Is belief in life after death more important than belief in god?

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.

  1. Non-religious (28% of the 1970-born cohort): Does not have a religion or believe in either God or life after death.
  2. Unorthodox non-religious (21%): Does not have a religion or does not attend services. Believes in God or life after death but not both.
  3. Actively religious (15%): Has a religion and believes in God and life after death. Attends services.
  4. Non-practising religious (14%): Has a religion and believes in God and life after death. Does not attend services.
  5. Non-identifying believers (10%): Does not have a religion, but believes in God and life after death.
  6. Nominally religious (7%): Identifies with a religion. But believes in neither God nor life after death.
  7. 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.


  1. lanir says

    I’m trying to remember now if I gave those up at the same time. I don’t think I did. Pretty sure I decided the specific god stories I was being told made no sense first and then worked my way around to the generalized life after death idea. The god stories were more invasive and antagonistic for me than the concept of life after death so I had to deal with them first.

  2. Chiroptera says

    When I became an atheist, the most disturbing thing for me wasn’t coming to grips with the cessation of my existence after death; I was far, far more unhappy with the thought that good people may very well live most of their lives in misery without relief and that evil people may very well live satisfied lives and die peaceably in their sleep. By no longer believing in a divine judge, I had to accept that there was no guarantee of fairness or justice.

    I wonder what the polls would show if there were a similar question asking respondents about their beliefs in some sort of Cosmic Principle of Justice, or whatever the appropriate terminology would be?

  3. Kermit Terrell says

    Your assumption that life after death is good is a product of our culture but is no more justified than the belief in a good god. Without evidence we are merely speculating. For another possible afterlife see science fiction writer Peter Hamilton’s The Night’s Dawn series. There are ways of living that could be hell.

  4. moarscienceplz says

    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.

    True, people can, but I don’t think many people think this way. I’m pretty sure nearly all the self-identified Tea Party people think they are going to Heaven for eternity, yet they get worked up into a real lather if you suggest they pay a few dollars more in taxes to help disadvantaged people. On a timeline measured in thousands or millions of years (however long they think eternity is) you would think giving up a few dollars for the few decades of earthy life they have left would have hardly any effect on them at all, but oh no! They will scream and carry badly-spelled placards for hours and days on end to prevent such an outcome.

  5. doublereed says

    Unlike belief in God which is generally unfalsifiable, belief in the afterlife is falsifiable. People assume that it isn’t, and you just have to find out after you die, which is incorrect. Brain damage is evidence against the afterlife.

    When you consider all the things that you lose as a property of brain damage, you start to get a better understanding of what an afterlife is missing because you don’t have a brain. Things like memory (long-term, short-term, whatever), the ability to recognize faces and voices, sensory capabilities, impulse control, cognitive function, motor control, etc. etc. All these we know can be impaired with brain damage. So losing the brain means that we lose these things.

    The main argument against this is some sort of reconstitution idea. That we will regain some of these abilities when we die in some way. But what state would you be reconstituted in? What if you actually suffered brain damage, and later in your life you died? Would you be reconstituted with brain damage? What age, what brain state, what body image? The whole idea becomes far more cartoonish in this sense, but that’s obviously how it would have to work.

  6. anat says

    This is interesting for someone raised Jewish (mostly secular, but with some undercurrent that religious Jews are somehow more authentic, as long as they are not overly religious). I knew that early Jews did not believe in life after death. It was one of the areas of difference between Sadducees and Pharisees. (The Pharisees, being from a lower social class had more reason to want an afterlife. With the loss of the temple the Sadducees became irrelevant. the longing for better times gave people more reason to want an afterlife.) The midrash retcons afterlife belief onto biblical characters, but there is no reason to think the authors of said biblical stories believed in that kind of afterlife. OK, there was a belief in sh’eol, but that’s more of a place of shadowy barely-existence.

  7. Mano Singham says


    I agree that if you really think about it, the idea of an afterlife creates so many problems that the whole thing just becomes impossible. But most people really don’t seem to think it through. I know that I didn’t until I became an unbeliever.

  8. doublereed says

    I know I didn’t think about it until I was already an atheist for a long time. It just seems to me that it’s an argument that I almost never hear, even as an atheist. It’s common knowledge that we’ll “find out at the end” or something, even among unbelievers. I usually hear arguments how the afterlife is wishful thinking or that it’s based in fear, which doesn’t deal with its truth value directly.

    The brain damage argument also makes the afterlife feel much more alien and disturbing rather than pleasant and nice. And it does this through very simple, clear ideas. Trying to imagine a life of bliss but unable to recognize or remember my family and friends is jarring and even terrifying. People don’t want that afterlife.

    It’s a very strong argument, because it targets what people often want from religion and makes it something they don’t want anymore.

  9. says

    I heard the brain is just a radio. Damaging the radio doesn’t affect the signal which remains unchanged. Your spirit, the signal, will remain whole.

  10. filethirteen says

    I’m also in the first category, but as far as life after death goes it would help if we knew exactly what we meant by life, in the sense of our first person perspective as opposed to in the sense of a living organism (the latter clearly doesn’t live on after it’s dead). “I” am a continuity tied to the perception of this body over time, but just what is that exactly? Why is there a “me” at all, why aren’t we all zombies? At the moment I envisage this as a localised excitement of a field of consciousness, like matter in quantum field theory, but if anyone has any better ideas I’d like to hear them.

  11. Ed says

    I’d actually enjoy believing that I’d lived before more than the thought of living again. Most concepts of immortality that people WANT(to say nothing of explicitly bad ones) are creepy. I even know people who like the thought of being a ghost.

    The only idea of “heaven” that sounded good to me in a long time was in the novel and movie “The Lovely Bones.” Every dead person has their own heaven made out of things they enjoyed in life.

    Since multiple people enjoy the same things, , there is an overlap between the heavens, thus providing company while limiting your associations to people who have something in common with you.

    Mine would be a Borders Books (I miss them!) in which any book ever written could be available and a movie theatre and TV channel in which any movie or TV show ever made could be seen. The TV would be in my apartment over the store with the theatre and a bar across the street. Nearby would be a park with lots of friendly dogs.

    About 100 years of this would be nice and then permanent oblivion. But in the story, it lasted forever and they also watched everything that happened to their loved ones on earth, so it would probably be just another hell eventually.

  12. doublereed says

    @9 al kimeea

    But you still won’t have the radio, right? You’ll still be unable to recognize your own friends. You can’t break bread with your loved ones. You can’t enjoy the sounds of nature. You’ll have lost your memories. You’ll have lost your cognitive abilities. You’ll have lost essential parts of your humanity.

    Being a signal without a radio doesn’t seem all that wonderful.

  13. Uncle Ebeneezer says

    But belief in life after death is not only pretty specific, it is also more harmful.

    I don’t know if I would go that far. God can be used to justify doing horrible things (hell even DEMANDING) they be done. While many of the evils done in the name of religion involve an afterlife (and some calculus of reward/punishment for what we did in life), ALL of them involve believing in God/Jesus/Allah. I guess my point is I can’t think of anyone who does nasty things because they believe in an afterlife, who don’t also believe in some form of God that justifies those nasty things.

    The other problem with belief in God as far as enabling bad behavior is the idea of being absolved. Just the other day I heard a man on a podcast confront his estranged father. His father wanted to reconcile with him after years in prison and finding Jesus. The son pressed him (rightly imo) on many things he had done that were terrible for the son and his mother but the father didn’t want to own up to them. He wanted to give the non-apology apology where his son actually wanted him to specifically acknowledge the things he had done wrong and why they were wrong. The father ultimately said that that was all in the past and he had made right with Jesus and that was the most important thing. The assumption of divine forgiveness can be an easy way to shrug off duties to our fellow humans.

  14. exi5tentialist says

    If you want to identify the causes of people hurting other people on a mass scale, don’t look to beliefs. Beliefs are just abstract ideas floating in space. Look instead at the tangible things: how secure is their food supply, their housing, their income. Concentrations of belief tend to follow surpluses and deficits in these areas.

    It’s the economy…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *