The Psychologies of Afterlife Beliefs

While some people are religious at least in part because they desperately want to believe in an afterlife that their religion promises them, not all religious people believe in an afterlife and not all those who believe in an afterlife are as blithely optimistic as the average contemporary American that of course they themselves will spend it in heaven. There are many people who not only adamantly persist in believing in fantastic, unsupportable, superstitious, supernaturalistic afterlife nonsense but actually do so despite having increased anxieties about death on account of precisely those beliefs. Not everyone believes the implausible because it makes them happier to do so.

And do you know what religion’s adherents have a particularly high anxiety about death and what the reasons for that anxiety are? Read Tom Rhees’s discussion of some research into this for some possible answers.

And then also check out some interesting research he summarizes that shows that believers in the afterlife are more prone to believe that things generally go fairly in this world. That is a really interesting conclusion which runs contrary to the view, espoused by many, that hopes for the afterlife are a form of psychological compensation for a sense that the present world is unjust. It is often thought that the afterlife is where people hope the general injustice of the world we live in will be finally rectified or where they hope that unjust burdens they endure in this life will finally pay off, etc.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • grumpyoldfart

    I’ve always thought that people believe in a controlling god for purely selfish reasons. Whenever they have to make an important life decision, they go through the process of prayer and pretend that their decision came from god.

    Later, if things go well, they can “give the glory to god” and enjoy the benefits of their wise choice. But if things go wrong they don’t have accept responsibility for their actions. “It’s all part of god’s plan,” they say, or “god has other plans for me,” or “it will all turn out for the greater good.” They never, have to admit to being wrong about anything, ever – because god told them what to do. They didn’t actually make the decision themselves.

    Any other details like eating or not eating shellfish, hating gays, handling snakes, or accepting stories of an afterlife; well they are just part of the baggage they must carry in order to use god as an excuse for their unwise (albeit prayerfully guided) decisions.

    The baggage is not important. What’s important is an ego-saving excuse when they do something foolish.

    • Daniel Fincke

      That’s some people’s psychologies, but not all. And it’s important that we not presume to know what’s the cause and what’s the effect. Do they believe those things because they believe in God or do they just believe in God because they want to believe those things? Either could be true.

  • michaelraymer

    That last bit about fairness really surprises me. My grandmother is a Catholic and a very strong believer, but she is quite liberal in that she rejects a lot of church doctrine. I used to think that would make it easier for her to see my point of view, but not really, since we tend to go around in circles on the topic of belief so I don’t press that issue very hard. But we have had some discussions about the afterlife since my grandfather died about a year ago. Obviously I’m not going to try to take solace away from someone still in the grieving process, so I was very silent about my views (though she was aware of them) for the first few months after the funeral. But when it would come up after that, I would often point out how logically inconsistent the various views on Heaven seemed to me, and how when I was a believer I honestly found the whole concept a bit frightening. Instead, looking at death as a return to the same state of non-existence that was present before I was born was a really liberating thought for me, and much less anxiety inducing than the notion that I was going to go to some magical place where all my dead relatives were waiting for me. In fact remember when I was 12 or 13, I thought that some of my passed relatives were always watching me from Heaven and found that concept rather disturbing. But anyway, on the subject of fairness, when my grandmother and I have these afterlife discussions, she always claims that she does not believe in any sort of purgatory, because “life here on Earth is punishment enough.” Clearly the implication there is that life is extraordinarily unfair and full of suffering, so the only chance at any sort of cosmic fairness is belief in an afterlife. I thought that was a very common view among most believers as well, so I’m surprised that it appears it’s not. I would imagine believing the world to be a generally fair place should cause a lot of cognitive dissonance, since there’s and endless supply of things contradicting that view. But it does sort of mesh with some of the views religious conservatives have about the poor: that it is their own fault for not working their way out of poverty, since many of them believe that almost everyone is capable of doing so. Many religious conservatives I’ve talked to seem to believe that the very wealthy are only so wealthy because they worked so much harder than the rest of us, and that anyone who tried that hard could get there too. I can see how such a worldview would lead to a greater perception of fairness in the world, at least from an economic standpoint. Maybe it branches out from there.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Yes, Michael, I’m wondering if this is all influenced by contemporary political conservatism and its naive treatment of capitalism as inherently a dispenser of justice. I wonder if there is only a correlation between these just world attitudes and afterlife beliefs on that account, rather than a causation from the afterlife beliefs to the just world attitudes or from a belief in God to both beliefs necessarily.

  • had3

    Believing the afterlife will bring justice allows one to be satisfied in the status quo. From an authoritarian perspective, that’s what you would want the majority of dissatisfied people to believe and accept if you were among the elite of that society.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Maybe. But not necessarily. As this study has it, people who believe in afterlife justice go so far as to believe this world is just too.

  • John Horstman

    This strikes me as heavily intertwined with support for authoritarianism. As for causation, I don’t think we have enough info to make any good generalizations, but let me make an observation and propose a couple of scenarios.

    Observation (based on my admittedly skewed, biased personal experience): Almost everyone who believes that a god or gods exist worship it/them, try to appease it/them, or believe god/s is/are on the believer’s side. Rarely do I encounter anyone who believes e.g. Yahweh is real, but fights tooth and nail to subvert his plans and undermine his grand design, as I would if I thought Yahweh was real. People who believe god(s) is/are real generally and overwhelmingly take god’s/gods’ mere existence/s as reason enough to submit to its/their authority/ies.

    1) People believe in god/s and worship it/them because they are already conditioned or predisposed to support authoritarian power structures. This same pro-authoritarian stance manifests as support for feudalism, corporatism, economic elitism/capitalism, a view that market economics (proclaimed as Best by The Authorities) is fair and just, etc.

    2) People believe in god/s and feel that, because of the god’s/gods’ great power, they are unable to resist divine authority. This belief conditions them to accept authoritarian power structures, even those to which they could mount a resistance. It’s a form of learned helplessness: belief in god(s) conditions the helplessness that is then manifested as an acceptance and even favorable view (‘fair’) of the status quo. The view that god(s) is/are fair and just influences the formation of a view that all authorities are fair/just by virtue of authority; I imagine this would help relieve cognitive dissonance in the cases of both god(s) and other authorities when they do terrible things that one has learned to be helpless to oppose.

    3) The causation runs in both directions; belief in god(s) and support of authoritarianism are mutually-reinforcing structures, and the interplay between them is far too complex to effectively tease out a starting point or initial cause. (The kinds of experiments that one could design to actually test the direction of causation are rightly banned under standards of ethical research practices involving humans.)

    #3 is essentially a combination of the first two, and I think any could be true or more-true for various people. Since the status quo is and, in most places and cultural traditions, has been for centuries more authoritarian than egalitarian, the above occur to me as good potential explanations for the observed correlation between belief in the afterlife and belief that the world is just. This also explains (would explain) the seeming contradiction of Authoritarian Individualism as well as it’s connection to support of theocracy and religious fundamentalism, which exists here in USA as the Christian Right.

  • seanw

    That is a remarkable claim. I’m somewhat suspicious of it because I’m not sure how you get “believing the world is just”, from what appear to be–from an American point of view–simply the platitudes of the political right.

    It’s possible that they’re trying to have their cake and eat too. The world must be mostly just to support my political beliefs, and mostly unjust to support my religious ones.

  • colinhutton

    Following your pointers to Tom Rees (and then his pointers to his sources) provides no confidence that any of the underlying ‘research’ is in any way meaningful or reliable.

    The stuff about anxiety and death was based on interviews of “nearly 5,000 people (mostly at Universities)” Even assuming the interviewers were unbiased, it is not valid to extrapolate from that sample to ‘religion’s adherents’.

    The “interesting research he summarizes” was done by the Spears Research Institute. A brief look at their weblog suggests it is a woo-ridden cesspool with links to the Templeton Foundation.

  • MissMarnie

    That is really interesting.

    A couple things come to mind.

    Firstly, one of the foundations of Christianity (to varying degrees) is that everyone is born sinful, that no one can obtain perfection and that one is always being judged. I had a really great boss, a few jobs back, who talked about end of year reviews. He said something to the effect that no review should be a surprise. A review is not a time to reveal problems. If there was a problem and the person doesn’t know it, then the boss is not doing his/her job correctly. Christianity is the antithesis of this idea. There is no feedback, no progress report, no way to know what your score will be. That’s a pretty intimidating prospect when you are talking about eternity. So while I’m not super keen on the idea of dying, it’s only the pure fear of dying that scares me, not the prospect of having failed to live up to expectations that I’m incapable of meeting and I’m not even sure I’ve interpreted correctly.

    The second thing that comes to mind is the idea of consciousness through and after death. If you don’t believe in a soul or identity that survives death then, at least on the most rational level, death can only be imagined in the same sort of way that one imagines life before one was born. It is neither scary nor reassuring it just isn’t, at least for you. I would compare it to the difference between imagining amputations before the days of anesthesia or after. In either case, amputation sounds pretty awful, but being awake and aware of the entire thing is another matter all together.

    In short, for those who believe there will be no afterlife, death is scary for the pure reason that most people want to be alive, but for a believer, death is just the start of some sort of unknown that may be infinitely awesome or infinitely terrible and there is just no way to know for sure, either way.

  • Kevin

    From the second article. They’re defining those who believe in a “just” world or not.

    In other words, people who believed in an afterlife were more likely to think that “Anything is possible if you work hard” and that “Everyone starts out with the same chances in life.” They were less likely to agree that “The world is controlled by a few powerful people” or that “Finance is a field where people get rich without making a real contribution to society.”

    I’m not sure that’s uncovering whether it’s a just world.

    Seems to me it’s uncovering more delusional thinking.

    Just sayin’.