The Afterlife: For you or for them?

Eternal LifeI wonder what percentage of religious folks embrace their religion because they fear the finality of their own life. How many embrace their faith hoping for a favorable afterlife from themselves. Most of these religious folks believe that chimps, dogs, cats, cows, birds, insects and amoebas all other animal except themselves just rot and disappear after death. They believe that unlike all other animals, human can survive death in some pleasant form if they do or believe the right things.

It is not just eternal life the entices believers. People embrace religion for various reasons, not just to secure a wonderful afterlife. Other functions that religions serve include: community connections, status, moral codes, magical blessings (such as healings, safety, or success).  But today I wondered: When people embrace afterlife promises, do they do it more in hopes of their own eternal lives, or is it that the afterlife promise they treasure most is that they don’t have to imagine their loved ones being really gone when they die?

The death of a loved one is very painful: Friends, parents, children or even, for some folks, their favorite celebrities. So, any religion which can promise you that we will see your loved ones again, offer an excellent selling point. So maybe it is the promise that we will be back together with our loved ones after death that believers value most — not just their own personal survival. Maybe most people aren’t worrying as much about their own eternal life.  Maybe they clamoring after an eternal state of playing a harp, or standing around with cocktails in hand chatting with friends and family, or floating in some eternal bliss state, or living in a wonderful heavenly retirement community or sitting in pews and praising their God forever. Maybe they just want the promise that loved ones don’t really disappear forever when they die.  Mind you, either way, the motivation is probably always selfish — “I want to see them again.” and “I want to live forever.”  But what do you think, do people embrace the eternal-afterlife idea more for their loved ones, or for themselves?

This 2013 research article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) should that religious people spend more on aggressive medical intervention at the end of life than religion-free people.  Does that mean that religious people really don’t believe they will live in eternity?  Maybe this supports that their concerns about eternity are about not wanting to think their loved ones are gone.



  • I acknowledge that there are Jewish folks who don’t believe in an afterlife. I met many of these folks when I attended a reform synagogue for a year. Some Jews don’t even believe in their own tribal god, “Yahweh”. And so there are many religious folks who hold variants of beliefs that don’t include the afterlife promise.
  • I have many posts chastising non-believers for criticizing believers for their silly beliefs, as if is those silly beliefs which are the focus of the believers.  They do not understanding that it is the other functions of religion that keeps believers belonging.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

10 responses to “The Afterlife: For you or for them?

  1. rautakyy

    As a nonbeliever, who has never been a part of any religious affiliation, I have to say, that the notion of afterlife appears as a fairly childish concept, because it is invariably unfinished. People do not even try to grasp the consequences of “eternity”, when imagining this.

    It is as if the root of religious thinking was derived from ages past when some adults were too hurt for the loss of their loved ones, that they dared not tell their children, that the recently deceased relative, or loved one was really dead, and they preferred to tell a fairy tale of magical meeting in a happy place to their kids. In order to apease the pain of loss. As complicated and difficult subjects are often explained to kids through metaphors and parables. But the child parent relationship is all about trust, and the kids trusted their parents to tell them the truth. So, it remains, that majority of religious people believe in religious concepts – however childish, unfinished, or magical – to be true because they have learned them from the one authority they first learned to trust. That is to say, from their parents. I think, that the poorer method people have for reaching conclusions, the more likely they are to make the “truths” they think they know a part of their identity and thus they are more fragile and easier prey to all sorts of woo about those issues.

  2. @ Rautakyy:

    The notion of something surviving death has been in generation after generation and in almost every culture.

    It is not just “derived from past ages” or by “some adults for their kids”. You underestimate the power of the dualistic cognitive illusion of spirit. (are you aware of the power of that universal cognitive illusion? religious folks, of course think it is not an illusion)

    Also, you did not address the question of this post unless you think the child story answers everything.

  3. rautakyy

    @Sabio Lanz: Hmm…. I try to keep my comments as short as I possible can, as you have adviced me and I thank you for that good advice. (Even though,I admit that this is often a failed effort in my case.).

    I did tried to address the roots of the illusion, you refer to, in my first comment. I do not think religions are born in any crucible of philosophers and theologians formulating doctrine any more than the demagogues and politicians abusing the doctrines to gain power. Those are only parts of the process in the beginning of wich is the simple transition of “truth” from a parent to a child and motives behind what is told as the “truth” and how the “broken telephone syndrome” affects and corrupts the transition of information are the original reasons for much of cultural traditional superstitions, such as religions. The reason why such ideas are universal in almost every religious culture is, that it is the simple questions of parenthood, like in my example, that are universal. Much more universal in the human condition, than any particular philosophical dilemmas, or any particular superstitous supernatural solutions to them.

    In my experience, most religious folks do not contemplate much about these things. That is what I mean, when I said that the idea of the afterlife is unfinished. They simply believe in them as part of their inherited cultural identity.

    So, as a renewed attempt to address your question, I do think that the need to deal with the death of loved ones is the bigger motivator, than the personal fear of death. Empathy towards those lost loved ones combined to the need to soften the blow to others (like children) and to the personal pain of losing them forming together a bigger motivator, than mere personal fear alone. I recognize however, that this view may be due to my fairly positive view on humanity, as I have no personal experience about believing in any afterlife. On the other hand, there lingers the foul stench of tribal moralism attached to all the afterlife ideas, where the “saved” belong to an ingroup and the outgroup “deserve” what else is in reserve for them.

  4. I find the afterlife is held onto because many fear the unknown in endings. When endings are embraced as new beginnings, the concept of continuity becomes real in the now and isn’t defined by life or death. It doesn’t have to be anticipated for later because it happens every day and embracing it is accepting that there’s more to come, even when not knowing what will come.

  5. @ Rautakky:
    Indeed, you do go on.

    Do you feel your religious friends worry more about their own eternal life or worry more that their friends will live forever so don’t have to imagine them gone?

  6. @ Astrid
    I agree, fear of endings is a reason for belief in afterlife. My question is: do we worry more about OUR ending or those of others?

    You note about continuity begs the question. Maybe when a squirrel dies, it rots and goes away in any sense of being that squirrel — that squirrel ends (no matter whatever role its dead cells play after taken in other life forms or rocks). So in this sense, do humans end the same way or are you hinting a reincarnation or something similar?

  7. rautakyy

    @Sabio Lanz, I think my religious friends are more affraid for their friends not beloning to their ingroup, than they are for themselves as such. They have expressed their sincere worry about my situation for not believing in their particular religions. It seems to me, that they have taken the notion of themselves as the saved ones as given. They do not seem at all worried about wether their promised salvation from death is the actual one, even though they must know, there are thousands of mutually excluding promises about the afterlife. To me, it seems, that their certainty comes mostly from them recieving their view from their parents, not by any inner reflection or research.

  8. Soren

    Asking the wrong question (and it’s not an either/or question to begin with).
    Focusing on a selfish interpretation misses the point–beliefs (religious and otherwise) are heavily intertwined. The reason for an individual belief can’t be understood on it’s own without examining the larger context of a massively complex system.

    I think it’s safe to assume it’s more than just a simple adaptive function to convince ourselves of a selfish intent (seeing loved ones, living forever, etc). My biggest problem with these discussions is that it draws heavily from oversimplified deterministic interpretations of evolution (ie. evolutionary psych).

    Science gives you insights into the structure of the world, while religion guides your behavior within it.

  9. @ Soren

    Of course it is not a simple binary choice. The point of this post was to show that often people care as much, if not more, about the disappearance their loved ones than of themselves. I just thought it was interesting.

    Indeed, as I have written elsewhere, beliefs, feeling and such exist in a complex system of function to each other and the person’s ways of using them.

    Research shows the religion may think it is offering guides to behavior but their is no evidence that religious folks have better behavior than non-religious. But it is exactly that reason that many people with new little children run to churches which they may have stopped visiting before.

  10. Soren

    Point taken. I agree it’s interesting to discuss what people do in contrast to what they say (as the two are often quite different confirmed by the study you presented).

    I’ve found that viewing subjects like religion thru the lens of complexity science can be quite helpful–where emergence and thinking beyond reductionism can provide a more comprehensive understanding. It’s easy to assume religious folks are just simpletons–a common fallacy of the atheist arsenal.

    Interestingly I have yet to meet a person (or family) that decided to return to church/religion after having children though I can understand why they might make that choice as it’s economically wise, among other things. Of course I live in the Northeast where religion is almost non-existent so my experience is probably not the norm.

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