3 Surprising Reasons We Believe in the Afterlife and What They Tell Us About Ourselves
Why do we believe in the afterlife? On some level, you could argue that we inherit our views about life after death from our family and, in some cases, political and social authorities. But, the fact that nearly all of us, across time and space, believe in the afterlife supports the idea that our views are deeply rooted in our psychology.
In other words, while the specifics of our views regarding the afterlife may be impacted by the religion in which we are raised, the psychological needs that the afterlife solves are surprisingly consistent.
These were a few of the thoughts that I had after I sat down with Philip Almond for a video interview regarding the afterlife. Philip is a retired Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Queensland. He is also the author of several fascinating books including “Afterlife: A History of Life after Death,” “The Devil: a New Biography,” and “God: a New Biography.”
In today’s interview, Philip and I talk about the reasons that we believe in the afterlife. More importantly, we discuss how the reasons that we believe in life after death can illuminate our psychological and (in some cases) social needs,
Our Thoughts About Life After Death Are Linked to Our Desire for Continuity
Who are you? On a physical level, I could argue that you are nothing more than a pile of “stuff,” a collection of atoms organized in a specific configuration. On a mental level, I could say that you are your thoughts, desires and emotions. On a spiritual level, I might contend that you are a “piece of the divine.”
But, at the end of the day, it is your sense of continuity that most makes you… you. All of your physical attributes, mental capabilities, social relationships and spiritual ideas matter because they follow you through time. Without a temporal sense, consciousness would be impossible.
During our discussion, Philip points out that our very existence is tied to the continuity of our memories. And, because the continuity of our memories is so essential to our sense of self, we have trouble imagining any disruption to our continuity as thinking beings (i.e. dying.)
So, in one sense, our belief in the afterlife is linked to our desire to “go on,” to extend our consciousness into the future, even when our body fails us.
The Desire for Us to Reconnect with Those We Have Lost
Next, Philip points out that our sense of self is not just linked to our own place in the world; humans are deeply social creatures who value their relationships with others.
This means that our drive for continuity leads us to hope that we will one day be reconnected with those who we have lost. After all, they are an important part of the tapestry of our lives.
He goes on to say that our desire for continuity is so strong that, in modern times, we have even started to see reunion with our pets as a natural part of the afterlife.
In other words, we don’t just want to survive our death, we want to bring as much of our social context into the afterlife with us as possible.
Is the Afterlife a Destination? How Our Notion of Life After Death is Shifting Towards Continued Development
Not so long ago, most religious traditions portrayed the afterlife as a fairly static experience. It was seen more as a destination than a journey.
Philip makes the fascinating point that many contemporary religious practices now see the afterlife as a place where we continue to grow and learn. After all, growth is an essential part of who we are as modern people. So, it makes sense that our religious practices reflect this.
Importantly, this “growth” random or whimsical. Philip points out that, since the time of Immanuel Kant, our beliefs have shifted towards the afterlife as being a place where we continue to improve and perhaps even perfect ourselves… especially from an ethical perspective.
So, in a sense, you could argue that we believe in the afterlife, in part, because we want to continue to grow and learn. We don’t just want to live in the afterlife… we want to have a life in the afterlife.
Are We Just “Making it up as We Go Along?”
During our interview, I raise the point that it seems like, from a historical perspective, one could argue that we are making up our concept of the afterlife as we go. In other words, what we want and expect from the afterlife is linked to our psychological needs here on Earth. If this is true, perhaps we are guilty of caring more about what we *hope* heaven is like rather than what it is *actually* like.
Philip responds by pointing out that “Cultures fill in the gaps regarding the spiritual realm… There are intimate connections between what is happening in a social context and the way in which we continue to construct the afterlife.”
Of course, it is impossible to know what happens in the afterlife… or even if there is an afterlife. But, one thing is for sure; the way that we look at life here on Earth has a big impact on how we look at life after death. And, the search for immortality is the search for ourselves.
Why do you think so many of us believe in life after death? Do you believe in the afterlife? Let’s have a conversation!