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Everyone Craves the Afterlife, Right?

We humans have a couple of misconceptions about souls and the afterlife. Many Christians are fond of citing a “universal yearning” or some such intellectual “gap” that all humans feel. Basically, they either directly claim or insinuate that everybody “senses” the reality of the afterlife.

This is yet another lie that has been told so much that it has become truth. I just finished a two day search of the university libraries, and I haven’t found a single shred of scientific evidence that “sensing the beyond” is an innate part of the human psyche. Oh, there are plenty of studies that acknowledge the existence of such a feeling in some people, but that’s it.

It’s a chicken and egg problem.  Damn near every human for the last several thousand years has been conditioned by their environment to acknowledge the belief in the afterlife.  And popular acceptance, as we all know, is a powerful influence on the human psyche.  (If everyone believes it, there must be something to it!)

However, in this age of readily available scientific information, we have to wonder:  If stress over the afterlife is such a big deal, why are so few people stressing over it?

Even in America, where religiosity is uniquely virulent among first world countries, there is a large section of the population that hems and haws uncomfortably when you ask them if they believe in a literal heaven and hell.  In centuries past, it wasn’t uncommon to read entire treatises on the “scholarly” research into the precise nature of hell and heaven.  Today, such speculation is reserved for the fundamentalists and television hucksters.  Most Christian books deal with how to live as a good Christian on earth.

From the outside looking in, it appears that people are very much disinclined to worry about the afterlife.  Oh, there’s a general consensus that you need to be in the correct religion so you will go somewhere nice after you die, but I notice that very few people gift a fourth of their entire estate to the church in exchange for a guarantee of a nice lakeside condo in heaven anymore.  (This was a pretty common practice in medieval Christendom.)

Christians will blame it on the secularization of the world.  People have lost focus.  They’ve lost interest because of the appeal of “living in the world.”  And By Golly, They’re Right! People are losing interest in the idea of sacrificing their comfort on earth for comfort in heaven.  There are hundreds of Christian seminars on how to get rich, for crying out loud.

But… then how can they say that out of one side of their mouth while the other side is declaring the universality of our desire for an afterlife?

To the science minded skeptic, it sure looks like the belief in an afterlife is a bandaid for bad times.  When things are going great, gee whiz!  People seem only mildly interested in the afterlife, but when things are going really horribly, it’s the hope people use to keep themselves going.   This is not a universal desire.  It’s an adaptive mechanism.

We should also take careful note of the number of people who insist on their own vague feelings.  “I just know that there’s something, but I’m not going to worry about it.  I’ll see what it is when I get there.”


Assuming there really is an afterlife, and it lasts… FOREVER… shouldn’t someone who really, genuinely, deeply, at the bottom of their human soul, believes in it… shouldn’t they care A LOT?

But that’s not what we see.  Again, the outside skeptic sees something different.  A lot of people just don’t buy “Big Religion” anymore.  They have some kind of a gut feeling that maybe there’s something “sacred” or “special” about life, but they’re honestly not very interested in it beyond socially acknowledging it.  There really aren’t any differences in the way they live their lives and the way nonbelievers like me live mine.

Therein lies what I believe to be the crucial piece of data.  The only time many people worry about the afterlife is when they’re talking to other people. They’re more interested in letting others know that they, too, have a “sneaking suspicion” there’s something greater.  They simply don’t spend any of their time devoted to taking comfort from the afterlife.  They just live their lives.

So yes.  I think this is also primarily a social acceptance mechanism.  Most everyone believes that most everyone believes in an afterlife.  So most everyone professes belief in an afterlife.  And to be fair, most of the people who have done this probably do believe.  But it’s not belief from innate human nature.  It’s belief from social conditioning.  And it’s not even very strong belief.

Related Posts:

The Soul:  A Simple Error

Myth, Sexuality, and Culture.  Part II.  The Influence of the Church

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6 thoughts on “Everyone Craves the Afterlife, Right?

  1. To the science minded skeptic, it sure looks like the belief in an afterlife is a bandaid for bad times. When things are going great, gee whiz! People seem only mildly interested in the afterlife, but when things are going really horribly, it’s the hope people use to keep themselves going. This is not a universal desire. It’s an adaptive mechanism.

    By golly, I do believe you just came up with a mechanism as to why egalitarianism causes non-faith.

    On a less snarky and more related note, I agree. So you might as well mark that on your calender.

    Religion is a emotional response and if you wanna replace it, you gotta replace it with something else that satisfies the emotion.

    Posted by Alison | December 9, 2009, 4:47 pm
  2. You and your directional bias.

    Perhaps, silly thinking primate, the correlation is indicative of more than one causal chain. Perhaps each can cause the other.

    On a less snarky note, I’m shocked that you are just noticing this. I’ve always said that religious belief is tied to ignorance and poverty. You don’t remember when we fought about the statistical observation that there’s a correlation between high education and atheism?

    I know you’re just generalizing, but I feel like I have to point out (since you’re so fond of all-or-nothing reasoning) that you don’t necessarily have to replace religion with something else that satisfies the emotional craving for hope in hopeless situations. Gee.. you could change the environment so that people aren’t in hopeless situations, and then they wouldn’t need the emotional fix.

    Haven’t you noticed that this is my central thesis?

    Posted by hambydammit | December 9, 2009, 4:55 pm
  3. What I’ve been trying to do Hamby, is to get the study of which is more a factor. That is why I legitemently get irritated when you say that the studies as to the effects of indivduals of Religion is irrelevant.

    I wish you would get the notion of me being an “all or nothing” kinda gal out of your head. I mean for FSM’s sake Hamby, I took physics, lots of phenomenom have mutliple factors. The point of the matter is to measure how much each factor contributes. The question is how much each contributes.

    This is why countries with high relgiousity and low, for example, murder rates is relevant. This is why indivdual studies on the effects of religion and tolerance are relevant. This is why taking into account other factors is relevant. It’s putting together a puzzle.

    The author of the study I citied explicitly said that it poses a challenge for the hypothesis that securlization promotes tolerance. I do think that is completly relevant.

    What I’ve been trying to squeeze out of you is data as to how much non-faith contributes to egalitarianism compared to how much egalitarianism contributes to non-faith. You seem to be fighting the whole process every step of the way.

    The reason I get irritated is because you don’t seem to want to do said research. If it’s done, you say it’s irrelevant.

    Why is this so hard to understand?

    Posted by Alison | December 9, 2009, 6:17 pm
  4. I have never said that Atran’s research is irrelevant. I have said that it does not address the broad claim being made by myself, by GFelis, Harris, etc. I think it’s damn interesting that secularization by itself doesn’t appear to promote tolerance. But hey, I never claimed that it does. I’m damn secularized, and I’m incredibly intolerant of religion.

    What I’ve been trying to squeeze into you is the idea that faith based rationality is not a specific cause-effect measurement because it doesn’t target any specific behavior. You’ve illuminated this point many times. Some religions believe this, and some believe that. We should expect that various behaviors would have wildly different patterns based on the specific claims of their religions.

    Indeed, in America, it would be impossible to find a single behavior and link it directly to “faith based belief.” That’s because every denomination has a different set of faith-inspired mandates about their prescribed behavior.

    Get it? Faith is a catalyst, not a cause. It exacerbates and gives free reign to bad behavior that would otherwise be unjustifiable. The exact nature of the bad behavior it gives permission for is highly subjective.

    Human nature is the cause of human atrocity and evil. Faith is a catalyst that ramps it up to new and otherwise unacceptable levels when compared to rational empiricism.

    Posted by hambydammit | December 9, 2009, 7:05 pm
  5. Great article, great blog.

    Posted by Emily | December 10, 2009, 2:17 pm
  6. I think it’s damn interesting that secularization by itself doesn’t appear to promote tolerance. But hey, I never claimed that it does.

    But you said religion promotes intolerance, but hey semantics right?

    This is what I’ve been trying to get at. You’re claims are too broad that you can simply re-define data that seemingly goes against them.

    Posted by Alison | December 10, 2009, 10:08 pm

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