Hindus believe in reincarnation with great unquestioning devotion. In Mary Roach’s book Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, she interviews and talks to many Indian people who believe their small children contain the born again spirits of deceased ones reincarnate. Most of the time, when asked why they believe it is their lost husband or long dead grandfather in the vessel of a small boy or girl, they will reply “Because it brings us comfort knowing he didn’t perish. It makes us happy to know he will continue living in this new life.”
It seems that lower cast Hindus believe in reincarnation for the same purpose Christians believe in an eternal afterlife. The thought of what happens after death, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet so aptly put, doth make cowards of us all.
What if you knew! Then you wouldn’t need to fear that undiscovered country. In fact, if it was the promise of a place where you could be reunited with everyone you ever loved, where everything was sublime bliss, and pain and suffering didn’t exist and you could go on for eternity, then that would be more wonderful still! Call it Heaven, or Valhalla, whatever you want to call it, the idea that we go on living after death brings great comfort to people who ultimately fear their own mortality and want desperately to escape such an unappealing fate. Religion gives them this alternative.
But to me the story is but an illusion, a wish for something better in the face of an appalling reality: all good things must come to an end. But even if I considered the proposition for a second, that an afterlife exists, for what purpose would an afterlife have for us? Often us realistic, rational, atheists are chastised for holding to the opinion that when we die, we are dead. Some religious people find such a statement downright insulting, at the very least pessimistic. But what’s pessimistic about a brute hard fact? When you squash a spider it doesn’t go to “spider heaven.” It’s dead, gone, six feet under, pushing up daisies… the little fellow is not likely meeting his maker. When Richard Dawkins was once asked, “What do you think happens to us after we die,” he ironically asserted, “You get buried.”
Some may mistake Dawkins’ literalism for sarcasm, or for nihilism, but it’s neither. He’s absolutely right, once you’re gone, your gone for good. So, like Dawkins, I agree that it’s not a pessimistic view, it’s simply an honest appraisal of what occurs after we die.
And why should such a fate be worrisome? Unless you have unfulfilled goals or aspirations, things left undone, then death is just a part of nature. This isn’t a nihilist thought, because death is organic. You never fear the death of tulips or daffodils in your garden bed? They come and go, along with the seasons, and it’s as natural as anything. It’s people who ultimately fear death. As prince Hamlet reminded us earlier, death makes cowards of us all. People fear the unknown, but I myself cannot take comfort in a superstitious fairytale.
As fantastic as the idea of heaven would be, it is perhaps a little too fantastic, because I find myself not buying into it at all. For me it’s another case of overly wishful thinking. Besides, I find greater comfort in the picture science paints of what will happen after I die. It’s not a journey into nonexistence so much as it is the transformation into a new existence of matter and energy. We are all but stardust, after all, and this is a beautiful thing to know. Someday I will be reintegrated into the cosmos, perhaps become part of a solar wind, or brilliant energy spewing from a blazing star, a stellar furnace creating new life, and these particles will be recycled endlessly, giving me never before conceived of forms of existence.
Before that, in the interim, my body may come to an end, however my essence will go on. My physical form will disintegrate and be recycled, replenishing the soil. Someday a beautiful tree may grow out of the replenished soil of where I was laid down to rest, and that tree will be where two young couples can one day sit under, in the shelter of the shade on a hot summer day, and express their undying lover for each other by carving their initials into the side of the tree. I don’t find this realization scary nor empty to me in the least. It’s comforting, but what’s more, it’s genuinely beautiful.
I think religious believers often worry that without life after death then their lives here and now would be meaningless. “If there’s no heaven, nothing but death awaiting us, then what’s the meaning of life? What’s our purpose for being here at all?” I have heard it asked many times. However, the answer is simple: if you can’t find meaning in this life, right here and now, then the addition of an infinite amount of more of the same isn’t going to make it any more meaningful!
Let’s be reasonable. We make our own destinies. We find meaning in life by searching for what is most important and meaningful to ourselves. I personally find meaning in my profound love for my wife and child. I find meaning in the experience of helping others. I find meaning in the realization that there is still so much for me to learn! There is nothing frightening in this. Only when the concept of *hell is added, does the thought of death become frightening. Only when your imagination can be abused, and you can be convinced that if you don’t act or behave a certain way, according to a particular creed, you will not just cease to exist, but you will go to a place where you will be tortured for an eternity for unprovable crimes where the punishment is disproportionate to the offense. Such a concept is a sickness, a perversion of the natural beauty we shall inherit.
And you can’t have the notion of heaven without the concept of sin and blackmail of hell. And I find no value or merit in such a capricious, if not totally pernicious, system of morbid ideological premises as this. I am forced to agree with George Orwell who once quipped, “(Mankind) is not likely to salvage civilization unless he can evolve a system of good and evil which is independent of heaven and hell.” Reasonably, once we have liberated out minds of such contrived superstitions as that of a life after death, then we can live a life free from the fearful shackles of hell and punishment for not meeting some imaginary quota or satisfactory holding to the obligation of some imaginary being.
Mark Twain once blithely stated about the notion of a heaven and a hell, that, “Heaven is for the climate, hell is for society.” Indeed, since most of the great humanitarians and great thinkers have mostly been atheist or agnostic, some prescribing to other faiths altogether such as Thomas Jefferson, Gandhi, Confucius, Plato, etc., according to Christianity they will certainly be enjoying the hotter climate of hell. If all the fun and interesting people are in hell, and heaven is filled with twice-pardoned pedophile priests and a handful of virgin saints, then I know which hypothetical realm I want to spend the rest of my eternity it.
All kidding aside, I would never wish for a premature or early death for anyone, nor would I wish for them to endure an everlasting torture as punishment for doing some trivial act, such as saying the Lord’s name in vain. I just don’t think it’s goddamn right. Frankly, it’s unconscionable, and so I am inclined not to believe in an afterlife for the very same reason that it’s predicated on emotional, subjective, interpretation of some very questionable, that is to say downright inconceivable, religious doctrinal vituperation.
In the end, I do not fear the inevitable, because it forces my eyes wide open and makes me realize how precious and special my time here is now. That’s why the movie “Meet Joe Black” always chokes me up at the end, it’s not about where William Perish (Anthony Hopkins) is going, it’s about the legacy he’s left behind in this life that matters most. Not only this, but the realization that each day matters, not a day goes by that I don’t feel truly grateful for all the wonderfully important people in my life. As such, I best not waste it dreamily yearning for an afterlife.