Hell.


Yesterday i had a dream about dying… about laying to rest, and then flying,
How the moment at hand is the only thing we really own.

Some time ago J.R. and I were in Fasika and got to talking about the possibility of an afterlife, and what the worst possible afterlife would be. In some Native American religions, it is living for the rest of eternity in complete sensory deprivation; in complete blackness and unable to hear or feel anything, have a new experience, ever again…just you and the memories of your own mishandled life, to replay in your mind over and over. She believes that even this would be preferable to outright ceasing to exist, which would be the worst possible alternative. I think the worst possible punishment for a bad life would be to become God. To already know everything and be forced to live forever. Perhaps this would explain a lot.

* * *

A little bit more recently (wow, I’m a bad bad blogger. or just busy) GJM and I got into a semi-involved discussion about religion, or specifically, knowing where you want to go when you die. Myself being agnostic, and he being one of the more relaxed variants of Christian. His observation was that in any succession of cultures throughout history, if uniformity of faith–faith in whatever deity or deities they happened to have faith in–were plotted against time, it would follow a sawtooth pattern–each culture begins with everyone believing more or less the same thing, and ends after a long slide of loss or diffusion of faith–all these little groups believing their own things, or nothing at all, and more often than not, fighting about it. He noted that historically, every time that scale slides too far toward religious heterogeny, that culture gets attacked and overthrown, at which point the cycle repeats with the new invader’s beliefs at the saturation point.

My observation was that conflict kind of always boils down to one of two things…resources or ideology. Either they have something and we want it, or We’re Right and They’re Wrong and we’re going to force them to see it, even if we have to go in, kill every last one of ’em and replace them with our own. My own admittedly-ill-informed guess is that the overall rate of both religious diffusion and cultural overthrow are more or less constant; all but guaranteeing this saw-wave of faith without implying causality.

Who’s right? Who knows. That’s kind of what this is about.

* * *

I was raised Catholic or Lutheran or somewhere in between. When I was a young ‘un (and to this day, if I find time for it, which I mostly don’t) I would read everything I could get my hands on. In particular, I was fascinated by the stacks of long-neglected instruction manuals I discovered for all the gadgets around the house, some still in the shrink wrap. I devoured them all, from the VCR to the microwave to the stereo and turntable to the riding lawnmower. It felt good, empowering even, as a young child, to know how to program the barely-solid-state VCR even when my parents couldn’t; I knew how to operate, fix, and properly take care of everything around the house just because I took the time to read the instructions their Manufacturer provided.

Somewhere in those shelves was an equally-neglected Bible…probably NIV. I don’t think I ever actually read the whole thing, but I did read quite a bit – as I understood it, this big blue book was written long ago as kind of the instruction manual for life. It took a while before I gradually realized why sunday school and church seemed to concentrate on a fairly narrow subset (“Gospel”) of this material, and seemingly shy away from the rest. There’s some pretty fucking bizarre stuff in there. Equal parts detailed historical documentation, bullshit, daydreams, internal inconsistencies, poetry, bigotry, prophecy, wisdom and sound advice. They’ll talk until blue about the story of Creation, but never mention the animal-sacrifice stuff the next book over (right down to which side of the altar to wipe the blood on on which day of the week, or which parts should be excised and burned on which occasions), nor for that matter, detailed food-preparation instructions that made sense in the days before refrigeration and Louis Pasteur (it seems a positive correlation between disease and animals with a cloven hoof was noticed pretty early on). It could even be argued, with only a few implausible assumptions, that Moses, not Tesla or Marconi, was the true father of radio*.

I guess if you have to pick only one, you may as well pick the religion with the worst afterlife, to minimize your chances of going to that one in case you picked wrong. That kind of rules out the ones that don’t include afterlives. There are a few faiths that don’t preclude belief in others, allowing them to coexist nondestructively. Then there are some convenient meta-beliefs, such as the belief that if you just “pick one” and live a good life, either a) it will automatically be the right one for you having picked it, or b) the deity/ies from the right one will cut you some slack for at least believing in something, regardless of whether the appropriate texts actually support this**.

It can be (often is) argued that agnosticism is the world’s biggest cop-out to what many consider to be life’s most important question–the ultimate “I don’t know”–but for me, it seems that the religion question comes down to choosing one, and only one, of many equally ridiculous possibilities. (All right…maybe not equally ridiculous, cue references to His Noodly Appendage or turtles all the way down.) Okay…maybe ridiculous isn’t the right word. Just not significantly more convincing than the hundreds of other possibilities out there.

I mean really, of this country’s predominant faiths, which is more ludicrous? To believe that there’s a man in the sky, who knows if you’ve been sleeping, knows when you’re awake (knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake), powerful enough to create entire universes and life itself, and yet still spends His/Her/Its time micromanaging the daily affairs of individuals? (“Ooohh… Johnson, I saw that jaywalking. You’re gonna burn a little for that.”)

Or to believe that from an absolute random soup of nothing sprang all the matter that you see before you, which self-organized into galaxies, stars, planets and, on a much smaller level, molecule chains capable of self-replication… which in turn self-organized into bacteria, birds and bees, and ultimately sentient creatures capable of producing speech, culture, mathematics, religion, art… who go around telling each other that in a closed system***, entropy always increases? (And that they are the by-product of billions and billions of mistakes. Who finds that a comforting thought?)

It also might be argued that a purpose of faith is to bring purpose and comfort to our lives, and that by not having any, we screw ourselves out of that. Meh. Personally, I find it comforting to believe that the sum total of my impact on existence (or perhaps more importantly, its impact on me) is bounded. Because forever is a long damned time.

* notedly, the original instructions were far more detailed (“See that you make them according to the pattern shown you on the mountain”) than what the Bible actually documents. Come on… exacting specifications on the length, number and distance between radiators branches on a dipole lampstand, precisely-specified turn ratios around a curtain rod, ground planes, protective (grounding?) garments that must be worn by the operator in proximity of the apparatus “so that he will not die”? Either these are instructions for some kind of crude receiver in terms a primitive culture can understand, or they’ve got one very anal interior decorator.

** Yes, Johnny, dogs do go to heaven… no Johnny, babies don’t go to hell for not believing in Jesus… no Johnny, middle Eastern kids who have never even been exposed to Chri… go ask your father.

*** crap, you paid attention in physics class, and caught me talking out of my ass again.

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