Religion has so much to offer me, though not salvation, or ethics, or community. No, religion provides me the creative fodder I need to write. I like to take a fresh look through new, child-like eyes at religious ideas left unexamined.
Why does heaven have pearly gates? I don’t mean, why are they pearl (though that is its own question). Rather, are there drifters loitering outside trying to get in? Why not build heaven in a nicer part of the universe, away from the riff raff? What if the gates are not to keep people out, but to keep people in…
But I have largely grown bored with Christian mythology. There’s only one god, and the angels are pretty ho-hum. So long ago, I moved on to other religions. As it turns out, most religions believe in some form of reincarnation. The idea of the soul returning to Earth after death was described by the Greeks, Romans, and several Eastern religions.
Plato relied heavily on the idea of the “transmigration of souls” (metempsychosis, which was introduced earlier by Orphism and Pythagoreanism). This idea was essential to Plato’s conception of knowledge. Plato believed all souls spend time in another plane of existence, inhabited by what he called perfect forms. There, our souls soak up knowledge like a sponge. It would be akin to your soul being plugged into an encyclopedia.
The soul then drinks from the River Lethe (meaning “forgetfulness” or “concealment”), causing us to temporarily forget, and we are born again as a baby. To Plato, nothing is ever “learned” during life. Instead, we merely “remember” or “recall” during our mortal lives the things we knew as immortal souls. In Plato’s estimation, we are all repositories of infinite knowledge, waiting to be unlocked. The very Greek word for “truth” was “aletheia,” meaning “unforget” or “unconceal.”
This is a romantic notion, but it is never enough for me to hear a story. I have to think of ways to add on to the established ideas. Moreover, other religions which espouse reincarnation have completely different dogma regarding the cycle of the soul. However, all of these models had a few things in common:
1. The soul is eternal
2. The soul is indivisible
3. The role of gods in the entire cycle is ambiguous
The first two points create a great crisis of internal logic, and this is already assuming the existence souls and the occurrence of reincarnation. There are almost 7 billion people. Right away, we have to assume animals and humans are coming from the same reincarnation pool or someone, somewhere is creating human souls from scratch. If the latter is true, then some souls are older (and therefore “more eternal”) than others.
If we’re using the same souls as animals, there are a lot of souls waiting to get back to Earth, because the number of animals in the wild who have died is greater than the population increase of humans and our domesticated animals (whose population also rises and falls with our own). That is, unless we can be reincarnated as microscopic life… in which case the calculations are too difficult for me to do, as there are trillions of non-human microbes living inside just one human body. And what about plants?
Why not simplify the whole matter and say that souls are divisible? My body may be like a glass, and my soul the water inside it. The glass was made recently, but the water always existed. When the glass breaks, the water won’t disappear; it will evaporate into the clouds or run down a drain or into the soil or trickle into a larger body of water. The exact glass of water can never be re-assembled again. I imagine that is a far more likely scenario than a soul being able to maintain itself as a whole.
Of course, the soul need not do anything. One should not forget the gods when discussing religion. What is their role in all of this?
Since religion is supposedly revealed by the gods, and the role of the gods is largely ignored in all reincarnation systems, I have come to the conclusion that the only logical explanation is that the gods are taking advantage of our souls somehow. The simplest solution is that they are eating our souls, perhaps this is even what gives them immortality, though I would not be surprised if the human soul is far less powerful, and is used for something rather frivolous (perhaps getting high).
Is it so crazy to assume the gods are exploiting the human soul? If we are their creation, and if the apple indeed does not fall far from the tree, it seems not only possible, but likely. Human beings think nothing about whom they hurt, why should the gods be any different? Quite frankly, we may be nothing more than cattle to them. Really puts the “fishers of men” and “shepherd” metaphors into context…
When someone asks me what happens when we die, I optimistically suggest that it will be like before we were born: nothing to us, but exciting for everyone alive (we get his stuff!). This is quite optimistic, at least when compared to my proposed scenario in which the soul is consumed by gods and shat back to Earth. I can’t know what happens when we die, but I find it very intellectually lazy of people to assume it’s either heaven and hell, or nothing.