I haven’t mentioned this so far, but Tim over at the Friendly Humanist and I were approached some time ago to write a column for Humanitie, the quarterly magazine of the Humanist Society of Scotland. The columns are supposed to complement each other, so take a gander at his and judge for yourself. The magazine is out now so keep an eye out for it.
There are two sayings that my mum can’t stand. One of them is ‘a rollercoaster of emotions’ and the other is ‘I’ve been on a journey’, both very common on the TV makeover shows she often insists on watching (personally I’d also add ‘a catalogue of errors’ and the infuriating ‘Error 404. Page cannot be found’). But this image of a track or some kind of journey is most prevalent when we’re talking about death. I’ve been to funerals where there’s been talk of ships passing over the horizon or water flies passing through the surface of a pond. Even Hamlet (and a certain Klingon in Star Trek VI) described death as “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns.”
But why do we use this journey imagery to talk about the unknown, when really it’s lots more likely to be the end of anything we might call ‘life’? It’s a metaphor that doesn’t really strike me as particularly factual or illuminating, and one that many believe to be literally true. You could say it is to alleviate our own fear of death, but upon further thought that doesn’t make sense to me. I would much rather have my life end after a contented existence and leave it at that, than have it carry on and take a gamble which might (probably will) leave me in eternal torment. I’m sure by the time I’m 90 years old and well into my second childhood, unable to walk up the stairs or remember my own name, I’ll be gagging for it all to end! Let’s not forget that we’ve all spent billions of years in ‘oblivion’ before we were born; it’s not nearly as scary as it sounds!
This idea of a journey or another life after death would be harmless if it didn’t influence people whilst they lived. The Romans believed that the body must be intact and hold a coin in its mouth for the soul to take its ferry ride across the River Styx. Similar beliefs about an afterlife in the Romany community, as well as the beliefs of some Christian denominations about the rapture, prevent organ donation or the donation of bodies to science after death. This in turn is a contributing factor to people dying unnecessarily on transplant lists and to a lack of bodies available for medical study and research. Furthermore, a belief in some kind of judgement to come after death is often cited in favour of the death penalty. Martyrdom and thoughts of the afterlife help suicide bombers go through with their threats. There are many other examples.
Anthropologists like Malinowski, as well as general clever-sods Bertrand Russell and Einstein, suggested that our fear of death could be a major reason for the existence of religious belief about an afterlife in the first place. Until we can conquer this fear, it’s likely that religious superstition will be sticking with us for some time to come.