By Ojibwa | 9 January 2016
Religion is a human universal: that is, some form of religion is found in all human cultures. In looking for possible reasons for this universality, one common hypothesis is that religion functions to: (1) explain death and (2) console the living. In doing this, many religious traditions, but not all, claim there is an afterlife of some type, that death is not the end but is rather a transition from one state of consciousness into another.
From a Eurocentric viewpoint in which religion is defined primarily as the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) and Asian traditions (Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Jainism) are not considered religions, British philosopher A.C. Grayling, in his book The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism, writes:
“Most religions teach belief in an afterlife. Familiarly, what their votaries are taught to believe is that their posthumous existence begins with a judgement that results in punishment or reward, and for the vast majority it will be punishment, for sin lurks in every crease and fold of the moments of physical existence.”
With an emphasis on judgment, punishment, and reward as the essential features of the afterlife, many people have concluded that this is the basis of morality, of the concepts of right and wrong, and that people live moral lives because of their fear of judgment in the afterlife. However, many religious traditions do not have this concept of the afterlife and people still live moral lives.
Viewing the belief in an afterlife of some type from a psychological perspective, Jesse Bering, in the Scientific American’s The Secrets of Consciousness, writes:
“And yet people in every culture believe in an afterlife of some kind or, at the very least, are unsure about what happens to the mind after death. My psychological research has led me to believe that these irrational beliefs, rather than resulting from religion or serving to protect us from the terror of inexistence, are an inevitable by-product of self-consciousness. Because we have never experienced a lack of consciousness, we cannot imagine what it will feel like to be dead. In fact, it won’t feel like anything—and therein lies the problem.”
Jesse Bering also writes:
“The common view of death as a great mystery is brushed aside as an emotionally fueled desire to believe that death isn’t the end of the road. And indeed, a prominent school of research in social psychology called terror management theory contends that afterlife beliefs, as well as less obvious beliefs, behaviors and attitudes, exist to assuage what would otherwise be crippling anxiety about the ego’s inexistence.”
If we expand the conceptualization of religion beyond the restrictive notion of the Abrahamic traditions defining religions, scholars of comparative religion and anthropology have pointed out that there are probably more than 6,000 religions and that many of these, but not all, have some concept of an afterlife. Many scholars and armchair philosophers have attempted to create hypotheses about why the belief in an afterlife is so common.
In general, it seems that there are three basic groups of hypotheses with regard to why belief in an afterlife is so common: (1) Stress Reduction and Wishful Thinking; (2) Social Glue; and (3) Social Control.
Stress Reduction and Wishful Thinking:
With regard to the Stress Reduction function of the belief in an afterlife, James Peoples and Garrick Bailey, in their textbook Humanity: An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, write:
“The notion that belief in life after death helps to calm our fears and alleviate our anxieties seems reasonable. This theory is tainted by an ethnocentric assumption, however: although most religions do include beliefs about some kind of afterlife, in a great many cultures the afterlife is far from pleasant.”
With regard to the Wishful Thinking hypothesis, Steve Stewart-Williams, in an article in Free Inquiry, writes:
“According to some scholars (and many barstool philosophers), religion is all about comfort and consolations. Religious beliefs are mollycoddling illusions.”
In his book The God Delusion Richard Dawkins writes:
“Many religions, for example, teach the objectively implausible but subjectively appealing doctrine that our personalities survive our bodily death. The idea of immortality itself survives and spreads because it caters to our wishful thinking.”
In other words, belief in an afterlife makes people feel better and alleviates some fear of the unknown. Steve Stewart-Williams writes:
“The belief in life after death may eliminate—or at least weaken—the fear of personal extinction, the overwhelming sadness we experience when a loved one dies, and the sense that a life of finite duration would be meaningless.”
Death—the realization of one’s own death as well as the death of a family member or friend—is often stress inducing. Wayne Trotta, in an article in Free Inquiry, writes:
“Much of the appeal of religion has to do with the prospect of an afterlife, which promises not only life after death but also that justice will be properly meted out and the inequalities of this world rectified for all time.”
Religion often serves to bring people together. This is best seen during ceremonies, and for many religions one of the ceremonies that serves as social glue is the funeral. Steve Stewart-Williams writes:
“The social-glue theory is probably the second-most popular theory of religion. The idea that religious beliefs are the cement that holds societies together.”
Anthropologists John Monaghan and Peter Just, writing about the connection between society and religion in their book Social and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short Introduction, say:
“A crude way of putting this idea is that religious rituals are instances of ‘society worshipping itself’, while at the same time creating intense personal communal experiences that confirm social solidarity.”
As a rite of passage, funerals connect the world of the living with the ancestors; they connect the past and the present. In his book Human Evolution, Robin Dunbar writes:
“Archaeologists have typically been willing to accept only deliberate burials as evidence for belief in an afterlife, and they have identified deliberate burials as inhumations that are associated with grave goods. Grave goods are taken to imply that the dead need the accoutrements of everyday life in the afterlife. It is difficult to conceive of any reason for taking such care when disposing of the dead if one did not believe in an afterlife.”
Steve Stewart-Williams writes:
“We know that human beings were burying their dead for many thousands of years before the emergence of large-scale civilizations, and we know that the burials were attended by complex and costly rituals and offerings. This strongly suggests that our Paleolithic forebears had some conception of life after death. Afterlife beliefs may be tens of thousands of years old.”
One of the functions of elaborate funerals and the construction of tombs may have been to integrate people from several different areas. By coming together for tomb construction and for the funeral itself, people living in different villages were able to re-affirm their solidarity as a single people.
With regard to religion as a source or mechanism for social control: Steve Stewart-Williams writes:
“According to this view, rather than religious beliefs functioning for the good of society or individual believers, they function for the good of … the people who promote the beliefs! They are tools of social manipulation. Parents and teachers use them to control children; husbands use them to control wives (and vice versa); slave owners use them to control slaves; the ruling classes use them to control peasants or the proletariat; and priests, kings, and other leaders use them to control tribes, guilds, and nations.”
Religion often provides an explanation and justification for social roles. These roles include the expected behavior of men and women, of husbands and wives, of parents and children, of political leaders and the people. In his book Patterns of Social Organization: A Survey of Social Institutions, Jonathan Turner writes:
“Religious rituals and values frequently reinforce concrete norms guiding role behavior within the economic, familial, and political spheres.”
In a similar vein, anthropologist Raymond Firth, in his book Elements of Social Organization, writes:
“Religion is thus largely a supporter of the social order, and much of its strength springs from its correspondence with the collective organization.”
Religion can explain why some people are poor, some are rich, and why institutions such as chattel slavery are proper. In their book Sacred Realms: Essays in Religion, Belief, and Society, Richard Warms, James Garber, and Jon McGeee write:
“At most times and in most places, religion supports the social and economic arrangements of society.”
Writing about the Marxist view of religion, Malory Nye, in his Religion: The Basics, says:
“And because so many religions tend to present a world in which existing social relations are not only ‘natural’ but also ‘god-given’ (or divinely ordained), religion does the dirty work of keeping the oppressed content with their oppression.”
Nye goes on to say:
“…religion is a symptom of a sick social system, which is used by both the ruling class and the exploited workers as a means of obscuring the root problems of economic and political inequality.”
In the United States and other Western nations today, it is not uncommon to hear politicians and religious leaders using the threat of punishment in the hereafter as a way of maintaining social control and preventing social change. This is particularly evident in issues such as women’s roles in society, same sex marriage, abortion, and the role of wealth.
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