One day many years ago, when I was dressing in the locker room at the University of Oregon, a young Christian fundamentalist approached me and tried his hook line on me: “I notice you are in good health today, after exercising, but do you ever wonder what will happen after you die?”
“Not at all,” I replied. “I know exactly what will happen after I die. I’ll be recycled, like you and everyone else.”
“But what about your soul?” he asked, with a deep, earnest look, with the obvious intent to hook me in further.
I hastily pointed out that I am in a hurry, and have no time to talk — and that was the end of it.
Most religious people, especially Christians and Muslims, have strong convictions about life after death. According to Christians, our afterlife depends on our “faith” (by which they generally mean our adherence to THEIR belief system); if we “believe,” we will either go to Heaven and live in eternal bliss with God, Jesus, and the Angels, or we will spend eternity tormented in the flames of Hell for declining the “gift of eternal life” to all those who “believe in” Jesus as the Only Begotten Son of God who Died for our Sins.
For Muslims, “faith” means belief in Allah as the One True God, who chose Muhammad as the last of His prophets (after Abraham, Moses, and Jesus) to whom he entrusted His authorized teachings via the Angel Gabriel in the Qu’ran. Anyone who believes this, recites it five times a day, and acts according to the teachings of the Qu’ran will go to Heaven, envisioned as a green, well-watered kind of country club with infinite pleasures, including 72 virgins to wait on us — while “infidels” (all the rest of us who do not subscribe to this ideology) will likewise end up in hellish torment for all eternity.
And it doesn’t end there. Most of the religions and wisdom traditions of the Far East have a strong belief in reincarnation — that our present reality, pleasant or miserable, was caused by good or bad behavior in past lives, and in turn that our virtuous or vile acts in this life will be rewarded or punished in our future lives. Indigenous cultures, likewise, have a wide array of beliefs about the afterlife, based on their local mythologies.
But all these afterlife stories, transmitted from one generation to the next in cultures thoughout the world, are completely different from one another. Even what seem to be the common themes of Christianity and Islam — emphasis on right or wrong “beliefs” about the “One True God,” along with future rewards (after death) for virtue and punishments for vice — differ fundamentally from the beliefs of yet other cultures. Both the Greeks and the earlier Babylonians, for example, tended to view the afterlife as a dark and desolate underground realm, regardless of virtue or vice in this life. This view is highlighted, for example, in the stories of Orpheus and Euridice from Greek mythology, and in the Epic of Gilgamesh from Sumerian/Babylonian mythology.
My conclusion from a quick review of all these divergent afterlife mythologies is quite simple: they are all balderdash. They arose for two broad purposes: to alleviate the grief of those who suffered loss and the anxiety of children in contemplating death, and to terrify people into compliance with pre-existing social and ethical norms — including (for the Abrahamic religions in particular), the importance of having the “right” beliefs, regardless of behavior. So what do I believe about what will happen after I die?
I don’t know.
My best guess is that with my last breath and the cessation of the complex array of systems that enable my body and mind to function, I will just wink out, as surely as a candle does when snuffed, or an electric appliance or computer does when you unplug it or remove the power source. This whole complex mental formation — connected to my body — that I and those who know me call “Tom Ellis” will simply vanish, never to be seen or heard from again. And that is OK with me. My body itself will, like everything else in the universe, be recycled, again and again, the molecules scattered, dissipated, and recombined into new forms, whether mineral, liquid, gaseous, or recirculated in other biological systems, from bacteria and fungi to trees and flowers, to animals — including, just possibly, not one but multitudes of other humans (if there are any of us left), all likewise constructing unique mental formations called “identities” based on their genes, ancestry, and experience. And that is OK with me as well, regardless of whether any of my molecules ever again reside within a language-engendering ape like myself.
Such contemplations, all based on certifiable science, alleviate all but the most primordial anxieties about my mortality — those anxieties I share, subliminally, with all other living organisms, which impel me to stay alive and postpone death as long as possible. Like all other animals, I prefer life to death, even though we all will die, and even though our lives and deaths are deeply intertwined, constantly recycling our molecules into new configurations which, if they pass that mysterious threshold to become living beings who are even minimally aware, will act in their own behalf to stay alive and reproduce, if possible — until they too die and become part of everyone and everything else. That is all I can know, and all I need to know. The rest is silence.