Sat | Aug 18, 2018

Religion & Culture | The finality of death: The afterlife is a fools paradise

Published:Sunday | May 13, 2018 | 12:00 AMDr Glenville Ashby

There is nothing to fear beyond death because there is nothing there to fear, not even the consciousness of nothingness.

- Lucretius

The living at least know that they will die, but the dead know nothing. They have no further reward, nor are they remembered.

- Ecclesiastes 9:5

The afterlife, if it exists, is a subject that has captured the imagination of ancient peoples, present-day theologians, scientists, and lay persons.

For many, it remains an unfathomable, indefinable mystery. Others, in particular, theologians, have gone to great lengths to describe this inscrutable abode that awaits every man. It is with conviction, based on scripture, that they stake their position.

The goodness of God, according to the Reverend Harry Fosdick, is plainly at stake when one discusses immortality, "for if death ends all, the Creator is building men like sand houses on the shore, caring not a whit that the fateful waves will quite obliterate them".

 

FEAR OF DEATH

 

Nothing rattles the emotions more than death. Fear of death has haunted man since time immemorial. The obsession with immortality, the drive to conquer death has taken many forms.

In China, emperors (4th century BCE - 9th century CE), sought immortality from alchemical elixirs made of mineral and metallic substances. This risky indulgence claimed the lives of many rulers.

Egyptologists detail the elaborate burial rites of pharaohs. Hindus' reincarnation guarantees an endless cycle of birth and rebirth. Spiritualism is consumed with communicating with loved ones who have crossed over.

Theosophy revolves around so-called ascended masters and cosmic guides that reside in the spiritual planes. And Christianity (which began as a Jewish apocalyptic movement) and Islam have all but created other worlds and a fantastical resurrection drama, all in an attempt to ultimately vanquish death.

Christianity's afterlife is particularly inventive. Burdened and embarrassed by the non-appearance of Jesus, as he promised in their lifetime (Matthew 16:24-34; Luke 21:27-32; 1 Corinthians 7:27, 29-32), his ardent followers ingeniously manufactured new doctrines.

So Christians (not unlike Muslims) now conveniently await a grand physical resurrection.

In many ways, the fear of death is a primal response to the unknown. Death reveals the overriding drive to preserve the ego. The dissolution of the ego (personality) to which we hinge our very identity and existence is difficult to accept.

Religion has compounded this natural fear of death by creating an afterlife where rewards and punishments are doled out by an anthropomorphic god. Religion has crafted the most suffocating of dictatorships - a mental siege - where our every thought is monitored and weighed by a divine ruler.

Still, many are willing to accept the terms of this oppression. After all, death can be conquered if only they are saved through grace and good works from the eternal horrors of hellfire.

Our helplessness in the face of injustice has also made the afterlife credible. Surely, evildoers will get their comeuppance. Those we spite and those on whom we have hoisted our own frailties and hatred deserve their just rewards in the afterlife.

And it's in the celestial heavens that we imagine our loved ones. They must be there, immortal. We are comforted by these thoughts for they are our assurances. Our unwavering attachment to the ego needs these guarantees.

The great religions of the world have pedalled this incredulous drama that is based solely on the fertile imaginations (hallucinations) of zealots called 'prophets' who, by today's medical standards, would be unkindly labelled.

Because millions embrace this narrative does not make it true. We are well aware of how religious doctrines were disseminated.

What then is the truth concerning death and the afterlife?

Dualistic psychology is heavily invested in faith, oral tradition, and scripture. It propagates that the soul survives death while retaining its personality and identity.

 

DEATH IS FINAL

 

On the other hand, monism teaches that death is final, that the personality and the body are indissolubly bound. While dualism cannot be validated, monism is 'measured' by biological laws and neuropsychological findings.

Naturalist Corliss Lamont argues this position in his book The Illusion of Mortality. He writes, "(On the) extraordinary experiences and activity of thinking, it is true, in a way, that the whole body thinks, just as the whole body - every cell of which needs and takes in oxygen - breathes, just as the whole man walks."

He continues: "Memory patterns ... millions and billions of them, are all embedded in the grey cortical matter of the brain. It is difficult beyond measure to understand how they could survive after the dissolution, decay and destruction of the living brain in which they had their original locus."

Lamont states that the mind is part of the personality and that the personality is very much a quality of the body, not independent of it. He asserts that "the personality cannot exist in the same way the flame of the candle without its wax base".

Belief that death is final rings with selflessness, detachment, acceptance, and wisdom, noble attributes that the world sorely needs.

Belief that death is final, removes fear and superstition that have long run roughshod over the human psyche. And belief that death is final means rejecting the religious concept of God, while still being open to another reality that we just cannot fathom at this time.

And of so-called mystical experiences involving the afterlife, we must refer to the phenomenology of the mind. Injecting the supernatural soul to explain the so-called inexplicable only takes us deeper into a state of ignorance.

And worry not that disbelief in the afterlife will cause mayhem and evil.

As I stated in my article: 'Humanism, not religion, is the path to salvation' (The Sunday Gleaner April 15, 2018), personal responsibility, ethics, and compassion have nought to do with religion.

Neuroscience has proved that within us is the innate capacity for good. The 'compassion gene' has always facilitated love, fidelity, kinship, and camaraderie.

To believe in the finality of death is to celebrate life.

Death is a biological process we see played out daily. Indeed, death "provides for a perpetual fountain of youth". And "remarkable as humans bodies are, nature eventually discards them for fresh ones".

Fittingly, I must borrow from Corliss:

"It is my conviction that the frank recognition of human mortality, far from undermining morals and stopping progress, will do exactly the opposite. People will realise that here and now, if ever, they must develop their possibilities, win happiness for themselves and others, and take their stand and do their part in the enterprises that seem highest."

- Dr Glenville Ashby is the award-winning author of 'Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend and Bridge to Enlightenment and Creativity'. His new book, 'In Search of Truth: A Course in Spiritual Psychology', is scheduled for release this month. Feedback: glenvilleashby@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby