AFTERLIFE NOT AN AFTERTHOUGHT FOR MILLENNIALS, POLL FINDS
Survey numbers ‘really do track pop culture,’ says sociologist Reginald Bibby, who thinks the belief in life after death is a generational shift
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.
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.
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.