We went to the State Fair last night - it was really quite a lot of fun and, as advertised, "A Whole Lotta Happy." There were also a whole lotta animals in various stages of food preparation, from adorable, wet-eyed calves to deep fried cheeseburgers. But although I see the calves and lambs and chicks as future meals, all they can see is the immediate present. All they can see is their food and bedding. Hopefully this is adequate and comfortable and free from fear, pain or torment. It is very fortunate for the animals, therefore, that they cannot see very far into the future. They aren't like the barnyard animals from Babe, who not only recognize their fate, but also accept it with a sort of grim acquiescence.
Every single one of us dies. Every single human, chimpanzee, pig, bumblebee, ear of corn or lily pad, whether we are hunted or deep fried or harvested. All living things die and while our self-awareness may have been a singular advantage in our drive to the top of the food chain, it is a definite downer. We can no longer simply live in the moment, because we see death looming over us, lurking around every turn and we know that every lapsed second brings our inevitable end closer. This is decidedly unsettling and maybe this is why we have developed an idea of the afterlife. We do not like to look our mortality in the face; we do not like to see a void at the end; we do not want to picture ourselves in front of the butcher and imagine the lights in our eyes going out forever. So believing in an afterlife is like putting the blindfold back over our eyes. We cannot forget what we have seen, but we can believe in something else, something unseeable and unprovable, we can return to the bliss of ignorance.
Why is this a problem? Why does it matter if someone chooses to believe that their death isn't actually the end, that all dogs really do go to heaven? For one thing, it is probably wrong, so if people have any kind of intellectual honesty, I think that they would actually prefer to know the truth. But in a practical sense, I suppose that it doesn't really matter if people believe that they will continue to live in some way after they die. But if the problem with an afterlife isn't the destination, then it's the ticket and the baggage. The question of How We Get To Heaven is enormous. It causes wars and enslaves whole demographics, it cuts the foreskins off of infant boys, it forces women to feel ashamed to be themselves, it causes guilt and grief on a global scale every minute of every day.
On one hand, I miss the thought that I will continue to live in bliss after the darkness comes. But on the other hand, I enjoy knowing that this life is fleeting. It really is a strange mix of relief and exhilaration, because I want to get all the good I can from life because it is the only chance I'll ever have, but I also don't have to worry about how the insignificant details of daily life may effect my afterlife. It is fantastic to live like this, to dance right up until the very end.
And that thought is fine for me, fine for people who think like Dead Poets Society, who go to a coffee shop and order a birthday cake, but what about those chickens packed together, what about those children starving to death or dying of diarrhea because they don't have clean drinking water? Their lives are dark and miserable and painful from start to finish.
So carpe diem! Seize the day and eat your cake, but try to make it a good place for every living thing. Remember that you don't have to believe in heaven to experience pain and fear.
A few points that I wanted to make but couldn't find a way to include them gracefully.
First. I know that the subject of an afterlife is a basically unknowable proposition. It should be apparent which side of the debate I am on. I think that there is ample reason to believe that there is no afterlife, but I want to be clear that whatever opinions we may hold on the merits of heaven, hell or anything else have nothing at all to do with the truth. So whether you like the thought of heaven or hate it, it makes no difference to the actual truth of heaven's existence, whatever that may turn out to be.
Second. I know that pain and suffering are not uniquely caused by humanity. Although I believe that a large portion of the quantity of pain and suffering experienced globally every second is caused by humanity, the basic circle of life has plenty of capacity to create pain all on its own. Every antelope that gets away from a cheetah means a hungry cheetah. And when a polar bear fails to catch a seal, he may starve to death. That is life and although it truly breaks my heart, I know that this is the vicious chisel that has been used to shape our world for millions of years.