I am not a religious person. I am not atheistic either — I do not vehemently believe in the non-existence of a god.
Last night, hanging out with a friend brought about an interesting discussion about religion. We were talking about how in the medieval periods, churches used stories of hell, fire and brimstone to scare people into believing in Christianity. My friend said people eventually started going to church to be intentionally frightened because it was on some level, entertaining. I said how I learnt that because most people were illiterate, religious art in that period were dramatic, flamboyant and scary, to achieve the same effect of scaring people into belief.
That reminded me of a conversation I had with another friend a week before about the eternal soul. That friend is Catholic and believes in a higher power. I asked him, “What do you think happens to us when we die? Do you believe that we have an eternal soul that endures beyond our physical bodies?” He said he believed that there must be something beyond just the finality of death, and he believed in an eternal soul. I then asked him, why must we have an eternal soul; is it that bad if whatever we know and think ends when we die? He said, wouldn’t that be depressing if all we ever are just stops there, and that he feels that we exist to achieve a higher purpose.
That, to me, sounds a little like the fear of letting oneself simply end; to die. The ego prizes itself so much that it creates an afterlife to exist in the minds of those still living, so that fears of its finality may be placated. In a way, that is the premise of the Christian hell, isn’t it? Just as good souls go to heaven, for bad souls to go to hell, the soul must be eternal first, before it can go anywhere after a person’s death.
The fear of hell isn’t a fear of hell itself, but a fear of what might happen to one’s eternal soul.
If you told a person he could be condemned into hell, but be untouched by hell’s eternal damnation, the “fear” of hell dramatically decreases. Likewise, if you told a person his or her soul would ascend to heaven, but the soul lies in a perpetual possibility of a fall to hell, heaven becomes less desirable. It is a person’s conception of their own soul that creates the existence and purpose of a heaven and hell, and not vice versa.
The key to religious faith is not in external entities; not in a god/God, not in a heaven or hell, but in that one does not simply die after one dies. That is all it takes.
We console ourselves that our dearly departed are better in the afterlife, because we believe they have continued existence after death. When we think about the ghosts and souls of others, in essence we are reminded of our own because we believe that we will one day be like them, enduring in the minds of others.