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Jan 14 2010

Why it is so hard to give up belief in the afterlife

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.

Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2010.)

It is interesting how one’s views can be changed by a comment. Such was the case with Cindy’s comment on my post regarding the absence of proof of an afterlife. Cindy said:

I tend to think that lack of belief in the afterlife is more fundamental to atheism than lack of belief in a God. I think I would have become an atheist a lot sooner if it weren’t for my emotional aversion to non-existence (which has really gone away after a years of thinking about it). Also, while a lot of people think it’s fun to talk about arguments for an against the existence of gods regardless of their beliefs, I’ve seen reasonable people reduced to tears with just a few good points raised about the lack of an afterlife. It seems like theism of any kind is based on two strong emotional ideas: 1) I’ll never really lose anything or anyone 2) The world is inevitably fair. And if they can’t have 2, they’ll still cling to 1.

I think Cindy is really on to something. Clearly people want to believe in the existence of a god and the after life, despite the lack of evidence for either. Although the two beliefs are linked, I used to think that wanting to believe in god was the primary impulse and that belief in an afterlife was something that came along with a belief in god, a fringe benefit if you like.

But Cindy’s suggestion is that the reverse is true, that what people really want to believe in is the afterlife, and that belief in god is merely a mechanism that enables that belief.

That makes a lot of sense. After all, god is an abstraction. Although you can find people who claim that god really speaks to them, hardly anyone, except Pat Robertson, would claim that they have any kind of real relationship with god. Imagine meeting god. You really would not have much to say and it could be quite awkward, like encountering a stranger at a party. After a little small talk (“Hi, god, nice place you got here. So, . . . read any good books recently?”), you start wishing you could get away to the buffet table.

But that is not the case with people whom we like who have died. It would be like meeting a close friend after many years. We can’t wait to find out what they have been up to and getting them up to speed on out own lives. We can imagine ourselves talking to them for hours and days.

All of us have had people and pets whom we have loved and who have died. We have fond memories of them and the desire to continue that relationship is very strong. A recent study reported by Elizabeth Cooney in the Boston Globe of February 21, 2007 says that:

Contrary to traditional notions of grief after the death of a loved one, a new study finds that yearning is felt more powerfully than depression. . . . “Yearning is reacting to the loss of someone or something, and once that is gone, you miss it, you pine for it, you hunger for it, you crave it. That was the primary emotional experience after bereavement, rather than depression,” Holly G. Prigerson, one of the authors, said in an interview. . . . “People never get over a loss, they just get used to it,” Prigerson said. “Even years after someone dies, they get pangs of grief, they need to think about the person, and they miss them with heartache,” she said.

What people find most difficult to deal with in the death of a close loved one is missing the companionship that person provided. It is natural to want to believe in something, such as the afterlife, that promises that that link may someday be renewed.

In my own case, now that I think about it following Cindy’s comment, giving up believing in god was not that hard. But my father died nearly thirty years ago, before my own children were born. My greatest regret is that he would not see them growing up because I know how much he would have enjoyed knowing them and playing with them and how much they in turn would have enjoyed his company. The idea of meeting him again was much more appealing to me than the thought of seeing god. Believing that he was somewhere ‘up there’ looking down on my children was comforting. Even as I write these words, memories of him and the sadness associated with missing him come flooding back, just as they do when I think of the more recent death of my mother. Giving up the belief that they were still somehow around was much harder than giving up belief in a god about whom I really knew nothing and with whom I had had no prior relationship or shared memories.

So it makes sense that belief in an afterlife is more important to people than belief in god and that maybe people desperately want to believe in god because it enables them to believe in an afterlife.

12 comments

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  1. 1
    Anonymous

    good to know we’re here to be gone forever and we have no purpose.

  2. 2
    Anonymous

    @ 7:47.

    I hope you meant that with sarcasm. Its not about what makes you feel good on the inside, its about reality. Yes, we are gone forever, yes, we have no purpose.

    Get over yourself. You, me and any other human in the world is so absurdly unimportant to the universe that if humanity dissappeared overnight no one or thing would miss us.

  3. 3
    James

    I don’t know about non-existence nor no purpose. I am the focal point of existence, past and future, the laser beam edge of present, and my purpose is to follow my interests and passions to success and achievement in order to give my unique gift to the world.

  4. 4
    Bill

    Hi Mano – I have just discovered your site and I thank you for such useful comment. Thanks also for repeating these posts that I have missed. I didn’t see the comments that went with them originally, but I have two questions for you, relating to this post and the previous one. Firstly, relating to your questions about what proof Christians would require to change their minds, what proof was instrumental in your on conversion to rationalism? For myself, though raised Christian, it was always a struggle to even pretend to believe, even from a very early age. I could not, reasonably, even at very early ages, truly believe in god despite all the brainwashing I was subject to.

    Secondly,relating to this post, it is not really a question, but an observation that it is bleedingly obvious that most religion is about fear of death. God describes many unknown things (eg. the creation of the Universe, why are we here), but in the end is really about providing assurance that death is not the actual end. Even I, as a lifelong and ‘devout’ atheist can not accept the thought of death since the uniqueness that is me will end forever. It is very easy to see therefore that many people, face with this reality, turn to superstition as comfort.

  5. 5
    Anonymous

    ide suggest youtubing or googling Chuck Smith or Chuck Misler, or Ken Ham.

  6. 6
    Anonymous

    I’d suggest deleting this idiot’s spam comments. I am not familiar with Chuck Smith or Chuck Misler, but Ken Ham stands out to me as a very obvious example of a self-deluded moron, so I would assume given the context, that they are similarly delusional.

  7. 7
    morgan

    I liked reading your post. I can identify with the fear of giving up belief in the afterlife. And I have no intention of googling these three (?) people mentioned a gazillion times by the person above!

  8. 8
    Mano

    Bill,

    I discussed my personal journey to atheism in a couple of posts here and here. It is not a very dramatic story, just a quiet realization that assuming the existence of god created far more problems than it solved.

  9. 9
    Mano

    In response to the first three comments, I would say that the universe has no meaning or purpose for us but that we, both individually and collectively, can give our lives meaning and purpose.

  10. 10
    jasa pembuatan karikatur

    life in the world is only temporary, the eternal afterlife

  11. 11
    Truth

    So you based on your feeling to decide whether God exist or otherwise? If that is the case, you’re clearly missing the whole picture.

    It matters not what you feel. What matters is the truth. What matters is having the evidences indicating the existence or nonexistence of God..

    No offense to Atheist, but you guys keep repeating the same thing. Lack of evidence. Are you people delusional. There are tons of evidence and you guys clearly ignored it.

    The human anatomy is too complicated to happen by chance. The theory of big bang alone should be more than enough of convincing.

    You know what I think, atheist are people who are enlightened to reject their false god, but cowards who does not wish to know the truth either. Just because it’s convenient for them.

    My advice, try learn about what other religions has to say about God. You will know that He did provide you with evidences you seek.

    But here’s my prediction. You’ll stay an atheist by claiming the evidence is not substantial, when the fact is, it exceeded far beyond what you or anyone else for that matter, seek to find. Because the only evidence you rejects will accept is having God appear in front of you and personally prove it to you himself.

    And so, here is my last advice. just because you can’t see something, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Have you ever thought of your limitations. A man’s limitation i.e our eyes cannot see 4 dimensional for example.

    You know the whistle made for dog. The one you can’t hear a thing from, yet a dog can hear it just fine? Yeah, something like that.

    But what the hell, you won’t listen anyway. I’m not even sure why I’m trying.

    Sorry if I’m being rude in anyway. I figured someone has to speak up.

  12. 12
    Mano

    Truth,

    You seem to be making two contradictory points:

    1. That there is a huge amount of evidence for god that we atheists are ignoring. The human body and the big bang are given as examples.

    2. The evidence for god is hidden from us, like the dog whistle or 4D space, which is why we don’t see it.

    But either the evidence is tangible and discernible or it isn’t. Which is it?

    If your point 1 is correct, don’t you think it is a little strange that this kind of evidence for god is based on ignorance (“We don’t know how this came about so it must be god”)?

    For your point 2 is correct, why is god hiding the evidence? What’s the point?

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