The direction of last things
I’m writing this piece on the first day after Easter Sunday. Most will know this is the most important and oldest festival of the Christian Church, celebrating the resurrection of Christ. For me, it also marks the passing of a close family friend after a long illness. It’s times like today that urge us to reflect about life, the meaning of life, and the role religion plays when facing death.
Aldous Huxley once wrote most human beings behave as though death were no more than an unfounded rumor. But what happens when you realize the rumor is true. Many see death as a new beginning. We say a person passed away. In Judaism for example the word 'death' is avoided altogether since the person's soul does not ever die. Instead, it passes away or passes on to a different plane of reality, a spiritual realm.
Not all of us have a strong religious predilection and yet the idea of saints and sinners, heaven and hell still shape our thinking. What will lead and inspire us in a world free of all gods. How can an atheist find meaning in life. How can we face death without the comfort of the afterlife.
More and more people today believe there is no God. Religious values, however, have dominated our lives for hundreds of years and still have a hold over us. What can reason and science offer us in the place of religion. To bring comfort in the face of death, help us tell right from wrong. Or provide meaning in an indifferent and uncaring world. If there is no God, what is the meaning of life. What’s the point.
One of the oddest reactions to facing up to life without God was that of the Great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. He was bought up Christian and as a young man lost his faith. He had wealth, a family and a celebrity status thanks to his novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina. But in his late forties he began to question everything. Tolstoy was in despair and staring down into an abyss of suicidal depression – he could find no answer to what tormented him. Why do I live? Is there any meaning in my life that will not be annihilated by the inevitability of death?
Perhaps this is part of the explanation why religion evolved in the first place. It satisfied our desperate desire to find meaning and order in the chaos. Is it possible that evolutionary science tells us a lot about ageing and death. If we look at death from a genes point of view our bodies become nothing more than a kind of a survival machine for genes. Once our genes get us to a reproductive age and copy themselves into a new generation, our bodies began to have less purpose. Time bombs inside us go off. We age – we die. So rather than looking upon ageing as the wearing out of our body perhaps we should see it as a side effect of how our genes work.
And whilst talking about evaluation - evolutionary psychology suggests that we have evolved a sense of a separate mind or soul because it’s useful to us. A soul that’s in control of us. An executive function makes it difficult for us to shake off the religious way of death. We are programmed to believe in something such as a soul.