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The Problem with Spirituality Surveys

Posted on 09 January 2012, 16:49

Every time I read about some survey relative to spiritual beliefs, I have to question its validity, primarily because very few of them have clear-cut “yes” or “no” answers and because so many of the words used by the researchers have different meanings for different people. 

One recent survey indicated that 90 percent of all Americans believe in life after death.  Another survey put it at around 82 percent, but I recall seeing one as low as 62 percent.  In her recent book, The Afterlife Survey, Maureen Milliken, a Maine journalist, cites the Pew Forum U.S. Religion Landscape Survey results from 2008 indicating that 74 percent of Americans believe in an afterlife. up from 69 percent in 1973.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that 26 percent are atheists or are non-believers, however.

Milliken also cites an AARP survey among people over 50 in which 73 percent believe in life after death, but 86 percent believe in heaven.  And a recent survey in the UK had 53 percent believing in life after death but 55 percent believing in heaven.  I can’t recall the exact numbers, but I recall a survey among physicians not long ago in which something like 68 percent of the physicians believe in God, but only 57 percent believe in life after death.  In effect, a number of people believe in God but not in an afterlife, while some who don’t believe in an afterlife believe in heaven.  I don’t get it.

The first question that comes to mind when I read these surveys has to do with the meaning of the word “believe.”  My dictionary definition of the word offers a fairly wide range of choices – from “having an opinion” to “accepting trustfully on faith” to “having a firm conviction.”  With those definitions in mind, I would have no problem responding with a “yes” to whether I believe in an afterlife.  But, if believing means accepting it with “absolute certainty,” as in one survey cited by Milliken, then I would have to say “no.”  Absolute certainty to me means 100-percent certain – no doubt about it.  My certainty goes to about 98.8 percent, but that leaves a 1.2 percent doubt factor in there.  I try not to trip over the 1.2 percent doubt, but it would prevent me from giving a firm “yes” to any such survey.  Therefore, I might be counted as a non-believer.  On the other hand, I suspect that most people who say they “believe” really just “hope” there is an afterlife.  Few seem aware of the strong evidence supporting a belief in consciousness surviving the death of the physical body.

If I were a survey respondent and the survey asked if I believe in God, I would first need “God” defined.  If God is defined to mean an anthropomorphic being, a man with a beard who sits on a throne, I’d have to answer “no” to the survey.  If, however, God is defined to mean some form of cosmic consciousness or creative intelligence beyond human comprehension, then I would respond with a “yes.”

Most other questions in these surveys would not lend themselves to “yes” or “no” answers for me. For example:  “Do you believe in heaven?”  Here again, I could not answer the question without a definition of heaven. I certainly don’t believe in the heaven of orthodoxy, but if heaven is defined to mean the “Godhead” or the “highest plane” in the spirit world, I would be able to answer in the affirmative.

“Do you believe in hell?”  No, I don’t believe in the hell of orthodoxy, but I do believe in a “fire of the mind” on the lower planes of the afterlife, which might be referred to as hell.  If, however, I answer “yes” to the question, I might be counted among those who believe in a fire and brimstone with devil holding a pitchfork type hell.
“Do you believe in purgatory?”  If purgatory is defined to mean all of the many afterlife realms between the lowest and highest, I believe in purgatory, but I doubt that is what the researchers have in mind. 

“Are you an atheist?”  Going back to the definition of God, I might be considered an atheist by orthodoxy, but I would not call myself an atheist, not even a pantheist. 

“Do you have a special day of worship?”  I really hate the word “worship” and think it does more damage to the orthodox cause than any other word, as it suggests a God who demands constant adoration and praise.  I’d have to answer “no” to that question and put a note that I don’t believe in worship, unless it is defined simply to mean “honoring goodness” or something along that line, in which I case I could say that I worship every day of the week.
“Do you believe in ghosts?”  If the researchers have in mind apparitions of the dead or communication from the dead, I’d answer a definite “yes,” but if they are referring to “spooks,” not really.

“Do you believe in angels?”  I’d really have a hard time with this one.  I believe in advanced spirits and spirit guides, but I am 50-50 on angels who have never served time as humans.

“Do you believe in reincarnation?”  I believe in reincarnation, but I don’t think it plays out like most people who believe in it seem to think it does.  My belief is in the group soul/higher self area and for the most part beyond human comprehension.  But if I say “yes” to the question, the researchers will count me as believing in the kind of reincarnation that most people who believe in it subscribe to.  If I say “no,” I’ll be counted among the non-believers.  How can I possibly answer that question?

“Do you believe that Jesus is God?”  Since God is beyond my comprehension, I can’t begin to answer that question, any more than if asked if we are all part of God or all sons of God, whatever that means.  I do believe that Jesus is something akin to Chairman of the Board on the Other Side, and that is enough for me.

One of the few things I might give a definite “no” to is a belief in the atonement doctrine as taught by orthodox Christianity along with the belief that one must accept Jesus as his savior if he is to be “saved.”  I feel certain that Jesus shakes his head in disgust and despair at such a teaching.

Milliken interviewed a “cross-section” of 23 people to get their views on the afterlife or, in the case of non-believers, on the “extinction” they face. The 23 range from hard-core “born again” religious fundamentalists at one extreme to equally hard-core scientific fundamentalist at the other extreme.  In between are people with varying degrees of faith, hopefulness, uncertainty, and skepticism.  The 23 interviewees included a newspaper editor, a college professor, an office manager, a sheet metal worker, an engineer, a rabbi, a college student, a minister turned atheist, a bookseller, and sundry other occupations.

What especially struck me was how much greater the certainty of belief of the atheist or non-believer was than that of the believer..  Those interviewed by Milliken seem to fit the profile of the confirmed atheists that I have encountered over the years.  They are former believers who have been rescued from the follies, superstitions, dogmatisms; tyrannies, and illusions of religion by rational thinkers and science. And while science has become their god, they apply non-science to spiritual matters with a smug closed-mindedness that is the antithesis of the open and searching scientific mind.  They see themselves as “enlightened” individuals stoically facing up to their eventual extinction by “living in the moment” while assuming that believers do nothing but think about the next life.  For the most part they are ignorant of spiritual beliefs that fall outside the dogma and doctrine of their old religions and they are totally ignorant of the mass of evidence in favor or the survival of consciousness at death.  However, they have read that their rational-thinking gurus have all studied the evidence and have dismissed it as nothing but pseudoscience, and that is enough for them.  They echo the claims of their gurus by saying that there is no “proof” of life after death and don’t appear to grasp the difference between proof and evidence.  They dare not give the least bit of credence to any spiritual idea lest they be revert to their old “backward thinking.” 

For non-believers, the surveys are pretty easy and straight forward – just check “no” all the way down the page.  For others, even the religious fundamentalists, the surveys are not so easy.

Michael Tymn’s book The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After we Die is published by White Crow Books and available from Amazon and all good online book stores. Michael’s forthcoming book Transcending the Titanic: Beyond Death’s Door is published in March 2011 by White Crow. 

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The Afterlife Revealed - Michael Tymn

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shelbybarthatvo, Sat 11 Jul, 20:13

I read your blog then went away and asked myself this question: if I were Sam Parnia, would I give away accurate hints about the results of the AWARE project and came to a surprising conclusion. No, I most definitely would not. This was due mostly to my disillusionment in recent years with the scientific community.

What Dean Radin says about scientists is true. In essence, he was suggesting that as well as being taught science, students are also taught how to think. And if they don’t think in this way, their careers in science, if not compromised exactly, could certainly be slowed down.

Now, back in 1995, in Shadows of the Mind, Roger Penrose put forward a very convincing argument for the brain being a quantum organ. Almost a decade ago, it was shown that in entangled particles, the future could influence that past. Last year it was discovered that the brain, as well as many other aspects of biology, shows strong indications of quantum entanglement. Why then is it so difficult for scientists to accept that the brain, a quantum entity, can sense the future in the form of precognition? Precognition, telepathy and clairvoyant effects are relatively weak, but surely, that’s not surprising given the nature of entanglement as is known for the moment.

Many sceptics say that the reason they don’t believe it is because that can’t repeat the experiments. But as Charles Tart pointed out, in experiments measuring effects as delicate as precognition etc., the attitude of the person conducting the experiment is very important. So perhaps it’s not surprising they can’t repeat the results. They don’t want them repeated. After all, if they firmly believe something can’t possibly happen then the last thing they want is evidence for it.

So, back to Dr Parnia and his project. If he leaked out positive results, people would be shouting him down even before the full report was published. People like James Randi would be merciless. It would then be Parnia trying to prove Randi wrong rather than Randi having to struggle with the data to rubbish the AWARE project.  If Randi came out first, however positive Dr Parnia’s results, people would remember Randi before that remembered Parnia. People are like that. Having heard Randi, many scientists may not even look at the AWARE project results. And that really would be ironic: scientists taking more notice of a fading magician that of a fellow scientist.

This is, of course, wishful thinking. Perhaps Dr Parnia really hasn’t had any hits.

John Brunney, Tue 24 Jan, 21:00

Superb, Mike.  You’ve really hit the nail on the head.  These problems occur with surveys of all kinds.  Like, “Do you approve of the job Congress is doing?”  Can’t I approve or disapprove of each one of the hundreds of members?  Can’t I say that I approve of their actions in some cases but not others?  The survey is ultimately pretty meaningless.

I also find myself somewhere in that 98.8% belief range on many issues.  Sometimes I’m closer to 99.999%, but I’m not comfortable saying it’s 100%.

One of my recent posts went over that atonement business—and there I agree with you 100%!

Elene Gusch, Thu 12 Jan, 11:43

Good one, Mike


coyd, Wed 11 Jan, 10:08

Howdy Mike,

Great article!  I will repost it to our self- reliance preparedness group, as an important lesson for folks in our prep category #1-Mental & Spiritual Preparedness.  Besides our similar backgrounds, spiritually and as “old” adjusters, I’m even more amazed at your similar take, virtually identical, on spirituality.  This article could cause a bunch of people to awaken in their spiritual perceptions
if they will read it with an open mind.  Again, kudos to you…Jim
PS: In our prior communications I have used my personal email address.  Above, I gave you my business email address for our little family operated self-reliance prep products store, for which we have actually made shipments over to Hawaii.

Jim Farley, Tue 10 Jan, 12:03

Ah, Michael—-this is an example of your writing at it’s best!

Amos Oliver Doyle, Tue 10 Jan, 04:50

I very much agree with all this, and will republish it in The Ground of Faith. Getting clear on these ambiguities should be a central part of religious education.

Michael Cocks, Tue 10 Jan, 02:23

Excellent post, Michael - the vagueness and ambiguity of these surveys has always puzzled me. Fact is, this is a very nuanced subject, which usually however is approached in highly un-nuanced way. As if the meanings of all these categories were self-evident.

On the subject of ‘worship’, I agree. I always thought it ridiculous, the idea of sitting round God’s throne telling him how wonderful he is. It was when I started reading spiritualist literature, and being reminded of some acid trips I took long ago, that it occurred to me that it might instead refer to that ‘Wow! state of mind, where you can’t help but be silently amazed and grateful at the beauty of it all.

Robert McLuhan, Mon 9 Jan, 23:50

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