Religion attempts to provide answers to life after death and the purpose of mankind. It’s time to take an agnostic approach towards religion. Let us clear our minds and begin with a solid foundation. A good initiation is a general study of major Eastern and Western faiths. This would be our broad and shallow Religion 101 foundation of knowledge. This education is everyone’s individual journey. This is a solid beginning, and then obtaining deeper knowledge of a particular belief that peaks our interest is the next logical step.
The Agnostic Approach:
• Begin with uncertainty and doubt, question everything
• Properly define terms
• Take a non-biased neutral approach
• Look at the situation from all angles
• Gather and validate the facts
• Keep it Simple
• Make an informed decision
I once heard it argued that religious desires come from some sort of evolutionary track of the human brain. There is an innate desire by most people to adopt a religion. Is there an innate part of the brain that feeds this desire? I would argue that aside from tradition, the primary desire to be religious comes from something that we and all animals have in common. It’s known as the survival instinct.
In order to survive we need to secure the most basic necessities. We need to secure food and shelter. We also need to secure safety. The survival instinct includes the need to secure our basic necessities for living and reactions to situations that are dangerous to us such as the fight or flight response. Other animals do not contemplate their own eventual death. The survival instinct only applies to their current lives on Earth.
Humans understand that no matter how secure we are in food, shelter and safety that we are all going to die. No matter how much money you have in the bank, how secure your home is or how much food you have in storage, you will eventually die just like everyone else. What does this do to our survival instinct? Our brain goes into overdrive searching for continual existence. Religion allows for the perception of continual existence after death. For many, this satisfies the survival instinct and brings peace of mind.
There are hundreds of religions being practiced today, and thousands of beliefs that have come and gone over the centuries and millenniums. Some popular religions at the time of this writing include Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and tribal religions. If we include ancient religions and atheism, five major beliefs of existence after death include:
• Reincarnation – When we die in one body, we are reborn in another body at birth.
• Resurrection – After death, we will eventually be brought back to life in the same body
• Heaven and Hell – After death, we either go to Heaven or Hell (some also believe in Purgatory as an in-between state)
• The Spirit World – After death we join the spirit world as the end state
• Non-existence – The end
Under the logic these beliefs cannot all coexist as being true, most or all are false. Perhaps we can rule out resurrection. The ancient Egyptians believed in resurrection and mummified pharaohs after they died and entombed them with treasure and their possessions. The mummified pharaohs would be well preserved, and have all their stuff upon eventual return to the living. Many of the wives and servants were also mummified close to the pharaoh. Upon mummification the brains were removed. During this time, it was believed that people thought with their hearts, not their brains. We still carry some of this belief in a non-literal sense today. The heart is associated with love and emotion while the brain is associated with logic.
Non-existence was the alternative to resurrection. There was no hell. After death one either no longer existed, or would eventually be brought back to life as the Egyptian God Osiris was resurrected by his sister the Goddess Isis. If one wanted to make sure an enemy would not resurrect, they destroyed the body of their enemy.
The Egyptians were wrong. All the pharaohs who ruled Egypt for three thousand years are gone never to return, although many are preserved as mummies including Ramses II, also known as Ramses the Great. Ramses II is believed (backed up by evidence) to be the pharaoh in the story of Moses in the Old Testament. For those unfamiliar with the vastness of Egyptian history, Ramses II ruled during the 19th Dynasty (1279-1212 BC). Notice 19th Dynasty? The Great Pyramids were built approx. 1,500 years before Ramses the Great! The famous Greek pharaoh Cleopatra ruled over 1,000 years after Ramses II. She was the last pharaoh and died 30 years before Jesus Christ was born.
Let’s move on to reincarnation. This belief is practiced in Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Before exploring reincarnation, let’s examine the belief in a soul or spirit. The soul or spirit is a belief that encompasses Eastern and Western religions including tribal beliefs. It means we have an existence beyond our physical bodies. Socrates himself had a spiritual belief and even redefined the definition of the soul. He told his followers when he was about to die it mattered not what was done with his physical body after death. Confucius believed our body and spirit must be whole when we present ourselves to our ancestors. This led to alternative medicine such as acupuncture, which was an alternative to surgery which removes parts of the body. It also led to prosthetics so those with missing parts of the body could attempt, through artificial means, to be whole upon death and thereby present themselves whole to their spiritual ancestors.
In reincarnation, we are reborn after we die. Think of this as the flame of a candle being transferred to the wick of another candle. The burning flame is the soul while the candle is the physical body. The candle that burns twice as bright lasts half as long? In reincarnation, we are not simply reborn to whatever new life happens to be available during the time. The state of life we are reborn to depend on karma. Every cause has an effect. What goes around comes around. Good deeds produce good karma while bad deeds produce bad karma. Karma is an Eastern term; however, karma is a popular expression in Western society. It’s a means of justice based on actions. Karma will determine the state of our rebirth after death and also has an impact on our current lives.
Is rebirth based on karma true justice? Can the state of our rebirths through karma be justice without memory of past sins or good deeds committed in past lives? Do we really gain knowledge with every rebirth as is foretold? Shouldn’t this mean the human race would become wiser over time? Some critics maintain reincarnation was developed and promoted to suppress the poor. If you are born poor, it is because of wrong doings in a past life. It is your fault. Do not revolt against the ruling class, but rather live a good life and you’ll be reborn under better circumstances.
For the most part, reincarnation is a never ending cycle. Very few have ended the cycle by reaching the ultimate state of mind and soul nirvana. The definition of the final state of nirvana has to do with total enlightenment through the detachment of all desires. Nirvana exists in both Hinduism and Buddhism. For a Westerner in a capitalist economic system living in a prosperous nation, nirvana is a very difficult concept to grasp or connect with. Desire can bring pain as well as pleasure, but does that make it evil? Is living life meditating and disconnecting from all desires the way to happiness and enlightenment, or should desire and passion be embraced as part of life?
It’s time to move on from resurrection and reincarnation to heaven and hell. When I was a child this was explained as good people would go to heaven and bad people would go to hell. Later I found it was not quite that simple. In today’s culture in America, overwhelmingly the term heaven refers to the Christian’s heaven (also referred to as the kingdom of God, paradise and the great reward). One can reach heaven through belief in Jesus Christ as the son of God, repenting of sins, and spreading the word of Jesus. The exact rules for reaching heaven may vary slightly from denomination or sect (ex. Is baptism required?) Heaven is a beautiful wondrous place where our soul can feel God’s direct presence and glory. Heaven is where God and the angels reside. There is no sin in heaven. This is also no sickness or pain, no sorrow or crying or mourning, no more hunger, thirst and death. Heaven is an exclusive place for the righteous, the wicked will not enter.
Now for the place that’s not so nice. Before Hell let’s explore Hades. In Greek mythology Hades was the brother of Zeus and son of Kronos, who was overthrown by his sons allowing Zeus to take the throne. The universe was divided and Zeus took the sky while Hades took the underworld and Poseidon took the sea.
The dead went to Hades. Their souls were transported across the river Styx. Hades was a place for the dead but not a place of punishment. Hell is a place of punishment. The biblical descriptions of hell include fire and brimstone, fiery oven, judgment by fire and eternal punishment. Punishment includes weeping and gnashing of teeth and no rest day and night. This is where souls go who in life didn’t take the appropriate steps for heaven. Other condemnations aside from non-believers include murderers, thieves, witches, sorcerers and prostitutes. Greed, sexual immorality, jealousy, drunkenness and lying can also land one into the fiery pits. (Evidence for God, What will Hell be Like? http://www.godandscience.org/doctrine/hell.html)
The Italian Catholic poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) wrote of nine circles of hell in his first canticle Inferno of his work Divine Comedy. He used biblical scripture and Greek mythology in his work. As the story goes, Dante is guided through hell by his dearly departed love Beatrice and ancient roman poet Virgil (70-19B.C.). Hell is shaped like a funnel and inside are circles spiraling down to the center.
Circle 1: Limbo – This is where sinless philosophers and pagans reside. Aristotle, Plato and Socrates are here because they were not baptized and didn’t worship God’s trinity.
Circle 2: The Lustful – For those who acted on lust over reason. Residents include Cleopatra and Achilles.
Circle 3: The Gluttonous – For those who spent their lives constantly eating and drinking to excess. Punishment includes freezing rain and getting chewed on by Cerberus the three headed dog.
Circle 4: Hoarders and Wasters – For misers who simply amassed wealth for themselves during their lifetime, and those who spent everything they had on frivolous material objects and things. Punishment includes eternally pushing around heavy boulders.
Circle 5: The Styx – For those who are wrathful. Punishment includes the souls of wrath viciously and relentlessly attacking each other in the murky waters of the Styx.
Circle 6: City of Dis – For the heretics which are those who deny God’s existence. Punishment includes laying in burning hot iron tombs, which will be sealed forever upon judgment day.
Circle 7: The Violent – For those when living were violent toward their neighbors, violent towards their self (suicide), and violent towards God. Punishment varies with sin and includes forever drowning in a boiling river of blood, existing as a tree with regenerating leaves and branches eternally and painfully eaten by Harpies, and laying on burning hot sand.
Circle 8: Malebolge – For the fraudulent. There are many punishments depending on the fraud committed. Punishment includes getting eternally hacked up into pieces and being sunk in a river of excrement.
Circle 9: Cocytus – For the treacherous. This circle is frigidly cold and home of Satan. Punishment includes entombment in ice unable to move or speak. Satan has three mouths that endlessly chew on three sinners; Brutus and Cassius who betrayed and killed Julius Caesar and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus.
(Dante’s Inferno, A Virtual Tour of Hell, http://foxtwin.com/inferno)
Obviously, by any account hell is an awful place. Do Christians believe that all the non-Christians are going to hell? There appears to be division within the faith regarding this. Most Christians today do not believe the billions of people who have different beliefs are condemned to hell IMO. Dogmatic Christians, however, are not as reasonable. The Bible states that God will judge all people righteously.
Jesus preaches tolerance and forgiveness. Allah is proclaimed as forgiving and merciful repeatedly in the Qur’an. When religions preach tolerance, mercy and forgiveness, but are then oppressively intolerant towards people of other religions and beliefs, a major contradiction is revealed. Strength of character should always be considered a higher virtue than obedience.
Now let’s explore the spirit world. The spirit or soul is separate from the body. It contains the essence of who we are and is immortal. As stated earlier, the belief in the spirit appears to transcend the vast majority of the religions. Like the body, the soul can be hurt and can be healed. It’s important to keep both body and soul healthy. The birth of the soul differs in religion. In Islam the soul was born with the body while in Hinduism the soul was born at the beginning of time.
Spiritualists believe the living can communicate with spirits. A medium or person of spiritual ability can communicate with the spirits through séances. Unfortunately, séances held to communicate with the dead have been tied to scams. Could the paranormal spirit world be real? Scientists called parapsychologists study events that cannot be accounted for by natural law. They study perception beyond the five senses such as telepathy and clairvoyance. To this date there is no conclusive evidence of this supernaturalism and many exposed frauds.
Can the soul existing separately from the body be proven? One of the most prominent sources of knowledge at the time of this writing is the study of near death experience. People have recorded out of body experiences such as witnessing events or overhearing conversations away from their bodies that were later verified to be true. Dr. Raymond Moody studied 150 people who had clinically or nearly died and reported his findings. He concluded nine common experiences, which are:
1. Hearing strange sounds
2. Feelings of peace
3. Feelings of painlessness
4. Out-of-body experiences
5. Experiencing a tunnel vortex
6. Rising into the heavens
7. Seeing a bright light and beings of light
8. Experiencing a life review
9. Reluctance to return
(Scientific Evidence for Survival of Consciousness after Death, http://www.near-death.com/evidence.html)
These experiences were common regardless of race, cultural background or religious orientation. Recently it’s been discovered that people don’t need to have a near death experience to have an outer body experience. This phenomenon has been triggered through electronic stimulus to a specific part of the brain. The evidence against the soul is brain injury. Brain imbalance, disease and injuries have been proven to impair intelligence, and change personalities. If the soul is separate from the physical brain how can this be?
Do the spirits have any attachment or influence towards the living world? Those who practice ancestor worship certainly believe so and certainly so do those who believe in ghosts. Ancestor worship or reverence exists in many tribal religions including African and Native American. It also exists in Chinese and Japanese culture. There were also ancient Greek and Roman followers. The souls of our ancestors can bring us good fortune and strength. They can also bring about bad luck. We need to perform the right rituals to gain the favor and thereby resulting good fortune and fate of our departed family members.
And now let’s explore the unpopular belief of non-existence after death, the ultimate equalizer of mankind. This is the belief that we are nothing more than the physical brain and when that shuts down we no longer exist. All consciousness is wiped out completely.
“I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain. Time to die.”
(The movie Blade Runner, 1982)
“This thing all things devours; Birds, beasts, trees, flowers; Gnaws iron, bites steel; Grinds hard stones to meal; Slays king, ruins town, And beats mountain down.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, 1937)
Is there any logical reason to believe anything survives over vast amounts of time? Gods such as the mighty Zeus have been transformed from immortal Gods people worshiped into mere story book characters over time. Is there any logical basis for life after death? Does an eternity in heaven or hell due to an existence of roughly 50-90 years on Earth have any logical bearing? Would the great creator or creators of life really want to deal with all the administration over who goes where after death? Do not humans live and die during their own lifetime? The child becomes an adult.
We are all individuals with innate personalities, but we are also influenced by our environment and experiences. Getting old and life experiences can change us. Some people have mental challenges to deal with that came at birth or at a later time by injury or disease. When people change, what version of their self goes on after death if any?
What difference does anything make if there is no afterworld? Would this mean we should care more or less about ourselves and others? Does this mean we should care more or less about morality and justice? We’re not dead yet. Perhaps everything we see, do, think, and all our memories will eventually be lost in time, like tears in the rain, as if they never existed in the first place, but we are not dead yet. We can still make a difference in this world. Whether you believe in the afterlife or not, there is no reason not to live a full just life, a good life.
“The art of living well and the art of dying well are one.” – Epicurus
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