Rationality and the belief in life after death

October 11, 2013

Anna Corwin is a Ph.D. student in anthropology at UCLA. She has spent a significant amount of time in a Catholic convent trying to figure out why nuns outlive other women and seem to enjoy such healthy aging. She summarizes her observations in this interesting article in Yes! Magazine.” The six tips are as follows:

1. Keep moving – nuns are apparently on their feet most of the day.

2. Practice positive emotions – nuns communicate a sense of love to each other and also in prayer daily.

3. Have a purpose and work for it – many nuns continue their work until the very end of their lives.

4. Maintain community – a convent is great for that, but perhaps any supportive community will do.

5. Face up to death – nuns often plan their funerals early in life and their belief in the after life helps them through it.

6. Let go of attachments – nuns are required to give up mostly worldly attachments upon entering the convent.

Anna Corwin presents these six tips as steps anyone can take regardless of whether they are religious or not. However, it is highly likely that religion is instrumental in at least one or two of these elements of the good life. In particular, it’s reasonable to suppose that those who believe in an afterlife would experience less stress than others towards the end of life and be in a better position to confront and prepare for it. This raises the question of whether it is necessarily irrational to believe things for which there is no evidence or, in other words, whether faith is necessarily irrational.

Critical thinking teaches us that claims that lack any evidence should not be believed. Such claims are not necessarily false, and, hence should not be discarded, but in the absence of any evidence to support them, they should not be believed. The idea that there is life after death is a prime example of a claim for which there is not, and could not, be any concrete evidence. Again, it does not follow that the idea of life after death is false, but only that there is no reason to believe that it is true. So, from the point of view of critical thinking and rationality, it seems that one should not believe that there is life after death.

But what if it turns out that those who believe in life after death do tend to experience less stress and live longer or healthier lives? Corwin has not proved that this is so, but it is a certainly a realistic possibility. If it were the case that a belief in an afterlife is associated with longer, happier, healthier lives, wouldn’t this then be a reason for believing in life after death? It would be a pragmatic, as opposed to evidentiary, reason, but a reason nonetheless. This suggests that, in these circumstances at least, believing in an afterlife might not be irrational after all.

So is it or is it not rational to believe in life after death? One needs to distinguish here between two sense of “rational,” corresponding to the two different types of reasons (evidentiary and pragmatic) for holding a belief. The interesting thing about beliefs is that they are one the one hand mental states that are acquired naturally and involuntarily through the processes of perception and reasoning; but, on the other hand, belief formation can also be a conscious act done for a reason. So a belief, such as the belief in an afterlife, could be rational in the sense of there being a pragmatic reason for holding it while at the same time being irrational in the sense of having no evidence to support it.

If it were true, then, that people who believe in life after death live longer, healthier, happier lives, how should a rational person respond to that fact? This is a question, not only of rationality, but also of human psychology and ethics. It’s not clear whether or to what extent rational people or critical thinkers can actually bring themselves to believe claims for which they think or know there is no evidence. But it is clear that those who are not fully rational–children, for example–can be brought to believe things for which there is no evidence. This raises the ethical question of whether it would be right or wrong to nurture in children a belief in life after death. The answer to this question is not exactly obvious. Critical thinking pedagogy is an essential part of a good education, and children really ought to be trained to distinguish good from bad reasons, strong from weak evidence. However, there may be some beliefs which, while lacking in evidence, children are better off believing, for the ultimate goal of education is, or should be, to help children live the longest, healthiest, happiest lives possible.

Tags: , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Democracy Now