Les Reid: Belief in an after-life of some sort seems greedy

Humanist comedian Bob Monkhouse had a fine joke about dying
Humanist comedian Bob Monkhouse had a fine joke about dying
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Bob Monkhouse was a TV presenter and comedian. He was a humanist and made no secret of the fact that he did not believe in an after-life. He lived into his 90s.

One day an interviewer, knowing his beliefs but ignoring his age, asked the following brutal question: “Bob, you are very old and you have said there is no after-life. Aren’t you scared of dying?”

Bob replied: “Well, you know me as a game show host and a TV celebrity. But my dad was not a celebrity. He was a bus driver. I would like to die the same way my old dad died, quietly and peacefully in his sleep – not screaming and wailing in terror like his passengers.”

Shakespeare got into a muddle over the after-life. Hamlet says it is “…the undiscovered country from which no traveller returns.” The description is quite odd as just a few scenes previously Hamlet had been talking to the ghost of his dead father who had presumably made that very journey.

The Egyptians must have thought the after-life was a continuation of this life. They buried their dead with household utensils, jewellery, pottery and status symbols. Unfortunately their embalming techniques meant that the brain had to be removed, so your after-life was going to be as a zombie. Not an inviting prospect.

Why might the idea of an after-life ever have occurred to people in ancient times? We cannot be sure, but it may be related to the fact that we often “see” in our dreams friends and relatives who have died. Seeing them, it was natural to assume that they were still in existence as some kind of spirit. Of course the story would become quite complicated if you dreamt they were wearing their usual clothes, sitting in their usual chair and petting their dog, as all those items would require a ghostly after-life too.

I heard that once when the Reverend Ian Paisley was preaching he referred to the afterlife awaiting those who were not saved. He said there would be weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth. A little old lady in the congregation piped up, “Oh dear, Reverend Paisley, what will I do? I haven’t got any teeth.” Paisley thundered: “Teeth will be provided!”

The after-life is an attractive proposition because it is generally presented as an infinite extension of this life with all the unpleasant bits left out. Native Americans thought they would spend their time chasing deer in the Happy Hunting Grounds. Vikings thought there would be endless drinking, feasting and fighting. Christians have thought that community singing would be the main, if not the only, activity on offer. None of the many suggestions down the centuries has commanded universal support.

Humanists think it is merely wishful thinking. We side with Edmund Spenser: “Sleep after toil, port after stormy seas, ease after war, death after life does greatly please.” So try not to be greedy. Do you really need that huge second helping?

Les Reid teaches a course on Humanism as part of City of Edinburgh Council adult education programme. He is a member of the Edinburgh branch of Humanist Society Scotland (www.humanism.scot)