Fear of death facilitates the spread of afterlife beliefs

Philosopher Shaun Nichols proposes a more reasonable theory to explain the relationship between the fear of death and the motivation to believe in an afterlife. Nichols does not focus on trying to explain the origins of afterlife beliefs, but rather, the prevalence of specific ideas about the afterlife within and across cultures. This focus is typical of CSR scholars, but Nichols’s account is unique because he combines both motivational and cognitive factors.

Drawing on the epidemiological approach proposed by Dan Sperber (covered in Chapter 5: The Nature of the World), Nichols argues that motivationally attractive representations of the afterlife are better remembered and transmitted. Thus, in addition to sociocultural factors, human psychology can explain why specific ideas about the afterlife become prevalent. Taking a historical perspective, Nichols supports his claim by drawing from Abrahamic religions. He proposes that many failed descendants of Abrahamic religions do not preserve motivationally attractive elements, including the idea of an afterlife. For example, the Deistic view that God created the world with no guarantee of immortality (or divine justice for that matter), or in the case of early Judaism, the Sadducees’ rejection of the existence of an afterlife. Nichols coded doctrines in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam as motivationally attractive or not, mainly based on Freud’s writings. He found that motivationally appealing doctrines (including the idea of a harmonious afterlife) were more likely to persist into the descendant religion than motivationally neutral ideas.

This historical analysis is not without its weaknesses, however. For instance, it relies on Nichols’ interpretation and does not take account of sociocultural factors, including past contact between traditions. Overall, this study does not provide evidence that the motivation to believe in an afterlife (preferably a pleasant one) causes people to believe or even causes religious doctrines to succeed. What Nichols is arguing, instead, is that motivationally attractive elements have a psychological advantage when they are introduced to a population. This advantage, when coupled with other sociocultural forces—such as wealth and cultural domination, make the doctrine more readily adopted, resilient to change, and more faithfully transmitted by ordinary people.

Key points

  • • Nichols combines cognitive and motivational factors to account for the success of some popular theological ideas about the afterlife.
  • • He draws on the epidemiology of representations theory by Sperber, and the ideas of TMT, to argue that motivationally attractive depictions of the afterlife are better remembered and transmitted.

Summary of motivational theories of afterlife beliefs

Many theorists have contemplated the question of why humans are motivated to believe in the afterlife. Freud tried to explain the origins of afterlife beliefs. While TMT theorists largely abandoned this endeavor of finding the origins, they continue to adopt the basic argument that fear of death motivates people to believe that life continues after death. TMT has, however, received mixed empirical support, and it is uncertain whether it is the fear of death, or the denial of the fear of death, that causes people to adopt a belief in the afterlife. Shaun Nichols provides a more nuanced account of the role of death anxiety. His account holds that in addition to other social factors, religious doctrines that include an idea of life after death, and those that include particularly appealing versions of the afterlife, are more likely to be accepted by people and transmitted to others. It seems that what people want to happen after their death may well affect what they are likely to believe.

Participation 3: Afterlife documentary

Imagine that you have landed a new job as a documentarian. Your first assignment is to create a 30-minute documentary called “why do people believe in the afterlife?” Based on your background research of reading this chapter:

  • 1 Prepare an outline. Include 3-5 main points the documentary will make, a list of people you will interview, and what images you will include.
  • 2 Create a 5-minute voice-over narrative for the documentary. You may write this down, or record it on an electronic device, such as an iPhone.
  • 3 In groups of 3-4 students, offer feedback on each member’s outline and voice-over. Consider questions such as: Did they present the material accurately? Did they misrepresent someone’s work? Would ordinary people understand the claims they are making?
  • 4 Revise your outline and voice-over to improve them, based upon the feedback you received.