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!