What Becomes of Us After Death?
…Hiram Maxim had an idea.
Silhouette of Hiram Maxim by Francis Smyth Baden-Powell, 1896. © National Portrait Gallery, London
Hiram Maxim is the dictionary definition of an eccentric. An American by birth, he was also an inventor – creating a type of inhaler and a machine gun. You could argue he’s responsible for filling up most of the world’s cemeteries with the latter device, although in his own lifetime when such accusations were made he would go to great lengths to show off his other achievements too, including a type of plane and fire sprinklers. He had a tete a tete with Edison too saying he was the true inventor of the lightbulb.
After a series of engagements brought him to Britain from the States, he eventually settled here – choosing West Norwood as his new home. His son, Hiram Maxim Jr, who was a radio pioneer and fellow inventor – later wrote a compendium of stories concerning his father after he essentially left his siblings and wife. PLEASE read this book, it’s utterly enchanting and to quote my peers, full of ‘WTF!’ moments. For instance, when Hiram branded their housemaid with a freezing cold cattle iron and told her it was red hot for nothing other than his own amusement, as well as menacing the parading Salvation Army near his workshop in Clerkenwell with a pea shooter because he thought the institution was nonsense.
Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim, published by Ogden’s, 1894-1897 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Whilst I was researching my Museums Showoff talk the other week, I came across this article he wrote about life after death. Seeing as he’s now long dead himself, I thought his viewpoint would be worth sharing. A guest blog from years ago. Warning, he’s not a fan of religion.
THE MISBELIEFS OF RELIGION
By Sir HIRAM S. MAXIM, C.E., M.E.
There is not one little particle of evidence to show that we live after we die, in the sense that preachers would have us believe.
Mankind, like all other animals and plants, has been developed into his present condition by natural selection and the survival of the fittest for the environment in which he finds himself. Small changes in body and brain, going on for vast periods of time, have produced the man of to-day, but it should not be supposed that these changes and developments have stopped. Important changes are now taking place in the brain of man ; he is developing his thinking powers, and as time goes on he will waste less of his time and money in propitiating and making peace with the unseen phantoms of the air. It certainly is not difficult for us to understand that the man who thought the most of his life, and had the greatest dread of death, especially in the early ages, would be the one who stood the best chance of surviving and of propagating his species that is, men like himself.
Man’s passionate love of women and children, and his horror of death, became intensified as time went on. He could not bear the idea that death was the end of all. “The wish was the father of the thought.” In human affairs, wherever a great want manifests itself, a remedy is sure to be forthcoming, and in this case the quack doctor of religion appeared on the scene. He was quite ready to deal out everlasting life and happiness in another world after death for a consideration, and at the same time to consign those who refused to take his medicine and pay for it to everlasting torments of the most excruciating description in a fire and brimstone hell.
As ages passed, other doctors of religion modified and elaborated their doctrines, until an extremely complicated and contradictory system was evolved a religion so extremely ridiculous and impossible that it required a lot of faith to believe it. The result was that thinking men of intelligence could not accept the foolish and absurd dogmas of the priests.
This was a serious trouble, but it was eventually overcome in a very thorough and effective manner. The priests killed off the unbelievers, generally by burning them alive.
This drastic treatment put a check upon thinking, and stopped the growth of the human mind for more than a thousand years.
Religion was booming from the fourth to the eighteenth century. It was a splendid business in fact, an ideal business. The priests were well paid, lived lives of luxury, and did not have to deliver the goods. The result was that the profession became overcrowded, and new means were invented to get more money out of the faithful. The invention of Purgatory and the sale of indulgences brought immense sums into the Church.
Historians tell us that between the fourth and eighteenth century more than a thousand millions of mankind lost their lives in Europe, Asia Minor, and Northern Africa on account of religion. This dreadful period of our history is now referred to as the Dark Ages.
Fortunately for man, the priests quarrelled among themselves, and this gave the human mind a chance to develop and get rid of some of the most bothersome superstitions. I have lately read an article on this subject which compares Christianity with the older religions of the world, and would have us believe that it is more worthy to endure, because it teaches loving kindness.
Nothing could be farther from the truth than this ridiculous statement. Christianity has been, without doubt, the worst and the wickedest in situation that ever afflicted a suffering world. It has destroyed vastly more lives, and caused in- finitely more human suffering, than all the other religions that the world has ever known.
While in Paris some years ago I had the honour of dining with one of the partners of Mr. Andrew Carnegie; Viva Kananda, the learned Hindu philosopher, was also one of the guests. A lady who was present asked him the question:
“What becomes of us after death? “
His reply was simple and to the point :
“Madam, I do not know; I have never been dead.”
She said to me that one would have supposed that so learned a man with such a reputation would have been able to answer this simple question. I told her that any little ecclesiastical fledgeling or Salvation Army captain would have been able to give her a definite reply at once, but had the learned Hindu done the same she might have turned on him and asked “How do you know ?”
I proclaim myself the Pope of my own religion. This is a material world in which we live. All the matter that goes to make up our bodies, like all other matter, is eternal ; it has always existed, and will always exist. Remove all matter from the universe and we should have only an infinitely cold and an infinitely dark vacuum. As far as the soul, the mind, or the spiritual part is concerned, this, like electricity, is only a condition of matter: it is not eternal in the same sense that matter is. It has been transmitted to us by our parents, and we, on our part, are able to transmit it to our children; so we live again in our descendants.
The unfortunates of the race who fail to pass their soul on to the next generation are for ever lost; with them death indeed ends all. They will not live again in the minds or souls of descendants, neither will they descend into a fire and brimstone hell, simply because this ingenious invention of the priests, which has enabled the priests to live off the stupidly pious, has no real existence.
Death did indeed end them all – he’s now under the Cherry Blossom tree, third from left, in West Norwood Cemetery.
Hiram also got involved in debunking the Edwardian equivalent of Derek Acorah. I’ll write about that, shortly!
The above article was originally posted in ‘What happens after death? A symposium by leading writers and thinkers’, published in 1916.