Listing entries tagged with afterlife

Death Part VI

posted on 11.19.2006 at 8:26 PM

The opportunity to survive death certainly seems a major selling point for religion. Yet some of the more recent explanations for belief tend to underplay it.

This is, in part, because most preliterate peoples don't seem to make as big a deal of the afterlife as modern religions -- particularly Christianity and Islam -- tend to. Some of them don't dwell too much on what happens after death. Many don't see good behavior being rewarded. And one of their goals for the dead is often making sure they don't hang around too much -- because the recently deceased tend to be cranky and meddlesome.

Yet ask people today why religion has such a hold and they will often begin by talking about death.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:26 PM | Comments (6)

A Grim Thought

posted on 09.05.2006 at 1:32 AM

This is Stephen Metcalf in a review of Thomas McGuane's new collection of stories, Gallatin Canyon:

Hell is other people, goes the old existentialist saw. Words to live by, I say; now if only it weren't so hellish to be alone.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:32 AM | Comments (0)

Death -- Part IV

posted on 08.18.2006 at 11:54 AM

What might/can/should a nonbeliever think about death? JM commented that I am too hasty in suggesting that atheists "find death pretty tough" -- possibly tougher than believers find it?

Here are some related comments from some very early kind-of, sort-of or not-really atheists (all characters in the second chapter of my book):

Gilgamesh (after his buddy dies)...

What my brother is now that shall I be when I am dead. How can I rest, how can I be at peace? Despair is in my heart.

Egyptian song from the third millennium BCE...

Let these things fade from your thoughts. Weeping does not save the heart from the grave.

Anacreon (Greek poet)...

My closing years pass by in haste/Soon I no more sweet life shall taste.

Koheleth in Ecclesiastes...

What a delight for the eyes to behold the sun! Even if a man lives many years, let him enjoy himself in all of them, remembering how many the days of darkness are going to be. The only future is nothingness!


Accustom yourself to the thought that death is nothing to us. For all good and evil reside in sensation, but death is the removal of all sensation.....There is nothing fearful in life for one who has grasped that there is nothing fearful in the absence of life....The wise man neither rejects life nor fears death.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:54 AM | Comments (12)

"Proof of Life After Death"

posted on 08.14.2006 at 3:14 PM

ghost.jpgIn this odd period when beliefs seem to be growing simultaneously stronger and weaker, depending where you turn, it is hard to know what you will encounter when you take a look at your favorite newspaper. Indeed, the New York Times today features a sympathetic review of a sympathetic book, Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, by science writer Deborah Blum, on psychics and communication with the dead.

In "Ghost Hunters"... these "psychical researchers" are not simply a bunch of smart men (and a couple of women) obsessed with a dumb idea, but rather courageous freethinkers willing to endure the establishment's scorn. This quirky band, [Blum] argues, was more scientific than the scientists....

Sure. However, it might be noted that, while the hypotheses of traditional science are often enough confirmed by experimentation, the confirmation rate by repeatable experiment of all claims to "telepathy, telekinesis or contacts with the dead" hovers, I believe, around zero. William James stated, after his long efforts to find proof of what he wanted to be true had failed, "that at times I have been tempted to believe that the Creator has eternally intended this department of nature to remain baffling." One could come up with another explanation for James' failure.

But then here is our book-review writer, Patricia Cohen:

Ultimately what distinguished James and his colleagues from many of their scientific peers was their humbleness. To think one can divine everything in an infinite universe is an act of extreme hubris.

Once again what we don't know, which is of course an awful lot, is used to justify what we ache to believe. One might think that, from the perspective of the rationalism normally expected of news organizations like the Times, what distinguished James and others who shared his desperation to communicate with dead relatives was a simple, unscientific case of wishful thinking.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 3:14 PM | Comments (3)

Death -- Part III

posted on 08.11.2006 at 2:23 PM

Euripides writes:

Who now can tell whether to live may not
Be properly to die. And whether that
Which men do call to die, may not in truth
Be but the entrance into real life?

This would seem to be among the aspects of religion the Europeans have outgrown? But shouldn't the "strict agnostic" acknowledge it as possibly true? Or do we have at least the right to say that it, like Martin Amis' universe-wide "intelligence," is hugely unlikely?

(Cited in Life of Pyrrho by Diogenes Laertius, trans. by, C. D. Younge)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:23 PM | Comments (3)

Waiting Out Religion

posted on 08.09.2006 at 11:41 PM

More from novelist Martin Amis (a nonbeliever who will no longer call himself an atheist), from a PBS interview with Bill Moyers:


MARTIN AMIS: I remember talking to Saul Bellow about this in his last years. And he did believe in a God equivalent of some kind. And he did say that I just can't stop thinking that I will see my brothers and my sister and my parents when I die. And he wrote in his last novel RAVELSTEIN, he said, "We all believe that. We just talk tough." And I was talking about this with my mother, who's 75. And I said, "I don't believe that, do you?" And she said, "No, I don't believe that."

I think in Europe, we have outgrown it. We've waited it out, and it's gone.

Cool. But "if ignorance of the universe is so vast that it would be premature" to reject the possibility of a universe-wide "intelligence" -- as Amis states -- why is it okay to reject an afterlife? How, in other words, do agnostics manage to decide what they've "outgrown" and what raises "too many questions"?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:41 PM | Comments (6)

Death -- Part II

posted on 07.27.2006 at 1:01 AM

Sometimes the flirtation of religion with death becomes truly eerie, frightening. Undoubtedly, you've seen this quote, but, in the current circumstance, it is probably worth revisiting. Nasrallah.jpg

This is man-of-the-moment Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah:

"We have discovered how to hit the Jews where they are the most vulnerable. The Jews love life, so that is what we shall take away from them. We are going to win because they love life and we love death."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:01 AM | Comments (5)

Death -- Part I

posted on 07.26.2006 at 2:49 PM

Seventh_Seal.jpgAllen_death.jpgEven those of us who don't get much of a kick out of heaven and hell, have to admit that some have had good fun with Death. There's Ingmar Bergman, of course; not to mention Woody Allen's takeoff on Bergman.

However, it is difficult to imagine anyone who had as entertaining a time with Death as Sisyphus. When Death came to get him -- a bit on the early side, as sometimes happens -- Sisyphus, instead, managed to get Death: chaining him up. This meant for a time, with Thanatos out of commission, that nobody could die -- a circumstance that put Ares, god of war, out of business. In order for armies to be able to resume killing each other (I know that the idea that armies once shot and bombed seems incomprehensible to us advanced 21st-century types), Ares had to go and free Death himself and make sure Sisyphus was sent safely on his way to Hades.

But Sisyphus, whom Homer describes as "the craftiest of all mankind," was still not ready to go "gentle into that good night." He instructed his wife not to bury him, and then moaned to functionaries in Hades that he was unburied. They allowed him to go back up to earth to rectify things. Camus, in his essay on the Sisyphus myth, gives a good account of what happened next: "When he had seen again the face of this world, enjoyed water and sun, warm stones and the sea, he no longer wanted to go back to the infernal darkness." Having once again tricked the gods out of death, Sisyphus lived "many years more" experiencing, in Camus' phrase, "the smiles of the earth."

Of course, in the end Death and the gods, as also happens, had the last laugh on old Sisyphus.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:49 PM | Comments (4)


posted on 07.07.2006 at 11:49 PM

I'm new to the wonders of Koheleth, the cynical wise man who speaks in Ecclesiastes, and his version of carpe diem:

There is nothing better for people than to eat and drink and enjoy their toil.

It gets tougher:

Enjoy life with the wife whom you love all the days of your meaningless life, that is, all the meaningless days he has given you under the sun, for it is your reward in life and for the toil that you do under the sun.
All that your hand finds to do, do with your power, for there is no action or thought or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going. (Translation by Tremper Longman III)

Ellen F. Davis reports that one Vietnam chaplain said this -- the term "meaningless" (hebel) appears in more than 30 passages -- "was the only part of the Bible that his soldiers were willing to hear."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:49 PM | Comments (2)

A Bone to Pick with the Buddha -- 2

posted on 06.22.2006 at 5:49 PM

Was my dispute with the Buddha based on a misunderstanding?

That quote I attributed to the Buddha, to which I took exception -- that the question of the existence of the gods "does not edify" -- I found in Jennifer Michael Hecht's comprehensive book, Doubt: A History. Been working to get closer to the quote's origins and, so far, have not found another reference to it.

The parable of the fire is mentioned: In it the Buddha, on being pressed to support one or another possibility for where the soul does or does not go after death, finally explains that this would be like asking whether the fire goes east or west when extinguished. And my researcher, Kaylan Connally, has found this answer/nonanswer, presumably by the Buddha, to the question of whether the gods -- devas -- exist: "It is firmly accepted in the world that devas exist." But "Buddha," "gods" and "edify" don't seem to spend much time in the same sentences.

Guess this supports Jay Saul's point about the difficulty of confirming anything that the Buddha or Jesus said. Though I sure would like to find at least some sort of vaguely legit source for this quote.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:49 PM | Comments (4)

Are We All Gods?

posted on 06.21.2006 at 4:47 PM

Or should we try to be? This is from a comment below by Jay Saul:Superman.jpg

Go be God/ There's No Time To Waste

Is there a sense in which a disbeliever could/should believe this sort of thing? Certainly eliminating the supernaturals does succeed in clearing the field clear for us -- the only beings left with the ability to write love songs and fire arrows. Nothing wrong, as a rule, with aiming high.

Ãœbermenschen? Has a certain ring. A feeling of invulnerability? Maybe good. Confidence that you can get what you want? Can't hurt.

Eternal life, however, would presumably have to be confined to moments (unless medical advances manage to eliminate the disease thing). Omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience might have to be interpretations of the power of consciousness.

The problem with gods, however, is their flawlessness -- as Carneades, among others, pointed out. Many of our virtues, passions, poems, come from our flaws. Is being human, or being animals, really not sufficient? Or is the point that we need to bucked up?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:47 PM | Comments (7)

Heroes of Disbelief

posted on 06.15.2006 at 11:04 PM

Amartya_Sen.jpgThe Nobel Prize wining economist, Amartya Sen, in a quote from his new book, on his "identity" as:

at the same time, an Asian, an Indian citizen, a Bengali with Bangladeshi ancestry, an American or British resident,...a dabbler in philosophy, an author, a Sanskritist, a strong believer in secularism and democracy, a man, a feminist, a heterosexual, a defender of gay and lesbian rights, with a nonreligious lifestyle, from a Hindu background, a non-Brahmin, and a nonbeliever in an afterlife (and also, in case the question is asked, a nonbeliever in a "before-life" as well).

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:04 PM | Comments (0)

Heroes of Disbelief

posted on 06.15.2006 at 11:04 PM

Amartya_Sen.jpgThe Nobel Prize wining economist, Amartya Sen, in a quote from his new book, on his "identity" as:

at the same time, an Asian, an Indian citizen, a Bengali with Bangladeshi ancestry, an American or British resident,...a dabbler in philosophy, an author, a Sanskritist, a strong believer in secularism and democracy, a man, a feminist, a heterosexual, a defender of gay and lesbian rights, with a nonreligious lifestyle, from a Hindu background, a non-Brahmin, and a nonbeliever in an afterlife (and also, in case the question is asked, a nonbeliever in a "before-life" as well).

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:04 PM | Comments (0)

Death and Religion

posted on 06.09.2006 at 11:57 PM

The prospect of evading death is supposed to be a great moral force: providing incentive -- the largest, longest possible of incentives -- for good behavior. Whether the logic here in any sense works is very much an open question, as is the issue of whether the carrot/stick of heaven/hell has in fact increased the world's supply of doing good. But this blurring of the line between life and death has surely had at least this cost: a cheapening of life and, on occasion, even a celebration of death.

Extreme figures make weak examples, but I can't help but note this reaction to the death of the great death merchant Musab al-Zarqawi:

"We herald the martyrdom of our mujahid Sheik Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and we stress that this is an honor for our nation," a statement signed by one of Mr. Zarqawi's deputies, Abu Abdul Rahman al-Iraqi, said.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:57 PM | Comments (4)

Fiction and the Catholic Church

posted on 05.17.2006 at 4:05 PM

Although I'm one of the forty-three literate individuals left above the age of 16 who have not yet read The Da Vinci Code in one language or another, I still find the Catholic Church's position on this amusing. This organization -- or at least a semi-secret group within it, Opus Die -- had asked that the movie be labeled "fiction."

The "nonfiction" view of the life of Jesus subscribed to by the Catholic Church is that He was born of a virgin impregnated by God; that "the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God;...these Three Persons being truly distinct one from another;...and yet there are not three Gods but one God"; that Jesus came back to life after being executed by the Romans; and that He will preside on a Day of Judgement in which the dead "must rise with their bodies and are to render an account of their deeds."

Which is not to deny that Dan Brown's argument in The Da Vinci Code -- despite the attractiveness of a married Jesus -- seems screwy.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:05 PM | Comments (0)

Come Off It!

posted on 01.30.2006 at 9:06 PM

Religious folks often suspect that, deep down, atheists -- particularly atheists as they face death -- really do have a feeling for God.

Do nonbelievers suspect that, deep down, religious folks have their doubts? That their faith in an afterlife, for example, is not quite strong enough to fend off fear of death?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:06 PM | Comments (3)

Religion and Happiness

posted on 12.22.2005 at 9:51 PM

"I have the very greatest fear that my life may hereafter be ruined by my having lost the support of religion" -- Bertrand Russell writing, in code, in a diary at the age of 15.

Religion provides meaning, purpose and consolation, not to mention some hope of evading death. Does this mean it provides happiness? Are the meaning, purpose, consolation and promise of an afterlife sufficently clear and convincing?

Russell, though he had a tumultuous emotional life, seemed no less happy than, say, your average pope. Do we find our pious friends to be cheerier than the skeptics?

I'm having trouble thinking this out. Faith. Trust. Truth. Wishful thinking. Where to begin? What to read?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:51 PM | Comments (14)