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What is it with Heaven and Millennials?

The promise of an afterlife – to meet departed family and friends – appeals to many;
but especially for younger Australians. Why do they dismiss the evidence of physics?

Against all odds, it seems the concept of going to heaven holds far greater significance for the young than for those who are closer – numerically – to death!  We need to confront “the D word” itself, but let’s first get a handle on why the idea of paradise has gripped contemporary youth – more so than pensioners!

A national Essential poll shows 40% of all Australians believe in heaven.  But the crucial figure is that a staggering 51% of those aged 18-34 hold such a belief!  This compares to just 29% of the public who are over 55 years old.  The young are almost twice as fixated with an afterlife than those closer to pension age! Why is that?

Is it insecurity or religiosity?  One suggestion points to the fact that 40% of secondary students now attend private religious schools – a rate far higher than all other Western nations.  There has been an exponential growth in government funding for private Catholic and Anglican schools since the 1960s – from a base of almost zero.

Others suggest that a similar rise in Special Religious Instruction (SRI) and chaplains in public schools has led to the Christianisation of education across the nation.  These government-funded programs are run by evangelical Christian organisations in each state – with Catholic and Anglican private schools proselytising their own religions.  And do millennials then stay at home too long, with a childhood faith, instead of getting out into the real world?

Since colonisation, Christianity instilled belief in an afterlife.  It’s reflected on a daily basis in mainstream media, in film and on television – and in our obsession with sport.  No game passes without players pointing skyward when scoring a goal, or honouring a deceased team or family member with hands reaching towards heaven.

But the biggest problem is that we don’t talk about death!

Society needs to get over this end-of-life taboo – to discuss and challenge the sugar-coated religious myth that claims we will all meet up with our loved ones (and pets) when we die and go to heaven.  Before confronting the concrete scientific evidence (below) – and how we can better handle the emotional aspects of death – just dwell on this thought for one moment.

Isn’t paradise already just a little crowded?  Think about who those you would meet – not only the entire cohort of your departed relatives, your friends and ancestors – but all the people you have detested; and those who gave you so much grief during your lifetime.

Then there’s the rest – every human who died!  Research shows that, by 2050, an estimated 113 billion people will have lived and died on planet Earth; so heaven is already a seething mass of ‘souls’.  For eternity!

The average punter has great difficulty conceptualising ‘eternity’.  Most can’t even grasp the fact of our universe being 13.8 billion years old – or Earth a mere 4.5 billion!  The concept is starkly illustrated in a fascinating book, “A History of the World in 10 1/2 chapters.”  While fictional, it focuses the mind on a serious problem with infinity.

Chapter 10 sees our hero arrive in heaven, choosing to spend all his time eating luxurious food, having endless sex, and playing golf.  After several thousand years he’s sick of food and sex, and on each heavenly golf course, he hits holes-in-one on every par 3.  He pleads to be released from this endless “perfect existence” and asks if others finally yearn to be free; to actually “die”.  With a short pause for effect, the answer was plain. “Everyone!”

Books on near-death experiences and visits to heaven are legion.  A recent bestseller was “Proof of Heaven” by Dr Eben Alexander – a neurosurgeon, no less.  Alexander sold more than 2 million copies before his claims were debunked.  Among those who contested his story was Professor Sean Carroll, a particle physicist and high-profile science communicator.  Carroll said there could only be two possibilities for Alexander’s spiritual encounter:

(1) Either some ill-defined metaphysical substance, not subject to the known laws of physics, interacted with the atoms of his brain in ways that have eluded every controlled experiment ever performed in the history of science.  OR… (2) People hallucinate when they are nearly dead.

Professor Carroll’s detailed explanation of Physics and Immortality spells out precisely why an immaterial “soul” does not exist.  The physics are graphically demonstrated in his video address (at 20:00).  Carroll worked with the team that discovered the Higgs Boson at Geneva’s Large Hadron Collider.  He could not be more explicit;

“if there are other waves, particles or forces sufficient to externally influence the brain, then we would know about them … Within Quantum Field Theory, there can’t be a new collection of “spirit particles” and “spirit forces” that interact with our regular atoms, because we would have detected them in existing experiments … You would have to demonstrate evidence of a completely new realm of reality, obeying very different rules than everything we know about physics.”
(The 3 links above are needed to fully understand why there is no “soul”.)

But science does not devalue the need for compassion and empathy in the face of raw emotions that come with our personal experiences of death.  It is necessary to face up to reality – but there are alternatives to religion in coping with end of life crises. Discussing death openly and honestly – and publicly through the media – is a first step in helping to ease the extreme distress that many suffer with their own fear of death.

The ‘Golden Age of Athens’ pre-dates Christianity by four centuries – it led to a crucial period of new philosophical thought about life and death, about government and democracy, and how ordinary people could live a more fulfilled and contented life.

The philosophical principles of stoicism remain popular today.  It’s based on three central themes. “Perception”, how we choose to view events; “Action”, how we deal with events we can control (and those we can’t); and then there’s “Will” – training ourselves to deal honestly and ethically with events in our own lives.  Following the full regime of stoicism may seem daunting; but filtering the basic principles it becomes somewhat easier to apply.

The stoic approach to dealing with death – of family, friends, or oneself – is particularly relevant.  Initially, it may appear morbid to periodically remind ourselves of one’s mortality.  But if we consider this approach to death deeply enough, we soon come to realise the benefits of a greatly improved mental state.

The stark alternative for most people is to ignore the inevitable and to be completely consumed by grief when family or friends die unexpectedly.  Religion holds its privileged status based on fear – fear of not believing in God, fear of the unknown, and especially the fear of death.  It’s a cruel deception that society needs to overcome.

By sugar-coating mortality with the myth of everlasting heaven, religion simply deprives us all of the ways and means to better cope with the end of life.  While stoicism may not be the complete solution for all, it is clear that the basic principles of “philosophical ethics” – honesty, reason, compassion, and love – would be a far better alternative than teaching schoolchildren obedience to God and religious ritual.

Future generations would avoid the trap of today’s millennials who continue to shun science and instead cling to religious concepts of an afterlife.  A ‘soul’ that miraculously ascends to heaven, only to reunite with 113 billion other souls – for the whole of eternity! Just like our golfing hero, that sounds more like purgatory!

Brian Morris is author of ‘Sacred to Secular’ and specialises in secular politics.  He is a former journalist, and is director of www.plainreason.org which promotes science, reason and critical thinking.


22 comments

  1. Matters Not

    Re;

    the concept of going to heaven

    For most believers in Australia (and elsewhere), heaven is up there but for some Australians it’s over there. And you reach it by sailing across the waters.

    For the people of Mabuiag, the westernmost island in Torres Strait, heaven is not straight up; it lies on Kibu, an island to the northwest. When Islander die, their spirits sail to Kibu at sundown with the prevailing winds. The local Anglican Father regularly visits the ancestors in this mythical sea space.

    Belief in a marine afterworld is Melanesian custom.

    It’s a potential tourist destination with loads of promise. Perhaps it could be advertised on the walls of the Opera House? The Pacific Valhalla?

    Perhaps we need to substitute science for faith and even ‘rationality’? But not much chance of that in the foreseeable future.

  2. Miriam English

    Thanks Brian. I’m not sure how reliable those figures are though. The address those tables come from are all based in UK dated 2017. But the numbers in UK are very encouraging:

    That graph comes from an article in The Guardian about religion declining steeply in UK:
    https://www.theguardian.com/global/2018/oct/07/church-and-state-an-unhappy-union

    If the numbers from the article you link to do come from surveys in Australia, I have to wonder how the surveys were conducted. Standing at the gates of religious schools to ask kids would not be a good way to get an unbiased result, for instance. And how many people were sampled?

    All that said, it is a valid worry that over and over again unrepresentative forces in our “government” have been doing their best to distort our society, pushing religion down the throats of our kids.

    As for life after death, it depends on the existence of a soul, and that’s easy to dismiss:

    What do most people consider the soul? Many say that it is your essence — this consciousness that sits behind these eyes, that feels emotions, understands the world, and is the final decision-maker, the pilot.

    If that is what it is then the soul dies with your body, because it is fairly easy to show that those things are a function of that wonderfully complex organ, the brain. Alter the brain and you alter your consciousness.

    Here are a few examples:

    When you take various drugs your brain’s function is altered and so is your consciousness.
    There is the case of the French businessman who woke up one morning to find that he could no longer read — he could still write, and although he could remember what he had just written, he was unable to make sense of what was on the page. During the night a blood clot had jammed in a blood vessel feeding the part of his brain that understood writing, and starved of oxygen and food, it had died.
    The construction worker who was a pleasant guy, happily married, and liked by all others. One day, at the worksite, he was standing over a crowbar in a hole packed with explosive. The explosive went off and fired the crowbar through his head, under one cheekbone and out the top of his head. Amazingly, he survived, but it radically altered his personality. He was not the congenial person of before and was now given to fits of rage.
    Split-brain surgery, done many years ago in an attempt to control awful attacks of epilepsy, worked by cutting the corpus callosum which lets the two halves of the brain communicate with each other. It resulted in two separate individuals inside the one skull.
    Every time you go to sleep at night your brain goes through cycles roughly every 20 minutes or so where consciousness actually disappears, then enters the weird, internally stimulated state of dreaming.
    A bad blow to the head stuns the nerves which make up the brain, causing consciousness to stop till they recover. (I wish movies wouldn’t show this as a common way to put someone out of action — in actual fact a blow that causes such a blackout has almost certainly caused brain damage and is extremely dangerous.)
    Anaesthetic chemicals administered during surgery alter a patient’s brain function causing their consciousness to cease for a while.

    Clearly your consciousness is really an action that your brain performs. It can no more survive your death than a bird’s flight can continue after the bird dies. If consciousness is what the soul is then the soul dies with your brain and your body.

    Wait, you say. The soul doesn’t have to be consciousness. It could be something less tangible; something not related to our feelings or brain actions; something far more ethereal.

    Yes, but that now becomes a waste of time. If I told you that I could keep one of your fingers alive after you died, you would wonder what was the point. Of what use is a finger without the consciousness to operate it? It is our mind that is important — it is what we are. Such an unconscious soul, even if it did continue beyond our death is irrelevant.

    Without a soul, all gods and all religions become unnecessary. Their very reason for existing evaporates.

    poof!

  3. Miriam English

    Dammit! I hate the way WordPress makes it so difficult to write a piece with bullet points. That really messed up the 7 list items in my reply from “When you take various drugs…” to “Anaesthetic chemicals administered…”

  4. ajogrady

    Maybe Neo Conservatism has stolen young peoples futures and destroyed their belief on a fair and egalitarian world and an invisible friend is an escape from the reality of what is their lives in today’s ugly and vicious climate wars world.

  5. Kronomex

    Heaven and hell is what we make of our lives while we’re alive and death is natures way of saying, “Come in Number 9, your time is up.” The promise of life after death is just a sales pitch by religions and new agers and nutters. There is no empirical evidence for the afterlife, just junk science and faith based claptrap.

    What really sums it all up succinctly is, of course –

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SJUhlRoBL8M

  6. Ken Derrick

    Good to see you back in the saddle Brian and posting very good articles again

  7. Klaus Petrat

    Hi Brian,

    You are using brave words in stating that physical evidence clearly points to the fact that there is no soul. Brave indeed.

    In the meantime, evidence is accumulating (but certainly not conclusive) for a very different phenomenon.
    There is strong compelling evidence, that biological systems are capable of executing quantum processes in temperatures which we are used to. I have all the necessary links but won’t bore anyone with detail. If there is interest, I am happy to share.

    The thing with quantum processes is, that they are possessing at least 2 properties, coherence-decoherence and entanglement. Bird navigation, photo voltaic processes in plants, to name 2 processes. Perhaps the human brain?? Is there conclusive evidence that the brain is incapable of executing quantum processes. This is leading edge physics, not standard interpretations of quantum processes dating back to Bohr.

    This research is conducted by many physicists around the world and trust me, physicists have real problems addressing consciousness. However, some dare.

    I leave you with 2 thoughts.

    1) You have been born once. Who is to say that you can’t be borne twice… Who has that evidence? You certainly won’t be you and you certainly won’t remember.

    2) There is new research opening up which goes beyond putting NDE down to hallucinations. What you need to look at is at the consistency of the experience and the fundamental change people undergo. Years after a “real” experience, these people remain fundamentally changed in their emotional makeup.

    Yes, there are plenty of frauds. But you seem to have closed off your mind as to what is happening in physics.

  8. New England Cocky

    Uhm … an interesting article in an area where I have given some thought.

    If we can have directed numbers, and directed three dimensional space, why, starting from a position in the brain as origin, can’t we have inward dimensions and other axes rather than length, breadth (width), height and time?

    Mathematicians tell us there are about 12 dimensions possible, why can’t some of those dimensions include imagination??

  9. helvityni

    Two English comedians did a sketch regarding afterlife…

    They were sitting on a cloud looking a bit puzzled.

    One broke the silence and said: I’m actually a bit bored already….is this what I been good for all my life…?

    They must have come to the conclusion that the interesting people must have gone to hell….

  10. Klaus Petrat

    NEC,

    I agree with you in the sense of “claiming physical evidence” as the debate being over, is naive at best.

    We are a long way away from making these totalitarian statements about “physics providing proof that NDEs and afterlife are sentimental nonsense”.

    There is a specific arrogance among some in the scientific community, who truly believe that the same atoms and sub atomic particles give rise to consciousness, ensure that consciousness is confined to the brain and consciousness dies when the physical brain atoms resolve.

    Whilst I am not a dreamer, I would be careful to be declaring the debate over. We all know, that traditional physicists are more than uncomfortable with the role of consciousness in physics.

    This one has a long way to run.

    The author Brian is very premature with his assertions.

  11. Miriam English

    Klaus Petrat, every part of every material object involves quantum effects. Why do you want to single out the mind? I suspect you want to use a Deepak Chopra style mystical argument to pretend that there is something otherworldly about the mind. In actual fact there isn’t. The mind is governed by exactly the same laws of physics as all the other things in the world. A sharp whack on the head should convince you of that. As for being born twice, I can see I don’t need to tell you about how drugs befuddle the operation of the mind. They can make it difficult to tell the difference between reality and bullshit. (And I suspect the real reason you didn’t list the links is because it would be immediately obvious they were crank stuff.)

  12. Klaus Petrat

    Hi Miriam,

    I provided all links but it doesn’t appear to be posted. Sad. AM I being moderated out?

    But you need to do your homework first before getting personal

  13. Jack Russell

    For me, the whole concept and implementation of religion is a gigantic fraud.

    I view it as organised crime on a massive scale using all the triggers of fantasy, bells and whistles, coercion and fear to flog it to the gullibles, who then allow their children to be groomed into future servitude to a malignant agenda.

    Refusing any form of access to our young is the key to ending this scourge … it can’t happen fast enough in my opinion.

    And dying would become, as it should be, a peaceful acceptence of the inevitable, not an agony of fearful resistance.

  14. Klaus Petrat

    Hi Jack Russel,

    I am 100% in agreement with you.

  15. Karen Kyle

    The impulse towards religion seems to be inherent in many people and totally missing in others. In any event trying to ban or squash religions doesn’t work. It seems to create a need which can’t be fulfilled in anti religious societies. Think of Russia and the recent embrace of Christianity to the extent that the FSB now has a church specifically to cater to the spiritual needs of the operatives.

    In China there was a huge demand for the Christian Bible. So much so that the government cracked down and didn’t so much ban the Bible but rather made sure it wasn’t available.China has decided to re embrace Confucius. But not all of it. Just the bits that appear to be in support of a totalitarian regime. And they are planning to use the birthplace of Confucius as a place of pilgrimage. And they want to turn it into a Holy City like Jerusalem. It will be interesting to see if top down state religion can be imposed. I doubt it. It is worth noting however that China never lost it’s folk religion especially in rural areas.

    As for the scientific argument it is fruitless and by now is getting boring and it misses the point. The point being that there is no proof either way and not likely to be. The argument about how many people must be in heaven is a lot like the argument in the Middle Ages about how many Angels would fit on the head of a pin. As for human consciousness, science has yet to get within a bull’s roar of solving that one.

  16. guest

    The Christian religion makes claims for the existence of heaven as demonstrated by the resurrection of Jesus, who is said to have risen up into heaven and sat on the right hand of God. But this claim is not made in all of the gospels and appears only is some texts regarded as spurious.

    If the resurrection of Jesus was a physical event; that is, with a physical body, how is it able to fly high in the sky, beyond the clouds to a place where he could sit down, and live and breathe and look down on the world?

    It all sounds so much like the stories about Greek gods on Mount Olympus, or an Egyptian god torn to pieces and resurrected. Or the corn god returning every year with the seasons.

    As for “quantum processes”, Klaus, it sounds much like Ron L. Hubbard’s Scientology with its dianetics and hovering around plants with a galvanometer to measure reactions to external events in atom flows.

    To say that the argument is not over when strange mystical claims are made is a claim too easily made without proof. We see that kind of thing in the political stance that humans need not take too much notice of Climate Change based on “some sort of report”.

  17. Karen Kyle

    You are correct in your assumption that the Jesus Myth has much in common with other religious myths. Two thousand years ago the notion of a god/man was common in Roman and Egyptian religions and the Greeks believed that a human could be half divine. That is why the story of the resurrection was easily accepted at the time. It was a familiar idea to most people in the Greek/Roman/Middle Eastern world with the exception of the Jews. The Jews non acceptance of the idea led to them disobeying a Roman directive to display a figure of the deified Roman Emperor in their Holy Temple. This was one of the factors among many that led to the fall of the Second Temple and the Jewish slaughter and diaspora.

  18. Klaus Petrat

    At guest,

    AT no time have I claimed I have proof. The other side (aka the Author) has claimed to have proof.
    All I am saying is that true physicists are starting to grapple with consciousness.

    If you are saying consciousness is an emergent of ever more complex connections between sub-atomic particles confined to the brain, and you have proof, I rest my case.

    Also, if there is irrefutable proof that the brain is incapable of quantum processes, I rest my case. And please, just to preempt further assertions, I do not equate quantum processes with proof for consciousness surviving physical death. Just to be sure. BTW, I had all references posted twice. I would like AIM to explain to me why they were taken down??

    And no, I am not a Ron Hubbard believer or even reader. Most of religion amounts to nothing more than ideology in disguise. Even though I am catholic, I do not believe in Jesus being the son of god.

    And as my friends would be attesting, neither am I a phantacist nor a new age guy.

  19. DrakeN

    Klaus,

    “…neither am I a phantacist nor a new age guy.”

    On the other hand, you are either confused and/or misguided.

    You cannot ascribe to the Roman Catholic religion unless you believe that Jesus is the Son of God. If you do not, then you are simply not “Catholic”.

  20. Klaus Petrat

    @DrakeN

    Let’s say no longer practicing and disillusioned a long time ago. But I have not formally left the Church and couldn’t really explain why.

    Perhaps I hang too much on the Weihnachtsmann and the Catholics didn’t like it?

  21. Miriam English

    Klaus Petrat, please accept my apologies. I shouldn’t have made that quip.

    Also, I didn’t realise your links are not showing up here. Try posting them without the html tags around them and without the “http://” prefix. I promise I’ll check them out.

    I must say though, that I doubt they will pan out. My suspicion is that they’re really just more along the lines of Penrose’s awful speculations about quantum processes being the source of free will. It’s embarrassing that such a smart mathematician made such a terrible mistake. It has been discredited many times by many scientists, and if anybody thinks about it for a while, they can see it doesn’t even solve the problem of free will. (In the attempt to make decisions non-deterministic and unpredictable, it merely makes our mental processes slave to randomness — hardly freedom.)

  22. Kyran

    It’s funny how you can disbelieve basic tenets of an argument, yet accept the overarching principles.
    To premise an article on the statement, “40% of all Australians believe in heaven”, but ignore the other statistic that 44% of Australians don’t believe in it, is an exercise in obfuscation. It’s a bit like saying 29mill Australians eat grass, and forgetting to mention they are cattle.
    Every one of the survey questions in your initial link, and they include everything from climate change to extra-terrestrials, show the majority of us accept science and evidence, with varying degrees of ‘majority’. Yet your article picks out a minority view and makes a headline out of it.
    The extrapolation of 40% believing in heaven or hell to 40% believing in organized religion is also dispelled in the article you linked to.
    “While our participation in organised religion has been on the decline in recent decades, 40% of us still say we have a literal interpretation of the central tenants of heaven and hell.”
    Why is ‘church participation’ in such serious decline if our young are accepting the basic belief’s of the churches? It serves to assist the notion that religious or spiritual belief at a personal level is the same as acceptance of every mantra of religious institutions. The recent RC into child abuse left no religious institution unscathed, yet we are meant to believe that our young are being drawn to churches in their droves.
    Our alleged government has been at pains to secrete its recent enquiry into religious freedoms. Some postulate that it is to be held until after the Wentworth by-election. My thought was that it would be held until the current alleged PM makes his apology to the selected few victims of that RC. Not even this government would try to push through a protection of perpetrators of abuse that soon after acknowledging the damage done by those perpetrators of child abuse. Let alone the government’s complicity in ongoing child abuse. Lest we forget. Nauru.
    Given the monumental incompetence of this alleged government and its detractors within, it comes as no surprise there are leaks occurring.

    “The former attorney general Philip Ruddock, who chaired the review, said the right of schools to turn away gay students and teachers should be enshrined in the Sex Discrimination Act.
    “To some school communities, cultivating an environment and ethos which conforms to their religious beliefs is of paramount importance,” the review says, according to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald.
    “To the extent that this can be done in the context of appropriate safeguards for the rights and mental health of the child, the panel accepts their right to select, or preference, students who uphold the religious convictions of that school community”.”

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/10/gay-students-could-be-rejected-by-religious-schools-under-new-laws-report-claims

    As to not talking about death with our young and the effect that may have on their perceptions of life, that’s a fair point. There were studies done over the years to take high school students to morgues at an age when they would be going for their drivers licence to see if it affected their attitude to driving. It did. At an anecdotal level, both of my sons have had friends and relatives die and their grief has been evidenced in different ways. It has not affected their belief or perception of an ‘afterlife’. Both have had friends who committed suicide, which is a whole different conversation of increasing significance to our young. It goes without saying that all religions, as far as I know, consider suicide an automatic exclusion to any afterlife.
    It is an interesting and necessary discussion, but it needs to be based in reason. That is not to discount the ‘spiritual’ or the ‘soul’, but to avoid confusing such a thing with religious institutions.
    Thank you Mr Morris and commenters. We seem to have a capacity for discussion, conversation and argument. It seems our government wants to get back to ‘poofter bashing’. Sigh. Take care.
    PS Ms English.
    “When you take various drugs your brain’s function is altered and so is your consciousness.”
    I came across this the other day. The bit about how different drugs affect behaviour is interesting.

    https://www.quora.com/What-are-some-interesting-facts-about-spider-webs

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