By Barbara G. Walker
The concept of immortality is one of the most grandiose expressions of human egotism: the pretense that we are so radically different from every other form of life on Earth that we will not cease to exist as individuals.
Despite the undeniable proof we see all around us, that every living thing sooner or later comes to its end, we invent mental images of our own perpetuity. We greatly fear the intrusion of reality upon this imagery, so we create religious brainwashing that begins in childhood and usually remains unquestioned throughout life.
We also fear to witness what really happens to the dead. In most cultures, corpses are either completely destroyed, or securely enclosed and hidden away. Some have invented mummification, and its highly profitable modern descendant, embalming, to pretend for a while that the body won’t decay after all. But it will, in spite of all such complex procedures, and we don’t want to watch.
According to the Catholic Church, there are numbers of alleged saints whose bodies remained fresh for centuries, but such nonsense is not much heeded nowadays.
Nevertheless, we have to realize that the dead rot away inevitably, so we create nonearthly places for them to exist in: heavens in the sky, hells underground. We surely know that the sky really has nothing but air, and beyond it lie billions of light-years of dark, empty space. We also know what lies beneath the Earth’s surface, and it’s not a realm of tormenting demons or hellfires decreed by the cruelty of a punishing God. How could we endure eternal torture when we are without any nerves to feel? We know that the pearly gates and legions of harp-strumming angels, which have been literally believed for centuries, are simply not possible. Yet we can envision them as clearly as we see Santa Claus. People speak of the dead “looking down” on them, as if the dead somehow exist in the empty sky. On the other hand, sometimes they “walk the Earth,” and are seen as benevolent or malevolent spirits still among us, seen or unseen.
Deep down, we know perfectly well that the only real persistence of our individual image is in the memories of other humans, usually family for a generation or two, or because of our works. Much flowery language develops around our overwhelming desire to be “remembered.” We are enjoined to “remember” deceased heroes of all sorts, so they can still exist at least in the imaginations of the living.
Today’s fancy, expensive funerals developed from the centuries-old, primitive belief that ghosts are out there somewhere, watching and listening, and they want praise and kowtowing, or they might take offense. Ghosts were feared, even those of formerly beloved relatives.
A tastier synonym for “ghost” is “soul,” a typically religious concept that exists only as a word.
It is roughly envisioned as our basic consciousness, actually a product of the gray matter within our skulls, which is just as perishable as the rest of the body. Patriarchal societies insisted that soul is the really important part of a person, and it is simply a “seed” implanted in a woman by a man. Official church doctrine always declared that a baby’s soul comes only from the father’s semen. This led to male claims on family names, property and innumerable rights not allowed to women. Of course, it was not until 1928 that the human ovum was discovered and seen to be much larger and more complex than a spermatozoon. Religious notions of the male “seed” bearing the soul are obvious nonsense, but they persist nevertheless among the ignorant who still worship Allah or Yahweh.
Centuries before the advent of patriarchy, worldwide beliefs usually attributed the soul to the mother. The primitive but logical assumption was that babies were formed from the mother’s blood, which remained in the womb for that purpose instead of emerging with each menstrual phase of the moon. Thus, family relationships were always “blood” relationships. We still use the same term.
According to the early Egyptians, a mother gave her “heart’s blood” to create her child’s soul. Mothers were given more respect than fathers, but all male “blood” relatives such as brothers, maternal uncles, nephews and cousins in the maternal line were all part of the lineage.
When Darwin demonstrated that humans are simply life forms like all other animals, having outsized brains to make up for their usually inferior senses and physical strength, religious fundamentalists were horrified by the possible diminution of father souls and father gods, and frantically denied the facts of evolution. Some still do, even though against incontrovertible truths. They claim that only humans possess souls, and all other creatures are soulless. Those who are keenly aware of the genuine love and intelligence demonstrated by their pets tend to contradict this view. Some people bury their deceased pets with as much ceremonial grieving as they lavish on relatives.
So, what can we conclude about our fabled immortality?
First, that it is a monumentally successful money-making scam. Second, that it is perpetuated by our monumentally egotistical view of ourselves. Third, that it can exist only in our imagination, but nowhere in the real world. The fact that it still exists, and continues to be perpetuated by a majority of human beings, attests to the determination of believers, no matter how contrary the evidence. We need to be grownup enough to control our egotism, accept the brevity of each individual human life, and use our time as wisely as possible.
FFRF Lifetime Member Barbara G. Walker is a researcher, lecturer and author of 24 books.