The idea of avoiding death through some kind of belief in the afterlife is one of the most powerful driving forces behind religious belief1. Some historians say that belief in an afterlife is one of the universal traits of primitive Human culture that led to the founding of our religions2, and it continues to fuel the appeal of faith even today, in the 21st century. Actual beliefs have differed from culture to culture, based mostly on geographic location. Historically, many cultures believed that all dead folk (good and bad) go to a single underworld, but Christianity and Islam developed their ideas of heaven and hell into a very black-and-white moralistic affair, based on literalist misunderstandings of original Hebrew and Greek words. Most spiritual experiences throughout the rest of the world rest on the idea of continual reincarnation. In many countries where scientific knowledge is high, belief in the afterlife has heavily declined. In 2013, only 33% of the British public said that they believe in an afterlife3.
The psychologist William James taught that normal Human beings hide death away: he wrote this 100 years ago. Later David Clark in "The Sociology of Death" (1993) devotes a chapter to the way that we in the West, have secluded all things bloody from common sight. We clinicalize death, so that only trained professionals have anything to do with the practical side of blood, slaughter, bodies, funerals and burials. This denial of reality extends far and wide amongst the masses. Dead bodies do not litter the floor of battlefields in films and in computer games corpses fade away majestically and discretely. Even one's own future death hardly features in public angst, except where the subconscious, desperate, finds expression in dreams.
“We divert our attention from disease and death as much as we can; and the slaughter-houses and indecencies without end on which our life is founded are huddled out of sight and never mentioned, so that the world we recognize officially in literature and in society is a poetic fiction far handsomer and cleaner and better than the world that really is.”
“Many people believe that one of the greatest appeals of religion is that it provides reassurance against the spectre of death5,6. The very thought of the permanent cessation of our consciousness can be terrifying, confusing and difficult to accept. Any theory that posits our ultimate survival can have a lot of appeal. This isn't a new revelation; Roman philosopher Lucretius (99-55BCE) famously said "fear was the first thing on Earth to make gods"7 and the 19th century anthropologist Bronishaw Malinowski argued that religion gives us a sense of power over death8. At the turn of the century William James, devoted to the study of comparative religion and psychology, says that "the ancient saying that the first maker of the Gods was fear receives voluminous corroboration from every age of religious history"9. Later the astute Albert Einstein wrote "with primitive man it is above all fear that evokes religious notions - fear of... death"10. Biologist E. O. Wilson studies the neurobiological basis of human behaviour, and states that the "foremost" religious drive is the one that "hunger[s] for a permanent existence"7. Aside from theory, modern sociological and psychological research has supported this position. A review of studies by Soenke et al. (2013) found that "one variable showing particular importance in protecting individuals from anxiety about death is the belief in an afterlife" which was bolstered by "active commitment and practice" of their religion. The stronger the belief, the less the anxiety about death.”
Our concept of a soul surviving death has had a gradual and uncertain history. Whilst the general idea of our consciousness being a "thing" in its own right is prehistorical, the specific explanations that people give for this feeling have differed greatly.
“Despite a rather widespread lack of definition regarding man's post-mortem fate, conceptions of afterlife differed greatly among Indian tribes of North America. [...] Most tribes held than humans possessed more than one soul (usually a 'free' soul and a 'life' or 'breath' soul), the former departing the body at death, perhaps lingering for some time near the corpse, before passing. [...] The soul might be required to pass a test before entering the land of the dead. A Shaman might act as the soul's guide. [...] Elaborate funeral rites were intended to effect the soul's smooth transition to the other world.”
Even greater than the differences of opinion as to what the soul actually is (or how many of them we each have), are the disagreements as to what happens after death. The very concept of "heaven" and "hell" took quite a while to enter into popular stories. Many afterlives are described merely as a land of the dead - such as Hades. The concept of a generic "underworld", where all people go after death, is by far the most common experience of historical humankind. In the "The Encyclopedia of Religion" (1987) it says that "tales of heroic journeys to the underworld, often undertaken on behalf of the entire community, are extremely widespread among tribal peoples throughout the world"12. In Egyptian and pre-Vedic Indian culture there was no experience of variations in post-mortem abodes: there was just the afterlife12. Over time some cultures developed the idea of a "good" afterlife for select people who behaved in the correct way for that culture, such as Valhalla for fallen warriors. Moralists imagined that only the morally good get to "heaven" or "paradise", whilst the majority of mankind simply die forever. Some of the more bitter folk amongst us dreamt up hell to place those people who have been bad in life (click here for a description of hell in world religions). And aside from all of those conceptions of a final resting place for us all, a large number of Eastern religions have come to completely different conclusions about the migration of the self after death: Reincarnation is as prehistorical a belief as any other and also fused with moral thinking. It is true that these conceptions of the hereafter contradict each other in major ways and therefore large portions of mankind have held spiritual beliefs about our futures which simply are not true.
“In Siberia the shamans know that the dead enjoy lives in the underworld that are very much like the living: they hunt, they fish, and they chatter to relatives. After people's death, shamans must actually help a spirit get into the underworld, else they become lost spirits, causing problems for the living.13,14. Such a contrast to the deluge of Christian mystics with their heaven and hell - where spirits cannot be guided, and god sends spirits to the right place. At least one of those two groups of people is completely wrong about their culture's entire experience of the spiritworld and of the afterlife.
Siberian shamans' knowledge of the afterlife also contradicts the experiences of North American shamen. Versluis documents how many North American tribes believed in a sky realm where people lived happily after death (where the seasons were also reversed), and a world below for "those who are punished in the afterlife"15. And in another complete divergence from the spiritual truths known outside of America, Thunder Cloud was a shaman from Winnebago who "maintained that he was able to consciously recall two previous incarnations. In the second he actually watched the people burying him after his death"16. Therefore, reincarnation was the destiny of the dead. It is not the case that we could declare that in reality, some spirits get lost, most go the underworld, and some are reincarnated. That's not what shamanism teaches us. Those who can soul travel and actually talk to spirits are told by the spirits what the score is with afterlife. So why it is that in North America, shamen find themselves reincarnated, but no shamen elsewhere have discovered this? And why do the spirits of the underworld not correct the errors of North American shamans, and tell them that actually spirits need guiding to the underworld, else they get lost? And why do Apache indians think that ghosts return in the form of owls? These contradictions in beliefs teaches us one main thing: these believers are not in touch with any reality except that which their local culture has taught them. A lot of people are simply wrong about the beliefs that they cherish, and beliefs that are backed up with strong personal and cultural testimonies.”
“Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.”
Judaism has a much more ambiguous stance on the afterlife than Christianity and Islam. The Messiah, who will one day come to fulfil the promises made in the Old Testament by God, will usher in a time when the dead will awake from their sleep, to be judged by God17. But "references to the underworld in the Hebrew scriptures are vague and derive largely from beliefs common throughout the ancient Near East (especially Egypt and Babylonia)"12 and Judaism's afterlife is akin to "the underworld" of traditional and ancient cultures from around the world.
“In the Old Testament, the soul is life itself, breathed into the body by God. While traditional Judaism does not regard death as the end of human existence, it has no dogma of an afterlife, and a range of opinions can be found among Jewish scholars. Christianity, on the other hand, made human immortality its foundational principle, the doctrine probably most responsible for the long success of that faith. The power of Islam can also be attributed to the promise of an afterlife, with dark-eyed maidens providing eternal pleasure (for men, anyway).”
"God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist"
Prof. Victor J. Stenger (2007)18
The concept of heaven is not universal in religion. Many of the most ancient religions have no such concept; the ancestor-worship of many natives, for example, has the afterlife as a more or less earthly affair. Many religions - even including much of Judaism has an abode of the dead, but, it is rather mundane. Heaven, as a perfect place of happiness, togetherness, light and proximity to God / truth / etc, was a concept that developed over time. It becomes most prominent as a feature of pagan Gnostic religions in the Roman Empire, where this world was seen as a trap which needed to be escaped from. The same is true of the idea of Nirvana in Hinduism and Buddhism19. Gnosticism was highly influential on early Christianity, hence, the idea of a transcendental and eternal heaven spread throughout the West in its idealistic form.
The above was taken from Theological Problems with Heaven, Paradise and Nirvana. Here's that page's contents menu:
The history of hell in Western culture is derived from Christian mythology, which accepted a shadowy and ill-defined concept of the afterlife in Judaism and combined it with some misunderstood verses from the Hebrew Scriptures, mostly to do with the Valley of Gehenna where criminals were sometimes burnt. It fundamentally contradicts the Western concept of a moral God (a place of "infinite punishment for finite sins"). Across the rest of the world the concept of hell has mostly been very poorly defined or dismissed; it does not fit in with much of the rest of the world's concepts of reincarnation and the cycles of life. Nonetheless in modern times it is a universally understood concept, even if not actually taken seriously.
The above was taken from Hell in World Religions. Here's that page's contents menu:
This section is taken from: Emotions Are Biological: How Biochemistry and Neurology Account for Feelings.
Modern neuroscience has proven that all mental processes start with the firing of neurones in the brain - and that this activity is itself caused by preceding firings and sensory input. In other words, modern brain scanning techniques and scientific experiments have proven that our mental life is constructed out of physical events in the brain, and nothing more.
In Neuroscience, professors Bear, Connors and Paradiso (1996)20 introduce the book with a little history of research into the brain. Several Greek scholars in the 4th century BCE, 2400 years ago, believed that the brain was the center of sensation. Hippocrates, the great pagan philosopher and physician (called the 'father of medicine'), correctly taught that not only was the brain our sensing organ, but it was also the seat of our intelligence - a source of thinking, feeling, wisdom but also the seat of madness21. But then, a progression of religions and cultures asserted that the heart is the source of mind - the Christian Bible is full of such references. Christians later in history were even to be found repeating Aristotle's (394-322BCE) belief that the brain was merely a radiator.
Since then, biologists, neurologists, doctors and psychologists have amassed a wealth of evidence that tells us clearly and comprehensively that the physical brain is the center (and producer) of intelligence, creative thought, willpower, moral thinking and emotions. What is the point of calling our minds souls when we know that all our experiences derive from the physical actions of neurones, neurotransmitters and hormones? Not only that, but the very formation (and loss) of memory is purely physical in nature. Brain damage results in loss of memory; it must be that the soul either doesn't have any memories, or doesn't use them. Brain damage, psychoactive drugs and psychosurgery can permanently change every element of our personalities. Electrical stimulation of parts of the brain cause desire itself to arise22. All of this is only possibly if our emotions and personality are completely determined by physical, not spiritual, processes.
Our emotions are physical in nature. Biological effects can have deep and profound effects on our true selves. Degenerative diseases of the brain can erode personality, brain damage can cause sudden changes in character, tumours can alter our feelings and biochemical imbalances radically swing our moods. Neurologists have delved deep into the brain and discovered that depression, love, niceness, politeness, aggression, abstract thinking, judgement, patience, instincts and memories have turned out to have biochemical causes23, not spiritual ones, and can all be radically affected by brain damage and brain surgery. This is all only possible if consciousness and emotions are all physical, with no need for soul theory.
If there was a soul, brain damage could not also damage our emotional feelings: but it does. Electrical stimulation of the brain causes actual desire to arise instantly. If memory, behaviour and emotions are all controlled by the physical brain, what is a soul for? Any free will it exerts is promptly overridden by biological chemistry hence why so many diseases have an uncontrollable effect on personality. Modern science proves that the idea of souls is misguided. Everything is biological.
“There is no heaven of glory bright, and no hell where sinners roast. Here and now is our day of torment! Here and now is our day of joy! Here and now is our opportunity! Choose ye this day, this hour, for no redeemer liveth!”
It is harder to find a religion that so thoroughly rejects the idea of an afterlife. My own pages on Satanism expand on this idea. The following quote clearly gives away my own affiliation with the Church of Satan:
Satanism is about reality. In reality, all living beings die. There are no exceptions. Satanism, in embracing life and indulgence, is in effect striving against death. However, it is inevitable that death will eventually win. Satan, representing reality and the Human condition, symbolizes the victory of death. This eternal truth is more meaningful and potent than deceitful symbols of life, of reincarnation and of other spiritual pipe dreams.”
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. [Book Review]
Bear, Connors and Paradiso
(1996) Neuroscience. Published by Williams & Wilkins, Baltimore, Maryland, USA. The Amazon link is to a newer version. Mark F. Bear Ph.D. and Barry W Connors Ph.D. are both Professors of Neuroscience at Brown University, Rhode Island, USA, and Michael A. Paradiso Ph.D., associate professor.
Breuilly, O'Brien & Palmer
(1997) Religions of the World. Subtitled "The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, & Festivals". By Elizabeth Breuilly, Joanne O'Brien & Martin Palmer. Hardback. Published for Transedition Limited and Fernleigh Books by Lionheart Books.
(1993, Ed.) The Sociology of Death. Published by Blackwell Publishers/The Sociological Review.
Draper, John William. (1811-1882)
(1881) History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science. 8th edition published by D. Appleston and Co, New York. Digital version accessed via Amazon.co.uk.
(1996) Shamanism. Published by Element Books.
Einstein, Albert. (1879-1955)
(1954) Ideas and Opinions. Published in 1954 by Crown Publishers, New York, USA and in 1982 by Three Rivers Press. A collection of Einstein's writings and texts.
(1987, Ed.) The Encyclopedia of Religion. 16 huge volumes. Eliade is editor-in-chief. Entries are alphabetical, so, no page numbers are given in references, just article titles. Published by Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, USA.
Hinnells, John R.. Currently professor of theology at Liverpool Hope University.
(1997, Ed.) The Penguin Dictionary of Religions. References to this book simply state the title of the entry used. First published 1984. Published by Penguin Books, London, UK
James, William. (1842-1910)
(1902) The Varieties of Religious Experience. Subtitled "A Study in Human Nature". From the Gifford Lectures delivered at Edinburgh 1901-1902, first Edition printed 1960. Quotes from fifth edition, 1971, Collins and from Amazon digital Kindle version of the 2015 Xist Publishing edition. [Book Review]
Nukariya, Kaiten. Professor of Kei-O-Gi-Jiku University and of So-To-Shu Buddhist College, Tokyo.
(1913) Zen - The Religion of the Samurai. Subtitled "A study of Zen philosophy and discipline in China and Japan". Amazon digital edition. Produced by John B. Hare and proofread by Carrie R. Lorenz.
Russell, Bertrand. (1872-1970)
(1957) Why I am not a Christian. Quotes from Fourth Impression of 1967 edition, 1971, Unwin Books.
Soenke, M, M. Landau, & J. Greenberg
(2013) article "Sacred armor: Religion's role as a buffer against the anxieties of life and the fear of death" in the American Psychological Association handbook of psychology, religion, and spirituality (volume 1) p105-122. Accessed via EBSCOhost on 2016 Oct 17.
Stenger, Prof. Victor J.
(2007) God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. Published by Prometheus Books. Stenger is a Nobel-prize winning physicist, and a skeptical philosopher whose research is strictly rational and evidence-based.
Wilson, E. O.
(1998) Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Hardback. Published by Little, Brown and Company, London, UK. Professor Wilson is one of the foremost sociobiologists.