A friend of mine was speaking to me recently about death, specifically one’s own, the shock of realisation, which prompts me to see if I can put my thoughts down on all this stuff sufficiently succinctly (I leave you to judge. Done me best, m’lud).
We are all well acquainted with the general principle of death, of course, what with the news, relatives and friends killed or dead of disease, the common message of all religions (it’s coming, be prepared), and the cooked meat those of us who are carnivores eat. But it doesn’t ring true for us humans until (at least, in my experience) sometime during one’s fifties or sixties. That’s when the idea of your own death goes from being something you know to be true to being something viscerally Real. And all about You.
Yep, for us all one day that once distant destination hoves into view, just tipping the furthest of one’s far horizons in the beginning, as for the first time you realise deep in your heart and (for all I know) soul, that this all must end for you one day. Really end. Dead.
“Victory Over The Grave”
Christianity, the dominant religion of the northern hemisphere cultures, has always had a hard time with this. Christianity teaches that God is good and Death holds no sway over his followers (all signs to the contrary notwithstanding, but hey). Despite this promise, Christians recoil from death. They have a crucified man become reincarnate as their central image, the promise of God that he will make up for all this awful life we live, don’t worry, trust him. Etc. I expect this is in large part because it is a religion of people who live in some of the hardest environments in a difficult world. Life is fatal, and quite painful in the process. Let there be some recompense awaiting us.
Believers in an eternal afterlife, meaning that state of being alive and themselves forever, much as they are now on earth, only perfected in the process, whatever that means (a concept that is unique to the Arabian-European cultures, incidentally), take comfort in the thought that they’ll get their compensation there. It is to be noted that the most common visions of heaven are pretty much of the north of Europe with better weather and only pleasant people to deal with, lions lying with lambs and so forth. The religions of the equatorial and sub-equatorial cultures, apart from some low level heavens more or less equivalent to the Christian concept of Purgatory, generally offer oblivion as our last reward, becoming absorbed into “The Timeless Being”, a state we are to be sure will be bliss, as in Samadhi, or Nirvana, Godhead, and other such names. All religions, come to think of it, seem to agree you wind up in bliss, howsoever achieved, when you’re dead, which is nice to think, don’t you agree? You may have read my earlier blog about my ideas about the northern and southern hemisphere cultures, in which case you’ll know I think it’s a lot to do with the weather. Life in the north has always been tougher, freezing winters, drought ridden hot seasons, all that. It not only makes people generally look on life as a struggle, but also look for a reason for putting up with it, some kinda justice in this damn world, even if they have to be dead to enjoy it. Heaven is the obvious reward to offer, and Christianity dutifully sets about doing that.
Of course, to such secularist agnostics as me, the most significant fact of this or any belief system that mankind has come up with, is that we would not, in all probability, have heard of Christ, for instance, if the Emperor Constantine had not recruited him to his cause when attacking Rome, a war he won (hence Emperor), thanks be to Jesus, so he claimed, Hallelujah, and here we are, a Christian culture whether you believe in god or not. Just think, without Constantine we might all be Mithraists to this day.
Mithras (not sure what the bull is about)
A lot of Mithraism was incorporated into Christianity in any case, both Jesus and Mithras are said to be born of a virgin, ascended bodily into heaven, carried out miracles, raising the dead and so on; and for the first five hundred years of Christianity, Christ was portrayed as clean shaven and golden haired, like Mithras, and no doubt after the tradition of Alexander the Great. Thus are iconic images made, out of power, and the need to communicate with and govern mostly uneducated, uninformed people. As Brexit and Trump perhaps prove (we have Plato and Rome to thank for this), the people should not be trusted to rule sensibly, best to leave politics to the professionals; Divine Right and all that. Reigion is a useful tool in establishing this.
Which brings me to the present day. An interesting and as far as I know not much (if at all) remarked aspect in the recent US presidential election campaign is that neither candidate mentioned God or much about religion except endorsing the constitutional right to freedom of belief and so on. For the last couple of decades, God has been pretty much front and centre, as Americans might say, in their politics, especially the presidential race. God started getting in the conversation in the 80s, and was a sine qua non this century, so much so that early primary candidates have been known to claim God told them to run.
Religion was commandeered by politics as the way to control the citizens, my guess would be during the formation of primitive society in the lead up to the Iron Age, but anyway for at least 1700 years in Europe and its diaspora (the Roman Emperor Constantine used Christianity to motivate his army around 350AD – he claimed he saw Jesus leading him into battle). Since their cultures pre-date the European by millennia I’d assume politicians, kings, warlords and their ilk got their hold on religion much earlier in Asia, Arabia, the Persian Empire, and Africa. Islam, one should add, stands alone in this phenomenon of organised world religions, as the only religion for which both the spiritual inspiration and the political manipulator were the same man, Mohammed.
Why do I think about such things? Apart from the fun, as a French philosopher once remarked, to be had from discussing unanswerable subjects, it is because I believe there are two central arenas in which the battle for the future of our democratic societies will be fought: the first, between the polity, our society as a social organisation, and global corporations (another time); and the second, between religion and secularism. I mentioned the recent election because one might expect a demagogue to use religion, as it has always been used in the past, and is used to this day by the demagogic/theocratic governments of the Islamic world, closest to home being Erdogan in Turkey, and as it has been used to varying degrees in America since its inception. And, of course, Europe, pretty much until the end of World War 2. But now Trump makes it without a word on the subject, certainly no hand to his heart proclamation of faith. A good sign, I like to think, in the otherwise murky promise of the man…
This usurpation of our search for meaning and guidance in our lives to serve political purposes is a sad end for the ambitions of those people who first attempted to explain the inexplicable by describing their ideas on god or whatever it is. I always liked the Hindu answer to “What is God?” – “Not this; not that”. Or as the 12th Century Christian mystic Meister Eckhardt wrote “Everything you say about God is wrong.” The definition, as it were, of god is that it is beyond definition. This should apply to atheists as much as believers. How can we possibly know one way or the other? I’m with Iris Diment on this: “But no one knows for certain, and so it’s all the same to me/ I think I’ll just let the mystery be.
Everyone has experienced an exceptionally fortunate coincidence, that it is tempting at least, to attribute to an intervening god or spirit (or fairy, leprechaun. I could go on). No doubt it is comforting to hope said god will also see you through the bad times (I like the story of the footprints in the sand). But, of course, there’s no down to earth good reason not to dismiss it as mere chance, as life itself may be, though I’ve read that the plethora of coincidences that led to carbon based life are legion to the point where one might think Someone fixed it.
Of course the bottom line is what does it matter? The only way to confirm the truth of any sort of existence beyond this universe is to be dead, at which time it won’t matter to anyone else but you (and possibly not you either). Religions, human beliefs in the supra-natural in general, all encourage kindness and social respect – Love thy neighbour, as Jesus put it. One way or another they all aim at harmony among people (this acquiescent atmosphere being why it is so useful to our rulers). This is enough, it serves us here, which is all we can know, after all.
Unfortunately, at the hands of a lot of us mere mortals hoping to outguess their god, the definition of “people” has been interpreted as meaning fellow believers, often to the mortal detriment of the remaining so-called non-believers. This is entirely the fault of political manipulation. Mohammed has been the most recently “quoted out of context” of the great religious founders, but he has only himself to blame. He was a politician, a war leader to boot, so one cannot be surprised if the Q’ran occasionally encourages killing enemies of Islam/Mohammed, it probably served his military purposes. But let’s not forget the Q’ran also contains the founding thoughts of a great religion of compassion and charity. Go figure. The New Testament doesn’t have a word of encouragement to kill non-believers but Christians have been happy to slaughter in the name of their god nevertheless, and generally assume he is on their side in any conflict. As also Islamic fundamentalists in our current blighted world.
ISIS fighters demonstrate their confident belief in their righteousness.
So perhaps the issue is not god but the idea that the way to solve our differences is through violence and death, and how religion has been twisted to serve our earthly needs and desires. I can’t imagine any god with even merely a passing interest in us would be happy with this. Not to say I expect such a god to hold human life above all other forms of life. If there is some all-encompassing force that holds this universe together, then surely it has the viruses and bacteria to look after too, and besides, the fact is, nothing can be allowed to live forever in this universe, if only because, as we know, the sum total of matter in it is finite. We have to die to provide the material for life.
And so on it goes, tra-la…