On Lionel Tiger and the afterlife

My colleague Brian Bethune’s probing interview with anthropologist Lionel Tiger, mainly on the belief in an afterlife, is thought-provoking on its own and should also draw many Maclean’s readers to God’s Brain, the new book Tiger has written with Michael McGuire.

Tiger’s beguiling voice in the Q & A, a blend of sagacity and common sense, makes it hard to resist agreeing with his premise. “The idea of an afterlife, for you and for loved ones, is very attractive,” he says. “It seems to me wholly improbable—what’s the evidence?—and yet it works, it just works.”

He theorizes that religions replace the bad idea of death with the good idea of an afterlife, and build their enduring institutions around that welcome substitution. He chides strident secularists for ignoring the fact that this form of belief appears to be natural in the “the great majority” of human beings.

Yet I wonder how natural that way of thinking is, at least in the Western, and particularly English-speaking, imaginative tradition. Besides the Bible, our main sources for any serious pondering of death are Greek myth and literature and, even more directly and powerfully, Shakespeare. From these wellsprings, the perspectives on the beyond that come down to us are the far from the serotonin-elevating heavens of Tiger’s theory.

The Greeks didn’t offer a very reassuring vision of the afterlife. Is there, for instance, a more dispiriting warning about what awaits us than the one Odysseus receives, when he visits Hades, and meets the shade of the hero Achilles, who tells him that he’d rather be a slave on earth than to rule over the dead?

And by far the most famous passage in English literature, the “To be or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet, has etched in the minds of generations the darkest misgivings over what comes next. The hope of the speech is for absolute extinction: Shakespeare makes us shudder at the possibility of an “undisover’d country” that’s more than dreamless sleep.

These unsettling notions are not on the margins of our way of thinking about death; they are at its very heart. If there is a serotonin-boosting consolation in the Greek and Shakespearean traditions, I would argue it’s not about living forever—it’s about pairing off and having kids. Odysseus comes home to wife and son. Shakespeare tells us in a sonnet, “And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence/ Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

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