The first great question of life is: here or elsewhere?
All our hungers, emotions, fears, inclinations, perceptions, desires, urges, obsessions, wants, instincts and needs answer here. Yet the answer of all the great religions is elsewhere.
It is a remarkable dichotomy. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, even abandoned religions like Zoroastrianism, Mithraism or the Egyptian mythologies have a common message: our bodily life here on earth is not what really counts: what counts comes after we die. And yet our bodies themselves are incredibly insistent: eat sleep love, feel and do bodily things.
This disjunction between religious belief and bodily practice is perhaps greatest at death.
Religious people worldwide believe at death their loves ones leave the body and go to heaven (hopefully, at least). Then they purchase $8000 dollar caskets, expensive cemetery plots & engraved granite headstones, which they periodically visit and keep decorated with artificial flowers, all the while believing (as far as their religious beliefs go, at least) that the person is not located in the decaying corpse in the casket in the graveyard at all, but somewhere else: up in heaven.
It is perplexing to me, and always has been. The practice is to treat the dead as if they are a corpse under the ground, while the belief is that they are a spirit in heaven. Why doesn’t the practice conform to the belief?
Or, more to the point, why isn’t the belief strong enough to modify the practice? If we are not careful, this question spreads. Why do even the most religious people care so inordinately about the well-being of their bodies? Why such attention to food and shelter and sex and pleasure? Why such fear of dying when dying is the only way to get to the world that really matters? The answer is that our bodies insist on life. They insist on here and now.
Hunger, cold, wet, warmth, desire, satisfaction—this is the body’s reality. But the religious mind rejects what the body needs and loves for something after death.
It wasn’t always so. The earliest human religions were here religions. Though it’s true, as archaeologists point out, that the practice of burying the dead goes far back into human prehistory, it is nevertheless flawed to interpret ancient practice based on modern bias. Contrary to popular assumptions, there are strong practical and emotional reasons for burials, reasons which don’t themselves point to belief in afterlife. Dead bodies decompose and stink, and become extremely unsanitary. It is emotionally disturbing to see dead humans lying around—quadruply so when it is the body of a loved one. Imagine the emotional impact of seeing animals and vultures clawing and pecking at your dead mate or child.
It’s easy to understand the human desire for burial, quite apart from the question of afterlife. It is merely a modern bias to conclude that burying the dead demonstrates belief in afterlife. It demonstrates only the belief that the dead should be buried. Beyond that we must look for other clues.
And so I repeat: the earliest religions were here religions. Their spirits were nature spirits, their gods nature gods; their magic and shamanism were efforts to tap into the unknown powers of nature. Only later did the more sophisticated notion of a separate spiritual world, a world wholly other to everything we see around us, a world of elsewhere come into being.
These more sophisticated religions developed by alienating spirit from body. They developed by associating the mesmerizing azure blue of the sky and the mysterious regularity of the stars at night with the world of spirits and gods. Nature spirits became sky and star gods and goddesses. Eventually the even more sophisticated idea of God arose. And with God, the concept of elsewhere became dominant.
Our urges, emotions, perceptions, desires and instincts answer in unison here, but our intellect began to scream for elsewhere. And that is where we stand today.
Our intellect has made an understandable mistake—but it is a mistake. Splitting spirit from matter, soul from body, supernatural from natural made intellectual sense for thousands of years. But no longer.
Science has now taken us beyond that point. Natural selection and our modern biological understanding of the brain and mind (rudimentary as it is) make it clear that the splits were artificial. We thought they were necessary, but they were not. We were tricked by our own mental processes, the manner in which we must perforce think, into assuming that the world matched.
Science tells us it does not.
Religion is freed to return to its roots: the here and the now. No more alienation. No more elsewhere.
Note: this post has been edited and expanded since it was originally published.