The monkey suit.

My interest in life after death is nothing to do with religious belief. For me, accounts of the near-death experience and hypnotic between-life regression offer more convincing and relevant evidential support for conscious survival after physical death than religion does. In the context of a much broader reality, the notion of life after death joins up many loose ends and answers important questions about our existence. So why isn’t there a more enlightened attitude to the subject?

Granted, death isn’t everyone’s favorite topic for all kinds of reasons – fear of the unknown and loss of loved ones being just two – yet those who report these experiences give detailed descriptions of events after death that could offer comfort and reassurance in both those areas of concern.

The problem is that second hand reports of an afterlife where the miraculous is normal, can’t compete with the hard physical reality that our senses and brain have been telling us our survival depends on for a couple of million years of evolution. Not surprisingly, most of us are only interested in the physically real world; we’re programmed to be motivated by own personal interests and concerns, which necessarily center on thinking of ourselves as genetic organisms. We’re probably unaware of that fact on a conscious level, but there’s no denying that our thoughts and behavior are those of genetic organisms. Our entire understanding of reality, our deepest urges and instincts, are intrinsic functions of what genetic organisms evolved to do: survive long enough to reproduce their own personal genes. These most basic – and fundamentally mindless – functions have shaped us and our society, our beliefs and understanding of reality at the deepest levels.

A consequence of this basic imperative to survive and reproduce as genes are gods, religions and versions of an afterlife with their origins in the need to survive in this life, where an uncompromising physical reality dictates the terms of existence.

There’s ample evidence for that in the way our concept of God has changed as we’ve evolved – from worship of the forces of nature, the sun and a pantheon of planets, through a wrathful Old Testament God, to whatever deity reflects the way we think of ourselves now.

More evidence that religion is about physical survival is in the way religious faith demands our unquestioning acceptance of its version of God, and a specific set of rules and beliefs, over alternative ideas and dogmas. Limiting our ideas and the freedom to consider alternative explanations is central to the concept of religious belief, but only a fool would deny that ‘truth’ tailored to suit human ideas of God has stifled progress and open minded inquiry. Instead it breeds closed minds and intolerance. Religion’s original role was to protect the interests of rival tribes in their squabbles over resources. This same motive has been all too evident throughout human history, and still applies today. We can only refute the claim that man makes God in his own image by deluding ourselves that we don’t evolve. But then self-delusion is one of our most basic traits.

Of course, accounts of near-death experiences and hypnotic regression could simply be more self-delusion; It all depends on what we choose to believe. But given the physical foundations for our understanding of reality, a belief in the metaphysical should make no sense, and yet millions of us still hold those beliefs, along with notional promises of an afterlife, and instructions on how to attain it.

So is the idea of life after death all in our mind? An intriguing thought, especially when, for us, everything is in our mind, including our understanding of reality, and even our conscious selves. Without conscious awareness there can only be oblivion.

Is that all we have to look forward to when we die? Those who report the existence of another reality after physical death tell us that by leaving behind the restrictions imposed by a physical body, our consciousness is free to experience more of its essential self, allowing us entry to near boundless dimensions of heightened awareness. They say it’s precisely by being part of a material body that our consciousness is constrained, damped down by physical matter. It seems that while we’re in a human body with a nervous system and brain, circumstances simply don’t allow us to comprehend a reality that’s not dependent on three material dimensions plus a linear concept of time. (The ability to postulate the existence of more dimensions does nothing to erase our delusions, or the fact that the genetic parts of us were created by the origins and circumstances of this particular designer ‘reality’; while our consciousness is inhibited by it, we have little choice but think, feel and behave as reflections of it.)

There’s also the small matter of an instinctive conviction that we can only continue to exist by surviving and reproducing as genes. This conviction built our psyche; little wonder we can’t envisage a conscious, post death reality free of chemically induced urges, emotions and sensations. For many of us, these are the very things that make life worth living; why would we want to be free of them? (No less pointless a question than asking why we’d want to evolve from single celled organisms.) But perhaps for many of us it’s enough to exist merely to help genes replicate and reproduce themselves.

Here’s another clip from Diary of my life after death:

‘I know the notion of an afterlife – heaven, Valhalla, paradise, the happy hunting ground, whatever – is core to human culture. I also know that many folks on Earth think death is about gloom, misery, tombs and loss.

‘One of the tuition programs I looked at gave the impression that neuroscientists on Earth think notions of an afterlife are an evolutionary design feature to make us feel better about the inevitability of death while we’re alive. They say near-death experiences and out-of-body trips happen when a brain is starved of oxygen, or maybe when the part where emotions happen gets flooded with feelgood chemicals. They say the euphoria, visions and memory reruns during a near-death experience are all just a result of one kind of brain activity or another.

‘To atheists that must sound pretty plausible, and yet scientific plausibility wouldn’t recognize itself if it traveled back fifty years, or forward just a few.

‘From up here it’s obvious that scientists know as much about an afterlife as most other folks do: zip. They’d have you believe consciousness is made by a brain built from star debris dumped into space by old suns. (It did feel that way to me some days.)’