Religion is failing us, Part Two

The Thinker by Rodin

(Read Part One, if you haven’t.)

For a couple of decades now, I’ve been interested in the phenomenon of Near Death Experiences (NDEs). I’m not obsessive about it, but my interest in it picks up from time to time. Yesterday, it was snagged again watching this video on YouTube:

The speaker at this TED Talk, Thomas Fleischmann, knows a thing or two about NDEs. As an emergency doctor he has witnessed about two thousand deaths. Since it’s his job to try to resuscitate them, he sometimes succeeds. These people are clinically dead: no heartbeat and no brain waves. The uniformity of their NDEs is amazingly consistent across ages, religions, races and geographical regions.

What makes Fleischmann’s case unique is that he also had a NDE, and he gave the same report his patients did. People brought back tend to be happy, caring, highly relational and lose all fear of death. They report moving toward a light after death, often seeing relatives, and feelings of absolute peace and unconditional love.

This is not quite the Pearly Gates, a greeting from Saint Peter and sitting near the Right Hand of God, but it sounds pretty good. I’m reminded of that snippet from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. If you read the books by JRR Tolkien, he says largely the same thing:

PIPPIN: I didn’t think it would end this way.
GANDALF: End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.
PIPPIN: What? Gandalf? See what?
GANDALF: White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.

Given that none of us can escape death, assuming all these experiences continue to progress the way it seems like they should, death should not be something to fear at all. Perhaps it should be welcomed because arguably for many, if not most of us, it’s a great improvement over our reality.

Tethered as we are to this reality, or perhaps to what we think is this reality, only the suicidal will want to hasten their demise. It’s a bit crazy not to fear death, as it seems to be instinctual. So many of those many early Christian martyrs fed to the lions in Roman coliseums must have been crazy. They thought they were earning a place in a heaven. At least it appears that some of them were able to surmount the fear of death to spread the message of Christianity to the heathen.

But overall, religion isn’t helping us confront our mortality in a healthy way. Arguably, most religions make it worse.

These NDEs strongly suggest there is an afterlife, the soul is real and our death moves us into a different, happier and more loving realm. It doesn’t seem to matter how evil you were in life; you are still loved and accepted in the afterlife. It’s kind of hard to get my mind around that given that someone like Jeffrey Epstein recently joined the ranks of the dead. You would figure some of them would deserve eternal torment. Yet if Jesus bought us salvation, then it appears that the Universalists were right: he did so for everyone, for all time. It’s not something you have to earn like a Boy Scout merit badge. It’s something that just is. It’s innate. It’s built in.

You have to look hard to find a religion that tells us not to worry about death, or more specifically eternal damnation as a result of death if you don’t get their religion. Most religions preach just the opposite: you have to work really really hard to get into heaven, or at least be a sincerely good person in this life to get your eternal reward. Yet even Jesus seem to be providing a hint that we are all due salvation. (See Matthew 20).

The atheists aren’t helping either. They don’t believe in an afterlife, hence they don’t believe in NDEs either. Yet it sure looks like they are going to get one whether they like it or not. Or maybe by believing you aren’t going to get one, you actually don’t. There’s no evidence of this though from the many atheists who’ve had NDEs.

Many Buddhists believe we are stuck in a cycle of birth, death and rebirth, unless you achieve Nirvana, which is apparently very hard to do. It’s probably easier for a rich man to get through the eye of a needle, as Jesus also taught. The Buddhists appear to have picked up a lot of this from the Hindus, since Hinduism preceded Buddhism and Hinduism permeated Buddha’s life.

The monotheistic religions all believe in one God and one chance at salvation. Naturally they are very concerned about straightening you out now so you can make it to heaven. Some are arguably more than a bit crazy about it. As I noted in an earlier post, some fundamentalists are actively trying to bring about the end of the world, convinced that they are chosen ones like Donald Trump, and will be raptured.

I would think it should give even a fundamentalist pause to consider that Trump will be raptured too, along all the other sinners out there who they are desperately trying to help see the light, but seem to secretly despise. Frankly, from all the Left Behind books, the Rapture seems like a lot of fun to these elect. It’s like God will be burning these souls like marshmallows over the campfire of Hell, and they get to watch gleefully. After all, they are the chosen, not the rejected.

It’s hard to think of a point to religion if we all make it to a great afterlife for free, and if no one checks our punch cards to make sure we’ve earned our Golden Ticket. The obvious consequence of religion though is to hype our fear of death, so we get so scared that we change our behavior to act and worship a lot like them. And that appears to add a lot of misery to people’s life by pushing them to act in way contrary to their nature. It seems sadistic.

At the very least though, it is not helpful. In fact, it’s very hurtful. We all need to get along in this life as best we can because we are trapped inside this matrix. If religion has a purpose, these NDEs suggest that’s it: to model in some small way the peace and brotherhood and unconditional love we will all find after death, at no charge and unconditionally. Yes, even Donald Trump.

How about some of that religion? And a lot less of the apparently hurtful and counterproductive crap we are getting instead? Sounds good to me. You best not hold your breath.