I have long felt that the appeal of religion lies more with the promise of life after death, the idea that people will live on forever, than on having a belief in god. The idea that we will never be forgotten and that our lives matter and that one day be reunited with those we love is a much more appealing prospect than hanging out with a god whom one does not know. The appeal of a belief in god seems more like a fear-driven negative one, whose purpose is to stave off the chance of being in hell for eternity.
The results of a decades-long longitudinal study done in the UK tries to tease out the distinction between these two beliefs. The author of the study suggests that it might be helpful to break up religious beliefs in seven ways.
- Non-religious (28% of the 1970-born cohort): Does not have a religion or believe in either God or life after death.
- Unorthodox non-religious (21%): Does not have a religion or does not attend services. Believes in God or life after death but not both.
- Actively religious (15%): Has a religion and believes in God and life after death. Attends services.
- Non-practising religious (14%): Has a religion and believes in God and life after death. Does not attend services.
- Non-identifying believers (10%): Does not have a religion, but believes in God and life after death.
- Nominally religious (7%): Identifies with a religion. But believes in neither God nor life after death.
- Unorthodox religious (5%): Has a religion and attends services at least occasionally. Believes in God but not life after death (or, in a few cases, vice versa).
This seems like a useful classification scheme. I belong in the first category.
Looking at the above list, it seems like 40% do not believe in life after death (#1#, 6, #7), 39% do (#3, #4, #5), and 21% (#2) may or may not. That is more skepticism that I would have expected. Of course, the UK is less religious than the US and it would be interesting to see the results of a similar study done here.
This study also provides more evidence in support of what has long been known, that there is a gender gap when it comes to religious beliefs. In fact, they found a huge gap.
A new study of more than 9,000 British people in their forties, published today by UCL Institute of Education (IOE), shows that 60 per cent of the women but only 35 per cent of the men believe in life after death.
More than half (54%) of the men surveyed said they were atheists or agnostics, compared to only a third (34%) of the women.
The authors of the study refrain from speculating why there might be such a large gender gap but Deborah Orr suggests that they were wise to do so because any speculation without evidence in support is prone to wild generalizations based on gender stereotypes.
But this may be changing with the gender gap closing, especially among the young. Again, the reasons why are not clear.
I think belief in life after death is a more significant defining category than belief in god because it is so concrete. People can have all manner of ideas about god and it is easy to believe in some vague entity whose properties you can pick and choose. But belief in life after death is not only pretty specific, it is also more harmful. People can use it to justify inaction and avoid taking steps to improve the lot of people on Earth, promising them a better life in the next, thus encouraging resignation and apathy among the oppressed. A promise of heavenly rewards can also drive people to commit awful acts, risking or even sacrificing their own lives in the process, in the name of their god. Take that away and you might remove a major incentive for evil.