Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Toward the afterlife
In a 1976 paper, psychical researcher Erlandur Haraldsson reported on the findings of a survey he conducted in Iceland about belief in survival after death. He found that belief in survival increased with age in his sample.
Among people in their 30s, 10 percent did not expect survival; 20 percent considered it a possibility; and 62 percent expected it. Among people in their 60s, the percentages were 1, 7, and 77 respectively. (In both categories, some expressed no opinion.)
We can't read too much into these results. Iceland is not a proxy for the world, possibly not even for the Western world. That study was a long time ago in sociological terms. In the intervening years scientific materialism has become still more dominant. Atheism is now militant, to the point of putting adverts on the sides of buses. Probably, among respondents in their 30s, something like half would express disbelief or skepticism today.
What about older people, those in their 60s, say? The number of those expecting an afterlife has probably declined somewhat, but I doubt it would be as great as in the younger cohort. If so, some of the difference could be explained by cultural background. The older group originally formed their views at a time when religious belief — which usually includes expectation of some sort of postmortem life — was still a strong influence in most societies.
Such factors can't be entirely ruled out. But others are worth considering. Unless they are victims of a life-threatening disease, young people don't think much about dying. It's theoretical. Something that happens to other people, mainly old people. The young are still busy soaking up the phenomena of this world and are usually in thrall to material goods, sense pleasures, and excitement.
Add to that the technological fundamentalism that marketers and the mass media promote, and it's no surprise the relatively youthful don't pay a lot of mind to questions of after-death survival.
Thinking back to my own late teens and 20s, I remember being an assertive opponent of organized religion, to the point of baiting college professors whom I knew were believers. But was I an atheist? I draw a blank. Probably not really a hard-core atheist, but confused by so many notions of God plus no direct evidence of God's existence or influence, that I just stored the question in a mental attic, to be retrieved or discarded one day.
Two of my grandparents died when I was aged nine. I remember being told about them dying, and feeling a loss, but it was as if they'd moved away. I couldn't conceive of any existential meaning to the events.
Over the age of 60, most people have known several friends and relatives who have passed on. Their own health may have begun to deteriorate. They can no longer deny that they are running out the clock. Death is now real — "that distinguished thing," as Henry James called it.
Materialists could put the greater degree of afterlife belief among older people down to early-life teachings or "indoctrination." They could add that as people get older and their passing looms before them, fear of death causes them to fantasize about heavenly pastures awaiting.
But the evidence points otherwise. And one of the people who collected evidence for survival is that same Haraldsson mentioned earlier. He and his colleague Karlis Osis interviewed hundreds of doctors and nurses in the United States and India (the latter to see what differences cultural background would make) who had been with patients who were on the verge of death.
In an astounding number of instances, patients who had only a few hours to live — as well as a few who recovered — reported visions of an afterlife. The findings were published in At the Hour of Death.
This was a very sophisticated study. The scientists cross-tabulated the results across U.S. and Indian populations; closely questioned the doctors and nurses about possible confounding factors such as the influence of drugs or diseases that could cause hallucinations; calculated whether results were statistically significant.
They examined the kinds of visions the dying saw: often relatives who had passed on earlier, and religious or spiritual figures — both types of which tended to announce their mission as bringing the patient into the next world.
After examining all the evidence, Haraldsson and Osis concluded that it was consistent with the afterlife hypothesis, and could not by any rational criteria be explained away in the majority of cases by wish-fulfillment fantasies or brain damage. They suggested that the dying develop a form of extrasensory perception of the afterlife that helps them make the transition to it.
Around the same time, Raymond Moody presented the phenomena of near-death experiences in Life After Life and subsequent books. NDEs are similar in many ways to the visions of the dying. Since then, much more evidence has accumulated, along the same lines as Haraldsson and Osis and Moody.
I am reasonably convinced that beginning to connect psychically with the afterlife is typical of advancing years. Like so much ESP, it isn't necessarily dramatic or even conscious; but it's enough to gradually change people in the second half of earthly life in their attitudes about the Great Mystery.