Death & Culture
There's no way to pull me apart from the others. We're held together by what I can only describe as a magnetic force. It's as though our energy has been converted into a meaningless and inevitable task we have no control over. Even my sense of self is disintegrating into this collective workforce void of emotion and life. The only feelings I recognize are fear and panic but from where? There's no uneasiness in my stomach, my heart rate hasn't risen, and my skin doesn't feel flushed. Where the fuck is my body?
It's gone, and I want to scream, but I have no mouth, and the only sound I hear is a voice I've known all my life. I don't know who it belongs to, but its whisper vibrates all around me.
"This is the truth," it says. Its voice is glacial and distant but not robotic. The voice is Death.
"Let go of me!" I can hear my voice now; it's coming from lightning stretched out like endless strings of floss flowing and pulsating across the dark universe. Even though I'm watching from the outside, I can feel myself trying to tear away.
"Your life has been a dream until now," the voice says.
"I don't care," I scream, and I continue to try and pull away from the others, but as I look at what I am, I realize there are no others, just other strings of energy working on expanding the universe.
"My family. I need my family," but this time, my voice doesn't come from the strings of energy, and it softens until it drifts into nothingness.
"Your family was a dream. This is the truth."
All the sound disappears, and the scream that wants to escape stays inside my strings of energy. All the pain and fear I've ever felt wells up, and I think that I—whatever that is—is about to explode.
"You will never feel this again. Stay with the truth."
I can no longer tell if the voice is Death or my own. The pain and fear keep expanding, but it has nowhere to go. It's stuck, just like I am.
"Get me back to my dream!" The words come out, not as a scream but as an explosion. Every string of energy fills up with colours, but they're not just colours; they're emotions, feelings, life, and—
I'm back on my couch on 777 Cardero Street in Vancouver, British Columbia, with my friends Kenny and Bam holding onto me.
Drugs aren't always fun. What I just described to you came from a salvia trip. A heavy salvia trip usually only lasts five to ten minutes in our reality, but it can feel like hours or days if you can still think in those terms. In small amounts, you might feel a tingly sensation in your head and trigger a meditation sesh, but in large doses, that tingly sensation in your head turns into a force that rips out your entire being, soul, or whatever you want to call it and hurls it into the universe. When taken in such amounts, I've heard similar reports of people turning into energy and seeing geometrical patterns that reflect natural laws. Even if you don't know what fractal dimensions, logarithmic spirals, topological mixing, vortex streets, and fullerene molecules are, you'll see them and recognize them in a way you never have before. Similar patterns appear on psilocybin mushrooms, mescaline, LSD, and other hallucinogens, but those last longer and are often more enjoyable. Many people also report communicating with the afterlife on psychedelics.
I didn't experience the afterlife in the religious sense. I experienced what happens after life—after all life. Upon watching A Trip to Infinity (10 years after my Salvia Trip), I felt like they, the eminent mathematicians, particle physicists and cosmologists—were describing my trip when they explained the unfolding of the universe. They mention that everything will disintegrate and that only particles wafting through the universe will be left. I felt that emptiness, that lack of love and connection, but at the same time, I experienced the beginning—an explosion of energy impartial to our existence that, at the same time, allowed us to eventually evolve into feeling, conscious humans.
The most common ways various societies and cultures think about the afterlife are reincarnation, resurrection, rebirth, immortality as a legacy, immortality as a memory of others, and nothing. (BBC). Some people who believe in reincarnation might be Buddhist, Hindu or Sikh, but people who aren't religious might also believe in it. Christian beliefs about life after death are based on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And some Christian churches, like The Roman Catholic Church, believe that after death, there is a state of purgatory where sinners are purified in a cleansing fire. Now, I've been welcomed by The Secwépemc (First Nations people residing in the interior of British Columbia) into Sweat Lodge, where I felt smoke cleans me, but cleansing fire? I don't know about that one. Christians also believe in eternal life, which, being me, just sounds tiresome. But let's continue.
The Hindu belief system seems a bit more realistic to me because it's a cycle full of ups and downs and different opinions and changes—kind of like life itself. Most Hindus believe humans are in a cycle of death and rebirth (samsara). When a person dies, their soul (atman) is reborn in a different body. Some believe rebirth happens at death; others believe that an atman may exist in other realms. Hindus believe that an atman may enter the heavenly realm (swarg) or hell-like realm (narak) for a period before rebirth. Hindus also believe in karma—that the good or bad actions in life—determine the atman's rebirth. Some believe that humans may be reborn in animal form and that rebirth from human to animal form only occurs if an atman has repeatedly failed to learn lessons in human form. I'm prone to repeating mistakes, and if that means I can be a dolphin or eagle in the afterlife, I'm cool with it.
In Islam's teachings, the afterlife is known as Akhirah. If you enter Jahannam (Hell) or Jannah (Paradise) is all up to Allah, who's supposedly forgiving unless you commit the sin of shirk (regarding anything as an equal to or a partner of Allah). In that case, you're fucked.
But religious or not, many people report the following when they have a near-death experience: a bright light at the end of a tunnel, separation from their physical body, feelings of calm and peace, interacting with dead friends and relatives— in other words, everything I've experienced on hallucinogenics.
After the salvia trip, I didn't start to fear or welcome death any more or less than before. My trip confirmed that my family and friends make my life—whether it's a dream or not—worth living. I didn't fear living without my body or my career; I feared living without the love I've known throughout my life. I felt what it's like to live without love, and some might say I felt what it's like to live without God.
Our fear of death has shaped our cultures and, in return, how we live our lives. An incredible documentary on this subject, influenced by cultural anthropologist, Ernest Becker, is Flight from Death: The quest for Immortality. "Becker posits that culture is a collective fabrication of a set of beliefs about the nature of reality that we develop to help us cope with our death anxiety. Culture, therefore, functions as a symbolic defence mechanism against our awareness of our own mortality. Cultural conceptions of reality help us create order and provide a sense of security. To solve the existential problem of death anxiety, we use the same intellectual skills that caused the problem in the first place — our intelligence and our ability to think symbolically" (Allis, 2016). Becker explains that the human flight response to death anxiety manifests in death denial. We deny death with everything from elixirs, rituals, and anti-aging systems to a big giant yellow M and a bitten apple.
I bring up corporate logos because, according to Becker, humans transcend the existential problem of mortality by focusing on our symbolic selves. "Perhaps we can't live forever in the physical world, but we can turn towards identification with our cultural symbols to achieve immortality. If we believe ourselves to be part of something bigger than ourselves — something we believe is immortal — we achieve symbolic immortality." (Allis, 2016). Flight From death also delves into the theory that death anxiety is a primary motivator for human violence and aggression. It argues that, in order to preserve the illusion of a particular version of immortality, we must annihilate competing ideas from other cultures. The most protracted armed conflicts have been ideological ones, motivated by our desire to bolster our own reality. Supporting one's own version of reality apparently requires obliterating people who present alternative worldviews. All you gotta do is watch the news or read a history textbook to find evidence for this theory.
Our fear of death and its relation to religion has caused most of the world's conflicts, but religion is also a reason why our societies grew to cooperate on such a large scale. By the time we get to state-level societies, Big Gods predominate, and religion becomes intensely intertwined with public morality (Norenzayan 2013). In his book, Big Gods, Norenzayan explains that the gods of today's major religions are also moralizing gods, who encourage virtue and punish selfish and cruel people after death. But for most of human history, moralizing gods have been the exception.
It seems that as societies grow bigger, so do their gods. Big gods help bring big societies together. Omniscient, moralizing deities keep a close eye on human behaviour and punish those who are selfish or cruel. The Mormons, for example, have had immense success spreading a faith focused on a judgmental god with strict moral rules, a strong cooperative ethic, and costly signs of devotion like avoiding caffeine and spending two years as a missionary. I'm sure some of you are thinking 'WHAT KIND OF GOD DOESN'T WANT YOU TO DRINK COFFEE!" Rituals and other costly displays of faith prove who is a trustworthy true believer. Increased cooperation helps societies grow into complex states with other prosocial institutions, like police forces. However, these sorts of costly signs aren't only available with Big Gods.
The gods of small-scale societies, such as nature spirits, may demand offerings or enforce taboos. But it seems villagers watch each other and enforce social norms without any supernatural help. There are also some other critiques of the big god theory. Nicolas Baumard argues that in the same way you don't need any adaptation for people to believe in supernatural agents, you don't need any adaptation to explain why people believe in moralizing religion. All you need is a sufficiently affluent society in which people can afford to prioritize long-term goals (like the afterlife) over short-term needs (Quentin et al., 2015). They also found that out of 96 traditional Austronesian societies spread throughout the Pacific, six had moralizing high gods—and they emerged after the societies became politically complex, not before, apparently contradicting the big gods' idea. Norenzayan points out, however, that the complexity of most of the cultures analyzed is limited—they are small-scale chiefdoms, not large agricultural societies.
Whether or not you disagree with the theory, there is no denying the effects religions have on our culture and behaviour. One such outcome is that Protestants are, on average, more likely than Catholics to show the fundamental attribution error (FAE), that is, the tendency to see behaviours as reflecting individual dispositions rather than social contexts and roles (Li et al. 2012). Another example is orthodox religious adherents are committed to the idea of transcendent authority.
The transcendent authority is viewed to have existed long before humans and as operating independently of people. Adherents of the progressive religions emphasize the importance of human agency and formulating a moral code. Religion also plays a role in the justification of moral judgments. Justifications of orthodox Baptists tend to reflect the ethic of divinity, whereas the justifications of progressivist Baptists tend to reflect the ethics of autonomy and community (Heine, 2016). For more information on the three different ethics, check out my article, Can We Morally Accuse a Culture?
There is also evidence of a transition from a general emphasis on being a good person by behaving in moral ways that characterized the Jewish half of the Bible (The Old Testament) to a focus on being a good person by thinking in moral ways, as stressed in the Christian half of the Bible (The New Testament). For instance, protestants believe they have more control over their thoughts than Jews do. Protestants, more than Jews, have been shown to believe that thoughts lead to behaviour (Heine, 2016). But when it comes to religion, we can find just as many commonalities as differences, especially at their core.
All major religions have the Golden Rule in Common. 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' It might not always be in those exact words, but there is always a similar meaning. Another commonality is with transcendent experiences. Many people describe their religious and spiritual experience as a sense of consecutiveness to everything and feeling a part of something greater than themselves. They define it as God, and an atheist like myself describes it as the unknown. In the end, whether religious or not, we can all relate to human experiences such as love, connection/relationships, and death.
Even though fighting for one's religion and country has been the number one cause of most wars, they have also influenced our cultures and helped us grow our society internationally. Religion has caused symbolic conflicts that are much more difficult to solve than resource-based conflicts, but religion has also helped us to cooperate. Therefore, I don't want to discourage anyone from being religious because that's similar to discouraging someone from being part of a community. But we have enough information to know how flawed and wrong the majority of religious texts are. They should only be used as moral guidebooks that can change and adapt as we learn more. They shouldn't shape our identities. If they do, you'll never grow and change. And one of the best ways to see the world from a different perspective and change your mind is through hallucinogenics—well, that or travel. Either way, you'll need to go on a trip.
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Allis, E. (2016, June 15). Film review: "Flight from death-the quest for immortality" by Patrick Shen. SevenPonds Blog. Retrieved December 1, 2022, from https://blog.sevenponds.com/lending-insight/%E2%80%A8%E2%80%A8film-review-flight-from-death-the-quest-for-immortality-by-patrick-shen
BBC. (n.d.). Near death experiences and past lives - life after death - CCEA - GCSE religious studies revision - CCEA - BBC bitesize. BBC News. Retrieved December 1, 2022, from https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/zddbqp3/revision/1
Heine, S. J. (2016). Cultural psychology. W. W. Norton et Company.
Li, Y. J., Johnson, K. A., Cohen, A. B., Williams, M. J., Knowles, E. D., & Chen, Z. (2012). Fundamental(ist) attribution error: Protestants are dispositionally focused. Journal of personality and social psychology, 102(2), 281–290. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0026294
Norenzayan, A. (2013). Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Princeton University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt32bbp0
Norenzayan, A., Henrich, J., & Slingerland, E. (2013). A synthesis. Cultural evolution: Society, technology, language, and religion, 12, 365.
Quentin D. Atkinson, Andrew J. Latham & Joseph Watts (2015) Are Big Gods a big deal in the emergence of big groups?, Religion, Brain & Behavior, 5:4, 266-274, DOI: 10.1080/2153599X.2014.928351