23 February 2015

A cosmically significant demise


In a longtime favorite book of mine, Religion Explained, anthropologist Pascal Boyer argues that contrary to the shoot-from-the-hip explanation, religion hasn't given us an afterlife just to ease our anxieties about death. The idea that our mortality is unbearable or that religion provides salvation is culturally specific, not a general characteristic of either humans or religion [p.21]. The popular jab from non-believers that a hereafter provides some kind of disingenuous comfort to credulous fools is a wanting explanation for two reasons — one, because a comforting fantasy is well enough, but it must have some air of plausibility for believers to act upon it; and two, because in order to be comforted by the idea of salvation in the hereafter, one must first become convinced that there is something to be saved from.

Anxiety about death is certainly a real human phenomenon. Boyer mentions studies in which participants are asked to read passages from stories or articles which highlight the inevitability of death; they are then asked a series of unrelated questions on topics such as social justice or ethnic stereotypes [p.205]. Their reactions are compared to participants who read stories or articles that did not mention mortality, and researchers find that those who read 'mortality-salient' prose were much harsher in their judgments than those who did not. Thought of our mortality seems to trigger deep anxieties that may express themselves in reactionary behaviors. Yet it appears that this is still an insufficient explanation for belief in an afterlife, because we're wired by evolution not to survive at all costs, but to pass on our genes. In environments in which an organism must frequently choose between surviving without passing on its genes and dying but passing on its genes, the latter scenario generally wins out [p.183].


The idea that people are judged in death is also a cultural idiosyncrasy. In many cultures, dead people simply become spirits, and exist in some vaguely defined plane that loosely intersects with the mortal coil in that people can communicate with their ancestors and that these ancestral spirits, though invisible, can still move about the Earth. This change of state is seen not as a reward or punishment for moral behavior, but as the natural course of existence. Religious funeral rituals the world over are characterized by an emphasis on a transition from this life to some other one, using metaphors of journeys and new beginnings, but tend to be rather vague about the destination itself [p.211].

We tend to take for granted the culturally ingrained idea, pervasive in Western monotheism, that our existence here is not merely transient but is also cosmically insignificant in comparison to the grandeur that awaits us in the hereafter. What we do in this life, so our culture tells us, is only significant to the degree that it prepares us for something lasting and deeper, something in which our more fundamental ethereal form escapes our damaged flesh and its carnal trappings and realizes its purest form. This is by no means a ubiquitous cultural idea, and we should resist the temptation to hastily cast such idiosyncratic memes onto the wide umbrella of religion itself.

Theologians delight in speculating about death and opining about our cosmic insignificance, but few people engage in or care about speculative theology. And if we examine such speculative theology more closely, we can see that even the theologians are less concerned with cosmic significant and more fixated on the dissociative nature of death. We know that people die, but we still think about them and can experience emotions intertwined with their memories. And while we may be able to conceive of death as an eternal silent darkness, we can't conceive of simple nothingness, precisely because there's nothing to conceive. It's difficult for us to imagine a true finality to our existence.

When Western theologians claim that our lives only have meaning if they have some eternal, cosmic significance, I don't believe them. And by that I don't mean simply that I disagree with their perspective, but I think they don't really believe that themselves. I sincerely doubt that even the most pretentious academic theologian believes that their first kiss, time spent with their children, or listening to their favorite piece of music or poetry is only meaningful if they have an ethereal soul that continues in some ineffable immortal existence after their bodily demise; the precise nature of disembodied immortality and the sublime happiness of such fleeting moments are, in our day to day experience, radically disconnected thoughts. Rather, I think what they are really concerned with is being forgotten. Death carries with it something difficult for us to accept; as Christopher Hitchens deadpanned in his memoir shortly before he died in 2012, it's not that the party is ending — it's that the party is still going, but you're being asked to leave [1]. Worse, death is a reminder of our aloneness; it's a path we must take ourselves, and we've no choice but to leave behind the people and experiences we cherish.

But there's more. I don't think we are concerned with being remembered in a broad sense, but being forgotten by those close to us. Writing for This American Life, Ira Glass challenges readers to remember ten people from the 15th Century [2]. Chances are that unless you are a historian, you can't. And frankly, I doubt many of us would care whether we're remembered in 600 years. Even if we are remembered for great deeds or creative works, those things cannot capture who we are. Sure, most people know that Isaac Newton discovered the laws of motion. But what was he like? He was, most assuredly, as complex and unique as any of us, hardly able to have the entirety of his personhood summarized in his scientific achievements.

When I say that what theologians fear is being forgotten, I mean it in a much more personal way. We want to feel as though the things we do matter to other people. We humans are much more concerned with the relationships have with our own in-groups than with nebulous approval of distant peoples. A father wants to pass on his values and wisdom so that his children may lead better lives; a soldier sacrifices his own life so that his fellow countrymen may be able to live in peace. The father does not concern himself with the effects of his values on people in the year 2754 any more than the solider concerns himself with bringing peace to the distant tribal cultures. We want to be valued by our own kin and peers, not by distant people whom we've never met.

I think it's important to recognize not only that most people are not concerned with speculative theology, but that the theologian's religion isn't the people's religion. That is, the way religious beliefs play out in day to day scenarios is divorced from the pretenses of academia. People are generally not preoccupied with grand existential dilemmas, but with how supernatural causes intersect with their own lives. To that end, few people care about the precise nature of an afterlife, what exactly a disembodied mind is, what eternity might be like, or other such esoteric musings. Rather, people talk about reuniting with deceased loved ones (and sometimes pets), reliving their favorite experiences, or being relieved of suffering and regret. In other words, there's an immediacy to people's perspective of the afterlife that isn't captured by academic theology. We don't generally hear people say that they're looking forward to Heaven so they can meet humans who lived as primitive hunter-gatherers, or that they're looking forward to hearing what kinds of music aliens listen to. They're concerned with the continuity and relevance of their own experiences interpersonal relationships.

Notice, too, that theological musings on the cosmic significance of life are inevitably intertwined with moral philosophy. Theologians' concern is that in divorcing ourselves from cosmic meaning, we lose moral accountability for our everyday actions. What is disguised as an existential rumination is really a concern with how people behave in the here and now. I suspect most academic theologians would readily concede that moral norms are not just arbitrary behaviors designed as a test to determine whether we're worthy of Heaven, but that values like love thy neighbor as yourself are there to help us live more fulfilling, happy lives.

The truth is, we aren't as concerned with grand cosmic significance as we might be led to believe. We want to be loved, valued, and accepted by those closest to us, to share in life's sublime experiences, and to guide others toward the things we feel make life richer and more rewarding. Whether our lives leave any lasting legacies or lead us into a perfect hereafter are the kind of concerns that don't preoccupy us or affect our behavior. And once we realize where the substance of our concern really lies, we can accept our fleeting existence for what it is and do our best to make the most of it.

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