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

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. 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 comes flooding back. Giving up that belief 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.

POST SCRIPT: Beautiful sand art

While the people who make sand art are obviously very skilled and patient people, what really amazes me is their willingness to spend so much time and effort something that gets destroyed soon after. You can see more exquisite sand art.



  1. Archimedes says

    To say that theism is based on the emotional need for an afterlife (or desire no to lose anyone/anything to death) is an incorrect stereotype. I have heard some theists claim that all atheists don’t believe in God because people become angry at God for some personal tragedy (e.g. death of a family member, diagnosis with a disease, etc…). I am sure that both you and Cindy would disagree with this statement, and I would respond by saying that I disagree with Cindy’s assertation on the same grounds.

    “Hardly anyone, except Pat Robertson, would claim that they have any kind of real relationship with god.”

    I’m not Pat Robertson, but I certainly disagree with that statement. One of the core tenets of Christianity is a real, personal relationship with a real, personal God.

  2. says


    But what does a real, personal relationship with god look like? With my real personal friends, I know what they like and dislike in a vast range of things, we share stories and jokes and memories, I know the sound of their voices, I can tell their moods, and so on. There are tons of things like that that a a real, personal relationship involves.

    But how many can say something simlar about their relationship with god?

  3. says

    Mano — For some time I’ve been curious about your experience with Buddhism, specifically Soto Zen Buddism and it’s approach to some of these big questions you write about. For example, in today’s post you touch on several areas where I feel that Zen Buddhism provides an approach for humans to handle the big questions, and not drive themselves crazy in the short-term.

    The idea that “I’ll never really lose anything or anyone” can be a powerful force. A Zen student will see this clearly and not let attachments become deep-rooted. A Zen student will focus on the fact that everything is non-permanent and therefore the importance should be on the present moment.

    A Zen student might see the phrase “life after death” as a non-productive word game. People have defined the word “life”, the word “death” and then the phrase “life after death”. We then allow ourselves to be caught in the resulting struggle to try and make sense of this phrase. A Zen student can see this as a word game and not let the mind get stuck dwelling on this phrase because there can be no productive answer.

    Your writings focus on two approaches to these big questions: the believer’s approach or the atheist’s. I think Buddhism can provide a middle way, that avoids the problem of having to adopt either the believer or non-believer position.


  4. says

    Alan, I transcribed the following from a talk given by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, and I think it sheds light on the Buddhist view of death:

    Meditation on Death

    The meditation on death is the meditation on life itself.

    When the cloud is about to be transformed into rain, it does not panic, like us. Knowing that being a cloud is a wonderful thing—the cloud is also aware of the fact that becoming green is another wonderful thing. So when the moment comes for the cloud to become green, it will sing happily at becoming drops of water falling on the vegetation, becoming part of the river, penetrating into the earth, and becoming a source of life for many other kinds of beings. It is a very beautiful adventure also. And then, sometime later on, it may resume the form of another cloud.

    No fear.

    One autumn morning I was contemplating one beautiful leaf that was about to fall down. The leaf was very beautiful. It had the red color, the yellow color…. I was standing there, in a meditative mood; I was looking at the leaf; I was questioning the leaf, and to see whether the leaf was afraid of falling down to the ground. I heard the leaf saying that it began to appear in the spring. It had been on the branch many, many months. Through spring and summer it had worked hard to nourish itself and the tree.

    It is now not like spring. It has done a lot of things in order to nourish the tree, and it could see itself in the tree. A leaf is something like a factory, fabricating a kind of sap, using sunshine, using gas; using water and mineral substance brought up by the roots—in order to manufacture that kind of sap that can nourish the tree.

    Somewhere I read this statement: It takes 30 good leaves to make a good apple. It concerned an apple tree. An apple, in order to be a good apple, would need the support of at least 30 good leaves. Every one of us would need at least 30 leaves in order to be a good apple!

    And so the leaf has worked hard in order to nourish the tree. And now it is about to fall down. “I am not afraid,” the leaf said. “I am in the tree; I am the tree; this is only a small part of me. I know that when I fall down, I continue to do my job. And when I decompose and become the soil, I continue to be with the tree. There is no fear.”

    And there—a little bit of wind—and the leaf left the branch, went to the ground…joyfully, like dancing.

    Thich Nhat Hanh
    Vietnamese Buddhist monk
    Nobel Peace Prize nominee

  5. says

    There are many elements in Buddhism that I find appealing, especially those that stress recognizing the impermanence of things and the need to focus on the here and now. I am not too familiar with the philosophy, though, even though I grew up in a Buddhist country, though it was not of the Zen variety.

    The idea in Zen that words can be a kind of prison, trapping us in a search for the meaning of the words and not recognizing that the ideas cannot be captured in words, is pretty powerful.

  6. Mary says

    I have contemplated the question of an afterlife quite often. Yet conversely for me, I have secretly wished that none exists, that when the physical body dies, the entity is extinguished, permanently stilled The idea of endless cycles of birth and death is horrifying to me.
    Unfortunately for me, the idea of no continuation in some form after death doesn’t make sense. The writings of eastern philosophies, like buddhism, and specifically Thich Nhat Hahn, have reflected my own inner knowing.

    Your phrasing in your postscript was a bit ironic Mano: “what really amazes me is their willingness to spend so much time and effort on something that gets destroyed soon after”
    … the same could be said about a life.

    I do hope that you turn out to be right Mano.

  7. says

    I agree that the concept of an afterlife is hard to let go of, both because of our connections with others and our dreams for ourselves.

    My dad slipped his mortal coil 17 years ago, and of course I still miss him. I also wonder what he would make of today. He was really getting into his Macintosh computer before he died. I imagine he would have really taken to the World Wide Web. He also liked to write, so I bet he’d have become a blogger. I sure do wish I could read that blog.

    As for my own mortality,
    when I was a kid I never wanted to go to bed early, because I was afraid I might miss something. I have the same attitude about death. There’s simply not enough time in one life to do and learn everything, and there is no way to know what cool things future generations might invent that I won’t get to see.

    I don’t want to miss out on that!

    When I no longer exist, neither will my awareness, so I won’t realize I’m missing out on things, but somehow that’s just not as reassuring as it should be.

  8. says


    Great comment.

    “When I no longer exist, neither will my awareness, so I won’t realize I’m missing out on things, but somehow that’s just not as reassuring as it should be.”

    I know you have thought long and hard about this and have a strong belief based upon your own logic, reason, rationalization and self-assessment that there is no afterlife but what if you are wrong and this is a sign that there is something more to life than this? Your belief that there is no afterlife is not based upon evidence after all but rather on a lack of evidence. You profess that your own logic and reason aren’t as reassuring as they should be in your words. Can we label this as doubt (doesn’t everyone have doubt about deep subjects like this)?

    I do believe in an afterlife and I do so based upon evidence. I believe that the strongest evidence is your own self. We all have that little voice inside of us that says there must be more than this. Even Darwin on his voyage on the Beagle recorded in his journal the following reflection about standing in the forests of South America, “No one can stand in these solitudes unmoved, and not feel there is more in man that the mere breath of his body.” So lets just say that the lack of “reassurance” that your logic and reason leave you with is the same feeling of doubt or whatever you want to call it that Darwin had and that Mano has is actually something else altogether.

    Perhaps the irony is that we all have the same feeling and the difference is that I interprete it one way and you interprete it another. Of course one of us is right and the other is wrong and we both feel we are sure of the others error?



  9. says


    I think the idea that the internal self-dialogue that thoughtful people like Heidi indulge is a sign of god speaking to them is something that religious people like to believe in and nothing will persuade them to the contrary. It seems a strange idea to me, that god would choose these highly vague means that are guaranteed to cause confusion in order to convey his ideas.

    Darwin’s comment on the Beagle reflects a time in his early life, in his twenties, when he was still a believer. His research into life soon after persuaded him that the wonderful diversity of life he observed came about quite naturally due to natural selection.

    He later said that “there is a grandeur in this view of life” but “this view” that he was referring to was the idea of evolution by natural selection.

  10. says


    “I think the idea that the internal self-dialogue that thoughtful people like Heidi indulge is a sign of god speaking to them is something that religious people like to believe in and nothing will persuade them to the contrary.”

    I would say the exact same thing about you. You are convinced (by your reason and logic) that this internal dialogue is merely a human manufactured feeling and there is nothing I can say that will make you change your mind.

    “It seems a strange idea to me, that god would choose these highly vague means that are guaranteed to cause confusion in order to convey his ideas.”

    God revealing himself in such a highly personal way is not stange to me but an act of compassion. You don’t have to look for God, he looks for you. The evidence is there you just have to want to see it. Pastuer said, “in the field of observation chance favors a prepared mind”. If you are closed to the idea from the start then it is useless. Again, man has fallen and his pride often gets in the way on this. I don’t need a god because I am all there is. Man can reject God’s calling on his soul (Christians call it free will).

    It is just so darned funny how 2 people who are intelligent (well, I’m not so sure about me) can experience a similar thing and interprete it so differently. Again though the argument you and I and others have is of minimal consequence to you-just and interesting thought exercise. From my perspective though there are eternal consequences. I’d love to see what you have to say about that someday in one of your threads.


  11. says

    A few comments:

    First, absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. Simply because we have no evidence for something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

    Second, having a second explanation for something doesn’t negate the first explanation. For example, the wave theory of light doesn’t negate the particle theory of light. See spiritualmaterial.blogspot.com for how this applies specifically to scientific atheism.

    Third, Nietzsche posits that, given that all of us and everything around us are physically nothing more than a collection of atoms arranged in a certain way, and then that the universe is infinite in both space and time, it is a certainty that this collection of atoms which is us and our environment will fall into this atomic arrangement again and again. So, says Nietzsche-- without resorting to any religion, from a purely scientific reductionist viewpoint--, we will live this life again and again. Relying only on physics, then, he can say there is eternal recurrence. Given this infinite time and space, atoms will even coalesce into a scenario whereby the father will live to see his grandchildren. In the infinite past, they probably already have.

    Fourth, much like Nietzsche’s notion of eternal recurrence, Buddhism examines lives in the context of such infinities, but adds to it the notion of a soul or spirit which inhabits the body. Sogyal Rimpoche states that we often come together with other members of a previous family, citing a comical instance in which a mother was about to fry up a fish which, in a previous life, was the family’s grandfather. Bracket that if you will, the point is that the Buddhist belief holds that we meet again in afterlives with friends and family members, but do not necessarily experience joy in such meetings. So, Mano, your explanation above for the belief in God (so that we will meet our loved ones again) doesn’t apply to Buddhists, a major religion and a considerable portion of humanity.

  12. Gregory Szorc says

    I’m responding to the comment left today and is listed in my RSS feed, but isn’t in the comment list… weird.

    Anyway, regarding the specific point in the comment:

    “Nietzsche posits that, given that all of us and everything around us are physically nothing more than a collection of atoms arranged in a certain way, and then that the universe is infinite in both space and time, it is a certainty that this collection of atoms which is us and our environment will fall into this atomic arrangement again and again. So, says Nietzsche-- without resorting to any religion, from a purely scientific reductionist viewpoint--, we will live this life again and again. Relying only on physics, then, he can say there is eternal recurrence. Given this infinite time and space, atoms will even coalesce into a scenario whereby the father will live to see his grandchildren. In the infinite past, they probably already have.”

    I find this at odds with the mathematics concept of “random walks” (also known as “drunkard’s walk”). It has been proven mathematically that if you take steps in “random” directions in dimensions greater than or equal to three, there is no guarantee that you will return to the original starting point, even given infinite time.

    This is true for only one atom. If what Nietzsche said is true, then about 1x10^27 atoms (give or take a few thousand thousand trillion) would have to engage in random walks and return back to the starting point at the same point in time. The probability of this zero.

  13. says

    The theory of random (or drunken) walks doesn’t seem applicable for at least three reasons.

    The movement of atoms is not random. The are subject to several forces. E.g., lakes and rivers come about not through purely random movement of atoms, but because hydrogen and oxygen have mutually agreeable atomic valences and the molecule of water they form has properties quite the same as other molecules of water… which is why we often find many water molecules together in one place as in an ocean, lake, or river. In short, the movement of atoms is not random and so we can’t apply a mathematical theory to them which is based on randomness.

    The theory of random walk is not apt also because, Nietzsche’s atoms don’t need to return their original location, but only to a common location. Given that the universe is infinite, there are infinite locations in which they might coalesce to form the same humans in the same environment.

    A third reason the theory of random walks doesn’t apply is that each of the atoms don’t actually need to be the selfsame atoms. One carbon atom is as good as another. One oxygen atom serves as well as another. I’m not a different person when one hydrogen atom of my body is replaced by a different hydrogen atom. Would I be a different person if all the atoms currently comprising my body were replaced by others of the same kind? In short, it’s not required that we follow the trail of one atom through the universe. Again the theory doesn’t apply.

  14. says


    I am not sure where this point is leading unless there is an actual calculation of the time taken for the atoms to recombine. I have no problem accepting, in principle, that there is an infinitesimally small probability of all the atoms that make up a person coming together again. But what if it would take a trillion years or more? That does not seem like what most people consider to be re-incarnation.

    Also, the same argument can be used to argue for physical resurrection of anyone or that a mixture of water and ink will spontaneously separate into distinct liquids.

    There are all manner of things are in principle possible based on atomic theory but have infinitesimally small probabilities of occurring and correspondingly enormously long expectation times.

    In fact, according to this argument, there is not a single thing that is not possible, provided it conforms to some general laws of nature. I am not sure where that gets us in practice.

  15. says


    It’s not terrible to open horizons of possibility. I find it preferable to abandoning scientific and philosophical rigor in order to maintain an opinion which might be tenable only at cost of ignoring plausible possibilities.

    I say “plausible” here because the known universe is a big place, eternity a long time, and so our view from this relatively infinitesimally small speck of dust for a relatively infinitesimal duration and this further filtered by physical reductionism might be less than complete. What we from our quite limited view see as “remote” may indeed be plausible. And what is the harm in accepting that “there is not a single thing that is not possible, provided it conforms to… laws of nature”? (Phenomenology would have a ready reply to that question, but probably not one which would be universally welcome. And that’s a separate thread anyway.)

    On the other hand, I couldn’t assert that Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence scenario is “probable” or “improbable” or express any other likelihood because I haven’t done the calculations to make any such determination, haven’t heard of anyone who has, and don’t even know if such a determination would be possible. E.g., is it even known how many hydrogen, oxygen, and other atoms exist in this universe (say, on average, since these are being created and destroyed from one moment to the next)? So I’d think that the best we could say at this time is that eternal recurrence is plausible.

    And, true, this isn’t the sort of scenario which most people take for reincarnation. But since when do scientists or philosophers assess a notion’s validity based on the general population’s opinion of it?

  16. says


    There are a lot of things that are possible in principle but have little meaning in practice. The expected lifetime for something to occur goes roughly as the inverse of the probability of the likelihood of it occurring. So a small probability means a large time. Since the chances of all the molecules coming together again to recreate someone is so infinetisimally small, the time taken to be “resurrected” will likely be longer than the time taken for the heat death of the universe to have occurred, after all the nuclear reactions are spent.

    So there may not be sufficient energy to recreate the body again because chemical reactions need energy to drive them and may not be available.

    People can still believe in it and if they gain comfort from it, good for them. But to me it is not different from getting comfort from believing in god simply because we cannot disprove its existence.

  17. says

    I just stumbled upon this during an unrelated search and realized I’d not previously followed the complete thread.

    Although I am not reassured by the idea that I will someday cease to exist, that doesn’t make me doubt. The fact that I might wish for something more doesn’t make it possible anymore than my childhood wishes that I could have magic powers like Samantha on Bewitched, or that I could stop time if wasn’t finished playing or sleeping.

    Last night I listened to an episode of the Infidel Guy podcast featuring an interview with Dr. Julian Baggini in which he addressed the “absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence” argument. As he explained it, that argument depends on the context.

    If you live in a house in which no one ever eats mustard and you’ve never noticed any in the refrigerator or cupboards, then you have an absence of evidence for mustard in the house. And you are right, this doesn’t provide evidence that there is no mustard. But if you search the cabinets, the refrigerator and everywhere else, still finding no mustard, then it is reasonable to assume that there is no mustard.

    The same goes for the invisible pink Wallaby doing jumping jacks on my desk. I can’t see him because he is invisible, but neither can I see traces of his actions on my desk or elsewhere. Given this lack of evidence, I am perfectly content to assume there is no Wallaby on my desk, as that is the most likely case. When given two possible scenarios, abductive reasoning should lead us to choose the most plausible of the two.

  18. says

    I personally dont see how anyone can be called a father when he is no closer than a stranger.I have seen the detrimental effect that fundamental views have had on relationships,communication and society as a whole.

    We are taught to live by a moral code which is imposed upon us and told that if we deviate from it we will burn in eternal suffering,remember god watches and knows your every movement and even your thoughts,mind rape if you ask me.There is no opportunity to develop your own moral code and to live by it because you want to,not out of fear.To my mind I know that there there is an afterlife (a little ayahuasca will teach you this)but I certainly will not be concerned about where I am going because ultimately we will all be going to the same place and it isnt heaven or hell.

  19. says

    Mano, I don’t know if you’re still actively monitoring this thread, but your original point has much merit.

    Organized religion has essentially based its pitch to the masses on the promise of eternal salvation. Down here in the Southern U.S., this “deal” is really quite explicit. Imagine, for a moment, that there were no promises whatsoever about going to heaven if you’re a good boy or girl. What do you suppose would happen to church attendance and tax-deductible contributions then?

    That aside, I am astonished that this thread has proceeded with barely any mention of the word “soul.” We really need to decide (I say decide because we’re not going to be able to “know” in the empirically verifiable sense) exactly what we are in the first place. The discussion above about Nietzsche is all well and good, but it is, of course a materialistic discussion about what happens to physical matter in space and time. What if we aren’t primarily physical? What if the self-aware and self-obsessed ego is merely the conscious tip of a much larger, subconscious iceberg?

    The Buddhist poems given above are beautiful, but one of the problems here is the rather crude analogy between a cloud or a leaf and a human soul. Are they at all comparable? Is a leaf consciously aware to the extent that we are? Perhaps, but I seriously doubt it, and I therefore reject the analogy.

    Of course, this would all be so much easier if we could actually remember where we had been before. Meditation or self-hypnosis sessions aimed at past-life regression might be worth a try but are surely too unscientific to satisfy this readership.

    Mano, I don’t like the idea of being extinguished any more than you do. But I actually find that prospect easier to countenance than the thought of being reincarnated as another person. Why? Because I don’t want to be another person; I want to be me! But, pace the statistical possibility of perfect atomic reconfiguration at some point in time, that isn’t going to happen.

    I prefer to believe that, for reasons I am in the process of discovering, I -- in the larger, non-egotistical sense -- chose to be in this place and time, with a given set of potential physical outcomes, to complete a necessary phase in my overall development or growth -- to have experiences, to learn lessons, to feel emotions. Some part of me knows the bigger picture.

    Yes, I know, I am placing faith in a more expansive concept of the self instead of in an omnipotent, omniscient deity. But I feel more comfortable claiming to converse with deeper levels of myself than claiming to have a personal relationship with “God.”

  20. says


    Nice comment. I have come to terms with the fact that when I die, that’s it. Once you get used to that idea, the prospect of death has no terrors, merely regret that one cannot experience more of life.

  21. says

    An interesting thread. I am big on how so I would suggest learning a self hypnosis or meditation practice to quiet the mind first. To go on an inward journey to find out where it takes us.

  22. says

    Ever since I was an evangelical teenager -- and I’m now 63 -- I’ve thought that there was nothing to fear in death except the possible pain of dying. If there’s an afterlife we have something to look forward to and if there is none we won’t know.

  23. says

    Beautifully written, for a topic so intangible and abstract. I used to think that God and the afterlife as one package; but you have made very clear the distinction and I have learned more from this post than what I understand previously. Thank you

  24. says

    Wow so true that the emotional subconscious connections people have with loved ones are kept strong with the link of God and an afterlife. How is that for neuro linguistic programming, seems as though the church has hit the nail on the head with simple hypnosis principles.

    Sorry I sound like a nerd but this is a real light bulb moment for me.

  25. mnb0 says

    “my emotional aversion to non-existence”
    While I recognize that this is true for many people I have never understood this. Even as a teenager I realized that I never have existed before my father and my mother fulfilled the necessary condition. I did not suffer before that event. That spans a time of at least 6 000 years, if I accept the YEC-views for the moment. Why then aversion after my death? I won’t be there anyway. This aversion belongs to here and now.
    What’s more, the closest analogies I can think of ánd have experienced myself are being asleep and being unconscious. Especially the first is not frightening at all and from the second I have not been left with emotional and/or physical scars either.
    So I have come to the conclusion that this aversion is mainly a product of at least 2 000 years religious indoctrination of Western society. Most people just take this for granted.
    Aversion of non-existence is only a remnant of the small child’s fear of falling asleep.

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