The Afterlife that Few Desire
I am drawing to close a series of five conference presentations this fall/summer, as part of my sabbatical activities. My fourth presentation – on religious nones in Canada – just took place east of Los Angeles with the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network. This is a wonderful group of international scholars, investigating what is arguably one of the most pressing areas of inquiry related to religion today. I look forward to actively researching in this area for years to come.Now I head to San Diego to present with the American Academy of Religion. My topic there is the afterlife. Based on my interview data with regular church attenders (“active affiliates”), those who attend mainly for religious holidays and rites of passage (“marginal affiliates”), and those who never attend (“religious nones”): do people believe in the afterlife, do they desire life after death – not that they want to escape this life for the next life, but do they orient their beliefs and practices on earth with an eye toward the afterlife – and what do people believe is required to obtain eternal life?
I explored these questions originally because some scholars posit that there is an unending demand for the things that religion offers, namely life after death. Their contention is that religion will never disappear because individuals grapple with questions of ultimate significance such as death, and they want answers to these questions … and religion is well suited in this regard. Moreover, many religious leaders and religious individuals believe that the afterlife drives much of what religious groups and individuals do (or should do), to the point that various attitudes and behaviours are embraced with the expectation that they will lead to eternal life. But are these assumptions warranted? What role/place does the afterlife play in people’s lives?
In descending order, active affiliates are the most likely to believe in life after death, reinforcing traditional Christian conceptions of heaven and hell. Many marginal affiliates believe similarly to active affiliates, though a solid group of atheist and agnostic marginal affiliates are less inclined to believe in the afterlife. Some religious nones reinforce active affiliate belief and others believe in reincarnation, though most either reject the existence of life after death or they are unsure of what happens after they die.
Interestingly, when I ask individuals who are relatively religious why they are religious, the afterlife never comes up in their open-ended responses as a driving reason or motivation. Most are religious for fairly “this-world” reasons – it provides them comfort in times of stress, helps them to experience community with others, gives them meaning and direction in life, or helps one to feel loved by God and others. Explorations into people’s desire for life after death suggest that those who believe that there is something beyond this physical world are happy to envision what the next life might entail. But they are clear that believing in the afterlife does not in any substantive way orient their religious beliefs and practices on earth. Life after death does not drive them to be religious, or keep them from leaving their faith, nor do they take up religion with the sole (or main) intent of ensuring a ticket to the next life (if there is one).
As for what is required to obtain the afterlife, some active affiliates are unsure of what is required and others believe that anyone can obtain the next life. But most claim that some combination of “proper” belief and practice are required. This involves believing that Jesus died on a cross for people’s sins, that one must repent to Jesus for their sins, proclaim that God will guide one’s life, and in turn actively pursue religious practices such as regular prayer, scripture reading, church attendance, serving the less fortunate, and other “moral” attitudes and behaviours. Marginal affiliates and religious nones most often claim that people of all religious faiths or no religious faith at all can move on to the next life, so long as they are good, upright, moral people (i.e. stay away from the “major sins” such as stealing, murder, or rape).
In short, while active affiliates overwhelmingly believe in the afterlife, many marginal affiliates do, and some religious nones do, the afterlife is not a dominant variable in people’s religious decision-making processes. There are many potential explanations for this, and a series of implications for religious belief and practice moving forward – all of which I deal with in my forthcoming book, set to come out sometime next year – but suffice it to say that belief in the afterlife is not the same as “unending desire” for the afterlife. This finding ought to adjust the way that both scholars and practitioners think about life after death relative to religion’s place for individuals and society today.
Surprised? Disappointed? Have additional thoughts or reflections on this topic? Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and stay in touch via my website at www.joelthiessen.ca.