“I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” – Woody Allen
Human beings are both blessed and cursed in that we evolved the awareness of our own mortality. We are cursed in that this awareness, combined with our fierce instinct of self-preservation, is the source of a great deal of fear and anxiety. Yet we are blessed in that we can truly understand the great fortune we have been afforded by our very existence. This awareness also allows us to truly understand the value of each day we are alive.
It goes without saying that one of religion’s major functions is to address the anxiety and fear that surrounds the concept of death, to provide comfort for those who are facing death (as well as those who are left grieving after someone dies). The earliest archaeological evidence of religious thought is based on ritual treatment of the dead. Ritual burials signify not only an awareness of life and death, but also are strong indicators for belief in the afterlife. Of all the varieties of religious beliefs that have existed throughout history, very few were unconcerned with the promise of life after death. After all, until very recently, with the advent of modern medicine, human life was fleeting. Death and religion have always been entwined. And, one would imagine, as long as religion exists, they will always be entwined.
“I was dead for millions of years before I was born and it never inconvenienced me a bit.” – Mark Twain
For the growing number of us who are not religious — who are humanists, atheists, agnostics, and whatnot — Twain hit the nail on the head. Death is simply the end of consciousness. We cannot remember anything about “life” before being born. That vast stretch of time prior to our birth existed without us. There is no evidence that the vast stretch of time following our death would be any different. We have to stop and remind ourselves what comprises consciousness and the self. Neither the self, nor consciousness, can carry on without our brain’s billions of neurons and neuronal connections. It is a fact that when we die, these neural processes stop. There is no evidence that any other secret metaphysical ingredient survives and is capable of simulating our organic brain, or carrying with it, like some celestial flash drive, the oceans of data stored in our gray matter.
What do we mean when we speak of a soul? Jesse Bering, Director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture and a Reader in the School of History and Anthropology at Queen’s University, states in his paper, The folk psychology of souls:
“The soul is typically represented as the conscious personality of the decedent and the once animating force of the now inert physical form (Thalbourne 1996). Although there are many varieties of afterlife beliefs, each – at least implicitly – shares a dualistic view of the self as being initially contained in bodily mass and as exiting or taking temporary leave of the body at some point after the body’s expiration.”
Mountains of literature, essays, poetry, and scientific papers have been devoted to death, and its stowaway passenger, the soul. We as humans seem incapable of conjuring a scenario in which we simply cease to exist. Certainly, the reasoning goes, we must go somewhere when we die.
The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno wrote:
“Try to fill your consciousness with the representation of no-consciousness, and you will see the impossibility of it. The effort to comprehend it causes the most tormenting dizziness. We cannot conceive of ourselves as not existing.”
It is not surprising that the concept of the soul evolved along with our self-awareness and our ability to understand our own mortality. However, despite the advancements in medicine and science, there has not been any evidence of the existence of a soul.
As V. S. Ramachandran, brain scientist at the University of California, San Diego, put it, there may be soul in the sense of “the universal spirit of the cosmos,” but the soul as we have come to know it, “an immaterial spirit that occupies individual brains and that only evolved in humans — all that is complete nonsense … basically superstition.”
John F. Haught, a theologian at Georgetown University, has also written at length about the concept of the soul. He stated, “For many Americans the only way to preserve the discontinuity that’s implied in the notion of a soul, a distinct soul, is to deny evolution.” Haught says this is unfortunate.
Nancey Murphy, a philosopher at Fuller Theological Seminary and ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren, wrote of souls:
“Evolutionary biology shows the transition from animal to human to be too gradual to make sense of the idea that we humans have souls while animals do not. All the human capacities once attributed to the mind or soul are now being fruitfully studied as brain processes — or, more accurately, I should say, processes involving the brain, the rest of the nervous system and other bodily systems, all interacting with the socio-cultural world.”
In essence, what Murphy, and a host of other biologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers are saying, is: Yes, the concept of the soul is nice, but we can’t prove that it’s any more than a concept. When a plant dies, its plant soul does not leave the husk behind and embark on an eternal life elsewhere. It simply ceases to be. Why would it be any different for humans, who share a common ancestor with that plant? We did not evolve a soul, we evolved the capacity to entertain the concept of the soul.
“Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon.” – Woody Allen
Life is short, and it is difficult. Of course we want life to have a sequel, preferably a longer one — and strictly feel-good, this time around.
Neat concepts often develop into widespread beliefs (see: Noah’s Ark, geocentrism, flat earth). Many of those beliefs seem silly to us now, but hindsight is 20/20. Until another explanation comes along which is obvious and is embraced by a majority of the population, those beliefs hang around. (For example, 16% of Americans believe people can cast curses or spells that cause harm to others.) But just because a concept is neat does not make it true.
It makes sense that humans developed and perpetuated a belief in souls and the afterlife. Until the Bronze Age, the average lifespan was in the lower- to mid-20s. Life was difficult, short, and uncertain. Without the modern understanding of the way the brain works, or which bodily systems produce our senses of self and awareness (or without an understanding of the laws of nature in general) it would not have been terribly far-fetched to believe that when a person lost their life, that life continued on somewhere in some form. It is a comforting thought, especially when we lose a loved one, and even more so when we lose them too soon.
Which brings us to a question I hear often: “All of this sounds so cold and sad — How do you find any comfort in it, and what do you tell your kids?”
“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying.” – Woody Allen
As a secular/non-religious person, I would be lying to state that death doesn’t bother me. As much as I accept the inevitability of death, it’s not something I look forward to and hope to put off for as long as possible. But I have found that, in accepting that death is not a portal to some mysterious second chapter, I fear it less. I know that when I die, I will not miss life, for I won’t feel or know anything — just as it was before my life began.
“Living in the secular world gives us freedom from the dogmas and superstitions of the past, but it does not eliminate the mystery and power of life’s endings. When parents share those essentially human feelings with their children, they are engaged in the profound task of making meaning together, which is one of the great privileges of parenthood, or indeed of any human relationship.” – Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons
In the book, Parenting Beyond Belief, Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons writes with great wisdom and compassion about talking to children about death as secular parents. She states that “the particular challenge for secular parents is the absence of comforting answers supplied by doctrines and images from various faith traditions.” Yet, she says, parents can equip their children with the necessary tools to understand death and accept it as a natural part of life, and to find meaning in their grief.
Gibbons details “Five Affirmations in the Face of Death.” They are as follows (Note: Gibbons elaborates on each affirmation in detail — the below are simply my own very brief summaries of each):
- Acknowledge the reality – Helping the child accept death’s finality. They are trying to understand the way the world works.
- Validate sadness – Acknowledging and sharing in the reality of powerful feelings. Our sorrow is a function and measure of our love for the deceased.
- Acknowledge the unknown – Even adults cannot know what happens when we die, communicate our own ideas, but leave room for them to explore their own. Discuss what you, and others, may believe about death.
- Celebrate individuality – Each person is unique and irreplaceable. Memories are precious. Celebrate them, celebrate the life that was lived.
- Affirm the continuity of life – The universe remains dependable. Life goes on, and we have family, friends, love, nature, and all that we trusted can be trusted as before. The opportunity to share love is worth the pain of grief.
Death is not an easy topic, at any time, for any age. But I have found that, in dealing with death in terms that that are not draped in superstition and dogma, we can address death as a necessary aspect of the natural world — and often death is less scary this way. We can avoid the metaphysical trappings associated with many religious views of death: eternal reward/punishment, wrath, grace, etc. We can certainly do worse than to foster an understanding and acceptance of death outside of a supernatural framework. Dying is as natural, and as much a part of life, as is being born.
“Everything has a natural explanation. The moon is not a god but a great rock and the sun a hot rock.” – Anaxagorus, circa 475 BCE
I will leave it to Mythbusters, and Skeptic Magazine to investigate some of those claims. But I will say that the great philosopher Anaxagoras, quoted above, was on to something way back in 475 BCE. I will also say that we could all do well to invoke Occam’s Razor when we hear such claims. Just because we can’t understand something does not mean we must accept the supernatural claim.
As we make great strides in the relatively new field of neuroscience, we are learning more and more about the workings of the brain and the nervous system. A study by Lakhmir Chawla, an intensive care doctor at George Washington University medical center, adds to the growing body of evidence showing that near-death experiences (including sensations of leaving the body, visions of religious figures and loved ones, and the proverbial white light) may be caused by the cascade of electrical activity in the dying brain. Chalwa states, “We think the near-death experiences could be caused by a surge of electrical energy released as the brain runs out of oxygen. As blood flow slows down and oxygen levels fall, the brain cells fire one last electrical impulse. It starts in one part of the brain and spreads in a cascade and this may give people vivid mental sensations.” Mental sensations that could be augmented by our vast store of mental images — faces of deceased loved ones, religious figures, and other powerful memories. So, as Anaxagoras suggested, we are learning in this case that there may be a purely biological explanation for this once metaphysical phenomenon. That’s not to say that we must accept Dr. Chalwa’s explanation as the truth, but such research reminds us that we still have much to learn about the power of the human brain. If we can dream such powerfully vivid dreams in times of health, it must be entirely possible to experience, during a surging fireworks display of electrical brain impulses associated with trauma, the vivid and fantastical narratives and imagery associated with the above near-death experiences.
The most important thing to me, as a secular parent, is to constantly be aware (and make my children aware) of our place in the vast timeline of history. We’re only a tiny blip. The timeline is insanely long. And only within the last sliver of time have we begun to understand that the earth is round, that germs cause disease, that we share common ancestors with all living things (many still don’t accept this). It’s okay to not know everything. It’s okay that some things will remain mysteries until that blip on the timeline has moved beyond our own lifespan. We should be suspicious of extraordinary claims for which there is no evidence. It’s okay to be satisfied with what we do know.
Rev. Dr. Gibbons, in her essay mentioned above, states:
“For a secular person, the question is not ‘Why did a universe designed for our benefit have to include death?’ but ‘Isn’t it amazing that we have the matter of the world arranged in such a way that we find ourselves with this incredible opportunity for consciousness?’ What is surprising is not that our awareness must cease to be at some point in the unknown future, but that it has arisen now in the first place. That we are able to think and feel, to learn things and to love people, is a gift. It might just as easily not have happened. This gift of life is as arbitrary as the fact of mortality: both came about without consulting us. these are the terms on which we are here, and they are not negotiable.”
I imagine that, to a religious person used to the doctrine of eternal life, the above might lack the comfort and reassurance afforded by religion. Nobody said non-belief was any easier. Having viewed life and death through both lenses, I can say that death is difficult no matter how you look at it. At the end of the day, what is important is that, regardless of our beliefs, we find a way to come to peace with our mortality.
“I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.”
– Carl Sagan