Deep truths are so clear and simple that they often appear trivial. So it is with explanations. We prefer such things to be subtle and complex, in keeping with our importance in the cosmic scheme of things. I’ve been thinking lately about why so many people in diverse cultures around the world believe in life after death.
The religious among us take it as proof that it’s so. Rationalists think there must be some evolutionary advantage conferred by believing something which flies in the face of the physical evidence. Me, I don’t think it’s much of a mystery at all: it’s because we can’t imagine otherwise.
Imagination is our tool for dealing with possibility. Deciding how to proceed is largely a matter of imagining various outcomes, and then choosing the alternative which seems most likely to bring about the most desirable. That’s a clear evolutionary advantage over no imagination (although I imagine even the lowest animals have some imagination).
When it comes to death, however, we have a problem. It’s not that we can’t picture a reality without us in it; we do that every day. It’s that we can’t picture ourselves not existing. It is literally unimaginable. Try it. It hurts.
So it’s easy to default to the alternative that we continue to exist after death in some recognizable form. To me, this is a crucial nexus, and religion naturally emerges from it, along with all manner of folklore regarding ghosts, vampires, curses and so on.
Personally, I’m not immutably atheist, although I think my version of the divine would scarcely qualify for the majority of religionists, new age and old alike. Still, it is intriguing to reflect on the possible origins of such urges, no?