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.
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
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:
Paloutzian. Invitation to the Psychology of Religion (2nd ed.) Pearson
Allyn & Bacon, 1996