Religion denies the finality of death, claiming that something else awaits us.
Christianity offers a duality: a glorious heaven filled with lost loved ones or a fiery everlasting hell. Purgatory is a transitional stop where many sinners are made pure through suffering before ascending to heaven. God, the omnipotent ruler, decides who goes where.
Hindus eschew the idea of heaven or hell and believe that souls linger after death for a few days before finding new bodies to inhabit or, if they were exemplary, eternal salvation freed from mundane cares.
The Islam faith holds that the souls of righteous believers are effortlessly delivered from the body and sent to eternal paradise, while the souls of sinners and non-believers experience excruciating pain while being ripped through the body and finally sent to a hell. The Islamic hell is comprised of seven layers, the lowest being the most torturous, filled with fire, boiling water and scorching wind. Allah decides who heads to heaven or hell, and who might eventually be pulled from hell based on their degree of atonement. Those who try to escape hell without Allah’s permission are dragged by iron hooks back into the agonizing abyss.
Buddhists believe that the body dies and disappears, but the mind continues. Rebirth occurs based on behavior in the past life. The finest souls enjoy enlightenment and suffer no more. Human rebirth is the next best option; those inhabiting a new body can make up for their past mistakes. Miscreants born into a hell realm are destined to suffer greatly. But over time, eons if need be, all souls are granted enlightenment.
According to Jewish tradition, everyone has an everlasting soul; the body is given back to God. Souls live on the memories of their loved ones. After a person passes, people close to them will rip their clothing, a biblical tradition symbolizing that person being torn away. There is no definitive answer regarding the existence of heaven or hell, though there is hope that something lies beyond.
Ancient Egyptians were more focused on the afterlife than this one. If the dead were worthy, they were said to enter a splendid place similar to their earthly lives but without the pain and hardship. The soul’s journey was considered perilous, and for this reason the body was carefully prepared before burial and fully equipped afterward. Tombs were filled with everything the soul might need; if some of these items were too large, pictures of them were drawn on the walls.
The ancient Greeks and Romans also believed in the soul’s journey, but their views were more elaborate, involving several deities who meted out reward or punishment. Heroes were sent to sunny Elysium, the bad were sentenced to Tartarus and punished by The Furies. Decent citizens who had not achieved greatness were sent to the Fields of Asphodel to forget all that they knew on earth and live for eternity as “shades.” Those who died unjustly were sometimes forgiven and allowed to return to earth.
Gods were believed to control everything, not just man’s ultimate fate but the luck, or lack of it, he encountered on earth. What the ancients could not explain, they assigned to a god. Bounty or catastrophe, the gods took credit for it and man, awaiting his fate, cowered below.
We can now explain thunder and rainbows and the moon’s effect on our tides, but most people still adhere to the notion of an apocryphal godhead to whom they pray, even if these prayers go unanswered. Perhaps this behavior is ancestral: the desire to belong, to be in a club, to sit shoulder to shoulder with like-minded brethren. Maybe this sense of belonging is amplified, validated, in the new mega churches swollen with righteous believers. How could so many be wrong?
If the world’s religions were self-contained, there would be no problem. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Throughout human history, religious differences and dissension have led to untold atrocities, and the hostility does not seem to be ebbing. Warring faiths, with their stringent dogma and divisive rhetoric, will not teach us how to be good.
Atheism is defined as a lack of belief in gods. Atheism is not nihilism, nor denial, nor is it contentious. It is simply a way of living without belief in deities. One may wish to have faith in a god and still be an atheist.
I find atheism peaceful. Unable to accept the presence of a supreme deity, I have no trouble seeing the holiness in everything from a tiny pebble to a giant panda.
When disasters occur, I don’t have to struggle with my faith; I don’t need to reconcile a beneficent god with a catastrophic hurricane.
And as for the fear of death, so what if there is no heaven or hell, no god pointing a finger? When the body fails and the brain goes offline, we lose consciousness. If we slip into nothingness, which seems the most likely scenario, what is there to fear?
Some cite “life after death” experiences as evidence of a divine dimension waiting for us. These accounts are not incompatible with secular views. Given the mind’s love of stories, flashbacks and images of loved ones strike me as perfectly natural. As the curtain closes, why wouldn’t the whole cast of characters be summoned?
And that mesmerizing white light—maybe it’s consciousness, flaring one last wondrous time before darkness falls, in soft velvet folds, taking us back to the realm of pure possibility, where all that ever was begins and ends.