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Why Many ‘Nones’ Believe in Life After Death

Posted on 08 August 2016, 13:16

An Internet release on July 15 by Religion News Service (RNS) asked why so many “nones” – people claiming no religious affiliation – believe in life after death.  The article by Simon Davis notes that the trend in recent decades is toward less religiosity while belief in an afterlife seems to be up slightly over the same period.  Davis notes a study by the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture indicating that 72 percent of Americans believe that there is some existence after death.  Surprisingly, at least to Davis, 32 percent of the “nones” said they believed in life after death. He sees this as “bucking the trend.”

The 32 percent belief among “nones” does not seem that much of a mystery to me.  It can be explained by the fact that most people who claim no religion are not necessarily atheists or non-believers in an afterlife; they are simply religion “dropouts” who haven’t taken the time to figure out what they believe or don’t believe.  They are young and so busy pursuing their careers and raising families or just “having fun” in a materialistic and hedonistic world that there has been no time or desire to delve into existential and spiritual matters.  Then again, there are “nones,” myself included, who have taken the time to try to figure it out, but we make up a very small percentage of the “nones” who do believe. 

The proposed explanations offered by Davis for belief in an afterlife include selfishness, incredulity at the finality of death, a desire to believe in infinite possibility, and hope for those without material possessions.  I’m pretty sure that few among the 72 percent believers will consciously admit to one or more of those reasons, but I think Davis is right.  A fair percentage of them believe because of religious indoctrination, but I doubt that more than two or three percent of the “believers” have arrived at their beliefs by examining all the evidence strongly suggesting it.  Of course, I am referring to the things usually discussed in this blog, including credible after-death communication, near-death experience, past-life studies, and various deathbed phenomena all pointing to survival of consciousness at death.

There seems to be quite a wide variance in such studies.  I recall a fairly recent survey putting the percentage of American believers at around 82 percent.  So much depends on the definitions given by those participating in the survey to various words.  Some studies have used “heaven” to be synonymous with “afterlife” and “atheist” to mean someone who doesn’t believe in God or an afterlife.  However, heaven is meaningless to some believers in an afterlife and there are atheists who believe in an afterlife but not in God, at least an anthropomorphic (humanlike) God.   

Davis also cites a recent study in Australia in which sociologist Andrew Singleton, interviewed 52 Australians aged 18-85.  Rather than a “yes” or “no” answer, Singleton queried people on the content and character of their beliefs.  Of the 52 people interviewed, 20 said they believe that “life continues in heaven,” while five said they believe we “continue on” as part of some greater consciousness.  In effect, those five do not believe that individual consciousness survives.  Nine said they believe in reincarnation and consider themselves “spiritual.”  Exactly what they believe happens to the soul between death and reincarnation or if there is a final incarnation and something after that seemed to be very vague and uncertain with most of them.  Two preferred to give no response.  The remaining 16 interviewees saw death as total extinction.

If we lump the heaven and reincarnation believers together, we have 29 of the 50 Australians who voiced their opinion, (58%), believing in some kind of individual survival and 21 (42%) rejecting such survival. 

According to Singleton, all of the 16 who said they do not believe claimed to be “entirely comfortable” in such belief.  He asked one of the 16 if he “secretly hoped” that there is life after death and the person claimed he didn’t.  I doubt, however, that many non-believers would admit to not being comfortable.  As I have observed it, it’s an ego thing, much more bravado (false courage) than indifference or true courage in the face of extinction.  I see it all the time on the Internet, mostly in comments left at some site discussing the subject of life after death. Nearly all of them, I sense, are young and fully engrossed in materialistic, even hedonistic, lifestyles.  They are former religionists who never get much past the point of dismissing a cruel and capricious god who lets bad things happen to people.  No god, no afterlife, they immediately conclude, falling back on their religious indoctrination that one has to identify an anthropomorphic (humanlike) god before taking the next step to believe in life after death.  They fail to see the forest for the trees, or rather they think they see the forest, but they haven’t really examined the trees.

When it is explained to these cynical non-believers that such a god as taught by religions is not required for a belief in life after death they are a bit taken aback as this runs contrary to their Sunday school teachings. When some evidence is offered to them that consciousness does survive death, they know just enough to counter with a theory that the medium was “fishing” for information in a cold reading or the near-death experience was no more than an hallucination resulting from oxygen deprivation.

When the young hedonist watches a sporting contest and see some athlete give thanks to God, he (sometimes she) smirks at such stupidity.  When he attends a Christmas pageant and hears religious songs, he snickers at such foolishness.  When he watches a movie and hears a grieving person mention that a deceased loved one is in a “better place” or “with God,” he sneers at such idiocy.  When someone suggests to him that there is strong evidence that consciousness does survive bodily death, he scoffs in self-righteous indignation.  However, when that same young hedonist first experiences the death of a spouse, partner, or a child, then we may very well see his smirk turn to a look of despair, his snicker to tears, his sneer to anguish, his scoff to downright hopelessness.  When some years later, he is told by his doctor that he has a fatal disease and only so many weeks to live before he falls into the abyss, the bravado turns to the tortured scream of a child.

All that is not to suggest that there are not some more stoic non-believers out there – those who can take the plunge into the abyss of nothingness without shaking in their boots.  My guess is that this person is probably living a life of pain or emotional despair and is in the same state of mind as the person who commits suicide.  To them, nothingness is better than a life of pain and suffering. However, I doubt that most of the 16 Australians are in this category.  As the existentialist Søren Kierkegaard put it, they are likely in despair; they just don’t realize it yet. 

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.

Next blog post:  August 22



I wish people doing research such as that Mike has reported on here would not always frame their questions in terms of “belief.”  As Yvonne pointed out, many people “believe” because they have had experiences of certain phenomena.  That is far different from believing something because it’s what they’ve been told.

I find simple belief in anything quite difficult.  There are things I have experienced repeatedly and consistently, and that therefore I know.  I don’t need to believe (or disbelieve), any more than I need to believe that if I step off a cliff I will fall.  Having experienced contact with deceased humans so many times, I don’t see “belief” as at all relevant.

To Bob George:  If you don’t know about the overwhelmingly strong evidence for an afterlife in some form, you must not have read much of Mike’s work as yet.  Please keep reading.

Elene, Mon 5 Sep, 09:21

In 2014 neurologists at UC Michigan performed a study by inducing cardiac arrest in rats while being monitored on advanced EEG units. What the experimenters found was that the rats exibited no brain activity for about one minute after inducing cardiac arrest; shortly thereafter there was a flurry of brain activity in the dead rats that persisted for as long as twenty minutes.

The experimenters conclude by saying that they believe that what they witnessed is the foundation to be able to explain the so-called near death experience.

While there are currently numerous theories supporting nde’s as a religious experience, there being an afterlife, spirits, etc, they’re all just varying ideas; noting conclusive or matter of fact.

Personally I feel the odds of there being an afterlife are very, very slim. Again, the “evidence” that many paranormalists speak of, especially hurried spiritual fanatics like Victor Zammit, amount to nothing more than mere theories than scientific fact.

And that’s the way it is.

Bob George, Fri 26 Aug, 07:22

I believe many young people believe in spirits, psychic phenomena, an afterlife because many have had their own spiritual experiences, know
someone who has had them and they believe them and/or are open to the possibility of it as there is so much material about it out in the media.
There is less of a stigma now. People don’t feel ashamed or afraid to share their personal spiritual experiences or ideas on it anymore. These are things people can or may experience first or second hand.
However, through my experience in the last 10 years with new people who have attended our Spiritist group in general, and religious discussions especially with young people, I find there is a lot of confusion about a GOD, a SUPREME INTELLIGENCE,
FIRST CAUSE OF ALL THINGS, etc., etc. whatever you want to call IT.
Many believe there is “something more then ourselves” but what does that mean? Everyone has a different answer.
Religious doctrines have caused much confusion: the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity, idea of an anthropomorphic God, Is Jesus God?
Then there are the concepts of whether we are co-creators, or that science says we don’t a God ...and on and on.
Atheists definitely are coming out of the closet more and more. Besides scientists, with characters on popular TV shows and other media.
If there is a material world that can be seen AND a spiritual world which can only be seen/felt/heard occasionally….what about a Creator? 
Just sharing some thoughts…

Yvonne Limoges, Sat 13 Aug, 19:59

Perhaps some reject the possibility of an afterlife in hopes of avoiding consequences of their thoughts, emotions, and actions that harmed others, if they believe that they got away with harming others while in the physical, they believe they will never face consequences. Extinction would mean not taking responsibility for mistakes, no apologies, and no recompense. I bet the life review frightens those who lived a selfish life so rejection of an afterlife is a ego defense mechanism that reduces that fear.

Elaine Heiby, Thu 11 Aug, 09:49

A very insightful post Mike. Great analysis.

Wendy and Victor, Mon 8 Aug, 23:30

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The Only Planet of Choice: Visitations – Many people use the word ‘Alien’ to describe a visitor from outer space. Extra terrestrial is another word, which is rather more user friendly. For the sake of the question and answer format, the word used by the questioner has been left, though even Tom questions our use of‘Alien’. Should we wish to foster openess between all beings of the Universe perhaps we should also look at our vocabulary? In a discussion between Andrew and Tom many years earlier, Andrew had asked Tom about UFOs and whether they were created manifestations. Tom had replied: “Many of the flying things that you call UFOs come from our place, but they come from other places also, and they do come in physical form. But many of them are not physical. They are like your movie screen”. Read here
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