Everyone wants to live forever. Is that what made religions so popular?
The ceremony has begun. It is not one of celebration, but one of loss. A subdued buzz of voices fills the air, and abruptly comes to a stop. It is time to lay the deceased to rest.
The body, now devoid of life, is being gently wrapped in a white sheet. It is laid on the funeral pyre, amidst heaps of gold, earthen vessels and cloth — the basic requirements for a life after death. An orange glow fills the sky as the pyre burns, cutting the soul’s physical tie to the mortal world.
Death often goes hand in hand with some form of religion. Westerners tend to think of religion beginning about 2,700 years ago with descriptions of events in the Old Testament. However, these records were pre-dated by religions in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and India, which existed more than 1,400 years earlier. Furthermore, evidence has been found for the existence of religion in caves occupied by our distant human ancestors more than 100,000 years ago.
Why has religion been so ubiquitous in human societies over the ages? Many explanations have been proposed. Perhaps religion provided a pre-scientific rationale for events in a capricious and hostile world. This rationale would have persisted into modern times through indoctrination of successive generations.
Another explanation centres around the celestial father or mother figures featured in most religions. Such figures offer a great sense of comfort and support, especially in troubled times.
Then again, to a species that is aware of its own impending death, the idea of an afterlife is very appealing. We humans are hardwired to ensure our own survival and that of our offspring. After all, that is how we evolved and multiplied.
If an afterlife exists, it is natural for us to want to extend this survival instinct to cover it.
Most religions offer some form of afterlife, whether it be an immortal soul, a resurrected body, a reincarnation as another person or animal, or becoming one with their God.
Belief in an afterlife comes with a bit of a credibility stretch: with the exception of mythical and biblical characters, no one has yet come back from one to tell us what it is like. Nonetheless, the tendency is to believe in it anyway, because it is a whole lot better than the alternative.
The afterlife offered by religions may come with some ancillary requirements such as belief in an invisible and magical God to whom you must pray or seek forgiveness for your worldly sins to secure your right of passage.
While immortality for the individual is one thing, immortality for humanity is another. You can think of each human life as a bud on the vine of humanity, which unfurls into full bloom, drops its seed, and then withers and dies, only to be replaced by the next season’s blooms. Humans die; humanity lives on.
But such a metaphor does not work for most of us seeking individual immortality, partly because we are somewhat distant from buds on other branches of the vine — that is, from the rest of humanity beyond our families, friends and workmates. The exception, of course, is charity, which represents an unselfish concern for the rest of humanity, not necessarily related to the desire for an afterlife. Yet, according to not a few religions, it might help to secure a favourable one.
The appeal of a personal afterlife arises from the way we evolved to perceive ourselves as individuals, albeit individuals who act in a social setting. The survival of the individual (and offspring) is paramount; the survival of the social group is just a means to that end. Hence, any feeling of comfort from being survived by the ongoing social group or humanity in general is unlikely to cut it for you as an individual craving an afterlife.
Another reason this “bud on the vine of humanity” metaphor does not satisfy our desire for an afterlife is that we are a lot more than our physical bodies.
Unlike plants, we also have a mental life, which emerges from our brains. Internally, this is our subjective mind and consciousness. Externally, it is our emotional, social and intellectual interaction with other people and the world at large. We would want this mental world to continue into any afterlife as well. For what is a body without a mind, or for that matter, a mind without a body?
Interestingly, some people today are seeking to preserve their minds, and even their bodies, on this earth, beyond death.
Not only religions, but also entrepreneurs and scientists, have been quick to join the quest for an afterlife. Unable to claim access to another world, as do religions, they seek immortality in this world through new science and technology.
The human cryogenics movement proposes to freeze your body just before death and keep it frozen until such a time as the science becomes available to revive you to enjoy everlasting life. Mind you, no one knows how human cells, particularly brain cells and their informational content, would survive prolonged freezing.
Another proposal is to upload the content in your brain before death to a computer or the cloud to create a digital clone of your mind. For your cloned mind to live and interact with the world around it would require some future human (or robot) to want to “play” it; otherwise, it is just going to sit idly on a server in the cloud, like a book gathering dust on the shelves of a backroom library stack.
Anyone aspiring to an earthly afterlife is in a sense a religious zealot. This is because the science and technology to bring it about do not exist; and belief is required that they will do so some day in the future.
Religions have been able to persist into this modern world in which we have scientific explanations for how the universe, life and humans evolved — explanations which were previously provided by traditional religion. The latter’s persistence may have something to do with the offer of an afterlife in another world which has had appeal to humans across the globe, and for all time. This appeal may originate from the way we have been hardwired by evolution to strive to live as long as possible in this world in order to maximize our chances of siring, bearing and rearing children.
Evolution has left us with the desire to live forever, but without the earthly equipment to do so. Thus, early humans had to improvise an afterlife using their fertile imaginations; and religions have been doing likewise ever since.