Is Belief in an Afterlife Pragmatic?

I thought the following comment from Dave (whose blog you should definitely check out) deserved its own discussion thread:

I’m almost finished reading a book called Joker One and part way through the book the author (a former marine lieutenant who served in Iraq) starts to talk about God. He is recounting his time in Iraq and just described the first loss of life that occurred within his own platoon. He decides that it is better to believe in God and his logic goes something like this:

If there is no God then there is no hope for his dead comrade. He is gone forever and has served and died for no ultimate purpose.

If there is a God then there is hope that this man is still alive in Heaven and has sacrificed himself for the greater good serving a higher purpose.

I think the point he makes brings up a good question: Would we be better off having hope in an afterlife from a pragmatic point of view? Would we be happier and less prone to become depressed if we at least clung to some *hope* that there is a better life waiting for us after we die? Would this hope do us any harm in the here and now or is it possible that holding on to this hope could make us a better person?

Let the discussion commence!

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76 thoughts on “Is Belief in an Afterlife Pragmatic?”

  1. IMHO , belief in an afterlife tends to keep people from living this life 110% . If they don’t achieve much here, they will have eternity to make up for it.

    That’s why I posted this saying on my blogsite title.

    “Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming…Wow! What a ride!”

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  2. This is an amazing used of motivated reasoning (“If there is a God then there is hope that this man is still alive in Heaven and has sacrificed himself for the greater good serving a higher purpose.”) What does there being a god in heaven have to do with a reward for a soldier in a just cause? First, finding the War in Iraq to be a just cause is a very big stretch. Since soldiers were following orders, I do not think they can be blamed for taking part, but if they committed atrocities or through neglect allowed others to be harmed, there is cause to worry about “punishment.”

    Soldiers, historically, have fought for things like “duty” or “glory” not for a reward in heaven. Yes, possibly to take their place among other warriors in the afterlife might have been a goal but if one believes in Heaven, then one also has to believe in Hell. So, being put into an impossible situation, as our soldiers in Iraq were, then the level of thinking of this person will result in many assigned to Heaven and possibly even more assigned to Hell.

    This is reassuring?

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  3. I have a friend who’s a Christian, and he and his wife lost one of their daughters in a tragic accident when she was only 8 or 9. It was really horrible. I’m sure that they hang on to the idea that they’ll see her again one day in Heaven, and honestly, I wouldn’t want to disabuse them of that. So I can understand why someone would get comfort from such an idea.

    But this also brings up other issues. For one, the author of Joker One suggests that one can decide to believe in God, rather than having to be convinced of it. But does that really work? It sounds like Pascal’s Wager, and I don’t think it represents true belief. I might think a world with Santa Claus is preferable to one without him, but that doesn’t mean I can actually make myself believe he’s real. So in some ways, the entire question may be moot.

    I think KC and Steve have both made excellent points about the downsides that come from such a belief. On the one hand, does it make us lose focus on the one life that we know we have? And on the other hand, if you latch onto God and Heaven, why should we choose the Christian version? And can we really get those two things and ignore Hell?

    I think this kind of outlook may only work for people who don’t think very deeply about things.

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  4. Good question and one that I’ve asked myself but never got around to really answering. I think the answer may depend heavily on the person in question. As I see it there are both pros and cons and personality would certainly influence the relative cost\benefit analysis. Regarding belief in the afterlife, I distilled this down to two pros and two cons:
    Pro #1: Reduced death anxiety
    Pro #2: Diminished sense of loss when loved ones die
    Con #1: Insufficient value placed on earthly life and “temporal things”
    Con #2: Potential for anguish over the fate of “unsaved” loved ones

    So, for example, if you’re a very anxious and emotional person then the pros may outweigh the cons. That said, there are mitigations for all of these that could tip the scales. There are psychological techniques for reducing anxiety and managing grief would which may be equivalent (or better) options for realizing the pros that come inherent to belief in an afterlife. On the flip side, adherence to certain doctrines – such as stewardship and universalism – could mitigate the cons that may come with Christian belief. Ultimately it will depend on what actually works best for any one person, which is a very difficult judgment to make.

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  5. I’m with Steve on this one. The torment foreshadowed in Hell well and truly outweighs the advantage of Heaven.

    An afterlife with Heaven only, yes, but an afterlife with Heaven and Hell, emphatically no.

    I think Hell is the most monstrous concept imaginable. That so many Christians can reconcile this with love just boggles my mind.

    I was reading on one blog it was argued that because God is infinite then justice demands eternal punishment for any offence against him. If someone thinks that is justice well I give up.

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  6. Peter, I argued against a similar argument (the “we’re just filthy rags” idea) in this post from a while back. Thought you might find it interesting:

    Using this kind of logic, I could make the same case about dogs. When you compare one dog to another, there’s little difference. But when you compare a dog to a human, it’s suddenly quite clear that dogs are filthy, stupid, and completely uncivilized. That’s why we are well within our rights to wipe out all dogs. It’s what they deserve for not being as clean, intelligent, and civilized as we humans. In fact, the dogs would completely agree with us, if they could ever come to understand just how much better than them we really are. If we decide to spare any dogs, it only shows how merciful we are.

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  7. What is interesting is that as people move a more liberal theology, one that is guided by their conscience, Hell is invariably the first thing to go. What does this mean? Are people intrinsically more merciful than God?

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  8. Dave, I see no harm in people believing in a god or in an afterlife, necessarily. If it helps people cope with the loss of loved ones as well as deal with their own mortality, or even if it helps give them a bit of courage in dangerous or desperate situation, then I would not fault them.

    It would be nice. I once held those same views. In some ways I envy them, but in others, I do not as I prefer the truth whether I like it or not, and since I think Christianity is not the truth, and that the truth is also that no god has been revealed (and certainly no real promise of an afterlife) then I’d prefer to personally be done with that view.

    But can it be good? I think so, but we have also seen where it can also be bad. I know, that whether I like something or not, or regardless of how much or how little something gives me comfort, that those things in no way validate a belief or speak to reality.

    Soldiers and Marines believing their close comrades are being taken care of in an afterlife, or grieving parents believing that they’ll see their deceased children again at some point… I could not criticize people like this. I feel badly for them and often wish I could get lost in their fantasy. I wish it were so, I am just very doubtful that it is any more than wishful thinking, as sad as that may be.

    For good or bad, people die. There’s nothing we can do about that.

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  9. I think Travis is right and it really just depends on the person and your situation. Some of us just don’t see the need for this kind of hope because we think more logically rather than emotionally.

    The marine lieutenant who authored the book was dealing with self-doubt and depression and needed a coping mechanism so that he could continue his job and focus on leading the remaining marines under his command. One of his men confronted him and told him that no one blamed him for the death and that this soldier was now in heaven so it was okay. Obviously his men could tell that he was having some issues. He was able to get past these issues by telling himself that God exists and this dead marine was now in heaven.

    Basically, it was not a question of whether God actually existed or not, it was a question of “what works best for me and which outcome would I prefer?”

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  10. Steve,

    I believe most Soldiers and Marines go to war for several reasons, and may hold some religious belief. Many even thought the war itself was unjust, but still view their individual actions on a much smaller scale.

    Duty is a factor, excitement and adventure can be, but also love of country and probably the biggest I’d argue is the love of their comrades next to them. Why they are in war, or are their orders fair or not, probably register very little in the grand scale of a soldier’s or marine’s though process – more likely, “we’re here, and I want to live and make sure the man next to me stays alive.”

    The film “Sgt York” is a good one that illustrates this also. Many times they kill the enemy as an action they view as saving their palls.

    It may not make sense all the time, but I have no problem seeing how a believer would take great comfort in knowing a fallen brother is being cared for eternally and how living soldiers can take extra courage while fighting, believing that if they die, that they will be cared for likewise.

    BUt like has been said, the Lt doesn’t believe in God because of the afterlife, he takes comfort in an afterlife believes he believes in the Bible. Doesnt make it right, but it’s all too common an error for people to not think that far ahead. And who can blame him? he’s grieving after all.

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  11. What I have no issue with is people believing in a god for their own comfort.
    However, reality is not based on how comfortable we are with it. Just because a thought gives a person comfort doesn’t make it anymore “real.”

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  12. Good question. I agree with Nate that it sounds very similar to Pascal’s wager when you think about the structure (Both ask, are we better off if we pretend there’s a god? Don’t we lose less that way?)

    If I’m remembering correctly, there have been studies that suggest that religious people are happier in the long run. But doesn’t the saying also go “ignorance is bliss”? I think choosing ignorance, or in this case an incorrect worldview, just because it makes you personally happy is pretty irresponsible. As an adult, I know there’s a lot more to the world around me than the good things I’d like to see, and even though I can’t fix everything, knowing about the bad things and at least voting with them in mind (donating to charities too, volunteering when I can, etc.) makes me a better citizen than if I simply choose to maintain the belief that the world is perfect and nobody ever starves or becomes terminally ill or gets murdered. Death is a reality we all have to face, and people base big decisions on religion (how they feel about women’s reproductive rights, LGBT rights, etc.)

    Maybe the individual feels better in the long run believing in an afterlife, but if that belief is only self-serving and actually leads to poor decision making that ultimately affects other people’s rights and wellbeing–which it does, then no, it’s not better to believe just to feel better. If anything, it’s pretty irresponsible.

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  13. It’s a very good question you raise. The short answer I’d have is that belief in an afterlife is what people make of it. Sure, some people can use it to motivate themselves. But others can use it justify terrible actions. This all goes back to perspective.

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  14. Interestingly, people have tried to do some science on these questions. Below are just two. Do other folks know more. Since they are empirical questions armchair speculation is the weakest form of evidence.

    (1) Belief in Afterlife does not reduce anxiety of sick people
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/epiphenom/2010/03/prayer-but-not-belief-in-afterlife.html

    (2) Belief in Life after Death is linked to lower anxiety
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/epiphenom/2012/06/in-us-belief-in-life-after-death-is.html

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  15. Ken nailed it. Granted, there are emotional benefits to such a belief, but ultimately such beliefs retard the human condition. Our greatest duty is to humanity, not the self, and any investment made in some make-believe supernal hearth is an investment not made here. In this regard, theism’s most insidious, treacherous act is in convincing frightened but otherwise sane individuals that this planet, here and now, is not their home.

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  16. @ John Zande,

    “Such beliefs retard the human condition.”
    Any evidence for that?

    I am not even sure that claim is made in such a way that it could be tested. And as such, it is ironically very close to the same nature of claims that many religious folks make.

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  17. All you have to do is read the lyrics of many gospel songs about heaven to know people are looking for a better place than where they are presently residing.

    Here are a few lyrics from Heaven Song

    “I want to run on greener pastures
    I want to dance on higher hills
    I want to drink from sweeter waters
    In the misty morning chill
    And my soul is getting restless
    For the place where I belong
    I can’t wait to join the angels and sing my heaven song
    I hear Your voice and I catch my breath
    ‘Well done my child, enter in and rest’
    Tears of joy roll down my cheek
    It’s beautiful beyond my wildest dreams”

    There are hundreds if not thousands of these songs about people wanting to exit this life sooner than later to be in heaven. No this isn’t scientific, but compelling never the less.

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  18. We know religion prospers when there is either economic or physical insecurity. Such comforts may offer hope and lift the human condition. Perhaps help them strive harder.

    All to say, broad claims should be tested or pointed out as untestable. Otherwise, it is a matter of people getting together and slapping each other on their backs about the stuff they like or hate together. No? Sort of like singing those types of hymns.

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  19. @ John

    Your claim was “ultimately such beliefs retard the human condition”.
    No, Sept 11th does not support such a claim. I won’t go into the details of why. I can tell easily when people value rhetoric more than reason – be they religious or not.

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  20. I won’t go into the details of why.

    Oh, please do, Sab. You love making your snide remarks, so back it up.

    Yes or no… were the 19 hijackers promised heavenly delights, honey water, and virgins for their martyrdom?

    Or, perhaps, are you arguing the 11th of September wasn’t a retardation of the human condition?

    That would be an interesting case to make.

    While you’re considering your answer, here’s a little clip

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  21. “” No, Sept 11th does not support such a claim. I won’t go into the details of why.”

    “I can tell easily when people value rhetoric more than reason – be they religious or not”

    How does one respond to this ……………………………….

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  22. I’m with you on this kccheif, I would have felt that Sept 11, was almost like exhibit A. If not I am really missing something.

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  23. Imagine someone thinking “This life is all we get. No one is watching. I am going to grab what I can get.”

    Have you ever see damage done by this view?

    You see, life-after-death, or not, is in itself not a dangerous idea, it is how it is used and mingled with all sorts of other beliefs, circumstances and desires.

    That is why the research on religion tends to be problematic. Without accounting for lots of other variables, generalizations fall apart badly.

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  24. And Sab, while you’re “going in details” why the 11th of September wasn’t a retardation of the human condition, please address Shahada (Death for Allah), which mandates Muslims to aspire to die in combat for Islam.

    ”The most prominent reward that Palestinian Martyrs are repeatedly promised are the 72 Dark-Eyed Virgins in Paradise. A Palestinian religious leader explained that this is authentic Islam, whose purpose is to “fill Muslims with desire for Paradise”:

    “He [Muhammad] said (in a Hadith, Islamic tradition):

    ‘[There is] a palace of pearls in Paradise and in it seventy courts of ruby… And in each court [there are] seventy houses of green emerald stone. In every house, seventy beds. On every bed, seventy mattresses of every color and on every mattress a woman.’ (Hadith)

    The writing of the Prophet [Muhammad in this Hadith]… is intended to fill Muslims with desire for Paradise… to be worthy of it, because only three dwell there:Prophets, Righteous and Shahids (Martyrs for Allah).”
    [Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, Jan. 2, 2004]

    The message comes from all parts of society, including religious leaders, TV news reports, schoolbooks, and even music videos. Newspapers routinely describe the death and funerals of terrorists as their “wedding.” The indoctrination has impacted so significantly on Palestinian society that mothers celebrate their sons’ death as “weddings” and some even state that their sons’ motivation to fight Israel and be killed was to reach Paradise and marry the Dark-Eyed Virgins.”

    http://palwatch.org/main.aspx?fi=565

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  25. “Imagine someone thinking “This life is all we get. No one is watching. I am going to grab what I can get. Have you ever see damage done by this view?”

    I’m not sure this is a very good analogy, Sabio. Even though many people have probably had this thought, there are good reasons for not following through. Laws, bullets, video cameras, etc.

    And yet this is pretty much how I think. But within the law. I strive for a quality of life and I pursue all that life has to offer while remembering those less fortunate.

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  26. @Sab

    It seems your worldview is radically different that Zan’s — for he says, “Our greatest duty is to humanity, not the self…”

    I know its difficult for you, but you could at least try not to be a dick, Sab.

    Now, I believe you were going to go into “details” as to how the supernal beliefs of the 11th of September hijackers weren’t a retardation of the human condition.

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  27. kcchief1 “I strive for a quality of life and I pursue all that life has to offer while remembering those less fortunate.”

    Sabio “It seems your worldview is radically different that Zan’s — for he says, “Our greatest duty is to humanity, not the self…”

    Sabio, what about my statement above did you not understand ???

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Sorry, gentlemen. Back to work. It has been a long time since I have visited “Finding Truth!” — I forgot the nature of the threads here. I leave you boys to each other’s good company.

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  29. @Sabio

    No, Sept 11th does not support such a claim.

    Sorry, gentlemen. Back to work….I forgot the nature of the threads here

    By the “nature of these threads” you mean people asking you to back up your poorly-thought-through screeds?

    I see…. You ask for evidence, evidence is given, you run away.

    Nicely played, Sab… Very impressive.

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  30. Sabio, you keep trying to equate my comments to materialism. Have you ever considered striving for quality of life as striving to live a healthy life ? Or pursuing all that life has to offer as experiences in life ?

    @Sabio, ““I can tell easily when people value rhetoric more than reason – be they religious or not”

    This may be true but your ability to read what someone is saying in their statements needs a little fine tuning. 🙂

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  31. I do think Sabio’s overall point was pretty good. This, in particular, stood out to me:

    You see, life-after-death, or not, is in itself not a dangerous idea, it is how it is used and mingled with all sorts of other beliefs, circumstances and desires.

    That is why the research on religion tends to be problematic. Without accounting for lots of other variables, generalizations fall apart badly.

    Now, his first sentence there is a generality too, but I think it’s one that should be considered. Perhaps the belief in life after death doesn’t have to be automatically negative. I don’t know… I’d have to think about it a bit more than I can manage at this time on a Friday night. :/

    At the same time, like Peter said, I think John’s example of September 11th seems like a pretty good argument. Sure, in itself, it’s not representative of every religion, but most of them have given us plenty of other horrific examples to go off of too.

    Anyway, I also think his warning to make sure we’re not becoming a mutual admiration club is not bad advice. 🙂

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  32. The Ancient Egyptians believed in life after death. Upon their deaths however, their hearts were weighed against a feather. Meaning what they did on Earth actually counted. With Christianity, all you have to do is repent with your last dying breath and you will receive a mansion where your streets are paved with gold.

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  33. “With Christianity, all you have to do is repent with your last dying breath and you will receive a mansion where your streets are paved with gold.”

    My question would be , “Does this promote excelling the human condition here and now or retarding it?”

    I don’t have “the answer” but I do have an opinion. 🙂

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  34. I feel the interchange with sabio has been useful to clarify that few things are either wholly good or wholly bad. I think we can see that belief in an afterlife has both good and bad aspects to it. Sabio has helpfully pointed out some of the positive aspects, so thank you.

    I suppose the real issue, though is whether it is reality or not. That no one will know for sure until after the event. Harry Houdini had said he would come back as a ghost if he could, well he didn’t so that does eliminate one possibility, but certainly not all of them.

    Many people have reported on Near Death Experiences, but the point of it that they are near death not actual death, so I suspect they should best be treated as more akin to a dream. As an aside I read a number of Christian books on experiences of heaven and hell. What I noticed was they were all different, so not all of them could have been correct, of course the question is whether any of them is correct? Once again we won’t know until after the event.

    So we are essentially left with unverifiable claims. I had been looking at an interesting web site, of Yuriy Stasyuk, Here. He makes the excellent point that there are some statements in the Bible that we don’t have the capacity to verify, however there are some that we can verify, and those seem to cast doubt on the Bible’s reliability. Consequently we should be doubtful of the claims in the Bible that we can’t verify such as what happens after death.

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  35. I really like that statement from Stasyuk, Peter. That’s exactly the way I feel about it, and I have a hard time understanding the viewpoint of those who can see the problems for what they are, but still accept the claims that can’t be verified.

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  36. Afterlife belief can be useful to those with a more narrow, human-focused view of existence. If you look at the bigger picture, those who die do live on molecularly and through how they have affected others through their life. We are all moving parts in systems that are much larger than us and our species.

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  37. Hi Nate, supposedly scientific studies of religion (e.g. by Andy Newberg and Justin Barrett) suggest that belief in an afterlife arises very naturally in young children even if they don’t have a religious upbringing. I don’t say it happens to all, or that it isn’t affected by upbringing or that there aren’t criticisms of the idea, but there is evidence for it. So it may not be a case of needing reasons to believe in an afterlife, but of needing reasons not to believe in it.

    Is this evidence of an afterlife? Someone who has that belief from childhood, unaffected by subsequent experience, and possibly reinforced by other experiences apparently of God, may think it sufficient reason, even while outsiders may not.

    Studies generally show that religious believers, if their belief is intrinsic and generally if they participate in religious behaviour and activities, are healthier mentally and physically than those who don’t, and they cope better with many types of difficulties and tragedies. When I was in the Australian Army (45 years ago now) we were told that God-believers made better soldiers because of that (I’m not sure as a near-pacifist that I am very happy with that!).

    So it may not be surprising that someone like a US soldier, who probably had a reasonable acquaintance with religion in his upbringing, might turn to that belief, or turn back to it, when dealing with grief.

    I think we do have a choice about what we believe, at the very least because of our choices about assumptions, what we read, who we take notice of, what we want to be true, etc. I don’t think I could believe for such pragmatic reasons, but I guess if I was in a fairly agnostic state of mind, something like this might tip the balance. Who can say?

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  38. “Studies generally show that religious believers, if their belief is intrinsic and generally if they participate in religious behaviour and activities, are healthier mentally and physically than those who don’t, and they cope better with many types of difficulties and tragedies.”

    There are studies that talk about one’s social networks which include but are not limited to religious . Belonging to the Elks Club, American Legion, Sertoma, other civic clubs can provide many of the same positive attributes. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3150158/ )

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  39. @Unklee

    supposedly scientific studies of religion (e.g. by Andy Newberg and Justin Barrett) suggest that belief in an afterlife arises very naturally in young children even if they don’t have a religious upbringing.

    No. What has been conclusively found is that children naturally resonate to finding agency in nature. Conflating agency to an afterlife, as Barrett has attempted to do, has met only strong resistance from other experts in the field.

    On Barrett, Bloom writes: “Some, such as Barrett, take children’s readiness to reason about life after death as evidence that they are ‘born believers’ in an afterlife. This conclusion is probably too strong, however. There is no evidence that belief in the afterlife arises spontaneously in the absence of cultural support.”

    (Banerjee, K., and P. Bloom. 2013) “Drawing on evidence from developmental psychology, we argue here that the answer is no: children lack spontaneous theistic views and the emergence of religion is crucially dependent on culture…. However, there is no evidence that children spontaneously come to believe in one or more divine creators. It is one thing, after all, to think about natural entities as intentionally designed artifacts of a sort; it is quite another to generate an enduring belief in invisible agents who have created these artifacts. Indeed, other studies find that young children are not committed creationists; they are equally likely to provide explanations of species origins that involve spontaneous generation.”

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  40. “When I was in the Australian Army (45 years ago now) we were told that God-believers made better soldiers because of that (I’m not sure as a near-pacifist that I am very happy with that!)”

    Hitler shared this same view. He required every soldier to wear a belt buckle which said, “Gott Mit Uns which means God With Us.

    Now to be entirely fair unkleE, instead of framing something to support my comment, this Motto was used by German Armies dating back to the 17th Century. Hitler was just one of many commanders to do this.

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  41. Hi John, yes I said that. Barrett & Newberg and co find one thing, and others such as Bloom disagree. I pointed out there were both views, and that is the fair thing to do. I’m not sure if your statement recognises both views??

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  42. Hi UnkleE

    You actually said “but there is evidence for it”… and this is just false, as Bloom points out: “There is no evidence that belief in the afterlife arises spontaneously in the absence of cultural support.”

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  43. John, because Paul Bloom says it doesn’t make it true. Justin Barrett disagrees, but I don’t say that what he says is true either. I just say both men are scientists and they work on evidence and they come to different conclusions. Do you think it is right to accept one and ignore the other?

    But check out what I said: “arises very naturally in young children even if they don’t have a religious upbringing”. I didn’t say they were “born with” belief or that belief arose “spontaneously in the absence of cultural support”, just that it is natural (not something that has to be forced) and can arise in people not brought up religious. Nothing you’ve said contradicts that.

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  44. UnkleE, you quite specifically said “there is evidence for it” and this is just wrong. What there is strong evidence for is children naturally finding agency in nature. “Agency” and a belief in an “after life” are not the same thing, so no, there is no evidence for your claim, just wishful thinking on the part of Barrett.

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  45. Yes, I did say that because that is what research headed by Barrett has found, he says. Bloom disagrees and says there is no evidence. So I am justified in saying that there is evidence but others disagree.

    So may I ask you again: why do you think only one side of the question should be taken notice of?

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  46. Ah, finally caught up with all the comments now.

    John, thanks for posting the stuff from Bloom, too. I wasn’t familiar with him or Barrett, so this has been interesting.

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  47. Since we are talking about children now, perhaps we could pose the OP question again, but this time focus on little ones. What do you tell a child when they ask about a grandparent or other relative that has passed away?

    It seems the easy thing to do is to say that the relative is gone, living in a happy place like heaven and set the child at ease. Is this acceptable or unacceptable?

    For my part, and I have had to deal with this not too long ago, I just tell them what I know and leave the rest out. They can fill in the blanks themselves if they wish. “So-and-so has died and no longer lives with aunt d. He’s not there anymore.” If they specifically ask if there is a heaven, I’ll just state that I don’t know. This uncertainty may trouble them, but at least I’m being honest.

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  48. That’s a great question, Dave. My wife and I do something similar. We acknowledge that there could be something after this life, but we also stress that if there isn’t, then the person who’s passed away doesn’t know it, doesn’t feel bad about it, etc. And we also talk a lot about how people live on through our memories. My grandfather died in 2008, but we still talk about him and think about him all the time. His influence is still strongly felt, even now.

    I think it would be easier to be able to tell the kids that their loved one still exists in some way and that they’ll see them again one day. But I also think it can be confusing, since the obvious question is “then why can’t we go ahead and see them now?”

    I think the bottom line is that death is sad — and for kids, it can be confusing — no matter what your outlook on the hereafter is.

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  49. But I also think it can be confusing, since the obvious question is “then why can’t we go ahead and see them now?”

    That’s true. And if we make death sound like the entrance to a heavenly wonderland they may want to try it out ~scary thought~.

    Reminds me of the apostle Paul and how he spoke of his desire to “depart”. Fortunately, I don’t see a lot of Christians killing themselves so they can see Jesus and live in heaven. That would probably change my indifference over what they believe in.

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  50. Hi UnkleE

    Are there “two” sides, UnkleE, or is Barrett (who is employed by the Fuller Theological Seminary) inflating findings to meet his theological/emotional needs?

    From your link: Studies by Emily Reed Burdett and Justin Barrett, from the University of Oxford, suggest that children below the age of five find it easier to believe in some superhuman properties than to understand similar human limitations.

    Yes, this is how we find agency in nature. I don’t doubt this for one moment. In fact, I’d be surprised if very young children didn’t do this. Finding agency is the product of a huge brain capable of anticipatory thought. It’s why we jump at a rustle in the grass. It’s a highly beneficial evolutionary adaption. I would call this perfectly natural given our capacities. It’s also a fine explanation for our sense of mind/body dualism. I stress ‘sense’ here because brain injury studies (including split brain cases) strongly refute any factual basis to this perceived concept.

    Now, don’t get me wrong: I would in many respects argue that our tendency to formative supernatural notions is hardwired (I argue this point strongly, in fact, in my book), but I would stress here that conflating this natural tendency (a tendency that has an evolutionary explanation) to structured beliefs in god and an afterlife is an unfounded leap. To demonstrate this I would perhaps cite Palaeolithic burials with grave goods. That is our first physical evidence of a belief in an afterlife; an imagined realm where the dead has some use for the tools, jewellery, and personal items included with the body. The earliest Palaeolithic burials with grave goods we’re presently aware of are 90,000 years old. Human’s became what we consider “human” 200,000 years ago, or perhaps even later. This would demonstrate to me that concepts of afterlife are entirely cultural.

    Liked by 2 people

  51. @ Dave

    Great question. I was recently asked to pen a secular children’s story concerning exactly this, the death of a grandfather. Below is just a snippet

    But Grandpa died. His thoughts stopped, and all those things that made Grandpa were freed to drift away and become other things.

    Grandpa is a bird
    Grandpa is a fish
    Grandpa is a bridge
    Grandpa is a leaf
    Grandpa is a lion
    Grandpa is a whale
    Grandpa is a drop of rain
    Grandpa is a billion other things today
    and one day, again, he will be a star, just like you.

    Liked by 1 person

  52. “conflating this natural tendency (a tendency that has an evolutionary explanation) to structured beliefs in god and an afterlife is an unfounded leap”

    Hi John,

    Well that is a bit clearer. But fortunately, I haven’t conflated any of this at all. I have just said that children find it natural to believe in an afterlife, I didn’t say “spontaneously” or anything like that (that is the bit where Barrett and Bloom and others disagree, and taking either of them without recognising the opposing view isn’t not fair to the evidence), I didn’t suggest anything about whether the belief was justified. I was just pointing out that it likely wasn’t a case of the soldier we are discussing having to drum up some belief to give his mind peace, it was more likely that he had some belief innately, for whatever reason, and it may have been quiescent or rejected, but became stronger in those circumstances.

    “Are there “two” sides, UnkleE, or is Barrett (who is employed by the Fuller Theological Seminary) inflating findings to meet his theological/emotional needs?”

    You may be surprised how often some atheists, when confronted with research they don’t like, make assertions that denigrate the researcher rather than accept what they have found. Barrett wasn’t worked on his own on this, but was one of the lead researchers in a three-year international research project involving researchers from several countries, and he was at the time director of the Centre for Anthropology and Mind at Oxford University.

    And all you can do is make some snide comment about the fact that he happens to be a christian? That is unworthy. Imagine how crappy it would be if I made the equally possible suggestion that Bloom was biased, or that you were!?

    So let’s leave that behind.

    Like

  53. Hi UnkleE

    You may be surprised how often some atheists, when confronted with research they don’t like, make assertions that denigrate the researcher rather than accept what they have found.

    I read the paper, it doesn’t contradict what I am saying, nor truly add anything new to current understandings concerning the evolutionary explanation for the benefits of finding agency in nature. And I’m afraid it is necessary—vital even—to qualify Barrett’s position on reality. This is from the wiki page:

    Barrett is described in the New York Times as a “prominent member of the byproduct camp” and “an observant Christian who believes in “an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good God who brought the universe into being,” [and] “that the purpose for people is to love God and love each other.” He considers that “Christian theology teaches that people were crafted by God to be in a loving relationship with him and other people, Why wouldn’t God, then, design us in such a way as to find belief in divinity quite natural?” Having a scientific explanation for mental phenomena does not mean we should stop believing in them. “Suppose science produces a convincing account for why I think my wife loves me — should I then stop believing that she does?”

    You see, UnkleE, Barrett (a Creationist) has his conclusions already in place. He is, therefore, trying desperately to fit the evidence to the answer he wants. He is not an objective observer, rather a researcher trying to justify his emotionally influenced position.

    UnkleE, if you want to advance this conversation beyond the speculations of a Christian researcher trying to justify his own beliefs and placate his emotional needs, then perhaps you can address the question as to why the first burials with grave goods (which signify an almost certain belief in an afterlife) did not emerge in human history until many, many, many thousands of generations after we became “human.” That, to me, signifies such beliefs to be purely cultural, a creative adornment built upon senses of mind/body dualism and our natural (predetermined?) ability to find agency in nature.

    Liked by 1 person

  54. If there is no God then there is no hope for his dead comrade. He is gone forever and has served and died for no ultimate purpose

    I believe this should tell the average (non religious) reader everything they could possibly wish to know about what is wrong with (Christianity) religion.

    And if it needs further explanation then you probably follow one religion or another.

    Liked by 1 person

  55. Hi John, so this is your hypothesis?

    A three year study involving 57 researchers who conducted over 40 separate studies in 20 countries representing a diverse range of cultures, and managed and published by Oxford university, is actually “(a Creationist) [who] has his conclusions already in place …. trying desperately to fit the evidence to the answer he wants …. not an objective observer, rather a researcher trying to justify his emotionally influenced position ….. the speculations of a Christian researcher trying to justify his own beliefs and placate his emotional needs”?

    Really? And you know that? And can demonstrate that all those other researchers were somehow conned by this desperate man placating his emotional needs so they went along with it??

    I wonder if you realise that I could make similar accusations about Paul Bloom, or you, if I had a mind to? Fortunately, I don’t, for I believe such slander is unjustified unless there is compelling evidence.

    But I have no intention of conversing with someone who uses such despicable tactics. So unless you are willing to either retract, or offer compelling evidence ….. ?

    Like

  56. Hi UnkleE

    Unfortunately for you, UnkleE, Barret has let the world know exactly his bias. From the NYT’s article:

    “Christian theology teaches that people were crafted by God to be in a loving relationship with him and other people, Why wouldn’t God, then, design us in such a way as to find belief in divinity quite natural?”

    Did you see that, UnkleE? Did you see where Barrett alerts everyone what his conclusion already is?

    Here it is again, this time in slow motion: Why wouldn’t God, then, design us in such a way as to find belief in divinity quite natural?”

    Barrett (an employee of the Fuller Theological Seminary and the collator and interpreter of all these studies) has decided already what he wants to find.

    With this in mind, I believe we’ll have to go through every one of these studies and see exactly what the researchers themselves said in their conclusions… What say you?

    Now, could you address the question put to you?

    Like

  57. HI John,

    I don’t know what question you are referring to, and I’m not intending to discuss it now. I said that I wasn’t interested in discussing with someone who slanders with no compelling evidence a competent researcher simply because he is a christian. I meant it. But I am willing to explain my deep aversion to what you have said and hopeful that you may retract.

    You attributed motives to Justin Barrett that are highly denigrating of his integrity and motivations, and accused him of doing research to “justify his emotionally influenced position”. By this smear tactic you dismissed his research. Yet the only evidence you offered was that he is a christian.

    Now he was part of a huge research team, and we can assume not all of them were christians with the character flaws that you accuse Barrett of having. You denigrate them as well. And if your argument was reasonable, then you would also dismiss Paul Bloom’s work because he is an atheist and could also be “desperately” trying to “justify his emotionally influenced position”. All of us have viewpoints, but the methods of science are aimed at reducing subjectivity and providing repeatable objective results.

    But not only have you denigrated a large research team, you have set up a somewhat false dichotomy between Bloom’s and Barrett’s views. Bloom disagrees with some aspects of Barrett’s conclusions, but he agrees pretty much with those aspects of Barrett’s work that I referenced and you objected to.

    I said: “belief in an afterlife arises very naturally in young children even if they don’t have a religious upbringing” Bloom says: “human beings come into the world with a predisposition to believe in supernatural phenomena” and he also says “although we have to learn which specific afterlife people in our culture believe in (heaven, reincarnation, a spirit world, and so on), the notion that life after death is possible is not learned at all.” So both Bloom and Barrett support what I said.

    Furthermore, Bloom doesn’t seem to share your negative view of Barrett. In this discussion he says of Barrett: “he’s one of the founders and most influential figures in the cognitive science of religion. He’s done hugely important work ….” I suggest you listen to at least the first 15 minutes of that discussion and you’ll find they both agree on the evolutionary origins of many of our religious inclinations, including the natural propensity to believe in an afterlife.

    So I think you are factually wrong about Barrett (and Bloom) and you have made statements about Barrett that are quite reprehensible unless you have compelling evidence that he is much more biased than other researchers and he allows that bias to influence his work. I feel very strongly about this. Idiosyncratic selection of which experts we will accept based on their religious belief is something that can go both ways, and makes discussion impossible – I can dismiss “your” experts just as easily as you can dismiss mine, if I had a mind to do it. It is also a despicable thing to do unless there is clear evidence.

    So, let me repeat. I think you can either offer compelling evidence of Barrett’s duplicity and dishonesty, or you can (I hope) retract your denigrating comments, or we can draw this discussion to a close. Thanks.

    Like

  58. So, let me repeat. I think you can either offer compelling evidence of Barrett’s duplicity and dishonesty, ….

    I don’t think Barrett was being intentionally duplicitous; he is a Creationist thus he is firm about his faith and where he stands. But he is bound to have considerable bias and suffer from the somewhat myopic world view all religious people suffer from to a greater or lessor degree.
    Otherwise he would not believe in a god, now would he?
    Also, it is perfectly reasonable for one as to ask his em>motivation for conducting such research, a valid question in light of the quote:

    ”Why wouldn’t God, then, design us in such a way as to find belief in divinity quite natural?”
    Which strikes me as confirming his ingrained bias toward his god. Not just any old god, either, but the Judaeo/Christian/Islamic deity, Yahweh/Jesus of Nazareth/Allah.

    On the face of it, it seems likely that most, (if not all) of the researchers have some sort of god-belief as based on what we’ve read so far , none of the researchers has published a rebuttal of Barrett’s findings. ( Not that I am aware of)

    Naturally, I stand under correction here and as you seem au fait with all aspects of this research I would be interested in your input in this regard, Unklee.

    Namely:
    1: What are the religious convictions- if any – of the researchers.
    2: Can we confirm that every researcher came to the same/similar conclusion as Barrett?

    Like

  59. Ark

    I don’t think Barrett was being intentionally duplicitous

    I thoroughly agree, and confirmation bias exists in many, many realms. But here we actually have the case of the allegedly scientific “researcher” stating exactly what his conclusion already it. By his own admission, he has already determined in his mind that his god has sown (literally, as he is a Creationist) this reality into all humans. That, then, is what he is looking for. That, then, is how he has approached all these studies (which i’m assuming were all independent): “interpreting” the data collected in accordance to what he wants.

    Hardly objective and, as I proposed to UnkleE, we should review every study he has looked at to determine what their methods, data collection, and results actually were. I would hazard to think an independent researcher, like Bloom, might have arrived at a different interpretation.

    Like

  60. Hi UnkleE

    I was hoping you’d give your impression as to why the first evidence we have of burials with grave goods (which signifies a belief in an afterlife) only emerged 90,000 years ago, many thousands of generations after humans became what we consider “human.”

    To me this strikes to the very heart of any hypothesis that a belief in an afterlife is somehow innate, natural, and not culture… a bedrock thing. The hard evidence points to such notions beings purely cultural. If this were not the case we would, I’d argue, have seen grave goods much, much, much earlier than we do.

    Does this sound reasonable to you?

    Like

  61. @John.
    I did mention the quote in my comment.
    and the fact it would seem reasonable to know if there were any religious convictions among other researchers; seeing as here appears to be no dissent or refutation at all.

    Surely, complete transparency should be the key here, and it seems to be somewhat opaque.

    It would be in everyone’s interest to lay all the cards on the table.

    I don’t think metaphorical foot- stamping accompanied by an ”How dare you question” type of attitude will win anyone over to the supposed findings of this or any other study he may have been involved with; even more so if he was/is Team Leader.

    Liked by 1 person

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