The idea of avoiding death through some kind of belief in the afterlife is one of the most powerful driving forces behind religious belief1. For many people, (1) the personal desire to survive death and (2) the personal desire for social justice both conspire to make belief in the afterlife feel right. Some historians say that belief in an afterlife is one of the universal traits of primitive Human culture that led to the founding of our religions2, and it continues to fuel the appeal of faith even today, in the 21st century. Actual beliefs have differed from culture to culture, based mostly on geographic location. Historically many cultures believed that all dead folk (good and bad) go to a single underworld, but Christianity and Islam developed their ideas of heaven and hell into a very black-and-white moralistic affair. Now, many people say their fear of hell is one of the reasons they follow their religion3. Most spiritual experiences throughout the rest of the world rest on the idea of continual reincarnation rather than on heaven. The concept of an ultimate scheme which redresses the moral imbalances of the world is common to religion both in the West and in the East. God, or Karma, works to make sure that good people are rewarded, and bad people taught a lesson. It teaches us that we have a powerful social instinct towards justice, and when we don't find it in this life, it is very soothing for us to believe that it is found in the next4. There is no actual evidence for any kind of afterlife5 and in many countries where scientific knowledge is high, belief in the afterlife has heavily declined. In 2013, only 33% of the British public said that they believe in an afterlife6.
Over a hundred years ago the psychologist William James taught that normal Human beings hide death away. Later David Clark in "Sociology of Death, the" (1993)7 devotes a chapter to the way that we in the West, have secluded all things bloody from common sight. We clinicalize death, so that only trained professionals have anything to do with the practical side of blood, slaughter, bodies, funerals and burials8,9. This denial of reality extends far and wide amongst the masses. Dead bodies do not litter the floor of battlefields in films and in computer games corpses fade away majestically and discretely. We are so far removed from the natural cycle of life that some parents even worry about how to explain to their children about where beefburgers and sausages come from. Even one's own future death hardly features in public angst, except where the subconscious, desperate, finds expression in dreams.
“We divert our attention from disease and death as much as we can; and the slaughter-houses and indecencies without end on which our life is founded are huddled out of sight and never mentioned, so that the world we recognize officially in literature and in society is a poetic fiction far handsomer and cleaner and better than the world that really is.”
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“Many people believe that one of the greatest appeals of religion is that it provides reassurance against the spectre of death10,11. The very thought of the permanent cessation of our consciousness can be terrifying, confusing and difficult to accept. Any theory that posits our ultimate survival can have a lot of appeal. This isn't a new revelation; Roman philosopher Lucretius (99-55BCE) famously said "fear was the first thing on Earth to make gods"12 and the 19th century anthropologist Bronishaw Malinowski argued that religion gives us a sense of power over death13. At the turn of the century William James, devoted to the study of comparative religion and psychology, says that "the ancient saying that the first maker of the Gods was fear receives voluminous corroboration from every age of religious history"14. Later the astute Albert Einstein wrote "with primitive man it is above all fear that evokes religious notions - fear of... death"15. Biologist E. O. Wilson studies the neurobiological basis of human behaviour, and states that the "foremost" religious drive is the one that "hunger[s] for a permanent existence"12. Aside from theory, modern sociological and psychological research has supported this position. A review of studies by Soenke et al. (2013) found that "one variable showing particular importance in protecting individuals from anxiety about death is the belief in an afterlife" which was bolstered by "active commitment and practice" of their religion. The stronger the belief, the less the anxiety about death.”
Our concept of a soul surviving death has had a gradual and uncertain history. Whilst the general idea of our consciousness being a "thing" in its own right is prehistorical, the specific explanations that people give for this feeling have differed greatly.
“Despite a rather widespread lack of definition regarding man's post-mortem fate, conceptions of afterlife differed greatly among Indian tribes of North America. [...] Most tribes held than humans possessed more than one soul (usually a 'free' soul and a 'life' or 'breath' soul), the former departing the body at death, perhaps lingering for some time near the corpse, before passing. [...] The soul might be required to pass a test before entering the land of the dead. A Shaman might act as the soul's guide. [...] Elaborate funeral rites were intended to effect the soul's smooth transition to the other world.”
Native American folk are not the only ones to be found preparing for an afterlife. Over 2000 years ago before the turn of the Current Era, the rich and the powerful left us world wonders in both China and Egypt:
“The greatest archaeological find of the twentieth century, perhaps of all time, the terra-cotta army of Qin Shi Huang was discovered in 1974 by peasants digging a well not far from Qin's tomb. Only a few hundred of the terra-cotta figures had been uncovered when I was taken to the site a few years later as a member of a scientific delegation from the University of Maryland. Since that time, more than 8,000 life-size terra-cotta warriors and horses, strategically deployed to guard Qin's tomb, have been unearthed. These soldiers are not mass-produced look-alikes, turned out of a mold like a child's toy soldiers. No two are alike. The various battalions even exhibit different racial features, reflecting the widespread regions that had been united under Qin. They were individually sculpted from living soldiers in Qin's vast army. [...]
Qin Shi Huang was the most powerful man in the world. He could have anything he desired no matter what it cost. Yet much of the wealth of his empire was squandered on the one thing he could not buy: an extension of his power beyond the grave. Quite independently, the pharaohs in Egypt had constructed the Great Pyramids for the same reason.”
Even greater than the differences of opinion as to how to prepare for death, or about what the soul actually is (or how many of them we each have), are the disagreements as to what happens after death. The very concept of "heaven" and "hell" took quite a while to enter into popular stories. Many afterlives are described merely as a land of the dead - such as Hades. The concept of a generic "underworld", where all people go after death, is by far the most common experience of historical humankind. In the "The Encyclopedia of Religion" (1987)17 it says that "tales of heroic journeys to the underworld, often undertaken on behalf of the entire community, are extremely widespread among tribal peoples throughout the world"18. In Egyptian and pre-Vedic Indian culture there was no experience of variations in post-mortem abodes: there was just the afterlife18. Over time some cultures developed the idea of a "good" afterlife for select people who behaved in the correct way for that culture, such as Valhalla for fallen warriors. Moralists imagined that only the morally good get to "heaven" or "paradise", whilst the majority of mankind simply die forever. Some of the more bitter folk amongst us dreamt up hell to place those people who have been bad in life (click here for a description of hell in world religions). And aside from all of those conceptions of a final resting place for us all, a large number of Eastern religions have come to completely different conclusions about the migration of the self after death: Reincarnation is as prehistorical a belief as any other and also fused with moral thinking. It is true that these conceptions of the hereafter contradict each other in major ways and therefore large portions of mankind have held spiritual beliefs about our futures which simply are not true.
In Siberia the Shamans know that the dead enjoy lives in the underworld that are very much like the living: they hunt, they fish, and they chatter to relatives. After people's death, Shamans must actually help a spirit get into the underworld, else they become lost spirits, causing problems for the living.19,20. Such a contrast to the deluge of Christian mystics with their heaven and hell - where spirits cannot be guided, and god sends spirits to the right place. At least one of those two groups of people is completely wrong about their culture's entire experience of the spiritworld and of the afterlife.
Siberian Shamans' knowledge of the afterlife also contradicts the experiences of North American Shamen. Versluis documents how many North American tribes believed in a sky realm where people lived happily after death (where the seasons were also reversed), and a world below for "those who are punished in the afterlife"21. And in another complete divergence from the spiritual truths known outside of America, Thunder Cloud was a Shaman from Winnebago who "maintained that he was able to consciously recall two previous incarnations. In the second he actually watched the people burying him after his death"22. Therefore, reincarnation was the destiny of the dead. It is not the case that we could declare that in reality, some spirits get lost, most go the underworld, and some are reincarnated. That's not what Shamanism teaches us. Those who can soul travel and actually talk to spirits are told by the spirits what the score is with afterlife. So why it is that in North America, Shamen find themselves reincarnated, but no Shamen elsewhere have discovered this? And why do the spirits of the underworld not correct the errors of North American Shamans, and tell them that actually spirits need guiding to the underworld, else they get lost? And why do Apache indians think that ghosts return in the form of owls? These contradictions in beliefs teaches us one main thing: these believers are not in touch with any reality except that which their local culture has taught them. A lot of people are simply wrong about the beliefs that they cherish, and beliefs that are backed up with strong personal and cultural testimonies.”
“Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.”
Judaism has a much more ambiguous stance on the afterlife than Christianity and Islam. The Messiah, who will one day come to fulfil the promises made in the Old Testament by God, will usher in a time when the dead will awake from their sleep, to be judged by God23. But "references to the underworld in the Hebrew scriptures are vague and derive largely from beliefs common throughout the ancient Near East (especially Egypt and Babylonia)"18 and Judaism's afterlife is akin to "the underworld" of traditional and ancient cultures from around the world.
“In the Old Testament, the soul is life itself, breathed into the body by God. While traditional Judaism does not regard death as the end of human existence, it has no dogma of an afterlife, and a range of opinions can be found among Jewish scholars. Christianity, on the other hand, made human immortality its foundational principle, the doctrine probably most responsible for the long success of that faith. The power of Islam can also be attributed to the promise of an afterlife, with dark-eyed maidens providing eternal pleasure (for men, anyway).”
"God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist"
Prof. Victor J. Stenger (2007)24
The concept of heaven is not universal in religion. Many of the most ancient religions have no such concept; the ancestor-worship of many natives, for example, has the afterlife as a more or less earthly affair. Many religions - even including much of Judaism has an abode of the dead, but, it is rather mundane. Heaven, as a perfect place of happiness, togetherness, light and proximity to God / truth / etc, was a concept that developed over time. It becomes most prominent as a feature of pagan Gnostic religions in the Roman Empire, where this world was seen as a trap which needed to be escaped from. The same is true of the idea of Nirvana in Hinduism and Buddhism25. Gnosticism was highly influential on early Christianity, hence, the idea of a transcendental and eternal heaven spread throughout the West in its idealistic form.
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The history of hell in Western culture is derived from Christian mythology, which accepted a shadowy and ill-defined concept of the afterlife in Judaism and combined it with some misunderstood verses from the Hebrew Scriptures, mostly to do with the Valley of Gehenna where criminals were sometimes burnt. It fundamentally contradicts the Western concept of a moral God (a place of "infinite punishment for finite sins"). In the Western world, many people say their fear of hell is one of the reasons they follow their religion26. Across the rest of the world the concept of hell has mostly been very poorly defined or dismissed; it does not fit in with much of the rest of the world's concepts of reincarnation and the cycles of life. Nonetheless in modern times it is a universally understood concept, even if not actually taken seriously.
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Robert L. Park in "Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science" (2008)27 disdainfully points out that you can cover "everything that's known about heaven in less time than it takes to watch the Super Bowl. That's because we really don´t know anything". There simply is no evidence at all about the afterlife. In all cases where it has been possible to study a story about the afterlife, the findings have been negative or inconclusive due to lack of evidence. It seems that if there is an afterlife there is a perfectly effective conspiracy hiding it from scientists and investigators.
“Our emotions are physical in nature. Biological effects can have deep and profound effects on our true selves. Degenerative diseases of the brain can erode personality, brain damage can cause sudden changes in character, tumours can alter our feelings and biochemical imbalances radically swing our moods. Neurologists have delved deep into the brain and discovered that depression, love, niceness, politeness, aggression, abstract thinking, judgement, patience, instincts and memories have turned out to have biochemical causes28, not spiritual ones, and can all be radically affected by brain damage and brain surgery. This is all only possible if consciousness and emotions are all physical, with no need for soul theory.
If there was a soul, brain damage could not also damage our emotional feelings: but it does. Electrical stimulation of the brain causes actual desire to arise instantly. If memory, behaviour and emotions are all controlled by the physical brain, what is a soul for? Any free will it exerts is promptly overridden by biological chemistry hence why so many diseases have an uncontrollable effect on personality. Modern science proves that the idea of souls is misguided. Everything is biological.”
“There is no heaven of glory bright, and no hell where sinners roast. Here and now is our day of torment! Here and now is our day of joy! Here and now is our opportunity! Choose ye this day, this hour, for no redeemer liveth!”
It is harder to find a religion that so thoroughly rejects the idea of an afterlife. My own pages on Satanism expand on this idea:
Satanism is about reality. In reality, all living beings die. There are no exceptions. Satanism, in embracing life and indulgence, is in effect striving against death. However, it is inevitable that death will eventually win. Satan, representing reality and the Human condition, symbolizes the victory of death. This eternal truth is more meaningful and potent than deceitful symbols of life, of reincarnation and of other spiritual pipe dreams.”
While Plutarch, Plato and gnostic texts describe this life as a prison, Satanists consider it a party! I may be a biased person to say so, but I think the Satanists have got something right if they don't want release from this life!”