Belief in an Afterlife

A great majority of Americans believe that there is some sort of afterlife, or a “continued existence” after death. Most feel this afterlife will be blissful and only 21% are certain of hell’s existence. Studies show that people hesitate to name others they believe are bound for hell, even “extremely heinous historical figures.” Many Americans believe that their spirits will continue into the afterlife instead of their physical bodies.

Robert Lifton’s Five Forms of Immortality:

  • Biological immortality – Living on through ones offspring; contributions
  • Theological immortality* – Spiritual, religious continuation of existence
  • Creative immortality – Living on through “works of achievement”
  • Nature immortality – Living on because of being intertwined with nature
  • Experiential transcendence – Mystical immortality

*Theological immortality is the most common understanding of afterlife among traditionally religious people in America. This mode was also found to counter a fear of death and the loss of control after death, unlike the other forms.

More Protestants believe in an afterlife than Catholics, and Jews were the most skeptical of its existence. Age does not seem to be a predictor of belief in an afterlife, although studies amongst religious believers show that those between the ages of 30 and 69 are more prone to believe in an afterlife. Demographic information such as gender, education, and socio-economic status seems to correlate with belief in the afterlife. Women are more likely to agree to the existence of heaven and hell than men, which may be affirmation of the fact that women tend to be generally more religious than men. There is a drop-off of believers among those with some college experience, and especially among those with four or more years of college experience. This trend continues in the socio-economic demographic, with lower levels of believers in the afterlife among the upper class, with highest levels in the working and lower class.

Religion and Anxiety about Death

Some researchers believe that belief in an afterlife should correlate with anxiety about death. While most data have shown inconclusive results regarding this matter, a study by Osarchuk and Tatz shows that making believers aware of the imminent threat of death increases their faith in the existence of an afterlife. Similarly, many people may be incline to alter their behavior based on the prospect of life after death.

Near-Death Experiences

15% of Americans allege to have experienced a so-called near-death experience (NDEs), while this number rises to 23% among those with religious identification. This also seems to correlate with belief in other “extraordinary phenomena,” like UFOs and reincarnation. Even among scientists, 10% claim to have been involved in an NDE, although many explained this encounter as a strictly neurological experience. Many believe cultural influence to play a significant role in the amount of NDE experiences in a certain area. Nowadays, thirty years since their latest resurgence of popularity, academia has shied away from serious involvement with NDEs.

Contact with the Dead

Another way to assess a belief in an afterlife is the prevalence of reported contact with the deceased, or as some have called it, “idonecrophany.” Research varies on the issue, and the percentage of those with a recent death of a loved one who claim to have had contact with that person ranges from 40% to 90% and corresponds highly with cultural and demographic differences. Still, it is difficult to separate “obsessive thinking” from actual belief of contact with the loved one. Almost all widows report feeling their late husbands’ presence, and one study shows 64% continue to think about their husbands a great deal a year after death. A rift appears in a study that shows that while 40% of those interviewed claim to have contacted the dead, only 24% believe that such contact is even possible. Moreover, religious affiliation does not seem to play a role in whether someone is more or less likely to have a contact experience.

Coping and Fear of Death

Does having a religion reduce one’s fear of death and dying? Research problems such as confounding measures and weak experimental designs challenge the empirical study of this question. However, large multi-study surveys point towards the probability that religious commitment does in fact play a role in mollifying a fear of death. Intrinsic religious observers tend to have less anxiety about death than extrinsic observers; that is, those who are more internally religious have less anxiety about death, and those who practice religion for the social or economic benefits have more fear or death.

Research consistently shows that those who are intrinsically religious report more successful coping habits than nonreligious or extrinsically religious individuals. However, religion’s role in coping from the death of a loved one may be an indirect one. Some psychologists claim that instead of directly positively effecting an individual’s mental understanding or rationalization of the death of a loved one, religion works to strengthen social bonds in times of need, which in turn work towards facilitating the individual’s coping ability. Still, others believe that coping success comes from religion’s offering of a promise of an afterlife, where people can be reunited with ones they’ve lost. Religion can also offer meaning to mourners by suggesting death serves a greater purpose or even because it is the result of punishment.

Religion and Death in the Elderly

Many studies have shown that religious people over the age of 65 have less anxiety and concern about death. In those that are both religious and disengaging later in life, religion may replace lost contacts or activities. Whether religion actually plays a role in longevity is a controversial topic. One study found the 1-year survival rates of 1,300 octogenarians to be unrelated to religion. Follow up studies confirm this finding. However, other researchers claim that chronically ill patients who were religious lived longer. Since then, others have pointed out that those who died sooner also were in poorer health, a factor that may account for their counterparts’ report of religiosity.

The stress of impending death can bear down on the elderly. For those who are religious, the traditional religious coping mechanisms come to play a major role in their everyday lives. Prayer is the most popular of these mechanisms. All together, researchers across the board admit that the happiest of the elderly are also the most religious. Few psychologists doubt the power of religious faith later in life.

Hood, Ralph W., Jr., Spilka, Bernard, Hunsberger, Bruce, & Corsuch, Richard. The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach (2nd ed.) New York: Guilford, 1996
Paloutzian. Invitation to the Psychology of Religion (2nd ed.) Pearson Allyn & Bacon, 1996

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