The afterlife

The belief that something extraordinary happens to people when they die is cross-culturally ubiquitous. Across the dazzling array of ideas about the afterlife, there are a few underlying assumptions in common depictions: that the person survives biological death, retains his or her mental processes and identity, embarks on a journey to the next life, and resides in a physical location. In this chapter, we will consider three types of theories in the cognitive evolutionary sciences about why these ideas are so prevalent.

First, we consider cognitive theories of afterlife beliefs. These theories propose that we are cognitively predisposed to represent people as continuing in some form after biological death. Second, we turn to contextual approaches of afterlife beliefs. These theories also tend to endorse cognitive predispositions and biases as underpinning ideas about the afterlife. Still, they tend to place more emphasis on context and the role of cultural transmission and cultural learning on the development and endorsement of these ideas than cognitive accounts. Third, we consider motivational theories of afterlife beliefs, which focus on the motivation to believe that life exists after biological death. These include terror management theorists who propose that belief in an afterlife is driven by the need to control the fear of death. The chapter ends by considering the implications of cognitive science of religion (CSR) theories on the truth, rationality, and justification of afterlife beliefs.

Cognitive theories of afterlife beliefs

Cognitive scientists of religion have argued that cognitive predispositions help to explain why people find it relatively easy to accept the idea of an afterlife, and why specific ideas about the afterlife—for example, that mental process such as thinking, continue—are cross-culturally recurrent. In what follows, we review research that investigates children’s and adults’ representations of death and the afterlife, before turning to contextual theories.

 
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