Contextual theories of afterlife beliefs

Like cognitive theories, contextual theories also tend to endorse the possibility that cognitive predispositions underpin ideas about the afterlife. Still, they place more emphasis on the role of cultural transmission and cultural learning on the development of these ideas. Researchers who propose contextual accounts of afterlife beliefs often conduct cross-cultural research. Contextual theories depict representations of death and the afterlife as more fluid and nuanced than cognitive approaches.

Immortality in the afterlife as culturally learned

Developmental psychologist Paul Harris, social anthropologist Rita Astuti, and psychologist Marta Gimenez conducted a series of cross-cultural studies with children and adults. These studies aimed to assess the extent to which there are cultural similarities and variability in children’s and adult’s reasoning about death and the afterlife. The researchers thus selected two cultures that differed according to people’s exposure to death and culturally endorsed views on the afterlife. First, Harris and Gimenez conducted studies in Madrid, Spain,6 where Catholicism is the predominant religious affiliation, and a belief in Christian Heaven is apparent. Next, Astuti and Harris conducted a follow-up study in rural Madagascar, a country off the southeast coast of Africa, where a belief in ancestors is culturally endorsed. Ancestors are dead relatives who are said to affect the living, and people often behave in ways that aim to please their ancestors.7

The study in rural Madagascar is especially crucial for understanding how variation in cultural input may affect the development of afterlife beliefs for three reasons.

First, Madagascar is a non-western culture. The context enables researchers to assess whether the findings of their studies are a product of western ideas about death and the afterlife or whether they generalize across cultures. Second, children in Madagascar have many more experiences of death than is typical of western cultures because they participate in the killing of animals. This context enables researchers to investigate the impact of the first-hand experience on concepts of the afterlife. Third, ancestral beliefs and practices are widespread in Madagascar. These beliefs would allow researchers to assess the extent to which culturally accepted ideas influence people’s concepts of death and the afterlife.

Harris and colleagues found that children were mostly unsystematic in their responses to questions about life after death before the age of seven. Thus, the researchers did not focus on pinpointing the cognitive default view of young children’s reasoning about death because their research indicates that young children do not exhibit any consistent patterns. Instead, they are interested in explaining ideas about death that appear to be increasingly consolidated in older children. These findings are in contrast to the results of Bering’s studies. As you may recall, Bering and colleagues found that younger children (from around age five) tended to say that all states continued; in other words, they were immortalists. These findings led Bering to propose that the cognitive default view is personal immortality, which helps to explain the widespread endorsement of afterlife beliefs.

Harris and colleagues found that children became more systematic in their reasoning about death from around age seven. At this age, they characterize children as extinctivists, tending to deny the continuity of all states to people after death. Harris and colleagues propose that children are essentially espousing a predominantly biological view of death. This emerging biological view of death is likely to be a product of both children’s increasing understanding of biolog)' and in some circumstances, such as in the context of Madagascar, their personal experience of death. As they come to understand that the cessation of biological functions characterizes death, children assume that the processes that sustain life (including cognitive and emotional states) cease at death.

The research of Harris and colleagues also suggest that while children’s earliest systematic view of death is extinctivist, they gradually come to view some aspects of a person as continuing to exist. Like Bering, they found that older children and adults are more likely to claim that mental processes continue after death than younger children. Bering asked participants questions about the physical and mental processes of characters in his studies. In the studies in Madagascar, Astuti and Harris also included questions about the continuity of the soul after biological death. While participants responded that the mind was more likely to continue than the physical body, results demonstrated that they also thought that the soul was more likely to continue than the mind.

When interpreting their research findings, Harris and colleagues did not rule out the possibility that intuitive biases underpinned participants’ reasoning. They placed more emphasis, however, on the role of cultural learning about the afterlife to explain their findings, as children get older, they are exposed to afterlife beliefs and rituals in the community. Ideas about life after death, therefore, become more accessible through frequent activation, and children come to adopt them. For instance, in Madagascar, people often talk about the intentions and desires of the ancestors who are said to be lurking around. They also participate in rituals designed to honor their ancestors.