourselves in the future and the past; and to use language to communicate as a ‘person’ with others. It is a mental artefact, an illusion like our occasional strong sense of déjà vu, intuition or revelation.
In many ways this computer I am using is similar to another person. I’m writing this by dictating into a microphone. The computer recognises what I’m saying and writes my words for me. The same computer can read these words back to me in its own voice. Of course it does not understand what I’m saying about minds but it does understand the grammar and context of my words. It does hundreds of other very clever things as well. A primitive person (or even one from a century ago) would find this magical and might believe that there is a person hiding inside the box or communicating from another room.
But I have no illusion. I know that these abilities are a function of data interactions encoded as binary numbers and supported by a large collection of very ordinary physical devices connected in a particular way. As the number of devices compressed onto a CPU chip and into RAM (memory) has increased so has the computer’s ‘abilities’. We accept that computers are much better at mathematical processing or sorting tasks than we are and for many years it has been impossible for a human to beat an appropriately programmed computer at entirely logical games like noughts and crosses, drafts or Chinese checkers. But as speed and the number of active elements has grown to approach the number in a human brain, a computer can now consistently beat a Chess grand master or the best professional poker player; not because every possible game or cut of the cards has been ‘programmed in’ by some ‘super smart geek’, but because a computer can now be programmed to regularly ‘out think’, ‘out anticipate’ and ‘out bluff’ the smartest, most skilled humans at these games. This capability doubles about every two years (Moore’s Law). Further, new paradigms are in development that will make a computer more like a human brain and we can anticipate that computers will regularly outsmart the brightest humans in lots more areas in the very near future.
I have watched computers evolve, have built and programmed computers similar to this one and know in some detail how it works. I know that its role is to mechanically process the commands dictated by the interactions of program threads that in turn interact and respond to circumstance, memory, data and device inputs. But just as a completely mechanical player piano can still accurately reproduce George Gershwin, playing his music long after his death, so the functions and ideas are implicit in the arrangement of bits of data. The music is not in the piano or even the paper, it is ‘ideas’ encoded in the organisation and relationship between the holes in a paper roll. In a modern computer this organisation is itself flexible and subject to a succession of higher meta-level instructions. As I write this my computer’s four CPU are simultaneously running 85 processes and over 1,150 threads. Many computer functions are pre-programmed responses but their interactions are now so complex that they resemble ‘thought’. Like music on a roll, the ‘ideas’ are preserved in these relationships when I turn off and are reanimated when I turn my computer back on or move the data to another similar machine. Yet I am certain it stops ‘thinking’ when I remove the power. When I turn my computer off, the ideas are preserved, but there is no ‘mind’ that continues.
All cartoons from: The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker
Similarly, we increasingly understand the general functioning of the human brain. We know that it is a collection of about ten thousand million neurons (cells), no longer vastly larger in number than transistors in a computer, but organised quite differently to present commercial computers. We know that a brain undertakes the ‘computer like’ functions, electrochemically processing memory and inputs, that we call intelligence. We know that when the brain is damaged personalities change and which areas of the brain are responsible for what functions. We understand how drugs or surgical interventions create illusions and delusions and we regularly put brains into a coma to minimise pain or enhance healing. We know how the brain inherits its characteristics from its cells; how these cells encode their functional instructions in DNA; and the process by which they inherit these instructions from their parent cell.
When the brain stops all perception ceases. There is no evidence whatever that the processes supported by the brain continue when the brain stops functioning. The brain in turn is reliant on the other major organs of the body for its functions. When its cells die even our memory is lost. There can be no ‘mind’ that keeps going after death.
Of course this does not refute the concept of an immortal soul, provided that one does not hold that this ‘soul’ continues to think, perceive sensation, or continue to behave as we did in life. For example, the idea: “that one might meet one’s dead mother and have a conversation; or reunite with one’s dead wife and continue marital relations”, is patently ridiculous if the soul is disembodied and is unable to process data: to think; see, hear, smell or feel them; or function physically.
The problem of space
For most of the past century we have known that our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains about three hundred billion stars, like our Sun. Astronomers have now mapped around 10,000,000 similar galaxies. But when the Hubble space telescope was pointed to an apparently empty portion of the universe and its camera shutter opened for a long time exposure, instead of blackness it photographed tens of thousands of un-mapped galaxies. The observable universe is now estimated to contain 9 × 1021 stars (9 billion trillion stars). Planets have been discovered orbiting most nearby stars and it is believed that most stars have a planetary system, just as most planets have moons.
Within our own solar system we have now discovered water on Mars and it is now very likely that we will discover primitive life forms on Mars and possibly on one of the moons of Jupiter or Saturn.
We hold ourselves supreme on this planet for our intelligence. Only humans (and our computers) can play chess or understand electromagnetism sufficiently well to build a radio or a light emitting diode. But many animals and even plants have the appearance of limited intelligence, the power to choose - volition. Watch an ant, among the simplest of animals, for a few minutes. Does she seem to have the ability to choose a way around if you interfere with her foraging? Does a dog or cat appear to be empathetic?
Notwithstanding the discovery of simple life such as bacteria elsewhere in our solar system, it is extremely likely that many of the billions of trillions of planets that we now know to exist, host complex life. None of them may resemble humans but if they’re intelligent do they too embody an immortal soul? If they don’t, why not? If they do, does their soul share heaven with us? It is reasonable to ask the status of a human God, in whose image we are made, on another planet, far beyond the reach of our current communications.
The problem of time
A little over two centuries ago most informed people believed that the world was no older than six thousand years. As great an authority as Sir Isaac Newton suggested that the world was created 4000 BC, and Johannes Kepler, 3992 BC. Many biblical scholars, using clues in Genesis and Revelations, proposed that the creation date was 4000 BC and the earth would end in 2000 AD.
But by the time of the great Huxley - Wilberforce debate on evolution in 1880, a number of natural philosophers had begun to question these dates, due to an accumulation of contradictory evidence. This evidence included: obviously very old, folded geological strata that was clearly sedimentary in nature and must originally have been laid down horizontally; the discovery of fossils of animals no longer extant, in sedimentary deposits and even deep in limestone caves; the discovery, in due course, of radioactive decay that provided a means of dating rocks and fossils; the discoveries in astronomy that showed that the universe is enormously large, old and is continuously expanding; and discoveries in biology suggesting that animals must evolve over vast periods of time.
We now estimate the universe to be 13.8 billion years old but believe this nevertheless to be quite young, at the beginning of its life. We estimate the sun is about 4.6 billion years old and the earth about 4 billion years. The fossil record shows that there has been life in some form on the earth for over half of this time but complex animals, consisting of a large number of cells cooperating and specializing to create a single being, are relatively recent. The large dinosaurs were very recent in universal time and lived from around 260 to 65 million years ago, after which mammals began to predominate. In the whole period since the dinosaurs disappeared, the sun has completed less than one orbit of our galaxy (less than one galactic year). Humans in our present form have been around infinitesimally less time, for less than 250,000 years. It is likely that all humans on earth are the decedents of a small tribe that lived in Africa about 75,000 years ago. If you took a meter rule to represent the universal time line ‘til now, human existence would be less than a hair width at the end.
It is extremely unlikely that humans in our present form will exist in another 250,000 years; we will have either evolved or died out. Even if this does not happen, astronomers agree that early in the life of the universe, in around another 5 billion years, our sun will run out of energy and long before this the earth will become uninhabitable, losing its atmosphere as the sun becomes larger and hotter.
Just as, individually, our lives are short; so we can be sure that the existence of the human species or even that of our planet is a fleeting moment in the life of the universe; like to a camera flash in a darkened football stadium during a yearlong game.
But several religions suggest that after death we each go on, in some mysterious way, for eternity - outlasting our species; life on the planet; and even the planet itself.
There are at least two theological views of Eternity. One is in the sort of time we are familiar with, in which one event follows another, people age and living things, like cells, are created and decay and die. Things change, thus defining the passage of time.
In this kind of time God has been there before the beginning and will be there after the end. In one variation, this is resolved by making God's time circular, like a snake eating its tail.
The scale of this Eternity is encompassed by a god or gods and thus is longer than the life of the universe. Suppose this is a hundred billion Earth years and we call this a cosmic year. Then the entire human existence, from our arrival as a species to our inevitable disappearance, very optimistically in maybe a million Earth years, will last a small fraction of a cosmic second.
Obviously, individual humans are many orders of magnitude less significant than our entire species. A theoretical Eternal God doesn't feel very caring or sharing.
It seems to me that in this context, the idea of an immortal, exclusively human soul handed out by the creator of the universe to each foetus at conception is exceptionally bizarre.
But there is another more esoteric Eternity. Some theologians assert that for God there is no time, just a single instant in the present that encompasses all human time and cosmic time.
Plato seemed to hint at eternity in his theory of Ideals. In the Ideal world nothing changes so time has no relevance. Einstein's space-time-continuum, that explains gravity, suggests that a time dimension already exists in some way, although the word 'already' is confusing in that context.
Timeless Eternity neatly gets around the problem of a 'first cause', because it's meaningless to ask where this hypothetical Eternal God came from or is going. For Eternal God everything just is - simultaneously.
Nice as Timeless Eternity may be as a philosophical or theological theory, human life is very different. We have a past, present and future and it's impossible to imagine action, and therefore biological life (or sin or good works or love), in any other context.
Life and timeless eternity don't mix.
Heaven without time is no heaven.
One thing is certain, I have no interest in going to such an eternity, lasting thousands of billions of years or without dimension at all, even if I thought such a thing was an option.
The problem of biology
The ancients, obviously, had no knowledge of modern biology. So there are a number of misunderstandings inherent in many ancient teachings.
For example, until quite recently it was believed that humans and other animals grew from seed - like crops. The man would plant his seed in a woman and if she was fertile a baby might grow. Clearly the seed was of no use on its own so the process depended on a fertile woman and the 'seed' then being endowed with the mystical 'spark of life'.
This analogy seemed obvious to agrarian cultures familiar with dry, seemingly dead, seed springing to life mysteriously in appropriately prepared soil.
In earlier hunter-gatherer societies, inheritance had often been matrilineal, because we more obviously came from our mother and she from hers and so on. But in these more advanced societies, babies now belonged to the father from whom the 'seed' had come and so inheritance became patrilineal.
For example, in Chapter 1 of the First Book of the Christian Bible (Matthew Chapter 1) Jesus' ancestry is traced back to King David through the male line, as he needs to be a Son of David to be the prophesied Messiah. Luke makes the same claim for him but by a different ancestral route (Luke 3:23).
This fundamental misunderstanding of the biological process has influenced laws of inheritance, property ownership and marriage in almost all human societies with agrarian roots, right up until the present.
Today we understand that babies develop from a single live cell that comes from our mother. We know that these specialist cells are incomplete and non-viable unless fertilised (we still use that term) by a single living sperm cell from our father. We now understand this mechanism so well that we regularly practice in-vitrio fertilisation (IVF) to assist childless couples.
Thus we know that a 'virgin birth' in which a god inseminates a woman who gives birth to a god is not possible, unless we allow a unique relativistic exception, in the case of heavenly matters, to the usual definition of the words: 'virgin', 'father', 'mother' and 'conceive'. Any outlandish claim can be made nominally true if the words used, like 'love' or 'have sex', have fluid meanings when gods, or US Presidents, are involved. Thus the question of such a story's 'truth' is not biological or factual but semantic.
Similarly we know that there is nothing dead involved in a fertilisation and no 'life' is created at conception. Each cell involved has a living ancestry going back to the first common ancestor of all plants and animals on Earth.
Modern understandings have allowed us to reach a more sophisticated biological model in general. This is not limited to human biology but that of other animals, plants and bacteria, as well as the functioning of other symbiotic factors such as viruses and prions.
In my lifetime we have gained an entirely new understanding of the mechanisms of DNA replication and of 'life' itself.
But it is clear in hundreds of references that this knowledge was obscure to, and entirely misunderstood by, the ancients who wrote the holy texts, allegedly channelling the words of an all-knowing God.
It seems trivial to anyone with a glimmer of modern biological knowledge that this 'life' mechanism is inherited as cells divide and is continuous from the distant past. But there are many ancient references to life being 'created' anew.
We also know that the life of an individual cell is shorter than that of the being of which it forms a part. For example an adult human is a colony of around 35 trillion cells (including symbiotic bacteria). An awful lot more are required to make a blue whale or giant sequoia. In humans these cells are continually dividing to replace the 50 to 70 billion cells that die each day in each of us. A lot more die in a blue whale.
Ancient texts have quite a bit to say about spiritual rebuilding but I have been unable to find any reference to our being continuously rebuilt physically. Yet it's knowledge that would seem to be pertinent to religious memorials and burial rites. Consider the fate of all those cells from which you were formed as a child that were long ago replaced and replaced again. As you aged you simply brushed them up as dust or flushed them.
The living may very legitimately mourn a loved one, perhaps at an appropriate memorial or wake; but why treat their last body any more reverentially than they did themselves with its younger incarnations?
We have excellent evidence for the correctness of our new biological models and beliefs. If they were not a better representation of reality than we had only a century or so ago then modern medicine would not work. Conversely we know that ancient medicine, based on false suppositions, misunderstandings and florid imagination, seldom did.
Although some ancients suspected it and others denied it, as far as we can tell all animals and plants on the planet are related. This has been confirmed by very extensive DNA analysis encompassing almost all living things we have found on Earth. So there is no 'natural' hierarchy in which humans have a special place. We all (living things on Earth) belong to a single biological family of the same age.
Thus the hierarchy we have imposed on our biological relatives is entirely for our own (human) purposes.
It's like deciding what's a weed in your garden? Why, it's any competitive plant that you don't want there. So pull it up and put it in the compost!
Each species has evolved by degrees as a result of competition with other relatives, all from that first common ancestor.
By nature all these species compete for a biological niche. If one is not present or is wiped out by disaster another will evolve to take its place, for example the recently evolved Fossa, as top top predator on Madagascar. All animals and plants impose a hierarchy of their own: what's dangerous; useful; or good to eat; or even - simply attractive or amusing. This latter attribute is often exploited by plants to control animals - thus we perpetuate roses.
We humans try to eliminate things that don't suit us, like smallpox (and until we became more enlightened wolves, tigers, bears and sharks), but try to save cute things, like minke whales and pandas. We also have plant and food preferences. We eat beetroot but not tulip bulbs; sugar cane but not pampas grass; and goats but not (usually) cats. In Australia but not in England we poison blackberries and infect rabbits with fatal diseases.
The ancients often had a special list of edible or objectionable plants and animals and even how to prepare the favoured ones to eat or sacrifice. But it varied from religion to religion and displayed no awareness of the entirely arbitrary nature of human preference.
We now realise that none of the creatures 'great and small' was specifically created for our benefit, as some ancients argued. If we wanted to redesign something for our benefit we had to do that for ourselves - think of domesticated animals. Now we can do this more efficiently, like the recently designed crop that now provides much of our vegetable oil: canola (named for the Rapeseed Association of Canada).
Each of us is a complex cellular colony. Individually all such cellular colonies, like you and me and the giant sequoia, will eventually fail for some reason and die. But life is everywhere here, in our case, in common with other species, perpetuated through our offspring.
To reiterate, viable life is a matter of information and organisation. It's not repeatedly recreated. It's inherited from the living. But like any message or organisation it can be corrupted or lost. Then we die. But elsewhere cells continue to divide and life goes on relentlessly.
It's not as the ancients thought: 'a matter of life and death'. There's no new life. Life is continuous. But there is continuous death. Individual cells die all the time.
For us multi-cellular colonies, in common with the blue whale and the giant sequoia, organisation is critical to survival and in the case of us and the whale, to memory and awareness. When that organisation is sufficiently disrupted by old age, disease or trauma, death results and: it's final; the end; nothing.
During the last 4,000 years or so the human population of the planet is thought to have been relatively stable at between a quarter and half a billion people. For the preceding 70,000 years the population was considerably smaller. Someone who believed in reincarnation could then reasonably believe the soul passed from one person to another as one died and another was born. But in the last hundred years the population has grown exponentially. There are now (2015) 7.3 billion people still alive and this number is likely to reach 11 billion before stabilising.
In this cartoon from 1964 the US population is shown as 192,512,078. By the end of 2015 this had risen to 322,354,800.
In 2015 there were an estimated 57 million deaths worldwide. This equates to around 156 thousand a day.
Anthropologists now estimate that since modern humans emerged, between 90 and 110 billion of us are already dead.
As God was rather tardy in sending his Son to save the sinners, the great majority of these people lived and died without the benefit or knowledge of Christian salvation.
But the book of Revelations suggests that at the day of judgement there will be 144,000 souls in heaven (Rev 7:4-8 ‘And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred and forty-four thousand sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel’).
This falls somewhat short of the 100 billion souls that God has reputedly handed out in the past and is exceeded every day by the present daily death rate.
While it says nothing about the possibility of an immortal soul of a Buddhist or eastern variety, it puts a fairly large hole in the orthodox Christian conception.
Even if it was argued that only the most pure confessing Christians are filtered from this large number for salvation, it suggests extremely poor quality control by God, who casts into oblivion thousands of millions of souls that He, somewhat frivolously, created before sending his son to redeem them, to say nothing of sincere believers in other religions.
But then, the book of Revelations is regarded as apocryphal by the Eastern Church and many theologians.
For many people the idea that they can carry on after they die is a profound hope. Amongst these are people: who have become famous and enjoy the adulation of their fellows; have achieved power and would like to continue to exercise it; have not achieved power, wealth or fame and would like this reversed; feel they have suffered at the hands of others and want an opportunity to correct this injustice; like to think that their enemies will burn in hell; like to believe that a dead person will be able to appreciate their efforts to perpetuate his or her memory; want to meet up with a dead relative or friend when they die; would like an opportunity to observe what will happen in future, perhaps to a child or grandchild; or simply want to be loved unconditionally.
So it is fantasised Hitler is in eternal torment or that Ghandi, like other famously 'good' people, is more accessible to the average dead person than he was in life; you can just wonder up and have a chat.
Some, who believe to one degree or another are scared; of not being good enough; that their investment in the fantasy of a better life may be in vain; or that their schadenfreude is misplaced.
Living in fear is a form of enslavement. Those who live in fear are not free.
Running through this fantasy is a cultural expectation that the Universe is, in some hidden way, just - that Devine retribution and Grace will put its blatant injustices and unconscionable sufferings to right in the end.
As Bob Dylan says:
|For the loser now;
Will be later to win;...
The line it is drawn;
The curse it is cast;
The slow one now;
Will later be fast;
As the present now;
Will later be past;
The order is Rapidly fadin'.
And the first one now;
will later be last;
for the times they are a-changin'.
Thus those ‘who chose their parents badly’ or suffer 'the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' will somehow, sometime, be redeemed or compensated by a just universe; that there is a heavenly ‘Hays Code’ that monitors the script and ensures that evil is punished; good prevails and the balance is redressed.
But hope or desire are not the same as fact. The main impact of these profoundly held desires is to reinforce religious beliefs; to perpetuate fruitless activity aimed at protecting one’s immortal soul; and ultimately to enslave their adherents.
The transparently anthropogenic, anthropomorphic origin of religion
A little travel and a little more reading quickly expose the diversity of religion and its roots. We can only guess at the meaning of stone-age cave paintings in Australia and Europe but many of these seem to be religious in nature.
On the other hand we have written records from ancient Egypt as old as 6000 BCE. Scholars have deciphered a lot about Egyptian religious beliefs and their evolution over time; a period that is much longer than the existence of Christianity. We can see in ancient Egypt the evolution of monotheism, as well as beliefs in judgement after death.
Judaism and several other Mediterranean religions clearly evolved within the same framework as Egyptian beliefs modified by tribal identification, if not taken directly. For example, Akhenaten was the monotheistic Pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty of Egypt, who died 1336 BCE. Nefertiti, whose contemporary bust you can see in the Altes Museum in Berlin, was his chief wife. Akhenaten was not a true monotheist in the modern sense. He simply saw the Sun as the preeminent god in the pantheon; allegiance to whom obviated the need to have any other. Other gods existed but allegiance to them was to act in bad faith to the preferred god who alone was sufficient.
In the same way Abraham worshiped 'El Shaddai' (El of the mountain; also called El Elyon and Ishma-el). Abraham may have been a legendary warrior who led a wave of settlement into Canaan around 1850 BCE. Between 600 to a thousand years later Moses was said to have given allegiance to 'The God of Abraham' and was given divine knowledge that He was named 'Yahweh'.
Scholars identify these various incarnations with the 'High God of Canaan'; the god who descends during, or resides in, volcanoes. This was not an inappropriate God to select as preeminent among the gods. The middle east is particularly geologically active. The Dead Sea Transform sits over the major tectonic plate boundary between the African and Arabian plates resulting in regular earthquakes. There is a major subducting zone along the coast of Turkey resulting in around 20 volcanic eruptions across the region during the second millennium BCE. The largest of these, around 1610 BCE was when the volcanic island of Thera (Santorini) exploded; destroying the very advanced bronze age seafaring Minoan Civilisation; and changing the political power balance across the Mediterranean region.
Egyptian writings record several large earthquakes during the period.
In Roman and Greek theology the Volcano God Vulcan / Hephaestus is associated with fire; lightening; destruction; and male fertility; but he is also associated with the new technology of metallurgy in the late bronze and early iron ages, that provided new tools and weapons and increasingly dominated middle east trade.
The High God of Canaan is particularly good at wiping out entire towns with pyroclastic flows and knocking down buildings.
|And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that [was] in the camp trembled...
And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly...
Thus the god of Moses is a jealous God who will not tolerate the others (that implicitly exist).
The son of Akhenaten was Tutankhamen a 'boy king' and the priests of the older polytheistic tradition took the opportunity to purge the followers of Aten and to abandon the new city Akhenaten had built in his name. Monotheism was abandoned too, yet a number of scholars have argued that this is the real origin of Judaism (including Sigmund Freud, in his book Moses and Monotheism). Although this theory is disputed (with one school suggesting the Egyptians copied the Jews!) there is general acknowledgement of the strong similarities between the Great Hymn to the Aten (the one God) and the Biblical Psalm 104. And several other elements of the Old Testament appear to have Egyptian roots; presumably due to the time in captivity in Egypt and to Moses.
Biblical scholars now believe that the authors of the present torah wrote it at around the time of the Babylonian Exile during the 6th century BCE. Evidence of its dating from this time includes that the Bible becomes largely consistent with archaeological evidence and contemporary records, as opposed to its largely unsupported and mythical accounts of earlier history. Further, in addition to those of the Hebrew tribes and the Egyptians, the Bible draws on Babylonian writings and religious myths. For example, significant parts of Genesis; the legend of the Flood; and passages from Ecclesiastes; have been borrowed more or less intact from the much older Epic of Gilgamesh, mankind's oldest known work of poetic literature. This epic was written around 1200 years before the Bible, not in Egypt but in in Ancient Mesopotamia.
The Babylonian Exile is supported by archaeology and is thought to have been the cause of the first Jewish Diaspora.
By the latter part of first millennium BCE Judaism was established in many cities across the middle east and more firmly monotheistic. It now denied the very existence of any other gods. God was no longer taking human form and dropping-in on adherents for a chat; perhaps in the company of an angle or two as he did in Abraham's time. God was now generally restricted to communicating through dreams and visions.
This was in stark contrast to the Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek and Roman conception where there was a full pantheon of specialist gods for various occasions; who often took human form or sired demi-gods; and where high achieving humans could graduate to the divine.
This pagan tradition of a pantheon is restored somewhat in the Christianity of the Middle Ages (around 400 CE) with concept of 'Communion of Saints' and of course with the divinity of the 'Mother of God' and sanctification in general. Again Christians could pray to more than one specialist, or personal, being.
Christianity more transparently evolved from Judaism, modified by Roman and Greek religious beliefs and practice. Christians were Jews until they were excluded from Synagogues between 85 and 90 AD for heresy, a rift reinforced by the Council of Yavne (Jamnia 90AD). After this the two religions split and, like Protestants and Roman Catholics, set about vilifying each other. Scholars believe that a substantial part of the New Testament was written (by Paul/Saul and the author of John, between 100 and 150 AD after the split), as these assert Christ’s divinity (not claimed in the early gospels).
Islam clearly evolved from Judaism and Christianity overlaid with Arab tribal identification and the personal idiosyncrasies of the Prophet Mohammed. This is very well documented and not disputed. There is even an interesting display of his personal effects and writings that you can see for yourself in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.
Similarly, most eastern religions trace their origins to India. In Europe, Christianity has adopted many pre-Christian cultural practices, including Easter and Christmas.
It is reasonable to believe that it is the hand and mind of man, not of a God, that created and moulded these religions.
The orthodox Christian belief, based on Biblical study, is that when we die we await the Second Coming, when Jesus will return to judge the quick (living) and the dead. On this day, those that pass judgment will ascend to heaven to live eternally and those who have failed judgment will continue, without grace, in everlasting torment.
Christianity, as we know it, started with its adoption by the Roman Empire as the official (but not only) religion. This took place progressively from the conversion of the emperor Constantine in 313 AD and the subsequent Council of Nicaea in 325, the first ecumenical council. Progressively Christianity was then enforced and other religions excluded. For the next thousand years a variety of saints, thinkers, warriors and politicians developed the religion so that by 1600, the power, glory and a huge wealth, that we see evidence of today in Rome and the great Christian cathedrals of Europe, had accumulated.
But by the 15th century inexpensive printing had become available. This encouraged many more people to learn to read and in 1455 the first cheap printed Bible was published by Johannes Gutenberg, in Mainz, Germany. Biblical scholars quickly discovered that serious inconsistencies had developed between Church teaching and the Bible.
Among these was the status of the dead. It is clear from the New Testament that St. Paul and others believed that the second coming was imminent and that the dead had little time to wait before they would be judged. But when over a thousand years had passed and in numerous generations had lived and died, the Church began to teach that people could proceed to heaven in a reasonable time, after a period in Purgatory. Purgatory has no biblical authority but was a conveniently invented place where the souls of the dead were supposedly prepared for heaven. This preparation could be enhanced or shortened by the purchase of indulgences from the Church.
Biblical scholars also noticed that in the intervening years the Church had invented a number of additional sacraments, like Extreme Unction, to enhance the status of the Priest in the lives of the people, and concurrently, could be charged for to further enhance the wealth of the Church.
In 1517 Martin Luther, an ascetic Augustinian monk and Biblical scholar, incensed by the practice of indulgences, nailed 95 ‘theses’ in Latin to a church door in Wittenberg. In addition to railing against indulgences, he asserted the primacy of the Bible in theological matters and the ability of every Christian commune with God directly, without the need for a church to intercede. This was an idea whose time had come and within the extraordinarily short period of about two months, these ’95 articles’ had been translated into several languages, printed widely and distributed throughout Europe; sowing seeds of the protestant revolution.
At its origin Christianity was a somewhat militant Jewish sect, specifically concerned with the slaughter of lambs the Passover and the excessive power of the Temple priests. According to the Vatican website it had been described by the Emperor Nero as ‘a strange and illegal superstition’ and blamed, amongst other things, for the burning of Rome (AD 64). Tacitus the contemporary Roman historian in his report of the ‘Great Fire’ mentions that Christians confessed to the arson, possibly under torture. Nero treated Jews harshly and Jewish uprisings that started during his reign were put down with great force, culminating after Nero’s death, in thousands being crucified at the Siege of Jerusalem (AD 70). Christian martyrs from this period were entombed alongside other Jews. Tacitus, writing in AD 116, describes Christianity as ‘a most mischievous superstition’, originating ‘in Judaea, the first source of the evil’, and spreading to Rome, ‘where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular’.
Terrorists; martyrs; vitriolic journalism; it all sounds very familiar doesn’t it?
The historical Jesus was an ordained Jewish Pharisee and as a result, Mathew (Jewish period – written around 38 AD) confirms that the Old Testament Torah is the law; and the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (Mat 5-7) consists mainly of a reiteration and elaboration of Old Testament laws.
Amongst these laws was the Jewish second commandment (prohibiting images). This was conveniently removed when Christianity became the official Roman religion to allow images of the emperor to be juxtaposed with those of the infant Jesus and Mary, as can be seen today in the oldest remaining Christian church and the World (Hagia Sophia) in Istanbul (well worth a visit). To get back to Ten Commandments, the Roman Church split the last commandment, about coveting your neighbour’s wife or house.
Adherence to the original second commandment then became a test that distinguished Christianity from Islam and Judaism. From about 900 onwards when Christians regained Iberian territory from the Moors, their first act was to desecrate their holy sites by mounting Christian or even pagan images within them. This is best seen in Southern Spain and Portugal (also worth a visit). Often additional religious tests were applied, to weed out non-Christians like a requirement to eat pork, possibly followed by trial by the Inquisition (like trial by ‘the saw’ where the inquisitee is hung upside-down legs apart then slowly sawed in half through the crotch – as the blood runs to the head they could be kept alive for hours, or simply disembowelled alive). Officially, between 1560 and 1700 there was a total of 49,092 trials registered in the archive of the Suprema (mainly against heresy, Moors and Jews, in that order), but unofficially just one Inquisitor, Tomas de Torquemada (b1420) is accredited with over 200,000 tortured and killed. These numbers have since been by equalled by Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing of Muslims (with a quarter of a million dead) and of course put into the shade by Adolf Hitler who reportedly ordered the death of six million Jews, with the real or imagined blessing of the Vatican.
But with new and more accurate biblical translations the Protestants rediscovered the second commandment: ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.’ (Exodus 20:4-6). This was interpreted as a prohibition on worshipping images or using images during worship.
It also suggested that heaven was not of this earth. This change corresponded with the Copernican revolution in astronomy, when it was realised that the Earth revolves about the Sun and subsequently that the Sun is but one of trillions of stars. Apart from occasioning the destruction of a great number of works of art, not a few books, and some unreformed Christians by the Protestants, the rediscovery of the second commandment contributed to the reappraisal of the physical reality of heaven itself.
Thus the naive, perhaps pre-Christian Roman view put to the simple people and children for over a thousand years: that Heaven and even Purgatory were physical places, located in the sky somewhere above the earth, became untenable. Now educated Christians needed to believe instead that heaven is ‘other dimensional’ and outside this physical universe.
The Bible is very vague or contradictory about what happens to you when you die. As mentioned above we learn in Revelations that the tribes of Israel are present and it seems that this is a real physical presence. But this probably needs to be judged in terms of the beliefs of the day, a blend of Egyptian, Roman and Greek thinking about the life hereafter that equates quite closely to the Hollywood interpretation of the happy hunting ground of indigenous Americans (like Russell Crow in Gladiator).
Today Western thinking is heavily influenced by Hollywood and nineteenth century romantic literature. We have all seen a movie where the ghostly figure rises from the dead body. In this view the soul leaves you in the state you where in when you died and passes into the ether. Thus you arrive in heaven as a ghost, a young or decrepit old person, as when you died, and will be in that state for eternity. So each year we say of our dead soldiers: “age shall not weary them nor the years condemn”, implicitly acknowledging the Viking and Roman view running through our literature and culture, that it is better to die in battle than of old age. You will then spend eternity a virile young man, too young to have accumulated many sins; perhaps in the company of similarly aged young women.
These days, for most, this is a mere romantic, poetic fancy as is illustrated by our condemnation of exactly the same idea in the Islamist suicide bombers of today.
A problem with this view, for many, is that so many people now live until infirmity and loss of intellect; not a pleasant prospect for all eternity; and hardly a happy reunion with a long dead, much younger partner. Obviously regressing to a twenty year old is no good either, as then you may not have met your partner nor had those children.
An alternative is that your pure soul or essence goes to heaven. In this view the soul has no particular age. It is immortal and has no permanent bodily characteristics; it simply occupies a physical body from conception to death and then passes on to heaven. It does so without any physical attributes, like aging, and has no physical needs. In this view, there is no food, clothes, exercise or sex in heaven (but there may be pain in the other place). This is more like a Buddhist view where a soul can go to another person or even an animal perhaps with no perception of where it has been. I, for one, have no recollection of a previous existence.
It is evident that the concept of a soul changes from time to time and this suggests that it is a human fancy.
Notwithstanding the absence of a soul we all go on into the future in the same way the music persists when the piano roll is in its box, by the mark we leave in the arrangement of the future; because the future is exquisitely sensitive to the past.
Every day each of us changes the future in many subtle ways and everyone leaves their mark.
Consider first the mighty. What might have happened if Alexander the Great, Napoleon or Hitler had not been born? History would obviously be quite different.
But they did not act in isolation Hitler, for example, was heavily influenced by Wagner and Nietzsche; in turn influenced by the ideas of Byron. Had Byron not been disgraced by his jealous cousin and fled England to Europe, the Nazis may never have risen to power. Byron’s own birth was problematical; and so it goes.
The briefest acquaintance with history demonstrates the subtleties of inputs and timing to important decisions made; perhaps through the possession of erroneous information; as a result of an accidental meeting; or a perceived insult. Everyone in the environment has an impact; the cabbie who was late; the blacksmith that caused the horse to throw a shoe; the maid who spilled the tea. Had any one of these not been born or in that place, at that time, the future would have been different. Those who leave ideas, insights or discoveries behind have even more influence. Consider Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin or Einstein.
Now consider the accident of your own birth. Everyone has perhaps billions of unborn siblings. Most women have around 300 thousand follicles at puberty and depending on the circumstances of their lives about 400 of these will become eggs that could potentially be fertilised to become a unique child. Each man produces between forty and fifty million subtly different sperm per ejaculation. Every one of these potential combinations of egg and a sperm will produce a different sibling. But of course not even the most promiscuous woman will fall pregnant at every available opportunity. Which egg is fertilised by which man and which sperm is a great lottery.
The woman’s choice from her available partners, and the exact timing of the events leading to a pregnancy, is critical to the outcome, as are physiological and emotional factors that help determine a successful fertilisation; which sperm succeeds and if the pregnancy goes to term.
Thus the fact that you are here; and not your potential but unborn sibling; is ‘a billion to one chance’. And so it was for anyone in history. Indeed if any of the many people who influenced your parents to copulate the instant they did had not been born (friends, a concierge, waiter, cab driver, actor, chef, song writer), nor would you have been. I acknowledge the influence of Hitler, Churchill, the Wright Brothers and 40’s movies on my parents for my existence.
The decisions you take everyday inevitably help determine the future of the yet unborn. If you happen to be a Byron these changes will be more devastating but the outcomes may not be any better.
It has been argued that demonstrating that there is no soul removes the consequences of being good or evil; that if others are persuaded to believe this they will feel free to commit immoral acts because they will fear no ultimate retribution.
Morality is a mode of behaviour that you learn at your mother’s knee; acceptance of civil law the outcome of an accepted social contract; neither has anything to do with ancient religious mores.
Divine retribution is unnecessary to enforce contemporary mores and indeed our sense of morality is often offended by things we read in ancient teachings. We no longer approve of slavery or deny equality to women. We believe that treating children or women as property is wrong. The Jewish uprising in AD 66 began when Greeks sacrificed birds in front of a local synagogue. Tens of thousands died. Why would you take such teachings seriously in the 21st Century?
If the only future presence you have beyond your death is posterity there is a strong incentive to be well remembered.
Perhaps you can discover new knowledge, invent something or leave something else worthwhile. Maybe you can become famous?
But extraordinary achievement is relative and therefore not available to everyone. An achievement's no longer extraordinary if almost everyone can do it. Nor is fame universally desired.
Most of us will be very content to be well remembered by our friends and community; to positively influence our children and grandchildren’s development; or alternatively, perhaps, to abjure from children at all and through our contributions to community support those of others.
On the other hand, no one concerned with posterity wants to be reviled as evil or remembered as a destroyer of the achievements or the lives of others. Posterity does not offer forgiveness for these sins.
Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today...
There is absolutely no evidence of the existence of a life after death but there is a great deal of evidence that this belief is inherent in the human psyche, has utility to some powerful interests, is profoundly hoped for by many and is widely incorporated into our myths for these reasons.
Recent discoveries about the nature of a universe and about the human brain confirm the extreme improbability of the existence of a heaven, hell, purgatory, a soul or any continued life after death.
Just as there is no need for me to imagine that you are reading this; there is no need to imagine that there is no heaven, or hell; it is as certain as the existence of others in my universe; and from your perspective, this essay in yours.
The belief in a life after death is viewed in most secular western societies as a harmless cultural trifle that goes along with social church attendance.
But in some parts of the world and some western sub-cultures it has a serious impact on the lives of people who: live in poverty but spend valuable time, effort and what little money they have attempting to secure their immortal soul; become the victims of religious charlatans or cults; or sacrifice their lives and those of others in religious vendettas and terrorist bombings. And it is an unconscionable, obscene idea to advance or promulgate if it causes even one elderly or sick person to spend their last days in trembling fear of divine judgement or everlasting punishment.
The related ideas that a foetus has a soul, even before the development of a nervous system; or that only God should control conception, are also problematic as they are significant impediments to controlling overpopulation.
Overpopulation is the greatest crisis presently facing humanity. This crisis has been significantly exacerbated by religiously, and sometimes marketing, motivated sabotage to efforts to stop or slow population growth during the twentieth century. Overpopulation is now directly responsible for an estimated 25 to 40 people dying prematurely and agonisingly every minute, from widespread malnutrition and social breakdown in Africa and parts of Asia and South America. In a substantial part of the world, half the population is now under the age of 15, hardly conducive to social stability, productivity or good government; and in many one in five people die unpleasantly before reaching even this age. These deaths have long been predicted if population was not controlled, by scientists working in the field and bodies like the United Nations that set up the UN Population Fund in 1969. But the Vatican took an overt stand against the 1974 World Population Year and started a campaign to propagate its viewpoint on birth control; rejecting contraceptives, sterilisation and abortion. The official Catholic policy was to influence, through Catholic political power, the policy of nations ‘even where Catholics represent a minority of the population’. At the same time Muslim fundamentalists were denying women an education and consolidating their status and baby factories for Muslim men. It is not unreasonable to accuse those responsible for sabotage to population control and female education programmes in the early 1970’s, of premeditated mass murder in the 21st century.
We have already let ‘too much water under the bridge’ to contain this and no matter what we do now this dreadful death rate is bound to at least double. To mitigate this we urgently need to give women the means to control their own fertility and the education needed to put this into effect. I am still reeling from a poster opposing such measures that I saw in a church in Portugal. If the perpetrators and promulgators of such insidious nonsense persist they will be responsible for death on a scale that will make past religiously motivated genocides and holocausts look like insignificant practice runs.
In the developed and developing world it is overpopulation (not its symptoms such as increasing CO2 and methane levels) that is the root cause of impending anthropogenic climate change and resource depletion. We simply can’t keep increasing population without consequence.
In these ways a belief in ‘the life eternal’ is one of the worst of the wrong ideas a person can hold.
To quote John Lennon again:
You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one