Death is one of those subjects that many people find difficult to discuss in frank, realistic terms. Oh, we live in a world where death is depicted everywhere; on the big screen, on TV, in stories… but generally we confine our view of death to surreal tales… where death is never really death, but something else.
The subject of death terrifies most clear-thinking people – which also allows death to be used as a big nasty club, a weapon against those who would ask too many questions and possibly demand actual evidence as part of the answers. Thus, all you have to do is listen to some sincere religious person trying to convert you to realize that mortality is the driving force behind religious conversion.
People are scared to death of death; they can’t handle the thought that they will cease to exist as a conscious entity. That great terror is what drives people to religion. As the centerpiece for the reason religion exists, one would expect to find many lurid descriptions of death and dying religionist tomes such as The Bible, and you won’t be disappointed.
Succinctly stated: “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death-that is, the devil- and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” (Hebrews 2:14,15)
An honest statement from the author of Hebrews: It is all about the fear of death. That’s the hammer that religion always has against reason. Fear is also used as a club to promote the other purpose of religion; its purported social control. i.e., without religion, they say, people would go wild and do all kinds of crazy things like commit incest and genocide.
Now, the amount of social control exerted by the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition is somewhat limited and even rather dubious due to the fact that these faiths hold to a rather extreme form of moral relativism, but nonetheless this fear works to some degree for social cohesion and control. Perhaps I will deal with the moral relativism of Christianity in some future post but let’s stay on track for now…
The fear of death is both the club and the carrot, simultaneously wooing the believer with the promise of overcoming death while threatening him/her with the same if they depart from nominal compliance. Death is natural and inevitable and religion has done nothing to change that, nor is this ever likely to change.
Fear is also natural and can be a good thing at least SOME of the time: That panicky flight-or-fight reaction is often the only thing that saves a person caught in a life or death situation. Of course, if you are having a heart attack, fear doesn’t really help. But nature is not working according to a plan – it is just working.
So we need to remember that fear is a lifesaver sometimes, and is perfectly natural and even good as long as you don’t become so obsessed with fear that you are driven to irrational acts.
Now I want to talk about reality of death and dying, and this will probably send a few of you running to church. Every religion has some beautiful stories about the greatness of dying in order to be with God in Paradise/Heaven. You’ve heard those stories a thousand times, though, so I am only going to stick with what we actually KNOW about death and dying.
THE EPISTEMOLOGY OF DEATH
The first thing you should realize is that you’ve been practicing for death all of your life. We don’t usually call it practice; we just call it “sleep.” And so does the Bible…
“You sweep men away in the sleep of death.” (Psalm 90.5) Jesus calls death “sleep” in John 11. In 1 Cor. 15:51 Paul claims “We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed.” Here, Paul clearly means sleep to be understood as synonymous with death, and he is thinking that some readers in his own time would still be around at the Second Coming. He was wrong about that, but he apparently believed it.
People who have had near death experiences often describe the feeling of “needing” to sleep and of going to sleep. It isn’t just a metaphor. Sleep is very much like death. It is so much like death, experientially, that there are really only two differences:
- When you sleep, you have periodic episodes of dreaming. You don’t remember most of most of your dreams, but they happen nonetheless. Dreams are how the brain reinforces memory pathways. During the dying process, you may well have some vivid, emotionally-charged dreams about meeting dead relatives, or living ones, or God(s) or experiencing unconditional love. Thank you, dopamine! Some people have even reported dreams of going shopping. If you are really dying, however, the dreams will eventually stop.
- When you sleep, you eventually wake up.
If you aren’t afraid to go to sleep… I want you to question your fear of death. We can think of death as a natural and even liberating process if we choose. For those of us who enjoy a good sleep, death is the biggest nap of them all, and just as free of fear, suffering and pain (as The Bible promises).
Still, I’m not asking you to embrace your death, but to consider it in a different light. For readers who haven’t already left for church in a panic, I will make you the same offer that the churchies will make you: everlasting life.
But my offer isn’t based on fantasy fiction.
People at church will tell you that you won’t really die – a Super Guy in the Sky will instead transform you with his magic power over death. It’s really a very comforting story, isn’t it? And you can see why the terror of death would drive otherwise sane people to embrace these stories as reality, no matter how silly they sound if you bother to pick them apart.
Of course, that’s why religionists get so angry when you start pointing out contradictions in their beliefs, or otherwise expressing your doubts: You aren’t just pointing out factual errors, as you might think, instead you are assaulting the only thing that keeps them from going insane with terror.
As I have pointed out in the past, the violent anger that any expression of doubt generates in believers is strong evidence suggesting that they too have their own, higly-repressed doubts, and MAY in fact know (or fear) that their espoused beliefs are partially or entirely false. Clearly we must do more to disarm fear without resorting to fairy tales.
You don’t need an invisible magic friend to save you…
Consider instead that the universe springs forth from a unified, connected state; the Cosmic Membrane. If you need a more familiar handle, you can call it The Force. Those of you who have enough interest can investigate quantum physics for a better understanding of how all things are connected, and I’ll throw in a couple of links for good measure.
For the still-timid among you, I grant you permission to rename the Cosmic Membrane “God,” although such a name gives the force much too much credit for having purpose and direction, in my opinion, unless you can wrap your brain around the idea of a God who doesn’t know or care about anything.
The membrane, as far as anyone can tell, is an active force but not an active intelligence. Nevertheless, if all things are connected in this manner, then you must be connected as well. In fact, every part of your being is a manifestation of the Cosmic Membrane.
Therefore, the essence of all that you are cannot die, because the membrane is not a force that is expended. It does not have any beginning or ending point that we can determine. Now, this does not imply a conscious existence, but it is very much analogous to dreamless sleep. You are still there, all of you, as part of the Force that connects and manifests everything – the source and essence of all that is.
You are just sleeping…