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.