“The Egyptians called the night sky ‘a thousand are her souls’, expressing the belief that each star was the transfigured soul of a dead person. This, then, was the pattern for the afterlife that Egyptians believed in at the time of the pyramids. Could it also have been the belief of those who left images on the rocks of the eastern savanna some 1,500 years earlier?” Genesis of the Pharaohs by Toby Wilkinson, page 157.
I remember reading how Saule, the Baltic goddess of the sun, picks up the souls of the dead while she travels and carries them to the next world. I also remember reading another Baltic myth, in which the soul of the dead person literally claws their way up the sky mountain to reach the afterlife. There’s also an Egyptian myth speaking on how Nut would take in the souls of the dead, collecting them among her body.
My point? I believe that when I die, I’ll travel up into the night sky to join those that came before. The stars are my destiny.
It’s not something I believe will literally happen. In the same sense, I know that the sun is really not a woman pouring light out of a jug, but instead a constant explosion in the middle of space that will one day destroy the planet that we live on. And that the earth is not a man lying on his back, waiting for the day he and his wife will be reunited, but a mass of rock and magma and minerals.
But at the same time, I believe in the gods, and in some form of afterlife. This brings me into something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, which is the purpose of religion- why do I believe in what I do? Why am I not an atheist?
Part of what’s driving me is that I do live with an atheist, and her worldview is rubbing off on me. Which isn’t something I mind; honestly, I think the gods prefer it if we’re able to consider other viewpoints and see if they fit us better.
(And even if they didn’t prefer it, it still holds that alternative viewpoints are important to consider, regardless of what the gods might think of them.)
In any case. I’m still trying to figure out what religion does for me. I don’t really think that I need my gods to behave morally, and I doubt that they have any desire to control what I do.
And in many ways, I think atheism makes a lot of sense- particularly if you factor in that religious practice might have just been an evolutionary accident. In fact, there’s a theory that suggests that evolution did play a part in religious development.
It’s an idea that I think deserves a lot of attention, because it makes so much sense. It basically suggests that people evolved the ability to see other beings as having their own wills, being able to behave as independent beings. This allowed them to survive longer, because they were able to then discern more easily what those intentions could be.
(E.g., that’s a deer. I want to eat that deer. That deer doesn’t want to be eaten. Therefore it will try and run away, therefore I need to plan how to react to that deer’s reaction.)
This ability was then applied to things in motion that don’t have wills; rain, earthquakes, floods, and so on. Because the assumption was that these things had wills of their own, it was assumed that one could interact with them. Through that assumption, religion was born. You can read more about the theory here.
I think, though, there’s a little bit more to religion than just evolution and survival (though I do think that religion’s origins are likely because of evolution).
Part of the reason that religion appeals to me is that when you pray to a deity, you’re usually not praying to something that’s never been heard of before. You’re praying to a being that existed before you did, a being that other people that you will never, ever know have also prayed to, a being whose memory will exist long after yours.
For instance, when I talk to Apollo, I know that he’s a deity that was worshiped in ancient Greece. I know that he’s a being- real or imagined- that has influenced Western culture just by existing. I know that there are other people that I don’t know exist, and who don’t know that I exist, who also pray to him.
The idea of Him connects me to the idea of permanence- something that doesn’t actually exist, but that I continue looking for anyway.
Religion, through worship, connects us with the eternal- with ideas of gods and spirits that endure throughout thousands of years of history. Religion can help us connect with each other (when used correctly), and can be used as a reminder of those that came before us.
It suggests to us that the end of the world- death- isn’t the end. It gives me, personally, a little bit of a connection to the past (and the future, as well). It grounds me in where I am now, and reminds me that ultimately, what I do matters.
And, on a very personal note, it reminds me that I’m going to die. This is something that I try very hard not to forget. See, ultimately, I don’t want my time on earth to have gone to waste, and I don’t want to leave having done nothing to help make things better somehow.
On top of that, it also reminds me that I personally am a very small being in a very big world, and that it’s okay if the things that I do to make things better are also very small. Ma’at is supported by the multitude of small actions. And religion- at least, my practice of it- revolves very much around the small choices.
I practice religion for connection with other people, for reminders to do small important things, and to try and make peace with impermanence. I practice because I am a person that does a lot of little things, both good and bad, and it reminds me that I need to at least try to make the good things outnumber the bad. And finally, I may also practice just because my biology and culture both suggest that it’s a good idea.
Um. So if you were able to make sense of any of that, I’m deeply impressed. Thanks so much for taking the time to read this, and may the sun and stars always light the way before you.