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why is the after-life so appealing?

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You could say that the question this post poses is both rhetorical and not. Why wouldn’t living forever, whether through cycles of reincarnation, or as a disembodied ‘ancestor spirit’, or in heaven, jannah, elysium or wherever, be appealing? And what could possibly be appealing about the finality of death?

But it’s worth exploring this question more deeply, as I believe it’s a major key to understanding many aspects of religion and ‘spirituality’. I’ve written about this subject before in the context of children and the origins of religious and magical thinking, but this time I want to focus on the afterlife in more detail.

I like to focus on childhood because it’s fertile ground for thinking beyond the bounds and the limits of our mortality and our physical constraints. Shapeshifting, super-powers, magic, and the absolutes of good and evil, they come very easily to young children, and immortality is just another element of that thinking. I want to emphasise this because I object to claims made by some atheists that a lot of this thinking, about magic and absolutes and immortality, is irrational. I don’t think that’s a useful term in this instance.

I’ve given the example, which I’ll repeat here, of kids playing life-and-death games like cops and robbers, cowboys and indians, goodies and baddies. When a kid’s shot dead, he accepts it reluctantly, lies down for a few seconds, then declares he’s ‘alive again’, and this encapsulates time-honoured attitudes towards mortality.

Because death is literally unimaginable, and kids, with their vivid and unrestrained imaginations, don’t need much time to work that one out. What’s more, even playing dead is boring. Not moving, holding your breath, trying to get your brain to shut down its thinking and imagining, it’s all hard and unnatural work.

On the other hand thinking about the afterlife can bear rich fruit. To give just one of hundreds of literary examples, Dante’s Divine Comedy divides the afterlife, from which no-one can escape, into 3 realms, hell, purgatory and heaven, with each realm being divided into nine, or actually 10. Nine descending circles of the inferno, with Lucifer lurking at the bottom as number 10, nine rings around Mount Purgatory, with the garden of Eden at its summit representing number 10, and nine celestial bodies of heaven, with the tenth at the top, representing the Empyrean, filled with the essence of god. And their are various other divinely numerical schemes operating throughout the work. Another very interesting depiction of the afterlife occurs in Plato’s Republic, in which a soldier, Er, brought from the battlefield as a corpse, reveals himself after a number of days not to be dead but unconscious, and on recovering consciousness tells a richly detailed tale of the afterlife, which he’s been privileged to witness, and also to recall, as he was excused from the requirement of drinking from the river Lethe’s ‘waters of forgetfulness’.

The two points to be drawn from these afterlife descriptions is, first, that they offer great scope for the imagination, but second, they’re constrained by the particular time and space of their own culture, not unlike current descriptions of UFOs and alien abductions. So the Divine Comedy is a large-canvas imaginative rendering of Christian revelation and eschatology as experienced, at least by one atypical individual, in thirteenth and fourteenth century Italy, while Er’s tale reveals much of how Greeks living not far away but nearly 2000 years earlier might have imagined the life to come.

Interestingly, while there are many cultural peculiarities to these descriptions, they have one key feature in common – the afterlife constitutes a punishment or reward for the life lived on earth. It’s a theme repeated in many religions, as well as in beliefs in reincarnation which aren’t strictly religious. There are those who manage to believe that, even though there’s no deity pulling the strings, we get reincarnated into something ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ depending on how we behaved in the life just completed. How this happens, without some conscious being making judicial decisions, is not a question that seems to bother their brains. But what interests me more is that this kind of thinking goes back a long long way. It appears to have a very powerful appeal, one that, as I’ve said, is way too prevalent to be dismissed as irrational.

So I want to explore not only why the afterlife is so appealing, but why a particular kind of afterlife, based on perfect justice, is so appealing. I prefer ‘perfect justice’ to ‘divine justice’, as it takes away the religious trappings while preserving the most important ideal of many religions – the ideal hope that nobody will evade proper justice in the end.

Again I turn to early childhood, a period when rationality and logic mean little, to look for clues to this appeal. I suspect that one of the great events of childhood, or it might be a series of events, is the experience that your parents or your guardians are not the all-protecting beings that you’d more or less unconsciously assumed them to be. I think this experience is made much of in certain branches of psychoanalytic theory, and I associate it with the name of Jacques Lacan, but I have a very limited acquaintance with his views or theories.

In talking of all-protecting beings, I’m really thinking of them in god-like terms. Beings who protect us from harm caused by dangerous objects or predators, but also from harm caused by our own ignorance or folly, by correcting us and guiding us. Our early survival is, of course, entirely dependent on being nurtured by these all-protecting entities, so that it’s all the more shocking when, at some stage in our development, we actually see these entities, even if only for brief moments, as actually threatening our existence. I’m not sure when this may happen. It could be at a very early stage, when, say, a mother refuses the breast to her child, resulting in a screaming fit, and perhaps a great sense of inner trauma and crisis. Or it could be later, when the child has developed an independent sense of justice and realises, or at least strongly feels, that her parent is punishing her unjustly, and quickly infers from this that the parent could be a real threat to her freedom and even her life.

I see an obvious association between this very real experience, which may be near-universal in humans, and the garden of eden story, though the fact that in the eden story it’s the humans who have ‘fallen’, rather than the gods, is well worth pondering. It seems to me that monotheistic religions, by creating a perfect deity or parent, shift the focus of the world’s obvious injustices from that parent to the children, which has at least the advantage of avoiding what could become a problem for children who ‘see through’ their parents – the problem of blame-shifting. Not that this has always stopped  irate believers from berating their perfect Dad for their sufferings.

Of course the more developed way of seeing the parent-child relation is as one between two faulty, all-too-human entities, but face it, the seemingly utterly powerless child and the seemingly all-powerful parent are neither likely to possess such equipoise, at least not for long. Both are profoundly frustrated, the child at not being able to get the parent to see the justice of her situation, or at least at not being able to penetrate the imperviousness and the mystery of the parent’s judgment, and the parent at not having the power to transform the child by his judicious punishment. Frustration leads to idealist fantasies, in which everyone understands each other, everyone judges and measures each other in perfect understanding and harmony. Of course this never happens in this world, bitter experience reveals this, especially in the harsh and often desperate environments out of which so many religions have been born.

It all happens in another life, in another world, another place, a world that doesn’t bear too much thinking about it, but a world that can absorb all the hope aimed at it, all the dreams of the ‘faithful’. In absorbing all these hopes and dreams and cries for justice it just keeps expanding, like a balloon, ever more diaphanous, amorphous, enticing. Who’d want to be the prick that bursts it?

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Written by stewart henderson

December 7, 2013 at 8:18 pm

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