Despite the accepted narrative that this generation is particularly athiest, the majority actually believe in heaven, and often contemplate their lives after death.
Against all odds, it seems the concept of going to heaven holds far greater significance for the young than for those who are closer – numerically – to death! We need to confront “the D word” itself, but let’s first get a handle on why the idea of paradise has gripped contemporary youth – more so than pensioners!
A national Essential poll shows 40% of all Australians believe in heaven. But the crucial figure is that a staggering 51% of those aged 18-34 hold such a belief! This compares to just 29% of the public who are over 55 years old. The young are almost twice as fixated with an afterlife than those closer to pension age! Why is that?
Is it insecurity or religiosity? One suggestion points to the fact that 40% of secondary students now attend private religious schools – a rate far higher than all other Western nations. There has been an exponential growth in government funding for private Catholic and Anglican schools since the 1960s – from a base of almost zero.
Others suggest that a similar rise in Special Religious Instruction (SRI) and chaplains in public schools has led to the Christianisation of education across the nation. These government-funded programs are run by evangelical Christian organisations in each state – with Catholic and Anglican private schools proselytising their own religions. And do millennials then stay at home too long, with a childhood faith, instead of getting out into the real world?
Since colonisation, Christianity instilled belief in an afterlife. It’s reflected on a daily basis in mainstream media, in film and on television – and in our obsession with sport. No game passes without players pointing skyward when scoring a goal, or honouring a deceased team or family member with hands reaching towards heaven.
But the biggest problem is that we don’t talk about death.
Our hero pleads to be released from this endless “perfect existence” and asks if others finally yearn to be free; to actually “die”. With a short pause for effect, the answer is plain. “Everyone!”
Society needs to get over this end-of-life taboo – to discuss and challenge the sugar-coated religious myth that claims we will all meet up with our loved ones (and pets) when we die and go to heaven. Before confronting the concrete scientific evidence (below) – and how we can better handle the emotional aspects of death – just dwell on this thought for one moment.
Isn’t paradise already just a little crowded? Think about who those you would meet – not only the entire cohort of your departed relatives, your friends and ancestors, but all the people you have detested; and those who gave you so much grief during your lifetime.
Then there’s the rest – every human who died! Research shows that, by 2050, an estimated 113 billion people will have lived and died on planet Earth; so heaven is already a seething mass of “souls”. For eternity!
The average punter has great difficulty conceptualising “eternity”. Most can’t even grasp the fact of our universe being 13.8 billion years old – or Earth a mere 4.5 billion! The concept is starkly illustrated in a fascinating book, A History of the World in 10 1/2 chapters. While fictional, it focuses the mind on a serious problem with infinity.
Chapter 10 sees our hero arrive in heaven, choosing to spend all his time eating luxurious food, having endless sex and playing golf. After several thousand years he’s sick of food and sex, and on each heavenly golf course he hits holes-in-one on every par 3. He pleads to be released from this endless “perfect existence” and asks if others finally yearn to be free; to actually “die”. With a short pause for effect, the answer is plain. “Everyone!”
Books on near-death experiences, and visits to heaven, are legion. A recent bestseller was Proof of Heaven by Dr Eben Alexander – a neurosurgeon, no less. Alexander sold more than two million copies before his claims were debunked. Among those who contested his story was Professor Sean Carroll, a particle physicist and high-profile science communicator. Carroll said there could only be two possibilities for Alexander’s spiritual encounter:
(1) Either some ill-defined metaphysical substance, not subject to the known laws of physics, interacted with the atoms of his brain in ways that have eluded every controlled experiment ever performed in the history of science. OR… (2) People hallucinate when they are nearly dead.
Professor Carroll’s detailed explanation of physics and immortality spells out precisely why an immaterial “soul” does not exist. The physics are graphically demonstrated in his video address (at 20:00). Carroll, who worked with the team that discovered the Higgs Boson at Geneva’s Large Hadron Collider, could not be more explicit:
“…if there are other waves, particles or forces sufficient to externally influence the brain, then we would know about them … Within Quantum Field Theory, there can’t be a new collection of “spirit particles” and “spirit forces” that interact with our regular atoms, because we would have detected them in existing experiments … You would have to demonstrate evidence of a completely new realm of reality, obeying very different rules than everything we know about physics.”
But science does not devalue the need for compassion and empathy in the face of raw emotions that come with our personal experiences of death. It is necessary to face up to reality, but there are alternatives to religion in coping with end of life crises. Discussing death openly and honestly – and publicly through the media – is a first step in helping to ease the extreme distress that many suffer with their own fear of death.
The “Golden Age of Athens” pre-dates Christianity by four centuries. It led to a crucial period of new philosophical thought about life and death, about government and democracy, and how ordinary people could live a more fulfilled and contented life.
The philosophical principles of stoicism remain popular today. It’s based on three central themes. “Perception”, how we choose to view events; “Action”, how we deal with events we can control (and those we can’t); and then there’s “Will” – training ourselves to deal honestly and ethically with events in our own lives. Following the full regime of stoicism may seem daunting, but filtering the basic principles it becomes somewhat easier to apply.
The stoic approach to dealing with death – of family, friends or oneself – is particularly relevant. Initially, it may appear morbid to periodically remind ourselves of one’s mortality. But if we consider this approach to death deeply enough, we soon come to realise the benefits of a greatly improved mental state.
Sugar-coating mortality with the myth of everlasting heaven simply deprives us of the means to cope with the end of life. Honesty, reason, compassion and love would be far better than obedience to God and religious ritual.
The stark alternative for most people is to ignore the inevitable, and to be completely consumed by grief when family or friends die unexpectedly. Religion holds its privileged status based on fear – fear of not believing in God, fear of the unknown, and especially the fear of death. It’s a cruel deception that society needs to overcome.
By sugar-coating mortality with the myth of everlasting heaven, religion simply deprives us all of the ways and means to better cope with the end of life. While stoicism may not be the complete solution for all, it is clear that the basic principles of “philosophical ethics” – honesty, reason, compassion and love – would be a far better alternative than teaching schoolchildren obedience to God and religious ritual.
Future generations would avoid the trap of today’s millennials who continue to shun science and instead cling to religious concepts of an afterlife. A “soul” that miraculously ascends to heaven, only to reunite with 113 billion other souls – for the whole of eternity! Just like our golfing hero, that sounds more like purgatory!