April 10, 2007
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.