Thursday, December 20, 2012

Trigger Warning! Taboo Subject! Run for Your Life!

Today, I am going to talk about a subject that immediately puts most Americans in a cold sweat.  No, I said cold sweat, not a hot one, I’m not going to talk about sex!  Not today, anyway.

Death.  The Long Sleep.  The Great Equalizer.  Nirvana, Valhalla, The Eysian Fields.  Heaven, Hell and The Wheel of Life.

Nothing is more guaranteed to put your average American in a state of the jitters.  It makes us nervous, it puts us on edge and causes our eyes to wander helplessly, anywhere but in the eyes of the speaker.

There is nothing in the field of the supernatural (which of course, includes religion) with a wider field of possibilities or a longer list of crazy, wacko and nonsense beliefs.  Ghosts, goblins, devils & demons, somewhere in America, somebody thinks they’re real.

As an atheist, I think it’s all a bunch of wacko, crazy far out strangeness.  Yes, including all of the major religions.  Why?  It’s simple.  We live in the 21st century, we’ve been studying the human body for over two hundred years now, seriously, in a scientific manner.  With modern electronic sensors and equipment, we can see inside the body as it works, we can learn from the now huge body of scientific study that clearly shows us that the seat of the human mind is in the frontal lobes of the brain.  Right behind the forehead.

Remember Terri Schiavo?  Her case ignited a battle royal over long term care and when it is appropriate to shut off life support.  Some folks wanted to shut it off, her defenders said she was still alive.

An autopsy after her death shows clearly that her brain had deteriorated to almost a third of its proper size, and there was nothing of that part of her brain left which would have housed the essential Terri - she’d really been dead for quite a while, even if her body had still breathed.

My own experiences with death, accounts of death by accident, disaster or combat clearly show that once the brain is gone, so is the person.  

Life...ends.  There is nothing left but what we Americans call the “remains”.  As if using the term dead body jinxes you or something.

Yeah, that’s a bit morbid.  But, life ends.  It does.  Death is only a part of life.  Living means that one day, you will die.  None of us are getting off this rock alive!   

Aaaaahhhh!!  Run!  Hide!  Zombies!

No, levity won’t prolong life by much, but they say laughter is the best medicine, so maybe it will after all.  Consider yourself medicated!

The American attitude about death is curious, at least to an atheist.  Christians claim that this is a Christian country, but when death is mentioned or after a terrible event like Newtown, things get somber, people get afraid and fill up the churches.  Not to celebrate the transition of a faithful adherent to the arms of Jesus, but to pray for salvation, to pray for the soul of the dead and for the violence to end.

Why?  Why do we preach one thing but act out another?

Christianity is, culturally speaking, fairly new.  Humans have lived on this earth, as humans, for over a hundred thousand years, even as much as half a million years, developing culture, language, and religion all the while.  Archeologists have even found evidence that Neanderthals might have believed in an afterlife.

One of the oldest cultural customs is hospitality.  The belief that a stranger, come to your door in need and hunger, had the right to food, shelter and sanctuary while under your roof is so old and so strong, that the story of Lot in Sodom, as he offered his daughters to the mob if they’d only leave the angels alone is illustrative of how powerful that stricture is.  That custom was old then, and is probably one of the oldest human customs to survive to this day.  A lot of other customs survive, too. 

Most so called “christian” customs are older pagan customs taken and repurposed by the Church as christian holidays and celebrations, both to keep local populations happy by not taking away their long loved holidays and to introduce christian stories and traditions into a newly “converted” culture.

Christmas is a wonderful example of this, with most of the “traditional” emblems of Christmas being older customs of pagan cultures in Europe that have survived to this day.

In Mediterranean culture of the First Century, christianity was unusual.  It was one of what the Greeks called “Mystery religions”, so called because there were mysteries of the theology which were only given to the inner circles to know and were not widely disseminated to the public.  Most of these mystery religions had as a central tenet the idea that a “savior” deity, somehow killed ritually by supernatural enemies, had returned triumphantly to life and any of that deity’s adherents who underwent certain rituals reminiscent of that triumphant rebirth would benefit from eternal life in a happy, wonderful existence in the company of that deity.

Prior to that time, most religions didn’t have a very happy afterlife.  Vikings believed in Valhalla, where vikings went after death in battle to be served by the men they’d killed in an eternal drinking and feasting binge ended only by a final battle between their gods and their supernatural enemies.  Greeks and Romans believed in an underworld, where the shades of the dead spent eternity in a ghostly existence ruled over by the eternally jealous Hades.  Not exactly heaven, was it?

it was, however, life of a sort, and if one was very lucky, one could actually meet up with a loved one there, maybe.  No promises, since the gods were fickle and actually a pretty nasty bunch.  Religious rituals consisted of ceremonies meant to propitiate the gods into either favoring you or, at the very least, ignoring you.  Some rituals could be counted on to, perhaps, persuade the gods to smite one of your enemies, but, these could backfire if your enemy was better at wooing the gods than you were!

But, in general, there was no dogma of heaven or hell, no eternal reward or punishment for one’s behavior on earth.  In the end, unless you were a viking and died in battle, you were just kind of out of luck.  Some religions believed that one’s shades wandered the earth and religious ceremonies were meant to just keep these poor wandering souls away, lest they steal away your life energy or something equally nasty.

In other words, for the first few hundred thousand years of man’s existence, life was short, brutal and nasty, and the afterlife wasn’t much better.

Being so new, christianity (and Islam, which also has a happier heaven), had to borrow a lot of rituals, symbols and traditional holiday customs to get any traction to grow, even with the lure of a happier afterlife.  After all, the christian and Islamic dogma require you to enslave yourself to god (yes, they do, just read the words, people, you can quibble about the meanings today, but back when things were newer, slavery is just what they meant), so the afterlife had to have compensations to make it attractive.

Today, many of these customs survive as customs and values which transcend christian belief.  A fractured, widely differing conglomeration of beliefs in differing kinds of afterlife is the result, I believe.   Even christianity differs in some very basic ways.

Some denominations think one must be buried intact, so when the Second Coming is here, you will “rise up” out of your grave to join Jesus.  Others teach that we will receive new bodies, and still others teach that our new bodies will be spiritual bodies and not physical at all!

I call bull pucky.

I mean, come on, after hundreds of thousand of years, billions of deaths, with death and an afterlife being a central, obsessive focus of human attention for almost all of that time, one would think that nature would screw up at least once.

Come on, just once!  One single guy or gal to actually, provably and verifiably die and return to tell us all about it.

But no.  Nothing, nada, zip, bupkis!  Not so much as a fairtheewell or a single solitary postcard.

Lots of charlatans, though.  Lots of so called mediums who say they can talk to the dead.  Lots of people who say they almost died, but were sent back to tell us all about it!

Funny thing is, these things happen all over the world.  And just about every one tells us about the afterlife in a manner which tracks almost exactly with the religion that person was born into!  You’d think that if there was a real afterlife, and each religion had a piece of it right, that all of the stories would mesh together into some sort of common idea, a picture of what the real heaven looks like.

But they don’t.

Which is why the bull pucky.

I waited to write this until after the tragedy in Newtown had been past for a while.  When it wasn’t so new and raw.  I waited because this really is a subject that many of us are close to because we have recently lost a loved one, or may be about to - or just can’t get past the long ago death of a parent or spouse.

It is painful, and it is why so many people cannot let go of the comfort of believing that the loved one lost, or the one about to be, will be again before you, smiling and holding out their arms for that hug.   Just like old times, after you die and are reunited, in heaven.

But I can’t believe it.  I am an evidence kind of guy.  I am that doubting Thomas who must be shown to believe.  If it can’t be proven or demonstrated through scientific methodology, it can’t be real.

I sat there, watching the body of my mother, finally gone after several years of slowly wasting away just like her beloved aunt, of Myasthenia Gravis, laid out in her bed at the nursing home.  Like so many people in a similar position, both sad to see her gone, yet glad to see the pain, the suffering, finally at an end.

She’s gone.  Like all of the others, and like I will be some day.  It is hard to contemplate that some day, you will also be gone.  That you will no longer be here, that you will not wake up and just carry on as if you’d been asleep.  

But there was a time when I wasn’t here once before - before I was born.  It didn’t hurt.  There was no pain, and the world carried on just fine.  

My post from yesterday came before this one on purpose.  If you’ve not read it go read it now.  Because deep inside you, you have the resources which will allow you to go on, to move forward after the death of that loved one.  You have the strength, and you don’t need to pray for it from an outside source.

You are human.  You are strong.  Humans have been carrying on after the deaths of loved ones for as much as a half million years since we became human.   Billions of us, billions of deaths, billions of lives.  We have been building our civilization, year after year, decade after decade, century and millennium after millennium, during good times and bad, feast and famine.

Your ancestors, in a line unbroken from Africa to wherever you are now, lived, died and carried on, gathering that inner strength which all humans have in great unmeasured amounts.

They did it, you can do it, because in the end, life is what we make it out to be.  Life is of the purpose we give to it, by how we live, by how we love and by how we teach the next generation to do the same.  It has to be, because this life, here, now, on this earth, is all we’ve got.  No second chances, no rehearsals, no curtain calls.

The greatest waste is a human life.  Don’t waste yours waiting for the second life which will never come.  Pursue a hobby.  Travel to someplace you’ve never been.  Eat escargot!  Dance like you’ve never danced and love like there’s no tomorrow.

Because, for any of us, there may not be.

No comments: