Belief in Life After Death and Belief in a Just World

From Tom Rees of Epiphenom:

Religion and afterlife beliefs are pretty tightly bound together, and there are several ideas why that might be. One is that belief in an afterlife might help people to be more relaxed about threats and adversity in the here and now.

Kevin Flannelly at the Spears Research Institute in New York and his colleagues assessed data from the 2010 Baylor Religion Survey to see whether belief in the afterlife was linked to different worldviews. He found that positive beliefs about the afterlife (belief that the afterlife means a union with God, a reunion with loved ones, and/or a life of eternal reward or eternal punishment) increased the likelihood of believing that this world is just. In other words, people who believed in an afterlife were more likely to think that “Anything is possible if you work hard” and that “Everyone starts out with the same chances in life.” They were less likely to agree that “The world is controlled by a few powerful people” or that “Finance is a field where people get rich without making a real contribution to society.”

Flannelly also found that people who believed in a just world had less anxiety and other psychiatric symptoms, such as paranoia, obsession, and compulsion.

Plugging these results into a statistical model, he found that the lower level of psychiatric symptoms seen in religious people in the Baylor survey can be explained as a result of their belief in the afterlife, moderated by its effects on their beliefs in a just world. He interprets this in terms of evolutionary threat assessment systems theory, which hypothesizes that hypersensitivity to threats in your environment (real or imagined) is a fundamental cause of many psychiatric symptoms.

Now, these results are interesting for a few reasons. Firstly, they support other results that suggest that religious people are more likely to believe that the world we live in is just—that people succeed or fail because of their own attributes, and dumb luck has little influence (and that, in turn, may help to explain the link between religion and opposition to the welfare state).

Personally, I’m not convinced that this is caused by belief in the afterlife. It seems to me that these attitudes are more likely to come about through a belief that a god is intervening in this world—and that any beliefs in the afterlife are part of the package, rather than a direct influence.

The other interesting thing to speculate about is how these beliefs might play out in other parts of the world. Although in the United States modern Christianity has reshaped itself to pretty much guarantee a life of eternal bliss to all believers, that isn’t the case for religion in other parts of the world. Muslims are pretty freaked out by their prospects in the afterlife, for example.

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One Response

  1. This commentary shows the problems of over generalization and simplification. Muslims are pretty freaked out about their afterlife because Allah is an arbitrary diety. One can nedver be certain where one stands with Allah.

    Jews probably believe in a just world, even though many I understand do not believe in heaven, at least the way that Christians so. Black people definitely believe in heaven, although many are not certain that good work will get its just reward on earth.

    Christians do believe that generally speaking life is just. On the other hand they recognize that this is not always so, and so we need to look after those in need and there is heaven to reward all who are faithful, not all who are rich or poor or whatever.

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