Anthropologists admit, with sheepish bewilderment, that every human society discovered thus far has some belief in an afterlife. Religious specialists—especially those who go by the tonguecramping name “phenomenologists”—take comfort in that fact. They sigh with relief, confident that such stubborn persistence of belief is a “rumor of transcendence,” a vestige of our immortal natures.
Reading about the widespread belief in an afterlife got me thinking in another direction entirely. I started wondering what a society might look like if it did not believe in an afterlife. How would the denial of immortality affect everyday life? I let my imagination run, and came up with the following conclusions. For the sake of a convenient label (and with apologies to Samuel Butler, author of Erehwon), I’ll call my mythical society Acirema.
- Aciremans value youth above all else. Since for them nothing exists beyond life on Earth, only youth can represent hope. They have no other future to look forward to. As a result, anything preserving the illusion of youthfulness flourishes. Sports is a national obsession. Magazine covers present wrinkle-free faces and gorgeous bodies. The bestselling videotapes feature alluring women in their forties who demonstrate exercises that, if followed faithfully, will make you look a decade younger.
- Naturally, Aciremans do not value old age, for elderly people offer a distasteful reminder of the end of life. Unlike young people, they can never represent hope. The Acireman health industry promotes skin creams, cosmetic surgery, and many other elaborate means to mask the effects of aging, the prelude to death. In especially callous parts of Acirema, citizens even confine the elderly to their own housing, shut away from the general populace.
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