from Bailey Bridgewater, author of The Congregation
I’m an atheist, and one of the best things about being non-religious is that it allows a person to evaluate different religious ideas pretty objectively, without any commitment. It’s like if your friend handed you her phone and asked you to do her Tinder swiping for her. It’s entertaining, and you can evaluate the choices brutally, curiously, without having to directly deal with the consequences. I believe that when we die, you, me, and all those people on Tinder are simply dead–nothing more, nothing less. Yet ideas about the afterlife captivate me, so I share with you here five ideas my good friends and questionable family members hold about the afterlife.
1. We re-live the same life in perpetuity. This theory is held by a good friend who has a graduate degree in Mathematics, which gives him some level of credibility–not because graduate students are trustworthy, but because anyone who can deal with numbers at that level has access to mysteries of the universe that most of us can’t or simply don’t want to understand. He believes that not just the individual, but the entire universe participates in an endless cycle of creation and destruction that goes the same way every single time, and thus we all live the same exact life over, and over, and over, never able to correct our mistakes or even remember that we made them. You’ll always lose that key, always miss your boat, always say the wrong thing, always realize a little too late. Always. It’s the most depressing of the theories I’ve heard. There’s no justice in it.
2. We are reincarnated on down the food chain. My great-grandmother lived by far the longest of anyone in my family, which is its own argument for some sort of God–surely nothing that’s out there would have wanted her back. What she lacked in overall goodness, she made up for in fanciful ideas. Despite her Methodist upbringing, she believed that we’re all reincarnated–a not uncommon idea worldwide. But her reincarnation was ruthless. You only come back as a human if you were pure as the driven snow and right as the unpolluted rain. Screw up a couple times, and you might come back as a donkey. Screw up a lot, maybe you’ll be a possum. Manage to mess it up so badly that your kids don’t come to your deathbed, and you’ve got a good shot at cockroach–which means, ironically, a reward of near immortality. There’s a chance you might kill a cockroach that is my great-grandmother.
3. We live again, this time as someone close to us. All right, so this was my idea, and I don’t actually believe it. I thought it up as a comforting punishment after divorcing an abusive ex. What if my great-grandmother’s reincarnation idea was on track, but instead of a wolf or a goat, we came back as someone who had an impact on our life, for better or worse? We would feel the pain we caused that person, or the joy, and we would see what had been ourselves from this new perspective. It could be a strange form of heaven or hell, depending on how much of an ass you were.
4. There’s totally a dog heaven. Totally. One common denominator among both the religious and non-religious folks I know is that they all sincerely want to believe in a pet heaven. One acquaintance of mine is so looking forward to seeing his deceased pets again that he has a tattoo of himself running out of the void and down the rainbow bridge, where his animals are all running to greet him. If there is any justice in the afterlife, there is a place where we can be reunited with our animal companions, or at least where they can eternally play with one another. If there’s not, it’s just further proof that there is no higher being.
5. All is forgiven, if you remember to repent right before the ax falls. My grandmother, a devout Catholic who was apparently so religious that she almost never had to go to church, firmly believed that no matter what you did in life, if you repented on your deathbed, lucidly, honestly, then all was forgiven. (She also believed in curses and ghosts, and would sit on the sofa to talk to her deceased sister well before she developed dementia and Alzheimer’s. I don’t know where all this fit in with her religion.) It didn’t matter if you were a murderer, a rapist, a pedophile–so long as you repented, God would allow you into heaven. I often wonder if, given that she died not knowing where, when, or sometimes who she was, she remembered to say her “my bad’s” in time.