Has the time come to drop religion once and for all? Has reason destroyed all credibility in ideas of the afterlife? Can atheism and Science fulfill the function of cherished religious ideas? Not quite…
The rise of science and consequent increase in secularism—particularly the west—is slowly eroding thousand-year-old notions of Heaven and Hell. The Bible is fiction—as are all religious notions of God, Heaven, Hell, Sin, Armageddon, Judgement day, and the like. All religious stories are just that, stories, invented by some impressively intelligent apes who had nothing better to do. We are fools for having believed in religious and Godly ideas for so long, and idiots if we ignorantly laugh in the face of Science and truth.
But is the Bible actually fictitious? Are religious beliefs about Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, not actually bullshit, as science shows them to be, but real? Were the stories nothing but evil fabrications produced out of sneaky authoritarian and cynical intentions, or something different?
You see, whilst it may in fact be true in the scientific sense that most religious ideas about physical reality are nonsense, the immense moral purpose religion itself has served throughout human history and continues to serve cannot be ignored. This is true of a number of religious ideas; hence, discussions about the past, preset and future role of such things as fasting, celibacy, marriage, discipline, good vs evil and sin, each have their place. In this article, however, we will stick to perhaps the two most important ideas to come out of religion: Heaven and Hell.
In the modern day it is difficult to take serious ancient beliefs of Heaven and Hell—no, not the particulars (like whether Hell is eternal or not, or if you will meet the Holy One in Heaven, or whether Purgatory is actually a thing), but any notion of Heaven or Hell at all—that is, the very existence of Heaven and Hell.
More and more people are thinking for themselves; interest in Science is on the rise; atheism, some say, is a religion itself; we have answers to most of the world’s information at our fingertips; most unprivileged youths are calling themselves ‘liberal’—all these realities have fuelled the onslaught of criticisms fired at religious ideologies that we see today. But are these criticisms warranted?
Heaven and Hell are the threads that wove religious ideology together in the first place; without ideas about the afterlife, religion falls apart. That is how it seems on the surface, anyway; but this seeming, in my opinion, is mistaken. The problem is that the surface tend to tell us very little; dig a little deeper and you discover all sorts of contradictions, whatchumacallits and thingybobs…
Yes, science has shown us that Heaven and Hell are not real, that we are alone in the universe, that life is in fact meaningless; and that the world is not 6000 years old1; and that one man can’t build an ark and save humanity; and that resurrection is impossible, and that miracles belong solely in our imagination; and so forth. We can even explain how these fictions came about:
Religions started out as stories told amongst tribes; these stories spoke about the meaning of life, good and evil, the afterlife, and God, because they answered the biggest and most worrisome questions, served a comforting purpose for listeners; other tribes did the same, and others the same, and slowly word got out, listenership grew, and religion became normal.
In a nutshell, religion started out as mystical tales told amongst small groups of humans, and became popular because it served practical purpose: in the first place, it quelled crippling doubts about the meaning of existence and what happens after death; in the second place, it encouraged good behaviour, temperance, and the development of virtue. Although arguably far more important, the latter purpose is nothing without the former; religion only took hold because it first and foremost told stories about meaning and about death, which subsequently made possible other ideas about virtue and morality.
So, we know about the falsehoods of religions—and we know how they came about—but does this mean they are now redundant?—harmful?—to be scrapped? In short, yes, but—and this is the crucial point—only partly. It is because of religion that we first started to coalesce into groups,2 which, it is hard to argue, set the ball rolling for everything else humans have gone on to do since. The world we live in today has been in large part built by people who were religious in some form or another—whether it be belief in God, Heaven or Hell, Sin, Christ, Allah, or whatever else. Even if over night everyone suddenly became disbelievers in all religious ideas and/or notions of God or Satan, the world with which we’d be left, this civilisation which has taken humans thousands of years to build, all the progress we have made, our ideas about good and evil—would all still be inescapably soaked in religiosity. Impossible as it is, if everyone were suddenly to transform into atheists, the world as we know it would rapidly and violently crumble into chaos, mayhem, into Hell.
No doubt, there are large parts of religion—because of their incompatibility or barbaric nature—that definitely do not belong in the 21st century; the murderous, homophobic, pro-slavery and racist components of religious scriptures have a rightful place in the ancient past. Today this is thankfully obvious; but to deny their important role in history is ignorance of the highest magnitude, and stupid.
That these parts of religion in question are disgusting and brutish is almost certainly not a recent development in belief; it is hard to believe our ancestors found stoning, public execution, homophobia and slavery at all appealing. Previously, however, speaking out against these atrocities was a punishable offence; ‘secularists’ were either outcasted, ridiculed, exiled or killed, so most people wisely kept their condemnations inside close quarters. Outspoken criticism and freedom speech on a mass scale is still embryonic; nevertheless, it has been prevalent and powerful enough to make a world free of the sickening behaviours the norm.
So far, we have discussed two essential points: that religion is the glue that holds modern civilisation together (1), and that it contains many poisons that have no place in that very civilisation (2). The latter is of course an issue of the former’s own making; religion instilled in us our original ideas of morality and good and evil, which, ironically, subsequently led to us identifying the poisonous parts of religion, and working sufferably for thousands of years to remove them—of which the world we live in today is the result.
Point one argues that if religion were to be made redundant in its entirety, society as we know it would descend into chaos, maybe Hell. Point two says that parts of religion should be discarded—and thankfully for the most part, have been. Both these points followed a brief discussion about the fictitiousness of all religion and complimentary notions of a God (or Gods) and how they came about in the first place. We now have a satisfactory answer to the question ‘Why not get rid of all religion?’ and its many such variations:
–‘Can we not drop all religion and continue progressing upon our new and upgraded ideas of morality?’
–’Can we not build a world built upon our impressive and ever-improving scientific knowledge of all things?’
–‘Does religion have a place in todays world?’
–‘If religion is so false, why did it gain such popularity?’
And so on.
The problem with these questions is that they deal with only the surface; and surface questions are typically the wrong questions. That said, it is through agitating stubborn and hardened surfaces that we are indeed able to discover any depth that may exist below; in this sense, they are absolutely the right questions. Actually, this process of asking better questions is the basis of all scientific progress; what Science gives us are better and better explanations of phenomena, which themselves result from our refined methods of questioning. Applied to life, this means living by a principle (a belief, a rule, a doctrine, an idea…) as long as it is serving its purpose—until that is, it stops serving its purpose, or something better comes along; at which point we either make progress, stagnate, fester, or descend into hell. This is a very important idea.
Science is a philosophy of uncertain belief, which means when a better principle (or explanation) comes along, it tends to adopt it instantly. Religion, on the other hand, is a philosophy of certain belief, which means when a better principle (or explanation) comes along, it is viewed as a threat. Religion does sometimes adapt, but the process is painstakingly long, micro, and often subject to inhumane activities.
Bad Eggs, and the Importance of Having Educated Opinions
Discussing subjects of great depth is not easy; it requires serious investigation into the historical, current, and future roles and responsibilities of a unknowable plurality of factors. There is nothing deeper—and as crucial, it is hard to argue—than the societal function of religion and Science.
It should be clear, at this point, why dangerously unqualified and dogmatic people should be taken very seriously; as history shows us, when ignorance and dogma is put in a position of power, things can get very bad very quickly. It is essential, therefore, to become properly educated on matters of virtue, politics, good and evil, philosophy, science and history before voicing strong opinions about how to move forward. That being said, no education is necessary to spot a bad egg—and bad eggs should be dealt with as soon as they are spotted.
What is a bad egg? Evil, colossal ignorance, disgusting obsessions, perverse ideas, dogma, threatening levels of ineptitude, lies and dishonesty, manipulation. Where are bad eggs most commonly found? Sometimes in religion, sometimes in education, sometimes in business; too often in politics. Seen as politicians have such a big say in our lives, to knowingly not pay attention is a perilous philosophy. A better philosophy would be to unrestrictedly call fraud when you see fraud, but hold back your suggestions about it until they are educated sufficiently. Calling fraud requires paying attention; formulating worthwhile proposals requires education.
History Moves in Cycles
All that has been discussed thus far in this article has been with the intention of proving the necessary context for what, in my opinion, is a more practical, sensible, and all-round better way to think about Heaven and Hell. You may have noticed the word ‘Hell’ a few times above; I used this word in referring to earthly potentialities, or more specifically, what could happen if we make religion redundant, or if ignorance gains power. ‘Hell’, in this sense, has nothing to do with the incorporeal, non-universal, the unknowable, or the devil; it is used to explain a state of arrant and large-scale chaos right here on planet earth.
The point in history in which we find ourselves is not, as we like to think, unique—at least not in the broader sense. Sure, Wi-Fi, satellite technology, space rockets, cures for crippling diseases, insanely wide scale opportunity—these ‘things’ have never been witnessed before; but to judge our age by the specifics is to judge a book by its cover, which is never a good idea. The broader perspective of history presents the hard-to-swallow reality that by no means are we in a ‘golden age’3; and that insane progressions in technology, wellbeing and academia are also ‘things’ of the ancient past; and that the position we find ourselves in today is only new from a narrow perspective. This would be okay, of course, if the Heavenly peaks of bygone eras were not sandwiched between unimaginably calamitous lows—in other words, voyages through Hell.
History moves in cycles; the privileged position we find ourselves in today is not as resilient or unique as we like to believe. We are not yet out of the woods; a few nuclear missiles, a mass biological terrorist attack, postmodernism, unforeseen natural disaster, power being put in the hands of an ignoramus: these are real-world 21st century dangers that could easily send the world as we know it spiralling out of control and back into the dark ages—or in other words, into Hell. Yes, Hell. This, my dear reader, is how Hell—with all its doom and gloom and horror—really does exist, right here on planet earth, the product of our own making.
Just as Hell exists in physical reality, so too, can Heaven. But our ideas about what that Heaven looks like may need altering—some completely. For example, if your notion of Heaven is a Godly paradise full of virgins and world-class masseurs, and a place to eternally indulge in the most sensational bodily pleasures, then quite frankly, you have no hope; such an absurd and stupid image—and all alike—needs to be ripped to shreds, burned, and have its ashes buried in a faraway place, location undisclosed. This is not what Heaven is.
On the other hand, if your view of Heaven is a place where everything is right, true, real, blissful, sweet, and in order; where everyone is good, wholesome, honest, virtuous, moral, rational, and caring; a promise land in which there exists no evil, negativity, disorder, mess, problems, risk, unhappiness or upset, then you, too, must have your notions ripped to shreds, burned, and buried in the same undisclosed location as the former.
A world free of imbalance or difficult is as beyond the bounds of possibility as you being able to make it snow outside by humming twinkle twinkle little star.
But if these extreme delusions about Heaven must be abolished, what remains? What are we to believe about Heaven? What remains, in my view, is a medium between the self-obsessed paradise of pleasure, and the utopic promise lands of most religions. What remains is the universal earthly ideal: universal, because it must be beneficial to the masses and not be built upon individual self-interest; earthly, because it is a ideal that we humans are capable of making a reality—again, right here on planet earth.
To clarify, Heaven—just like Hell—is a physical reality; it is something that exists not in the incorporeal, but beneath the skies, in the biosphere. Heaven and Hell are not beyond life, not places we come from or are sent to after death; they are real-life temporal actualities, which tangibly manifest both in the individual and the group.
Heaven on Earth, and The Harsh Realities of History
We’ve discussed already what Hell on planet earth looks like (utter chaos, devastation, murder, savagery, annihilation, no leadership, blanket hopelessness), but what about Heaven on planet earth? Quite simply, it is the opposite of Hell: orderly, civilised, peaceful, disciplined, lawful, opportunistic, malleable, promising, hopeful. Of course, this, for the most part, is an accurate representation of the world in which we live today. Compared to previous eras, we are, it is hard to argue, living a uniquely privileged experience: we have many dangerous diseases and health conditions under reasonable control; opportunity is rich; freedom of speech is as prevalent as it has ever been; the internet has connected the world; we are able to record snippets of life—thoughts, experiences, memorable moments, etc—in a variety of different formats and reflect upon them any time we want (usually with but a few taps); we have clean water, and it comes out of a galvanised pipe in a few different locations in the home(!); learning has never been easier, more accessible or choice abundant; we can travel anywhere in the world within twenty-four hours (soon less than two hours, with space travel); we rarely go hungry or thirsty; most of us have a bed to sleep in at night; and so on.4
It is important to note that by ‘we’, I am referring to most of the Western world and certain parts of Asia (such as China, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong ); by absolutely no means, however, do I mean every living soul. That I can not say this about every living soul—that not everyone is living such a privileged experience—is the precise answer to the question ‘If Heaven can be found right here on planet earth, what must we do to find it?’
First, a few words must be said about our current state of affairs. It is, in my opinion, very difficult to say that the conditions in which we live today are not the best they have ever been—for many reasons, but especially when you contemplate our recent achievements. There are arguments, though, which state humans were happier, healthier, more fulfilled and generally ‘better off’ in bygone eras; but such thinking, I believe, is mistaken. These arguments are usually very narrow in scale, and as we have already touched upon, breadth of perspective really matters. Better put, these arguments derive from selectively chosen particular facets of life from the past (such as physical fitness) that were considerably better compared to their status today; they are then extrapolated and given unjust merit—unjust because they give particulars much more modern significance than deserved. For example, the overall level of physical fitness amongst humans 10,000 years ago was embarrassingly higher than that of humans today; this is an undeniable fact. The problem arises when people take this fact and correlate it happiness, fulfilment, joy, success—when they use the catch-all term, ‘better-off’. This is taking a small truth completely out of context, which gives it an almost totally different meaning—an amateurish move.
The only way I can conceive of that would give the ‘”better off” in the past’ argument any worth would be if we had time-travel technology to test it. Then again, every human who goes back in time would carry with them a brain from a totally different era, which would radically distort their perception—and on a subconscious level. So maybe not even time-travel can give these arguments any ground.
Going back to the previous example, humans in the past were better physical specimens by necessity—because they had to be—and not by choice; good physical fitness had real-world utility for the majority of civilisations from the past. But the same cannot be said about today, where knowledge and economy serve have much higher utility than one’s state of fitness. Insane physical fitness does not by definition mean ‘better off’ in the general sense; looked at this way, it becomes clear just how important context is. Hence, whilst I can absolutely grant we were ‘better off’ in some ways, such as fitness-wise, I cannot grant that this in anyway translates to ‘humans were “better off”’.
Conversely, it could also be said that the skills we have today that have in large part replaced physical fitness—or at least, the significance of it in daily life—would of been useless 10,000 years ago. And this would be true. If an obese person with safecracking knowledge was sent back 10,000 years he would not doubt be eaten alive—and not just because of his lack of survival knowhow, neither; he would also be a fantastic source of nutrition. Whilst this argument has merit, it refers to a time in which humans were driven, first and foremost, by survival; and at the core level, this is not the world we live in today.
The modern day is still rampant with terror of death, yes, but it is not necessarily the same kind of death; our ancestors were concerned primarily with bodily death, whilst survival today can refer to business, financial, political, or other such worldly affairs. Another way of putting it would be that our ancestor’s lives were more filmy in the hands of evolution (or of biology) than our lives are today. No, we have not overcome our own biology—we cannot—but we have recognised that of it which is harmful, disgusting, unhelpful and evil, and created a world that for the most part is able to control it: for example, a rapist will be jailed, a mass murderer may be executed, an unpopular leader will be voted out, and tyrannical leader may be assassinated. These are obvious examples; a less obvious one is religion. Marriage, good and evil, sin, Heaven and Hell, discipline: the function of these religious ideas is, quite simply, to curb our biological tendencies for evil and malevolence.
But I digress. Life today is infinitely more complex than it was 10,000 years ago, and considerably more complex than it was twenty years ago; we have to deal not only with the needs and desires of the body, but also those of the spirit and intellect—desires which add many sophisticated layers of sophistication. Just because the matter is sophisticated, however, does not mean that life today is worse or that humans are ‘worse off’; transcending biology is not a smooth ride, but that does not make it worth it.
The birds eye view of the whole of History—that is, everything we know so far—very clearly shows cycles; that civilisations come and go, whether rich, poor, beastly, barbaric, wise, practical, peaceful, et cetera. Be it through natural disaster, war, annihilation, disease, self-destruction or some other catastrophic event, nature has its ways of turning over the soil. Alternatively put, the view from the mountaintop is pleasant only for a while; soon it becomes normal, and then taken for granted; soon after, other ‘higher’ mountaintops are spoken of, and rumour spreads; rumour rapidly becomes revolution—the quest for more, better, bigger prevails—and before long, the descent begins; a treacherous, slippery and painful descent that can lead—and often does—straight into Satan’s abyss. Or in other words, Hell on earth.
The upshot. The broad perspective shows that History is cyclical. This tells us that the overall theme of our experience today is by no means unique. However, when I critique arguments that say we humans were ‘better off’ in the year…’ I am doing so in the specific (or localised) sense—not the general. To say the particular conditions in which we live today are unique, is not the same as saying that the general trend (the direction in which things are headed) is unique. We are not in a golden age. My argument goes one step further, however, in that I believe not only are todays conditions unique, they are also better than they have ever been before. To say otherwise, I think, is pathetic. Yes, maybe certain minority groups, tribes, classes of people and/or small civilisations were ‘better off’ in the past, but these are special instances that say nothing much about the general, that is, about the whole of civilisation; they are the exception, not the rule.
How to Create Heaven on Earth
To answer the question of ‘how to create Heaven on earth’ is not easy. A few lessons in History help one generate a detailed image of what Hell on earth looks like, however even one who is totally ignorant of History can quite easily imagine how things would be if everything went wrong. Heaven is the opposite of Hell. Seen as everything is not going wrong right now, it goes that we are considerably closer to Heaven than we are to Hell. But precisely how close are we? We have already covered what a Heaven on earth cannot look like—for those who have forgot: it is not a paradise of virgins and massage therapists, nor a promise land free of difficulty; it is the humane median between these two extremes. The question is, are we already in this median?
Not quite. There exists in the world a large asymmetry of rights, happiness, health, meaning, satisfaction, morality, good, understanding, opportunity, laughter, order, peace, community, and skill. This asymmetry exists both at the local and global level—that is, in the individual and in the group. An example of the former would be when words like ‘addicted’, ‘deeply depressed’, ’suicidal’, ‘melancholic’, ’evil’, ‘psychopathic’ and ‘inhuman’ are used to describe a person and/or their behaviour. An example of the latter would be the Holocaust. Determining whether a physical reality is a manifestation one of Heaven or one of Hell—in the individual or the group—is dependant upon the pragmatic and beneficial role it performs to society.
A homeless drug addict begging on the streets is in Hell; a group of ‘oppressed’ homeless drug addicts have created their own version of Hell. A deeply depressed person is in Hell, as is a suicidal one. A driver who accidentally mows down a five-year-old boy chasing his football is in Hell. A suicide bomber is in Hell. Malfunctioning addicts are in Hell. The Holocaust campmates were in Hell, as were Hitler’s guards. Is this discriminatory? It depends what you mean. Categorisation—of people, groups, trends, business, anything—helps us make sense of a chaotic, overwhelming, mysterious, unknowable and sufferable world; without categorisation we would all be lost, directionless, total slaves to our biology. Discrimination is the Yin to the Yang that is Chaos; it balances the see saw; it separates wheat from chaff; it is how we find meaning. It is not discrimination that is evil, per se, but that evil can come about from it—but evil can come about in many ways, and it just so happens that without discrimination, evil runs riot.
Back to the point. The Holocaust is an interesting example, because it highlights the differences between internal and external Hell: the campmates were undeniably all experiencing Hell, but some of them dealt with it differently, for example Viktor Frankl,5 a man who battled the disease of Hell that infected almost all of his Jewish brothers and sisters. What is the disease of Hell? It is the gradual decline of optimism, hope, fight, belief; an incremental—although sometimes, immediate—resignation to dystopia; the decrease and eventual disappearance of resistance. Frankl fought of this disease by keeping his mind in the right place; he would think constantly about life after camp, about the book he would write, about his wife and family; he stayed as positive as he possibly could; he helped others. He was a practicing psychotherapist before being captured, which meant he had abnormal knowledge of how the mind works; this gave him a unique perspective of the situation, which he used to his advantage: watching others descend into internal Hell—by their own choice—gave him the power to stay as far away from it as possible.
His remarkable story shows that Hell outside does not necessarily mean Hell inside—although it is very very very difficult to avoid. Frankl speaks in his book ,Man’s Search For Meaning, about how most of the prisoners gave up and let Hell descend upon them; this is analogous to how Hitler and co managed to persuade millions of Germans to hate Jews and yearn for their annihilation: they were infected by the disease of Hell. Take a moment to ask yourself, how is it that so many Germans could have their heads turned in favour of such barbarity; is it possible that they were all as evil as Hitler? No. We are all susceptible to being infected by Satan’s disease. These Germans were infected by the disease in the same way most Holocaust prisoners who gave up were. What happened when the latter gave up, however, was that they suffered even more, or died.6 The German masses slowly gave in to the Nazi ideologues; when most had become gave in, anyone who resisted was singled out and ridiculed—which of course, encouraged more people to give in.
Hitler, too, was a victim of the disease of Hell; but he is an example of a local (or individual) manifestation, which tried and for a while succeeded in infecting everyone it came into contact with. It is excruciatingly painful to say this—that all we humans are susceptible to Satan’s disease, that we have evil tendencies, that Hitler was a victim, that the Nazi prison guards were not to blame entirely—but it is true, and truth hurts. This does not mean they are off the hook or that they should not be punished—no, if we let biology run wild, if we stop discriminating, if we let down our guard, then we lose all control of our fate and descend into Hell; to give in would be to give Satan’s disease free reign.
Religion, law, government, free speech, education, self-discipline, medicine, psychotherapy…—these human inventions were not created for fun, ridicule, violation, power, money, or anything other than to keep tabs on the dark side. They are the ships that keep civilisation afloat the sea that is our very own biology, that is mother nature, that is chaos.
Heaven on Earth is Abundance of Trust
We know that Heaven is the opposite of Hell. We know what the realities of Hell on earth are (although I have by no means done them justice; to get a firmer grasp requires a few lessons in History7) Knowing that Hell is so real and rooted in our History and DNA, however, does make it seem impossible that there could ever be Heaven on earth. Again, though, the meaning of ‘Heaven’ is to blame for this unjust impossibilism.
Having a realistic image of that Heaven on earth is the starting point; we must first know what to strive for before knowing how to get there. ‘Heaven on earth is not a paradise of virgins and massage therapists, nor the promise land; it is the humane median between the two.’ This is accurate, but still too general. Having specific targets to aim for is the key to getting as close to them as possible.8
Here is something better: Heaven on earth is when there exists a seamless web of deserved trust.9 It may sound cliche, but trust is everything—absolutely everything. To use another trite phrase, trust ‘makes the world go around’. Given the realities of our biology and recorded History, it is a miracle than anything works at all. The primary reason is trust. We put our trust in the law. We put our trust in the political leaders we elect. We put our trust in the companies whose products we use. We put our trust in medicine, hospitals and science. We trust our friends, family, and co-workers. We put our trust in religious ideas. We trust God. We trust that our neighbour will not axe us to death whilst we sleep. We trust that our other half will not cheat. We trust the pilot, the cab driver, the truck driver on the highway. We trust. We trust. We trust.
We may say we don’t trust, but if we didn’t, nothing would work. The fact that we don’t think about trust does not mean we don’t rely on it; most trust is subconscious. Those very few individuals who do have no trust do not experience real life; they live the exciting existence of a detested vegetable.10 If everyone adopted such a philosophy, nothing would work—in other words, Hell would reign. We may say we don’t trust, but what we should say is that we have different levels of trust. Heaven on earth can only be threaded, interweaved, laced, constructed, founded upon, a seamless web of deserved trust.
The importance of trust we have now discussed, but what is meant by deserved trust? Again, it is very simple: trust only those who deserve to be trusted; and by the same token, if you want to be trusted, work to deserve it. There are a number of ways deserved trust can display itself—far too many to list here—however there are some basic principles all ‘deserved’ trust abides by. First is that it is undeniably deserved; this may seem tautological, so an example is necessary: if you smell gas lingering about in your house the first people you contact is the fire service; and if they arrive, check the scene, and ensure you everything is okay, you believe them—because you hold for them undeniably deserved trust. Likewise, if your electricity blows you seek out somebody with proven electrical expertise—not your Lollipop Lady auntie Jane.11 Both of these are examples of deserved trust—the former, for obvious reasons; the latter would deserve trust if they were a registered and qualified electrician (which you can check) and/or if they can bring you to satisfied customers, who haven’t yet suffered a bath of electrocution. This is deserved trust.
Further, the electrician—like the plumber, builder, carpenter, landscaper, etc—would likely be registered with a well-known authority—which we also trust! In the event of a possible gas leak, you first trust yourself that you are actually sensing gas; then you trust the fire service to come around asap; and you trust them to either fix it or reassure you of your olfactory mistake. And why do you trust them? There are many apparent reasons, all of which make a difference; but what matters most is their accumulation into a level of trust that enables you to let them waltz into your house, mooch around, drink your tea, and reassure you that ‘no, you are not inhaling a largely-undetectable-by-humans-but-sometimes-fatal gas’.
Deserved trust, as you can see, is not easy to explain rationally; the reasons for it are intertwined, foggy, innumerable, unknowable in totality. However in my opinion, deserved trust, when it is actually deserved, is starkly obvious; this is not always the case, but it usually is. In other words, there is something beyond the rational that just tells you that person X can be trusted and person Y should not be touched with a badge pole—call it gut feeling, your guardian angel, instinct, or whatever you wish. To make this clearer, consider a builder who knocks you door offering to renovate your driveway for half the industrial price—and tomorrow! Should you trust them? Intuition says no. Let intuition be enough.
‘If trite it is right.’—hence: ‘if it seems too good to be true, it probably is’. This adage is about trust—good old, undeniably deserved, trust.
That everything relies upon trust show how dangerously powerful it is. If, therefore, such power should be turned into a weapon for say, evil, tyranny, self-gain, or anything inherently not good—well, just use your imagination. Unfortunately, humans are so that they can be fooled into trusting unjustly; and you bet, there are forces in the world that make this their primary mission in life—dodgy bankers, con artists, substandard tradesmen, poorly educated teachers, ignoramus politicians, cheating spouses, thieving friends and family members, dogmatists, ideologues and fundamentalists, being the most threatening. Not to fall back into descriptions of Hell on earth, though, lets move on to what is meant by ‘a seamless web’; and then how we can move towards it.
A Seamless Web of Deserved Trust
Imagine a world in which every entity—every tradesman, corporation, spouse, authority, scientist, educator, politician, author, banker, priest, and so on—only received trust where and when deserved. This is what is meant by ‘a seamless web of deserved trust’. To expect this to ever become a reality is unrealistic to say the least; but the reason we follow a North Star is not because we will reach it, but because it takes us in the right direction. Every distant shot of the arrow will feel the pull of earth’s gravity; if we are to achieve blanket deserved trust we must have ‘blanket desired trust’ as our target, at the very minimum. That we will never completely get there is not the point!
A seamless web of deserved trust does not mean a world free of problems—no, there are countless other problems than undeserved trust in the world, like evil, war, and natural disaster—but there can be no doubt, a world more abundant in trust is a far better world to live in. Moreover, trust will better equip us for dealing with those ‘other’ problems: when Satan’s disease breaks out, trust will help us defeat it; when mother nature decides once again to turn over her soil, trust will help us re-concretise. Trust will help prevent war; and will bring humanity together when war is the only option. Of course, trust already makes all of this possible today, but there is still much room for improvement.
Now, the big question is, how do we go about building a seamless web of deserved trust? Spiders are scary, so I will use them for an analogy:
Imagine every human being on the planet is a spider, and the goal is to connect every spider’s web together into one giant web. The ideal scenario, it seems, would be to rally up all the spiders and organise them as such that they can build it together. The problem with this, however, is that we have 7 billion spiders that speak many different languages, live in different places, have different tastes and beliefs and ideas, work in contrasting ways, are of different strength, have different tolerances to pain, are known to bite, and can kill. Not good.
The alternative scenario is to have each family of spiders—or better, each individual spider—build their own bulletproof web, as best as they can. Once done, they help other nearby spiders build their webs; and then they cautiously help others spiders *less* nearby—and so on. Slowly each individual web links up; each spider’s web becomes part of one giant web—one seamless web of deserved trust.
The connections between each spider’s web will not be the same, of course; some spiders, like the cannibal *Arachnids*, will be connected by only a single thread, and will be watched over not only by all the other spiders, but by employed security spiders: this is how the web of deserved trust stays strong.
There are obvious issues with this analogy, but it underpins something quite crucial: everything starts at the local level. Each spider must build his own bulletproof web—and then help others build theirs, who will help others, who will help others, and so on. Spiders will only allows other spiders to help them if they trust them. If the spider offering to help has a known track record of eating other spiders, of cruelty and savagery, has no proof of web-building skills, and is an unusually good talker, then he cannot be trusted. If, however, he shows you proof of his web-building skills, past clients, and makes a good proposal—and does not upset your intuition (very important)—then he most likely can be trusted. But enough of the spiders.
Starting at the local level means each individual human working on themselves in order to build their own web of deserved trust. What it means for you, dear reader, is dedicating your energies to sorting your own life out as best you can—which means starting with yourself, as a lone individual. It means walking the never-ending path to virtue. It means assessing the state of your own mind and identifying where you must improve. It means analysing your energy expenditure, and realigning yourself with something good, higher, better. Basically, it means getting you in order.
The astute reader will probably see similarities between the above, and advice given in the Bible, by Jesus Christ, and in Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Sikhism. This is correct; marriage, celibacy, loving thy neighbour and fasting are religious ideas inseparable from self-discipline and other virtuous pursuits. However it is not necessary to follow a religion or even think religiously to begin working on yourself. That said, even if you do not consciously think within a religious framework, the act of being disciplined is fundamentally a religious idea.
Thinking Outside of Religion—How to Move Closer to Heaven—Three Principles to Live By
There are a few principles—call them rational, reason, religious, spiritual, or whatever else you wish—that, lived by, do nothing but help the individual. The way I think fundamental principles is as atomic versions of religious ideas; religion teaches universal truths in a high resolution manner (e.g. through story and myth), whereas principles present them in their most basic form.
The first principle is to live truthfully. Since truth is rarely pleasant—and often, incredibly painful—living truthfully is the hardest thing in the world to do. We get by everyday by either hiding from or ignoring the truth—not necessarily because we choose to, but because we are able to get by without it.
Humans are one of the only creatures with the knowhow to lie, and the only creature to do it brilliantly. Innovation births as many problems as it does solve them; hence, whilst the prefrontal cortex has enabled our species to do utterly magnificent things, it also injected steroids into the deplorable side of human biology. In fact, some argue evil was the driving force behind the development of the prefrontal cortex; that not only did evil embrace this new mode of expression, but created it.
To live truthfully you must first expose yourself to it. You do this by resolving not to lie. For a serial liar or extremely dishonest person, this philosophy is a non-starter; such people should start by decreasing the amount of lies they tell on a daily basis, and then move to telling only lies that are ’necessary’ (such as white lies). Eventually they will come to see the harm and futility in all lies—that no lies are ’necessary’; then they will be living truthfully. They will be living truthfully, but only at the local level, however.
Living truthfully in the external sense—acting out truth, seeking out truth, exposing the falsehoods of others—is another ball game altogether. It is not necessarily harder, just much more complicated; and the reason is simply that most people don’t live truthfully—because again, the truth hurts. Once you resolve to live truthfully you will see with clearer eyes how many falsehoods exist in the world; and you will feel compelled to call them out; and you will do so with good intentions; and you will be right to do so. But: many of those whom you expose will not appreciate it, and some may turn it against you; others will call you a liar, a cheat, dangerous, wrong, crazy, and all such names under the sun. But let not this be discouraging; let it be the most conspicuous indication of the dying need for truth to be lived.
Resolving not to lie is analogous to holding a mirror up to your own life.12 Once you make the resolution, every potential lie turns into a question: ‘Why do I need to lie, here—what is it about me or my beliefs that I am not okay with, so much so that I must lie?’ This question will constantly birth itself—and your answer to it means everything. I will discuss why in the next principle.
Truth is the hardest pill to swallow, so it is understandable why many people cower in terror—or at least, are resistant to it. Hard pills do sometimes cause choking. When people choke on truth, however, it is not their body that suffocates (although sometimes it is), but their virtue, their spirit, their character. How do they choke? Conscious lying. The choking is hazardous when it involves an individual who is not just conscious of their lies, but has previously resolved not to lie. Goals, like knowledge, can be dangerous affairs indeed.
Are you hiding from the stone-cold truth about the sinking relationship with your spouse? Are you in denial about the bad influence you are having on your children? Are you fooling yourself about how much you love your job? Are you letting your dreams die a sorry death, just like all your friends? Are you constantly putting of the diet until next week? Are you putting on the blinders when it comes to the state of your health? Are you lying to yourself about anything? Are you lying to other about anything? These are hard questions because they force you to stare truth right in the face. They are also the most important questions in life.
The second principle is to not do anything that makes you weak. When it comes to goals and resolutions of any type, in most cases, you already know what you ought to be doing everyday to increases your chances of satisfying them. The problem, of course, is that doing these things is not as simple as, well, doing them; life gets in the way just as much as inability to execute (laziness, hesitation, perfectionism). Whilst failing to execute on your intentions is normal, unavoidable—and, in fact, fundamental to progress of any kind—there are many instances in life where it can and should be avoided. The most harmful version of this is acting and thinking in a way that your conscious beats you up for—and literally makes you physically weaker.
Lying is a prime example. If an individual is confronted by their own conscious just before they blurt out another fabrication (something that happens quite a lot when one resolves to live truthfully) and they go ahead with their lie regardless, they will actually feel weaker afterwards, physically weaker. Emotions display themselves physiologically—anger causes muscular tension, agitation makes one fidgety and restless, alertness causes upright posture, fear can cause the shoulders to round—and guilt is powerful emotion. This is something expert liars tend not to experience, however, because they have learned to ignore their own conscious awareness of wrongdoing. The more they ignore, the less they feel the weakening physical response—and the better the liar they become. What’s more, when an expert liar is confronted for their lies, instead of feeling weaker, they will tense up with anger. If you are able to regularly lie without any feeling of guilt or wrongdoing, it is quite possible you are an expert liar. When an expert liar first tries to stop lying, to say ‘painful’ would be a grave understatement.
Another example of an action that makes you weaker would be every time you take one more bite of cheesecake knowing full-well that you’ve already eaten way too much and in spite of the fact that you vehemently dislike your weight and are trying to get in shape for the summer. Every extra bite makes you weaker; it weakens your spirit, and your spirit is what gives you strength. Every time you defer the gym to tomorrow, asking out your crush to next week, speaking up for what is right, starting your business—you literally make yourself weaker.
If you are trying to nip a bad habit in the bud, every time you override the wise part of you that’s screaming ‘no!!’, every time you sacrifice the short term for the long term knowing deep down that you are kidding yourself, every time you deny your spirit what it wants (growth)—you become weaker. Once you stop fighting, you become stronger.
As long as you are ignorant of your flaws, sins, bad habits and lies, you will not feel the weakening effect—hence the expression, ‘ignorance is bliss’. Once you are aware of your ignorance, though, it is no longer ignorance of the blissful type; if you knowingly ignore your conscious when it is screaming at you to stop doing something, your very knowing becomes poison. Knowledge not acted upon can poison the mind, spirit and body.
The principle of not doing anything that makes you weak is one that you effectively fall into once attempt to follow the first principle, live truthfully. Aspiring to tell the truth—or at least, to not lie—brings online a part of the brain that may have been dormant since your toddler days—which is when we humans first discover the power of lying. ‘Dormant’ usually means unconscious suppression, but could also refer to an individual who is not aware that lying is indeed a vice, though this is rare. Most adults, on the other hand, have good awareness of any lying and dishonesty in their part; this is conscious suppression. This part of the brain, that we will simply call awareness, is what gives rise to the question, ‘Why do I need (or want) to lie in this situation?’ Of course, one could easily rationalise a good reason to lie or be dishonest—this is where the truth part of ‘living truthfully’ comes in. Living truth, fully, also means answering the question of truth truthfully!
Answer truthfully and you become stronger. Answer untruthfully—by going against your wiser conscious—and you are weakened.
It goes without saying, I think, that if the situation at hand is one of life or death—if a lie will save life—then a lie is the most sensible thing to do. You could still be truthful in such a situation, of course, by just refusing to answer questions; but whilst this stubborn ethical stance may prevent you from violating your own code, it may still result in loss of life. Living to high ethical standards doesn’t mean being an ass.
Every time you refuse to be persuaded by evil or overcome by your own unhelpful desires, you become stronger. Every time you do what you know is right, true, good and helpful, you become stronger. You will not only feel this strength intellectually or spiritually, but in your body; you will feel it in your bones. Conversely, do the opposite, and you become less strong—and you will feel it, everywhere.
This is unquestionably dangerous, however, if not built upon a foundation of truth and morality. Truth as a topic we have exhausted enough; let’s move on to morality.
The third principle is simply do good things. Why this is important appears to be axiomatic. But is it? Perhaps we all know how important it is, but we certainly don’t act it out as much as we should. We could all do with having do good things pinned to a more pronounced point on our mental billboard—then again, we may learn to ignore it; so better put, the world would be a better place if we all thought about doing good things much more frequently—and of course, did them.
What does it mean to do good things? Living truthfully; telling the truth and exposing falsehoods, both internally and externally. Practicing high ethical standards. Being an example to others. Starting a business that serves a needed purpose. Not stirring the pot. Having difficult conversations in order to solve problems. Dedicating resources towards solving complex problems. Being kind. Being grateful. Taking responsibility. Paying attention to your children. Listening. Standing up for what is right. Not criticising others when your own backyard is a shambles. Not playing the victim. Living as if everything you do matters—because it does. The obvious stuff—obvious, but seriously neglected.
Living truthfully, acting in such a way that makes you strong, doing good things: although I have explained these three principles separately, they are in reality inseparable. However the separate explanations are important for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it makes for easier comprehension. Secondly, they are inseparable in reality only because they feed of one another; the base of which, is to live truthfully. For example, you could start with the third principle, do good things, but if your sense of truth is warped or non-existent, you will most likely do more harm than good; this way of thinking is the philosophy of postmodernism. Similarly, you could start with not doing anything that makes you weak, but it will be very difficult to identity exactly what those ‘weakening’ behaviours are if you have a faulty idea about truth or are a compulsive liar.
It must start with living truthfully, which starts with telling the truth, which moves on not lying, which moves on to exposing lies in the external sense. However even living truthfully is troublesome if not guided by morality; hence, all three principles must be taken as seriously as each other.
The Role of Religion
Briefly mentioned above was how the ideas we are discussing form the basis of religion—that religious ideas about marriage, discipline, love, avoiding sin, being good, and so on, exist because they help humans move closer towards Heaven; or if ignored, Hell. Religion13 bundles these ideas up into one package, which makes it more accessible; this popularity inevitably turns into community, and humans, being social creatures, like community.
This is why Science, Atheism, and other philosophies that discard religion—even though they make more sense, are fair, moral, and undoubtedly better overall— have so far failed to catch on; they cannot compete with the accessibility and convenience of religion. Approaching universal truths in a scientific manner—or in any manner void of emotion, story, or myth—is not something everyone is able to do, not to mention something that everyone wants to do. Breaking down universal truths into practical principles to live by—and living by them—is not as easy as following a religion; living rationally requires concentrated thought, introspection, discipline, self-awareness, and lots of time—something religion solves in a variety of ways, the most important of which, is community. The primary USP of religion, in my opinion, is people; we humans like—in fact, we need—to be around other people, especially congenial people, and religion has satisfied this need for millennia. The opportunity to be part of a community is like a magnet; the biology of a human being thrusts it in the direction of other human beings. Resisting, therefore, is an ever on-going battle—something religion has also solved, by convincing its followers that all other religions and philosophies (including Science) are wrong. The rational movement, Science, Objectivism, Atheism—and even pantheism14—these philosophies currently cannot compete with the USP’s of religion, which presents instructions on how to live in a bowknot-tied package. And anyone and everyone can undo a bowknot.
That anyone can open the package is good only insofar as the ideas inside are good, and that those opening it are good people. But we know this is not the case; many outdated and deplorable ideas are included in that holy package. One of these is to not question the books, which is to say that if you are following the religion you ought to do only what the books say. This is a problem, of course, when the books say that homosexuals should be stoned to death, or that all other religions are wrong, or that we ought to succumb to evil, or that all women should be totally submissive, or that slavery is okay, or when you are trying to fix the scary population crisis in Japan but the books defiantly order ‘no sex outside of marriage’. And these examples only scratch the surface! The books also say no questioning or altering is allowed—that all ‘laws’ must be abided by without fight—which is another way of saying ‘it is sinful to go against anything that is written’.
This is the greatest argument against religion—and a very credible one. In fact, it is impossible to argue against the abolition of religion when you consider the immoral and disgusting aspects—until that is, you consider all potential consequences. Without even considering how the world in which we live is tied together by religion—the corporations, government, morality, law, etc—there is a unknowable number of people that fundamentally rely on religious ideals, the church, and belief in God to get by in life; without religion these people might be depressed, insane, in jail, or dead.
Some argue that it cannot be said that the religious ideas which sicken us are even at all respected today, even by priests and popes; and in this sense, discussing them is a waste of time. True—but we cannot escape the fact that there are certain countries in which outdated doctrines are the norm—Saudi Arabia, for example. These doctrines are also the backbone of terrorism, more specifically, jihadism; many terrorists, for example, genuinely believe their actions are for the greater good, that Allah will reward them for lacing hundreds of innocent people in shrapnel with a rightful home in eternal paradise. This is not a joke. So they absolutely must be discussed.
However this argument does bring up an important point: the majority of religious people today do actually ignore the despicable parts of the scriptures. It becomes starkly obvious, then, that chucking religion out of the window is totally unnecessary. Today people selectively adopt only certain religious ideals; it is very likely that out of all the religious people you know, none of them are pro-slavery, pro-celibacy or pro-racism, even though the scriptures order them otherwise. This way of picking-and-choosing is not just the ideal philosophy; it is the only philosophy that allows for striving towards better ideals without everything falling apart.
Yes, a world built upon scientific principles, reason, logic, rationality and sense is, as far as we can tell, an amazingly rich, fair, moral, beautiful, abundant world; a world in which a seamless web of deserved trust would prevail by necessity; a world more in touch with nature; a world less pathological; a world more joyous to be living in. And yet, to get to this world would require tearing apart society as we know it; we would have to descend into Hell, if only for a short while—and I for one don’t like the sound of Hell. Further, it would require complete and utter faith in the principles of Science and reason; and equal faith in the possibility of a world founded upon them, which is something even the scientists and rationalists don’t agree upon. My opinion on this is strong: I don’t think a world free of religion is possible, let alone admirable.
The alternative is a philosophy we are already living, albeit mostly subconsciously. Simply, it is taking from religion what is useful, and dropping both what is useless and harmful. Because it is simple does not mean it is easy—far from it. It has taken us thousands of years and many a painful backward step to get to this fortune position; it is the opposite of easy. Nevertheless, it is better to struggle with the process of change than it is to start from scratch.
This whole discussion has been about that very philosophy. Viewing Heaven and Hell as physical realities is an example of taking from religion what is useful and dropping what is useless. The scriptures give us instructions about how to live if we want to go to Heaven after death, and what to do if we want to go to Hell. What we can take from this idea, then, is everything but the ‘after death’ part; we can instead view Heaven and Hell as earthly potentialities, conditions that we can create right here on this little blue dot, as really real. Religious guidance on how to move towards Heaven or Hell is also helpful; self-discipline and good-deed-doing will move society towards the Heavenly state, whilst evil and wrongdoing will move it closer to Hell.
The fuel for progression towards the heavenly state is the practice of having difficult conversations, however difficult they may be. Having a difficult conversation means actually having a discussion; a conversation is not an argument—although arguments are sometimes necessary. Conversation is our the only way we can cooperate—well, it is the only one that supports Heavenly intentions. The alternative is violence; whilst this may indeed coerce compliance, it moves society backwards. Violence is sometimes the only option (whether this is ‘moral’ is subject to opinion) but even when it is, rarely does it move us forward.
Difficult conversations are called ‘difficult’ for a reason: they are the opposite of easy. This may seem a trivial statement, but it highlights why so few are happening: we are naturally averse to hard tasks, particularly those that involve thinking, especially those that involve the ego, and exclusively those that involve hard truths. But again, conversation is all we have; we can be violent, but doing so spreads Satan’s disease, increases our distance from Heaven, moves us deeper into the abyss. Keep having difficult conversations.
That concludes my perspective on Heaven and Hell. It’s a way of thinking that is compatible with scientific, rationalist—and even religious—principles; a philosophy that concerns itself principally with the practicality of everyday life, and what can possibly be achieved on planet earth. It deals not with the cosmos, the Devil, God, Karma, or any mysterious twinklenushpoofs; but with the corporeal, the stone-cold undeniable realities of life. It’s a philosophy that deals with two ideas firmly rooted in the flesh and bones of every living being, making it simple to comprehend. Further, one can still believe in Heaven and Hell in the incorporeal sense; the behaviour required on both the local and global level is almost identical to that which is today believed to land one a rightful place in their preferred destination after death. Heaven and Hell are conditions we humans create right here on planet earth; they are as real as real gets; and they are within the grasp of both you as a person and the citizenry itself.
Other religious concepts also fall into this world view; the idea of God, for example, could be translated as the highest idea, goal or belief an individual or group holds. These concepts, however, should be considered in the same light as one does a salad with their steak and fries: everything is built around the meat and potatoes. Heaven and Hell are the pillars of religion, the most important ideas—so they had to come first. That said, I do in the future intend to table some suggestions about how other concepts could—and perhaps should—be rethought as real-life physical realties instead of just fantasy and myth; Satan, Adam and Eve, the Serpent, the Buddha, the Prophet, the saints, mass feedings, miracles, the samaritans—there are many to discuss. Too many, in fact.
And with that, I bid you farewell.
- More like 4.54 billion years old.
- Mutual belief in a higher power was what made this possible at the fundamental level. Once humans started to believe in beings they could not see, ideas that were not obvious—in other words, fictions—they could start to believe in other intangible things such as morality, art, music, and today, companies.
- The Golden Age Fallacy.
- And so forth.
- Holocaust survivor who went on to write one of the most profound and moving books in History; he was a psychotherapist before being captured by the Nazi’s, and used his knowledge of how the mind works to help himself and others get through the horror.
- Frankl explains in his book how many of his counterparts, when they gave up, very quickly deteriorated physically.
- Learn about the Holocaust, the Soviet Union, and Genghis Kahn; and further back, how Humans came to rule the world. Clue: it was by wiping out every other threat to the species.
- This, incidentally, is a major reason why many people never achieve what they want in life—they do not *know* what they want. Or rather, they avoid being specific about what it is that they want, because doing so opens the door to failure—and nobody likes failure. The lesson: be specific about what you want to do; this will put your energies in the right place. Failure in the pursuit of a specific destination is nothing but education.
- This is something I learned from Charlie Munger, a very smart man; and right-hand partner-in-crime to Warren Buffet, many times the world’s richest man.
- Detested vegetables include: turnips, eggplants, marrow, sprouts, radish, okra root. Also applicable, unfortunately, to vegetables that are not detested but just unknown, like the purple and yellow carrot, Jackfruit, Dudhi and Marsh Samphire.
- Unless of course, Lollipop Lady Jane is also a qualified electrician.
- Thanks to Sam Harris for this metaphor. Read his short book Lying.
- I have used the word ‘religion’ in the article primarily in the general sense. Whilst religion is a suitcase term and generally refers to all types of religion, I am, however, using it here with reference to Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism specifically.
- Despite apparent surface similarities, the stance of Heaven and Hell I have put forward in this article is not directly from Pantheism—a doctrine which I am too uniformed to comment on.