Some of the ideas and passages that follow come from a chapter of mine entitled "You Never Have to Die: On Mormons, NDEs, Cryonics, and the American Immortalist Ethos," in Kathy Charmaz, Glennys Howarth and Allan Kellehear (eds.), The Unknown Country: Experiences of Death in Australia, Britain and the USA (London:Macmillan, 1997).
Do you believe in life after death? Ivory Tower theorists would likely surmise that
socio-cultural evolution there is decreasing belief in and concern with personal
immortality, that--like the concerns with witches and demons--the notion is collectively
"grown out of." The reasons for this evaporation of the hereafter could be seen to be due
The changing nature of death. With modernization, death is
increasingly confined to the old. In 1940, only 54% of American men and 61% of women
could expect to celebrate their 65th birthdays; after they did, the men could expect to live
13 more years, the women 15. Fifty years later, 72% of men and 84% of women could
count on reaching the age of 65--and those were percentages of a much larger population.
Further, death increasingly arrives with advance warning, as the old typically die
slow-motion deaths from chronic ailments. With lives no longer ending "prematurely" to
those unprepared, there no longer is the need (neither psychologically nor sociologically)
for the traditional cultural consolations for when lives typically were cut short.
In fact, research suggests that death-related fears have shifted from anxieties
over postmortem judgment to fears of the dying process.
Following this line of reasoning, it would seem logical to conclude that the death ethos of the United States--one of the most economically advanced and materialistic of nations--should resemble those of other highly developed Western cultures. However, such is not the case. In fact, developed here is the proposition that American culture can best be understood in terms of its core salvific goal of death control and its embracement of the hereafter: its immortalist ethos. To doubt the existence of an afterlife, as renowned botanist Luther Burbank discovered, is to risk broad public condemnation. Consider the following late twentieth century images of death in America:
What lessons are to be drawn from this montage of cultural images? Indeed, in our "factoid"-based postmodernist times, it seems there no longer exists collectively-shared frameworks by which the flood of images and beliefs can be simplified and made meaningful. Nevertheless, let's see if there might be some organizing gestalt.
To compare the American death ethos with those of other cultures, let us consider results from the 1991 international religion survey (n=22,767) conducted by the International Social Survey Program (ISSP, 1994). This module includes data (n, % of total) from: the United States (1359, 6.0%), Great Britain (1257, 5.5%), Ireland (1005, 4.3%), Northern Ireland (838, 3.7%), Norway (1506, 6.6%), the Netherlands (1635, 7.2%), Italy (983, 4.3%), Israel (991, 4.4%), West Germany (1346, 5.9%), East Germany (1486, 6.5%), Hungary (1000, 4.4%), Austria (984, 4.3%), Poland (1063, 4.7%), Slovenia (2080, 9.1%), Russia (2964, 13.0%), the Philippines (1200, 5.3%), and New Zealand (1070, 4.7%). These seventeen national samples were derived from multistage stratified random/probability samplings of individuals generally 18 years of age and older.
Click here to see Figure 1: International
rates in belief in life after death
In Figure 1 our seventeen nations are arranged in order of the degree of their members' belief in life after death. With 55% definitely believing in an afterlife and an additional 23% considering it probable, Americans are the least likely to harbor any doubts about a post-mortem existence, even with several strongly Catholic nations in the comparison. In Russia, the remnant of the first major society to proclaim death's finality, 39% of those interviewed believed that life after death probably or definitely existed. Communism's dampening effect appears greatest among East Germans, only 6% of whom were completely convinced and an additional 8% tending to believe in an afterlife.
Not surprisingly, the same pattern of relationships generally holds toward beliefs in the existence of heaven and of hell. Americans, for instance, are over twenty-five percentage points more likely than the British and New Zealanders to believe in heaven and more than twice as likely to believe in hell. The percentage of the national populations definitely believing in the existence of the devil ranges from a high of 45% in the United to less than 4% in East Germany, with a total mean percentage for all nations of 16%.
Certainly these findings reflect in part the highly religious character of Americans. Next to Filipinos, Americans are most likely to describe themselves as being either extremely or very religious (26% vs. 12% for the entire sample). In general, this relationship holds regardless of education or age. For instance, whereas there is a negative relationship between education and religiosity (with those in the lowest third educationally [standardized by country] being a quarter more likely to be at least somewhat religious than those in the top third) within our total sample, nationally this correlation is weakest in the Philippines, New Zealand, and the United States.
Click here to see Figure 2: International
rates in belief in miracles and ability to talk to the dead
In Figure 2 we see that of those from the seventeen nations of our sample, Americans are most likely to definitely believe in religious miracles and most likely to report having experienced idionecrophany (there's a good Scrabble word for you), or contact with the dead. In fact, 40% of Americans claimed to have had such an experience at least once, roughly twice the percentage of Germans, Italians, Hungarians, and Northern Irish, and nearly three times the percentage of Russians. Hence it should come as no surprise that the After Death Communication Research Foundation is located in the U.S.
The ISSP again replicated its religion survey in 2008. The most recent international rates of afterlife beliefs can be found here.
To analyze trends and correlates of Americans' postlife beliefs, the results of twelve years (from 1977 to 1994) of the National Opinion Research Center's (NORC) General Social Surveys were analyzed (n=16,455). Each of these surveys is an independently drawn, full probability sampling of non-institutionalized, English-speaking individuals 18 years of age or older who live within the continental United States.
Individuals' belief in an afterlife were determined on the basis of responses to the question (POSTLIFE): Do you believe there is a life after death? Over the 17 years covered by the NORC surveys, the proportion of Americans believing in life after death has increased slightly to roughly three in four. Further, their beliefs are basically independent of age and education, with remarkably little change over time within birth cohorts.
Click here to see Figure 3: Religiosity of
American cohorts and relationship with afterlife beliefs
Postlife beliefs are, not surprisingly, strongly related to religiosity, however the relationship weakens the more recent the birth cohort. This is interesting given the positive relationship between age of cohort and religiosity. As can be seen in the left-most graph in Figure 3, those born during the 1960s on are half as likely to be strongly religious as those born during the first decade of the century. (There is, of course, the age-factor in religiosity. Over the two decades analyzed, all cohorts became increasingly religious with age, with the increase in the percentage claiming to be strongly religious between 1973-76 and 1991-94 ranging from 3.6% for those born between 1900 and 1909 to 10.6% for those born during the 1940s). Nevertheless, as can be seen in the right-hand graph, there is a significant increase in postlife beliefs by cohort recency, most notably among those with no religious affiliation and those claiming to be "not very" religious.
Click here to see Figure 4: The
relationship between religious faith, religiosity, and education on Americans' beliefs in an
And what about the supposedly dampening effect of education on the immortalist outlooks of religious Americans? As can be seen in Figure 4, it is the general case for those of the four categories of Christian faiths that postlife beliefs consistently increase not only with religiosity but with education as well.
Click here to see
OK. You have seen the data. Arnold Toynbee appears to be correct when he wrote in 1969 that "Death is un-American." For what reasons do you believe that postlife beliefs are greater in the United States than in other European countries, from where many of its ideas originated? For insight into the legacies of the nineteenth century you may want to check out N.L. Rice's Immortality of the Soul and Destiny of the Wicked (1871) and Balfour Stewart's The Unseen Universe (1875).
Upon seeing what your input is here we will move on and speculate on some of the personal and social consequences of believing in life after death. For instance, to what extent does the "you never have to die" ethos underlie the rise of the American military-industrial and medical-industrial complexes, demands for risk-free life, cultural gerontophobia, and immortalist themes in popular culture. What other nation employs immortal (albeit flawed) creatures for its children's breakfast cereals and even its postage stamps?
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