an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘heaven

why is the after-life so appealing?

with one comment


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?

Written by stewart henderson

December 7, 2013 at 8:18 pm

is there any sex in heaven?

leave a comment »


I’ve been reading Edward Gibbon’s Decline and fall of the Roman Empire off and on for years now, and still nowhere near finished, but today I was reading his account of the life of Mohammed and the rise of Islam. Gibbon makes an attempt to sympathetically explain Mohammed in both historical and religious terms, and tries to flesh out his metaphysics and his concept of the deity, the sort of stuff that tends to make my eyes glaze over – and my boredom and irritation are compounded by the fact that Gibbon never provides primary sources for his often idiosyncratic character sketches, anecdotes and interpretations.

However, I was mildly amused this time. As with Jesus, the portrait of Mohammed is – well, just a wee bit idealized:

According to the tradition of his companions, Mohammed was distinguished by the beauty of his person… They applauded his commanding presence, his majestic aspect, his piercing eye, his gracious smile, his flowing beard, his countenance that painted every sensation of the soul, and his gestures that enforced each expression of the tongue….

Gibbon goes on for a while in this style, describing the prophet’s modesty, his affability, his firmness, his support for the poor, his accommodation of the rich, his flowing speech, his courtesy, his universal benevolence etc etc. In short, if you’re religiously inclined but don’t want to be so conformist as to let Jesus into your heart, why not consider Mohammed? In fact he might be a better choice, since Jesus was pretty down on the rich (Matthew 19:24) and was rather less of an upholder of ‘family values’ than the prophet (despite the latter’s philandering), to put it mildly (Luke 2:41-51, 14:26, John 2:1-5, Matthew 23:9, to name just a few passages). But I don’t want to dwell on these characters – truth to tell I’ve always been a bit nervous of writing anything critical of Islam – because I want to focus on another passage in Gibbon, treating of the Islamic heaven. Myths of heaven and hell, and the judgment that consigns us to either region, are commonplace in the ancient world, and as with creation myths, it’s useful to trace connections and influences. Gibbon mentions the Koran often in his chapter on Mohammed and the Arabs, but it’s never clear whether his descriptions of their practices and beliefs derive directly from that book. So make that you will of Gibbon’s presentation and commentary here:

According as the shares of guilt or virtue shall preponderate, the sentence will be pronounced, and all, without distinction, will pass over the sharp and perilous bridge of the abyss, but the innocent, treading in the footsteps of Mohammed, will gloriously enter the gates of paradise, while the guilty will fall into the first and mildest of the seven hells. The term of expiation will vary from nine hundred to seven thousand years; but the prophet has judiciously promised that all his disciples, whatever may be their sins, shall be saved by their own faith and his intercession from eternal damnation. It is not surprising that superstition should act most powerfully on the fears of her votaries, since the human fancy can paint with more energy the misery than the bliss of a future life. With the two simple elements of darkness and fire, we create a sensation of pain, which may be aggravated to an infinite degree by the idea of endless duration. but the same idea operates with an opposite effect on the continuity of pleasure; and too much of our present enjoyments is obtained from the relief or the comparison of evil. it is natural enough that an Arabian prophet should dwell with rapture on the groves, the fountains, and the rivers of paradise; but instead of inspiring the blessed inhabitants with a liberal taste for harmony and science, conversation and friendship, he idly celebrates the pearls and diamonds, the robes of silk, palaces of marble, dishes of gold, rich wines, artificial dainties, numerous attendants, and the whole train of sensual and costly luxury which becomes insipid to the owner, even in the short period of this mortal life. Seventy-two houris, or black-eyed girls, of resplendent beauty, blooming youth, virgin purity, and exquisite sensibility will be created for the use of the meanest believer; a moment of pleasure will be prolonged to a thousand years; and his faculties will be increased a hundredfold to render him worthy of his felicity. Notwithstanding a vulgar prejudice, the gates of heaven will be open to both sexes, but Mohammed has not specified the male companions of the female elect, lest he should either alarm the jealousy of their former husbands or disturb their felicity by the suspicion of an everlasting marriage. this image of a carnal paradise has provoked the indignation, perhaps the envy, of the monks: they declaim against the impure religion of Mohammed; and his modest apologists are driven to the poor excuse of figures and allegories.

This is a lengthy passage, but it’s worth quoting, for what it reveals of Gibbon’s style as well as the Islamic view of heaven. ‘Superstition’ is a favourite word of his, trotted out whenever religion’s in question, yet in spite of these enlightenment values Gibbon was a staunch, church-going conservative, properly disdainful of the vulgar and the feminine (largely synonymous terms to his mind). His attitude towards religion was obviously complicated, shot through with continental influences and conservative family – and reputational – concerns. I suspect his view, at least publicly, would be that religion is the opiate of the masses, and a good thing too – and if he had to attend church regularly, to provide a good example to his more vulgar constituents (he was a Tory MP), as well as to placate his family, that was a small price to pay.

But what to make of this sensual – not to say sexual – paradise? The Islamic term is Jannah, and the Wikipedia account, drawn from various Koranic passages, makes no mention of 72 houris ‘of virgin purity’, and generally tends to downplay the sensual elements, probably for political reasons. Even so, the idea of excess – of food and clothing, perfume and jewellery, and ‘immortal youths’, makes it pretty clear what to expect up there. Of course Gibbon didn’t pluck those 72 virgins out of the air; according to Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope, hadith 2562 of the Jami` at-Tirmidhi collection has this:

The least [reward] for the people of Heaven is 80,000 servants and 72 wives, over which stands a dome of pearls, aquamarine and ruby.

Of course, this stuff about 72 virgins was all over the place after the September 11 attacks, and Moslem sites sought to refute it, claiming the hadith to be a weak one, and pointing out the difference between wives and virgins (as if that mattered), but nobody seems to have noticed that this western interpretation of the hadith would have almost certainly derived from Gibbon.

Gibbon also points out that Mohammed’s disciples will enter paradise, as a result of their faith and in spite of whatever sins they may have committed. He doesn’t make clear whether he means a small discipleship, like the twelve of Jesus, or all believers, numbering hundreds of millions. In any case, presented in this bare fashion, this creates a serious moral dilemma, presented concisely by Matt Dillahunty on an episode of The Atheistic Experience. This is the dilemma between justice and mercy. As Dillahunty puts it, you can’t be absolutely just and totally merciful at the same time, because there is an inherent contradiction. To offer mercy and forgiveness and entry to paradise to believers, simply because they believe, no matter what their crimes, is incompatible, it seems, with any reasonable sense of justice, let alone absolute justice. And it presumably follows that if you don’t believe, no matter what your life has been, you’ll be debarred from heaven and will necessarily be eternally damned, there being no alternative.

Actually, though, because Jannah is written about in far more detail in the Quran that heaven is in the Bible, there may be a whiff of a response to the problem posed by Dillahunty. The response would be that Allah’s judgment is much more subtle and, of course, fair-minded, than a simple saved/damned dichotomy would suggest, for Jannah (heaven) and Jahannam (hell) are ‘streamed’, just like my old high school. Jannah has eight gates, and Jahannam seven, with each gate representing a different class of virtues, or vices, graded as to quality or lack thereof. It might be that simple unbelief, allied to good deeds, will get you into the least nasty of hell’s gates, which may be little worse than the meanest of heaven’s gates, especially if your unbelief is based on ignorance rather than wilfulness (and Allah knows all). According to one Islamic commentator, reflecting on whether Christians could ever get into heaven, ‘Though one must do good deeds and believe in God, salvation can only be attained through God’s judgement’. So the ultimate arbiter is ‘God’, who will decide not only whether the deeds are goodly enough to get into the top-graded gate, but also whether the god the believer believed in was the ‘rightest’ god. After all, the Christian believes in ‘God’ too, and, arguably, some Christians may believe in a god that, though they think of him as a Christian, is closer to the Koranic god than is the god in the head of some Islamic worshippers. So it wouldn’t be absurd to find Christians being ushered through one of the gates of Jannah, hastily brushing up on their Arabic and looking suitably bewildered.

But anyway I was supposed to be writing about sex in heaven, so I’m proving to be a bit of a disappointment there. And it depends on which heaven you’re talking about. Islamic heaven is as sexual as Mohammed seems to have been, while the Christian heaven is as sexless as Jesus. But it doesn’t matter, either way you’ll be blissed out, and the fact that we mostly think of bliss in sensual/sexual terms just shows how far we still are from attaining the transcendence of the Godhead. Ummmmm…


Written by stewart henderson

March 11, 2013 at 12:20 pm