Sur­vey num­bers ‘re­ally do track pop cul­ture,’ says so­ci­ol­o­gist Regi­nald Bibby, who thinks the be­lief in life after death is a gen­er­a­tional shift

Regina Leader-Post - - FRONT PAGE - Joseph Brean

This long week­end, as Cana­di­ans ob­serve the nearly per­fect co­in­ci­dence of Jewish Passover and Chris­tian Easter, the re­sults of a new aca­demic sur­vey point to a sur­pris­ing so­ci­o­log­i­cal trend.

The older a per­son is, they sug­gest, the less likely they are to be­lieve in the lit­eral de­tails of those mirac­u­lous sto­ries, like the de­stroy­ing an­gel and the hell to which Je­sus de­scended.

It is a coun­ter­in­tu­itive find­ing in a coun­try where re­li­gious ob­ser­vance is usu­ally thought to skew el­derly. But Cana­dian mil­len­ni­als are vastly more likely to be­lieve in an af­ter­life than are older gen­er­a­tions, ac­cord­ing to new re­sults of a long­stand­ing project to track re­li­gious be­hav­iour. The same is broadly true of other su­per­nat­u­ral be­liefs, like an­gels, ghosts and com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the dead.

Be­lief seems to de­cline with age: from mil­len­ni­als who are spoiled for re­li­gious choice and in­tensely in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic, through the dis­af­fected Gen­er­a­tion X-ers and the en­ti­tled Boomers to the pre-Boomers, who are well into their 70s and be­yond (and so ap­proach­ing an im­mi­nent an­swer to the oth­er­wise unan­swer­able ques­tion of life after death).

Mil­len­ni­als aged 18-29 are “far more open to a wide range of things” on this score, ac­cord­ing to Regi­nald Bibby, a so­ci­ol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Lethbridge who tracks re­li­gious be­hav­iour with polling by An­gus Reid. Fully 70 per cent of them pro­fess to be­lieve in life after death. That num­ber drops through the age brack­ets, from 66 per cent of GenXers aged 30-49, through 65 per cent of Boomers aged 50-69, to 59 per cent of pre-Boomers, aged over 70.

Cu­ri­ously, how­ever, this trend is in­verted for be­lief in God or a higher power, to which 66 per cent of mil­len­ni­als ad­here. Among pre-Boomers, that climbs to 80 per cent.

The num­bers do not sim­ply re­flect the ten­den­cies of young peo­ple to see life spread­ing out be­fore them, and old peo­ple to feel it clos­ing in, Bibby says. He thinks it is more of a gen­er­a­tional cul­tural shift in spir­i­tual world­view.

“I think they re­ally do track pop cul­ture,” he says of the num­bers he has fol­lowed over many decades — mean­ing pop­u­lar cul­ture drives spir­i­tual be­lief in ob­serv­able, mea­sur­able ways.

“It’s not life stage,” he says. “It’s not that older peo­ple have given up and fig­ure there’s no life after death. It’s just that, in ad­di­tion to those preach­ers and priests and oth­ers that were drilling into peo­ple in days gone by the fact that there’s life after death and you bet­ter shape up or you might go to hell, that kind of stuff, we’re just say­ing the life-after-death theme has been given an in­cred­i­ble shot in the arm from cul­ture as a whole, and from the most un­likely places, par­tic­u­larly the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try.”

As ex­am­ples, he points to the heavy metal pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with hell, and to the pub­lic re­li­gios­ity of Justin Bieber, whose im­mor­tal ex­pla­na­tion of the im­por­tance of liv­ing like Je­sus went like this: “You don’t need to go to church to be a Chris­tian. If you go to Taco Bell, that doesn’t make you a taco.”

There are weak­nesses in this the­ory. For one, older data sug­gests be­lief in the af­ter­life was even stronger among young peo­ple in 1995. But those peo­ple were the bloom of Gen­er­a­tion X, who may be more like to­day’s mil­len­ni­als than they care to ad­mit.

The real so­ci­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ence, Bibby says, is at the GenX and Baby Boomer di­vide. Boomers had a mostly sec­u­lar pop cul­ture, and got the af­ter­life mes­sage in church. So as they grew up and church at­ten­dance col­lapsed, there was lit­tle left to keep the be­lief alive.

GenXers did not at­tend church any more than Boomers, but their cul­ture had a new in­ter­est in the af­ter­life and the oc­cult, of­ten as a coun­ter­cul­tural re­sponse to the ma­te­rial, worldly suc­cess of the dom­i­nant and in­creas­ingly god­less Boomers.

To­day, mil­len­ni­als are steeped in thoughts of the af­ter­life, Bibby says. It is “ram­pant,” in video games and pop cul­ture. It is nor­mal again.

“The mar­ket is there,” Bibby said. The prob­lem is that the churches have seemed to aban­don the topic. Main­line Protes­tants, for ex­am­ple, talk a lot about dy­ing, but rarely about what hap­pens next. And so the very ques­tion of the af­ter­life is over­run with “chan­nellers and char­la­tans, with the pre­dictable re­sult that claims are triv­i­al­ized and claimants stig­ma­tized.”

This is where the fear­some re­li­gious con­cepts of the af­ter­life blur with the car­toon­ish cul­tural tra­di­tions of ghosts, medi­ums, psy­chics, for­tune tellers, clair­voy­ants, and Ouija boards. A sim­i­lar trend of de­clin­ing be­lief with in­creas­ing age is ev­i­dent in as­trol­ogy, rein­car­na­tion, and pre­cog­ni­tion, ac­cord­ing to Bibby’s num­bers, al­though all are in the mi­nor­ity.

An­other dan­ger in a sur­vey on such a peren­nial chin­scratcher of a ques­tion as “Do you be­lieve in life after death?” is that the word “be­lieve” is am­bigu­ous.

As the noted skep­tic and pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at York Univer­sity James E. Al­cock puts it in his forth­com­ing book Be­lief: What It Means to Be­lieve and Why Our Con­vic­tions Are So Com­pelling, be­lief can mean trust, con­fi­dence, faith, op­ti­mism, and vary­ing de­grees of cer­tainty, among other things.

“A wise per­son rev­els in the wide ex­panse of imag­i­na­tion, an­chors be­lief in thin re­al­ity and does the ut­most to dis­tin­guish be­tween the two,” he writes.

This is get­ting harder. Mod­ern tech­no­log­i­cal cul­ture has in­creased the pos­si­bil­i­ties of hu­man imag­i­na­tion, and al­lowed ac­cess to vastly more re­al­ity, in­clud­ing prac­ti­cally lim­it­less num­bers of other peo­ple.

The ef­fect is not al­ways pos­i­tive. Waves of in­for­ma­tion can drown wis­dom at touch of a but­ton. The in­ter­net fa­mously has a cri­sis of be­lief, but it is not just about facts and news. It in­fects science, phi­los­o­phy, and re­li­gion, the realm of thought that aims to unite all the oth­ers with a su­per­nat­u­ral moral pur­pose.

It is no great won­der, then, that in Cana­dian re­li­gious be­hav­iour, the num­bers on be­lief in an af­ter­life are not fall­ing as fast or as far as the church­go­ing num­bers, es­pe­cially among the young. Nor is it the first time that be­lief in the af­ter­life has been driven by seem­ingly un­re­lated de­vel­op­ments in the phys­i­cal and tech­no­log­i­cal sci­ences.

Spir­i­tu­al­ism and com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the dead was all the rage in the late 19th and early 20th cen­turies, for ex­am­ple, which co­in­cided with mas­sive up­heaval in science, as it hur­tled from Dar­win to­ward Ein­stein.

“In an age when new sci­en­tific dis­cov­er­ies were rapidly chang­ing the un­der­stand­ing of how na­ture worked, it made sense for sci­en­tists to show in­ter­est in what was be­ing re­ported from the séance par­lours. It was pos­si­ble that, just as with X-rays, ra­dio waves, and ra­di­a­tion that had been hid­den from hu­man knowledge un­til science un­cov­ered them, there might be a psy­chic di­men­sion of na­ture await­ing dis­cov­ery,” Al­cock writes.

Science to­day re­tains that air of es­o­teric black­board magic, with its opaque in­can­ta­tions about dark mat­ter, string the­ory and the mul­ti­verse. Even the fact that the athe­ist Stephen Hawk­ing is soon to be buried in West­min­ster Abbey speaks to the blur­ring of some deep philo­soph­i­cal lines.

All this sug­gests that the pop­u­lar­ity of be­lief in an af­ter­life is more than just a resid­ual ar­ti­fact of his­tor­i­cal re­li­gious in­flu­ence, like hav­ing a statu­tory hol­i­day for Good Fri­day.

It may be more like a nat­u­ral im­pulse. It may even be wider than hu­man­ity it­self, to judge by pa­le­oan­thro­po­log­i­cal re­search on Ne­an­derthal burial sites that con­tain tools, as if for use in a life be­yond death.

The con­cept has been used to great ef­fect in pol­i­tics and phi­los­o­phy. The “god­fa­ther of neo­con­ser­vatism” Irv­ing Kris­tol thought the very idea of an af­ter­life gave foun­da­tion to the mid­dle class, and thereby held the world to­gether. The Ger­man philoso­pher and de­ity slayer Friedrich Ni­et­zsche, on the other hand, thought it de­val­ued earthly life.

The af­ter­life is typ­i­cally un­der­stood as a par­adise, thanks to a tradition that can be traced through Chris­tian­ity via Ju­daism to an­cient Zoroas­tri­an­ism, which also in­forms mod­ern Is­lam. Homer Simp­son, for ex­am­ple, once said he looked for­ward to an eter­nity of oc­ca­sion­ally wav­ing rib­bons, but “mainly frol­ick­ing.”

Then, there is the other place. Strangely, the num­bers for be­lief in hell are con­sid­er­ably lower than those for heaven. There is both a Jewish and a Chris­tian ver­sion of the joke about heaven and hell be­ing the same place. For Jews, it is a scrip­ture class with Moses and Rabbi Akiva, a revered first cen­tury scholar — the idea be­ing that it would be tor­ture for the wicked and bliss for the good. For Chris­tians, it is a meal where ev­ery­one has awk­wardly long forks and only those who are saved re­al­ize they can feed each other.

But th­ese are amus­ing metaphors. The real ques­tion for the liv­ing is whether death is the end. Cu­ri­ously, Bibby says, if you ask the sur­vey ques­tion in that way, you get a far stronger “No” re­sponse. And if you press peo­ple, if you ask open ended ques­tions, such as “What do you think hap­pens to you when you die?” then the dom­i­nant re­sponse is sim­ply, “I don’t know.”

“In fair­ness to peo­ple, they don’t re­ally know,” Bibby said.


The Res­ur­rec­tion of Christ, by Peter Paul Rubens. The re­sults of a new aca­demic sur­vey have found that Cana­dian mil­len­ni­als are more likely to be­lieve in an af­ter­life than are older gen­er­a­tions.


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