Why add the horror of an eternal afterlife to the fearful life we’re already living?
Since time immemorial, we humans have been preoccupied by what happens after we die. It’s caused some to live in perpetual fear, mostly because their religion tells them to do so.
‘Because I could not stop for Death– / He kindly stopped for me– / The Carriage held but just Ourselves– / And Immortality.” So begins a famous Emily Dickinson poem, opening a can of worms with those first words.
Indeed, what it is that happens after we die has been a subject of debate for ages. Religion has tried to come up with answers, but to me they are dishonest: there have been more than 3,000 religions on the planet, and they all table different responses. Many copy from those that came before them.
One thing we know from Sylvia Plath’s poem Lady Lazarus is that “Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well. / I do it so it feels like hell.”
She ended up killing herself.
I don’t know of any African belief that invokes anything resembling an Abrahamic religion-like hell. Even the Bible’s idea of a fiery hell only pops up in the New Testament. And here we are, living in fear of sickness, violence, poverty – all the things that could affect us negatively or maim us or kill us – and then we’re told that when we do die it’s not over, that, as Christopher Hitchens put it, that’s when the real fun begins.
“Ask yourself if you really wish it was true that there was a celestial dictatorship that watched over you from the moment you were born, actually the moment you were conceived, all through life, night and day, knew your thoughts, waking and sleeping, could in fact convict you of thought crime… convict you for what you think or what you privately want, what you’re talking about to yourself, that admonishes you like this under permanent surveillance, control and supervision and doesn’t even let go of you when you’re dead because that’s when the real fun begins,” Hitchens said.
Thing is, we know why we die: it’s because we’re on this planet to breed. We are slaves to our genetic material, which rules us and fashions us so that it (and not we) can continue to live. We are but armoured vehicles in its eyes (an idea first raised and/or made famous by Richard Dawkins in his epic book, The Selfish Gene).
That same genetic material gives us darker skin if we’re from sunny climes and lighter skin if we’re not – for us to survive – the end goal being its survival, not ours. That’s why sex is enjoyable. It is so that we continue to make copies of our masters, the genes, their new and improved replicas, packaged in a new and better-armoured vehicle.
No one who died has ever come back and revealed to us what, if anything, lies beyond, no one apart from snake charmers and religious cons.
That’s why, after the reproductive age, we become decrepit, wither and die. We’re no longer of use to them. So when did the idea of sin and repentance and heaven and hell enter the picture?
And, more importantly, why did it?
I can understand religion popping up to help our ancestors make sense of the natural world: volcanoes, hurricanes, eclipses, plagues and other biological calamities, some unseeable and, hence, unnatural and heavenly, and probably punishment for something the tribe had or had not done.
There just had to be a god, else what could explain birth and the long, tough trail toward death, by way of sickness and cataclysm after cataclysm?
To the Catholic Church, death is the full and final separation of the soul from the body. This means little, because we don’t have the meaning of “soul”, a word used in the definition of death. The journal Scientific American says death is the cessation of all vital functions, including respiration and a heartbeat.
I say death is the mirror image of inexistence. Before we were born, we were dead; we had zero conscience and zero cognisance and zero feelings. No one who died has ever come back and revealed to us what, if anything, lies beyond, no one apart from snake charmers and religious cons – and perhaps those who have had near-death experiences and genuinely believe they went to the other side and came back.
Nobody wants to die. Our chromosomal masters have made us impulsively fear death: flee predators, avoid unlit street corners at night, so we may keep carrying their traits and packaging more of them through sex, which they have made irresistible for that very reason. How drastic, then, to add the horror of an eternal afterlife of torture to the kind of fearful life we’re already living.
The most plausible explanation of what an afterlife is belongs to science: When we die, we go back to what we were before birth. Perhaps we become stardust again and it is just accidental that Abrahamic religions utter “dust to dust” at burial ceremonies.
Any philosophy that exhorts us to kill disobedient children (Leviticus 20:9) and homosexuals (Leviticus 20:13), condones slavery (Ephesians 6:5-7), is absurd (Deuteronomy 25:11) and demands to be cherry-picked (by us, who already do know what to do and what not to do) isn’t worth keeping alive as anything other than mythology.
Me? I say sit back and enjoy your life and forget immortality. You’re only ever going to get this chance to live. We are subject to death and therefore we’re mortal – whether the atoms that make us do live forever or do not. DM
Rethabile Masilo is a Mosotho poet from Lesotho who lives in Paris, France.
My mother’s calendar
By Rethabile Masilo
We have learned to abide by our mother’s language
and by her calendar, when we’re in her presence.
Every time she mentions him it’s to relate a part of life
to the years when he was with us. Old… has become…
when your father was alive, and some of us have begun
to speak her way too, the same way we began
to love people after observing her. Now… is… since
he died, and we even hear what she does not dare say:
and left me behind. Our mother looks like her mother
and my sisters look like her. The boys in my family
all look like each other and yearn to take after him.
In the future…, or soon…, is fast becoming… the day I am
with your father and you are free at last, even though
she set us free at birth just after she had handed each
of us to the midwife for cleaning, and we had been
returned to her arms for the first breakfast of our lives.
By Kwame Dawes
It was Christmastime,
the balloons needed blowing,
and so in the evening
we sat together to blow
balloons and tell jokes,
and the cool air off the hills
made me think of coffee,
so I said, “Coffee would be nice,”
and he said, “Yes, coffee
would be nice,” and smiled
as his thin fingers pulled
the balloons from the plastic bags;
so I went for coffee,
and it takes a few minutes
to make the coffee
and I did not know
if he wanted cow’s milk
or condensed milk,
and when I came out
to ask him, he was gone,
just like that, in the time
it took me to think,
cow’s milk or condensed;
the balloons sat lightly
on his still lap.