You don’t need religion to believe in life after death

This one may be a bit tough to wrap your head around. Not sure what people actually do believe or if they are really thinking about what they are saying.

More people may believe in life after death than God, study finds

More people may believe in an afterlife than believe in God, according to a nation-wide survey of Britons born in 1970.

Almost half – 49 per cent – of those surveyed earlier this year by the Institute of Education, University of London believe that there is ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ life after death. Only 31 per cent have said that they believe in God, either without doubts (13 per cent) or with some doubts (18 per cent).

Researchers at the IOE’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies are canvassing more than 9,000 members of the 1970 British Cohort Study. The study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, is following a group of people born in England, Scotland and Wales in spring 1970. It collects detailed information on many aspects of people’s lives including health, wellbeing, and financial circumstances. The latest survey, at age 42, is being carried out between May and December.

While members of the 1970 cohort have been asked about religion at earlier points in their lives, the current survey is the first to make the important distinction between religious upbringing, affiliation, practice and belief.

This is a great way to study changing beliefs. This same group were followed over their lifetime. Very interesting. So while this study shows that many in this population are not religious or do not regularly participate in religious activities, they still hold some (presumably unreligious) beliefs in an afterlife.

Since the religion is a huge source of supernatural beliefs in life after death, where might they be getting these ideas from?

The researcher notes, “it is argued, exposure to ideas but not to the arguments for and against them might lead to unconventional beliefs.” In other words, exposure through popular media.We are deluged with popular culture products that encourage belief or at least exposure to ghosts and hauntings, spirit communication and reincarnation/past lives. “Previous research has found that among young adults in Britain, belief in life after death is more than twice as prevalent as belief in God. At the same time, an appreciable number of old people believe the opposite.”

It’s not clear that this is actually the case but it does make sense. As is religion, film, literature and other pop culture items are part of our shaping experience. If people do not subscribe to a religion because they were not brought up that way, they may find spiritual comfort in other secular but still supernatural beliefs that provide a similar need.

  6 comments for “You don’t need religion to believe in life after death

  1. Mr. Shreck
    December 5, 2012 at 3:20 PM

    I tend to think both religion and the supernatural media programming are best viewed as positive reinforcement feedback loops rather than first causes of anything.

    I know a number of atheists who are convinced of the reality of ghosts. It used to baffle me that there was such an apparent double standard to their skepticism, but I came to view both beliefs arising independently (though often strongly related, certainly) in the same human tendency to irrationality.

    It is tempting in a cultural/political view to see religion as an independently existing thing that is used to “brainwash” people into irrationality that they wouldn’t otherwise be disposed to. I think it is better to view it as an attempt to organize and legitimize the irrational thoughts that were already there. As science, atheism and skepticism have gone mainstream, and as the world has “shrunk” and more people interact with other people with different and incompatible religious convictions, it is easier for people to jettison the belief in specific religion first, belief in a god in general second, and life after death and ghostly phenomena (both of which have long histories of anecdotal “evidence” as well as psychological appeal for the way they salve the fear of mortality) third.

    • Massachusetts
      December 6, 2012 at 12:51 AM

      Not only thoughts are in question, but actual sensory experiences, or at least what our brains interpret in that way. Such experiences may be very common among sane and functional people in extreme survival scenarios (the third man effect) , grief and mourning scenarios, sensory deprivation scenarios and episodes of sleep paralysis. Many people who have these experiences may very well interpret them as evidence for an after life or supernatural realm, and their social relations may trust their accounts and interpretations, hence the belief spreads.

  2. December 5, 2012 at 3:32 PM

    I think that the belief that there is something after death can be comforting, regardless of religious belief, especially as we grow older and begin to outlive friends and family. That doesn’t seem unusual to me. I personally believe in entropy. That’s how I explain why I DON’T believe in anything significant after death, other than decay. Entropy (and the breaking down of our minds and bodies) is a lot more obvious to me than life after death. I see it in my elderly mother, and in my own self. I cannot fathom how anyone cannot get older and see others get older, and logically conclude that anything can survive entropy.

    • AmSci
      December 6, 2012 at 3:10 AM

      All the evidence suggest that our “self” is entirely physiological. So, it is reasonable to conclude that death is the end of this “self.” It is not even meaningful to suggest an afterlife– what would be experiencing the afterlife?

      But, I cannot see what entropy has to do with it. I don’t think senescence is required by entropy, so long as there is a continued input of usable energy.

      • Mr. Shreck
        December 6, 2012 at 7:48 AM

        Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, it might be hard to sell that evidence to anyone who already believes otherwise.

        The evidence that the self is physiological rests on the materialist assumption. That same evidence is interpreted differently by a non-materialist. To someone who believes in mind-matter duality, it is not inconsistent that senescence of the brain would just disassociate the mind/spirit/soul whatever from it.

        Of course, there is also evidence that disposition to a materialist or non-materialist worldview is itself biologically determined, which reinforces the intractability of the problem of convincing anyone who thinks one way to think another.

        For myself, the older and more tired of the debate I get, the more I find myself ironically praying there is no afterlife.

        • AmSci
          December 6, 2012 at 6:19 PM

          You are correct. I cannot disprove those “not even wrong” assertions. But, open minded people are usually happy to listen to the naturalistic explanations.

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