Is Believing in an Afterlife a Coping Mechanism?

A few days ago, I visited family in New York, and had an interesting conversation with my uncle. He took me aside during the reunion and said, “Look, I want you to be honest. I’m going to ask you a question. I won’t tell other people, but I’d like for you to respond with the truth.”

I have a lot of respect for this uncle, who always seemed very down to earth to me, so I barely hesitated before saying, “OK. What’s your question?”

He whispered in my ear, “Are you an atheist?”

I was relieved it was a question that I could easily answer truthfully. Even though I hadn’t actually told anyone in my extended family yet, my parents already knew. “Yes.”

He shook my hand and said, “Good for you. I was worried you and your brothers had been too brainwashed to come to your own conclusions.”

I explained that one of my brothers takes my parents’ word as law, but the other has expressed some doubts to me. He said he was relieved to hear that, then said, “You know with your parents, it’s a coping mechanism, right? They don’t want to die, so they have to believe in an afterlife.”

I nodded. “It’s hard to deal with the idea that you’ll cease to exist at some point.”

“Yeah,” he replied. “It’s a little easier for me though. I used to be an atheist, like you, but I did more research and I’m actually a Buddhist. Are you cool with that?”

Of course, I assured him, I’m glad he came to a conclusion that makes sense to him, regardless of what it is. While I don’t think Buddhism offers any new truth or revelation worth believing in, I don’t know much about it, so I’m not going to judge it with my limited knowledge. Then my uncle said something else that was very interesting. “I mean, I don’t exactly believe in that heaven or hell stuff, but I believe in reincarnation until I reach enlightenment.” I think he mentioned coming back as a blank slate to sort of try again until you get life right.

I didn’t want to argue with him, so i just said, “Oh, OK. If that’s what works for you, go for it.” We shook hands again. I’m fine with people coming to their own conclusions, but I did see some issues with what my uncle had said as I understood it. I’ve had almost no experience with Buddhism, so I’ll stick to the idea of reincarnation as I understand it (which may or may not be accurate. It was one conversation), and why I have trouble seeing it the way he does.

I don’t see how one can think that believing in an afterlife, which is just one form of eternal life, is a coping mechanism, but reincarnation isn’t. (Unless he was trying to tell me that he knows it’s a coping mechanism, but believes it anyway.) Either way, some part of you lives on after you die, whether it’s living in paradise, hell, or a new body, you’re not ceasing to exist the moment your brain stops functioning. Regardless of which one you believe in, you’re left with a feeling that you’re not going to cease to exist; some part of you always remains.

I will say that in some forms reincarnation probably could acknowledge death somewhat better than some forms of living after death, if the person believes that one’s memories will be removed and he or she will return as a blank slate. In that case, though, aren’t you technically dead? I mean, we declare people dead all the time even when their bodies are still living. It’s not always your heart that gives out. Sometimes it’s your brain. If that’s true, then you’re not getting closer and closer to enlightenment with each try because each time you’re starting at zero:  with the mind of an infant. So it’s hit or miss. You either get it right, or you try again to hit the bull’s eye.

If that’s the case, then it seems completely random to me, like firing blindfolded. Sure, you might hit the bull’s eye, but you might hit the ground, or a tree, or your friend, who’s aiming at his own target. If there’s no governing force controlling who you come back as, then you might be reborn in a situation where you’re not going to discover anything new. Nature vs. nurture is a question that can be discussed for days, but psychology typically says it’s a combination of the two that leads us to become who we are. You could get genes that make you prone to violence, or you could grow up in a neighborhood where you have to steal to survive. You could even be born with both. How is that life going to bring you closer to your goal of enlightenment, whatever that is? I assume there’s some sort of moral system in place. I’ve read a little about karma and other cosmic forces for morality, and maybe when you put them together with reincarnation they build a more compelling situation, but nevertheless, believing in reincarnation seems to leave the believer with a sense that death is not the end for that individual, and that’s simply not the way I see it. Who I am is intrinsically tied to my memories, my personality, and my genetic predisposition towards things, and all of that is stored in my brain. Without that being completely transferred to another being, I will die and cease to exist. If, on the other hand, you believe that I will retain my memories and move on, then it’s an afterlife, and in my mind, that could just as easily be called a coping mechanism as belief in heaven and hell. 

I definitely need to do some research on Buddhism. I hope I haven’t offended anyone by completely misunderstanding reincarnation, but I was going off of a brief conversation, and limited exposure to the idea as someone who grew up steeped in western culture.

Is belief in life after death a coping mechanism? This question interests me a lot. Feel free to leave comments.

Happy thinking!

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4 thoughts on “Is Believing in an Afterlife a Coping Mechanism?

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head, that if belief in heaven and hell is a coping mechanism, then so is belief in an afterlife.

    I disagree with both you and your uncle, that people believe in the Christian afterlife for purposes of comfort. I mean, people may believe in it for all kinds of reasons, but I can’t see any sense in it.

    First, believing that we simply cease to exist, seems far more comforting to me, since if that’s true then you don’t really have to worry about how you live your life. Ultimately it will end up meaning nothing to you: You will have nothing to suffer for the bad things you’ve done, and you will have no regrets about anything, since there will be no “you” to do the regretting.

    In this scenario, if life ever becomes too hard to bear, you can instantly end your suffering by simply blowing your brains out or jumping off a building, with no fear of repercussions.

    Whereas in the Christian view of the afterlife, the vast majority of people will have to suffer for their misdeeds, either in Hell or in Purgatory. Some will end up being compensated for their suffering in Heaven, but Jesus seems to indicate in the scriptures that at least as many, if not more, will go to everlasting torment.

    And Christians don’t necessarily have it easier, since the more you know, the more you are held accountable for.

    In terms of reincarnation, yeah, that could be comforting too, more so than the Christian afterlife, since the worst you have to look forward to is one earthly life after another. But for pure comfort, easily attained, I would take everlasting oblivion any day.

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  2. When I wrote, “I think you hit the nail on the head, that if belief in heaven and hell is a coping mechanism, then so is belief in an afterlife,” — instead of “an afterlife” I meant “reincarnation”.

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    • I’m sorry I haven’t been responding much. I’m a college student and classes are starting this week. Before that I was scrambling to move to school, so due to a crazy schedule, my responses will be sporadic at best, at least during the school year.

      As you’ve already noticed, I have a very different view on an afterlife. I’m going to respond mainly to your third paragraph where you said, “…believing that we simply cease to exist, seems far more comforting to me, since if that’s true then you don’t really have to worry about how you live your life.”

      That statement actually doesn’t fit with my view of life, nor does it fit with the views of many of the atheists who I’ve heard speak on the subject, so I’d like to take the opportunity to just share the way I view life devoid of an afterlife, and what that means for how I live it.

      It’s important to remember that because I don’t believe in an afterlife, that doesn’t just mean that I don’t think I’m personally going anywhere after I die. It means I also don’t believe that anybody goes anywhere after they die, regardless of their faith or lack thereof. That means that this is the only life we will ever live.

      Because of that, I take sort of a carpe diem view on life: this is it, so let’s make the best out of it. I make decisions on how I live my life based on the fact that not only me, but everyone around me has just one life to live, and what kind of person would I be if I did things that would get in the way of them living the lives they want, so long as they aren’t hurting people? I basically think, let’s try to make this life as good as it can be for everyone. So that means no, I’m not going to go around killing people, or cheating on my boyfriend, or stealing things. That’s the positive reason. I don’t personally need this to keep me doing good things, but it’s also worth pointing out that humans are social creatures who have evolved to depend on each other and create strong emotional bonds like friendship and relationships, so doing those harmful things would actually ruin my life, either socially, or through legal intervention depending on my transgression. I’m going to do what I can to make sure that my life is a life worth living, but so are the lives of the people around me.

      Sure, that does mean that I can end my life instantly with no fear of repercussions for myself, but if I can control the circumstances in my life enough to avoid reaching despair I will–and I do. When it comes to the question of suicide, I can also consider the people around me, and I know that they would be affected by me doing that, whether directly or indirectly. Because of that, I think suicide should be avoided.

      Everlasting oblivion is hard to deal with. I say this as someone who genuinely believes it’s the truth. It’s not easy to say to yourself, “this is it. I’m going to die someday.” But it’s true. Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, death is inevitable, and it sucks. But if anything, not believing in an afterlife makes me feel more accountable for my actions than an invisible being who will punish me as he sees fit, because if I ruin someone’s life in this world, I’ve ruined the only life he or she will ever have. He or she will not be rewarded in heaven, nor will I be punished. I will cease to exist, and so will they, and I will have done a terrible thing by robbing them of their only chance for a good life. I want to avoid such injustice, and I want other people to have opportunities for good, long, happy lives, just as I want that for myself. That’s my motivation, but it’s not comforting in the sense that it allows immorality. The way I view it, it doesn’t.

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  3. My comment was that if you cease to exist after death, then ultimately it doesn’t matter how you live your life. You say that it matters precisely for that reason. But what I think you’re missing is the “ultimately” part.

    It matters to you *now* how you live your life, and right *now* you don’t want to commit suicide because *now* you are concerned about how it will affect your loved ones. But my point was that once you have committed suicide, it will no longer matter to you how it affects your loved ones because there will be no “you” to have any loved ones or be concerned about them, or to regret your action, or feel guilty about it. Besides, if their lives become so horrible as a result of your suicide, they too can kill themselves in order to end their own miseries as well.

    Even if that caused a chain reaction wherein everyone on earth ended up committing suicide, so what? There would be no one around to care, or even be aware, that such a horrible thing had happened.

    So I think you have to admit that while it may matter to some people temporarily, nevertheless ultimately it will matter to no one, because there won’t be anyone to whom it can matter. Therefore there is no ultimate significance to your life (or your death), no value or meaning other than temporary feelings that will pass away, and may be extinguished at will.

    Now you may choose to believe that your life has significance, and that ending your life would have significance to your loved ones. But the fact is that you can only choose to believe that *now*, while you’re still alive. Once you’re gone you will no longer believe that your life or your death had significance, because there will be no “you” to believe it. And once your loved ones are gone, their feelings about you will have no significance either.

    But let’s say that I grant your argument, that even if there is no afterlife, there are still reasons to care about how you live this life: How much more do you have reasons for worrying about how you live your life, if the Christian concepts of Heaven and Hell are true?

    The Christian doctrine provides comfort if you’re sure you are going to Heaven. But in fact, Catholic teaching states that no one can know whether he’s going to Heaven or Hell, because we can’t presume to know whether we will die in the state of grace.

    I will say that the Christian belief provides comfort, in the sense that it provides an ultimate meaning to life: Everyone’s life will have ultimate significance, because the choices one makes ultimtely will be matter for eternal rejoicing or eternal regret. But the comfort this provides is tempered by the fear that eternal regret is a real possibility for any one of us. Whereas there is no such thing to fear in your scenario.

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