Heavens on Earth – The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia
Between 50,000 B.C.E. and 2017 C.E. about 108 billion people were born.2 There are alive today around 7.5 billion people. This makes the ratio of the dead to the living 14.4 to 1,3 which means that only 7 percent of everyone who ever lived is alive today.4 Of those 100.5 billion people who have come and gone, not one of them has returned to confirm the existence of an afterlife, at least not to the high evidentiary standards of science.5 This is the reality of the human condition. Memento mori—“Remember that you have to die.”
Life is short. Thanks to public health measures and medical technologies, life expectancy has more than doubled and is now approaching age 80 for Westerners, but no one has exceeded the maximum life-span of approximately 125 years for our species.6 The current record of 122 years, 164 days is held by Jeanne Calment of France (1875–1997), although some poorly documented claims are made for longer-lived people, so I set the upper ceiling at 125. While I was writing this book the world’s oldest person died at the age of 116, replaced by another centenarian, also aged 116.7 This cycling through of the longest-lived person will continue indefinitely, but unless there are major medical and technological breakthroughs in life extension, which we will consider in due course, it is very unlikely to exceed 125. Memento mori.
Life is final. The poet Dylan Thomas urged us “Do not go gentle into that good night,” but instead “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Most people, though, opt for John Donne’s conviction that “One short sleep past, we wake eternally.”8 But to get there you have to die. Memento mori.
The belief that death is not final is overwhelmingly common. Since the late 1990s, the Gallup polling group has consistently found that between 72 and 83 percent of Americans believe in heaven.9 A 1999 study found that Protestants remained steadfast in their heavenly belief at 85 percent over the decades, whereas afterlife belief among Catholics and Jews increased from the 1970s to the 1990s.10 A 2007 Pew Forum survey found that 74 percent of all Americans believe heaven exists, with Mormons topping the chart at 95 percent.11 A 2009 Harris poll found that 75 percent of Americans believe in heaven, ranging from a low of 48 percent for Jews to a high of 97 percent for born-again Christians.12 Tellingly, belief in the devil and the invocation of hell has been in gradual decline in both liberal and conservative churches,13 and in all polls belief in hell trails belief in heaven by 20 to 25 percent, thereby confirming the overoptimism bias.14 Globally, rates of belief in heaven in other countries typically lag behind those in America, but they are nonetheless robust. A 2011 Ipsos/Reuters poll, for example, found that of 18,829 people surveyed across 23 countries, 51 percent said they were convinced that an afterlife exists, ranging from a high of 62 percent of Indonesians and 52 percent of South Africans and Turks down to 28 percent of Brazilians and only 3 percent of the very secular Swedes.15
So powerful and pervasive are such convictions that even a third of agnostics and atheists proclaim belief in an afterlife. Say what? A 2014 survey conducted by the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture on 15,738 Americans between the ages of 18 and 60 found that 13.2 percent identify as atheist or agnostic, and 32 percent of those answered in the affirmative the question “Do you think there is life, or some sort of conscious existence, after death?”16 The percentage is certainly lower than the overall mean of 72 percent for all Americans in this study, but it is surprisingly high given our understanding of the worldview held by most atheists and agnostics, which commonly presumes that if there is no God then there is no afterlife. Perhaps that is presumptuous; who knows what is in the minds of people when they complete such surveys? But given the fact that 6 percent of atheists and agnostics also believe in the bodily resurrection of the dead (compared to 37 percent overall), perhaps belief in God and immortality are orthogonal—independent of each other. One may believe in an afterlife but not God. Or both. Or neither.
DYING TO GO TO HEAVEN
Heavens above may or may not be real, but heavens on earth are, at least in the minds of those who believe in them. In that sense, the empyrean realm of gods and heavens that resides in the brains of believers is as real as anything in the terrestrial kingdom. Given the power of beliefs to drive people to act, we should treat such attitudes as seriously as we would political, economic, or ideological beliefs, which hold the same power over actions. As the Saudi cleric Abdullah Muhaisini shouted to his rebel factions in Syria to exhort them to retake the besieged city of Aleppo in 2016, referring to the paradise filled with beautiful women with lustrous eyes with which they would be rewarded upon death:
Where are those who want 72 gorgeous wives? A wife for you, O martyr in heaven, if she spits in the sea, the sea becomes sweet. If she kisses your mouth, she fills it with honey … If she sweats, she fills paradise with perfume. Then how would it be in her embrace?17
Ever since 9/11, people in the West have become understandably curious about the role of heavenly beliefs in suicide terrorist attacks. Although most Muslim scholars say that the Qur’an forbids suicide—much less suicidal bombings that kill civilians—there are obviously work-arounds for this proscription, given the proliferation of young men (and a few women) intent on becoming martyrs by donning bomb vests and blowing themselves up in crowded public places. In fact, in Islam the only people allowed to skip the purgatory-like judgment stage and go directly to paradise are martyrs. According to the religious scholar Alan Segal, “in a ‘holy war,’ the mujahidin can attain the status of the shahid, the martyr. Not only that, the early Hadith literature encourages martyrdom. The person seeking martyrdom, the talab al-shahada, is to be exalted and emulated. This kind of martyrdom is earnestly prayed for and devoutly wished for.”18
It was in fact Muhammad himself who ruled that as a general principle any Muslim soldier who died while attacking an infidel would go straight to paradise. Of course he would say that, given how well the promise motivated his own troops on March 15, 624, when Muhammad’s army faced a vastly larger force at the battle of Badr. After a lengthy prayer vigil, Muhammad announced to his anxious soldiers that the archangel Gabriel told him that an entire angelic force would be on their side and that anyone killed that day would instantly wake up in paradise. According to legend, a fifteen-year-old soldier named Umayr proclaimed in response: “Wonder of wonders! Is there nothing between me and my entry into paradise but that these men kill me?” Muhammad’s force won the battle and allegedly suffered only fourteen casualties that day, one of whom was, ironically (or not), Umayr. As in the Wild West, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.19
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