Friday, July 15, 2005

Is the "afterlife" a human universal?   posted by Razib @ 7/15/2005 11:08:00 PM

In Frank Tipler's The Physics of Immortality : Modern Cosmology, God and the Resurrection of the Dead he makes a really strange case for the existence of God (I'm not going to try to summarize it). Nevertheless, one of his points is that religion needs science to buttress itself against erosion among the educated. I happen to think that to the first aproximation is wrong, but, one data point that Tipler grasped on to was that scientists in the United States expressed far less belief in life after death in the 1990s than they did in the early 20th century (suggesting the corrosive impact of science was taking its toll). Unfortunately for Tipler's case, it is undermined by the fact that their rates of God belief remained about the same.

I am one who has gone on the record that I think that belief in a supernatural deity is probably a human cognitive bias, overreach of the agency detection mechanism. How it manifests itself (and how frequently) in society is shaped by the "environment" (however you define it). On the other hand, as to the question of the afterlife, I don't think it is necessarily a cognitive bias, at least in the form that Westerners generally conceive of it, that is, heavenly immortality. No matter the theological nuances I can perceive the same general characteristics of the deity in most religions, "high" and "low." On the other hand, most ancient Greeks did not go to the Fields of Elysium, Gilgamesh's true immortality was attained through the memory of his fame, while to be a bit simplistic, one disagreemant between the Sadduccees and Pharisees was whether there actually was an immortal soul (sheol seems more like the underworld of the Greeks and Mesopotamians than heaven).

I think Tipler's problem was that he was comparing two very different concepts. "God" is a rather intuitive one. Frankly, aside from religious professionals the people most engaged with, and aware of, the God of the philosophers as elaborated by theologians are usually atheists! Certainly most religious people sincerely believe in creedal formulas, but I've said many times I don't think these are really substantive assertions because I don't think most people know the philosophical details, nor do I think the philosophical details express much more than word games which spawn a niche for religious professionals and the institutions they create. In contrast, I suspect that the Christian-Muslim-Jewish broad sense idea of eternally blissful afterlife (derived from Zoroastrianism) is something that needs to be learned.1 "Beliefs about death" are listed among the human universals, but my impression from the anthropological and historical literature is that these beliefs are generally not positive ones, and often rather vague and incoherent (perhaps because thoughts of death are not emotionally attractive). Roughly speaking, modern ideas about the afterlife (belief which tends to score lower in frequency than "God" in surveys) derive from institutional religions, and supersede the dark imaginings of our intuition. In contrast, institutional religions simply add some nuance (or gibberish, depending on your perspective) to our intuitive beliefs about God.2

Which all relates back to the poll results (taken by Leuba in the early 20th century and Larson and Witham in the late 20th century), belief in the afterlife has eroded among scientists to a greater extend than belief in God because the former is a reflective wish, while the latter is a natural belief.

Related: Reflections on the "God Module."

1 - Hindu and Buddhist beliefs differ in the details, but in the end I think they offer the same general relatively "positive" outlooks in comparison to "tribal" religions.

2 - This is not to say that positive beliefs about the afterlife are not here to stay, rather, I am simply suggesting that if H. sapiens reverted to hunter-gatherer bands, eternal bliss in the glory of the Lord might be forgotten without the indoctrination by professionals and their attendant institutions, but belief in the Lord would not.