The Afterlife Survey
Adams Media, December 2011
Introduction to The Afterlife Survey:
Introduction: What We Believe
Recent polls show that beliefs surrounding what does or doesn’t constitute an afterlife are changing. So we put it to the test, asking a random group what they think. Who did we ask? How? And why?
Growing up, the average American, no matter what his or her religion, generally believed that if you’re good you’ll go to heaven and if you’re bad you’ll go to hell.
Most Americans belonged to some sort of organized religion, they believed its doctrine without question, and it formed the backbone of their lives. And the belief in heaven and hell, and how to get there, was the basis for most religious belief.
Or at least that’s what most of us thought.
In recent years, growing numbers of Americans have rejected organized religion. In fact, according to the Pew Forum U.S. Religious Landscape Survey released in 2008, nearly 28 percent of Americans have left the religion in which they were raised. Some 16.1 say they are not affiliated with any organized religion at all, more than double the percent that say they were affiliated with a religion as children. So the assumption would be that if people are rejecting organized religion, they’re also rejecting one of it’s most basic truths: belief in the eternal soul.
But that’s not so.
Most of us — 74 percent according to that same Pew study — believe in an afterlife. Some surveys show that to be even higher. But even if the Pew numbers are low, that’s up from 69 percent in 1973. And yet fewer Americans than ever before believe there is a hell. Only 59 percent, according to the Pew numbers.
And even those who don’t believe in God, the 12 percent of Americans who are atheists, more than one in ten still believes that there is an afterlife.
But one of the biggest findings of that Pew report is that most people don’t see the afterlife as the traditional “heaven,” but more an amorphous non-definable state of being. And most people are also willing to accept others’ view that the afterlife may be different.
And the surveys that are the foundation of this book reflect the same truth. We talked to a CEO, teachers, a sheet metal worker, a dog walker, a sportswriter, a 78-year-old Catholic priest and a 26-year-old corporate executive secretary. We surveyed a former Buddhist nun, a rabbi and three Wicca priestesses.
We talked to a funeral director who faces issues of life and death every day.
We talked to an engineer and business owner who is a atheist who spent sixteen weeks in the hospital, most of it paralyzed and unable to breath, forced to confront his own mortality.
We talked to a former Methodist minister, who is now an atheist, who has been told there is nothing more that can be done for his terminal cancer.
Many of them believe there is an afterlife. Some of them don’t.
But almost to a person they believe that there is some force in the human spirit that makes life worth living. And that the life we live on earth is just as important as what may or may not come after.
The Afterlife Survey is not a scientific record of what people believe, rather a cross section sampling of people from different religious and cultural backgrounds, clergy, and experts in their fields.
The questions were simple: What do you believe? And why?
And those questioned were told there were no wrong answers.
And as wildly different as those answers were — as varied as the people asked — there were also similar themes that ran through almost every answer.
In many cases, we just sat back and let our responders tell their stories, because so many of them had good stories to tell.
One thing we learned was the biggest question for almost everyone in this survey is that we just can’t really know what awaits.
“I don’t subscribe to the view there’s an ascension into the clouds in the blue sky,” said the Rev. Damian Milliken, 78, a Catholic priest. “We just can’t know. St. Paul said it succinctly: ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.’”
And Elizabeth Daniels, 26, who works as an executive assistant/officer manager and was raised in a fundamentalist Southern Christian environment, and who considers herself an agnostic, had a surprisingly similar view.
“I believed in heaven and hell when I was a young child and I believed in it in that silly way children do — most literally. I pictured clouds and fire, a red man and a white man with a beard and silk robes.”
But now, “To some extent, perhaps I do believe in an afterlife, because I am not entirely willing to say that there is absolutely no such thing. I have trouble disregarding notions that I cannot possibly deny or confirm positively.”
And Matt McSorley, 42, a newspaper editor with a masters degree in counseling, believes in the traditional heaven and hell. A staunch Catholic, he says that his “skeptical side raises questions from time to time, but if pressed, I’m still in the heaven/hell camp.”
Scott Moulton, 47, an investment services manager for a finance company, said, “As I move farther and farther away from a traditional belief in heaven and hell, I have moved towards a belief in the concept that the universe itself may be alive and we may be but a subset of a much larger consciousness.”
He added, “The universe is too vast to comprehend with our minds.”
Rabbi Ilene Schneider said, “Sometimes, I think that whatever someone believes about the afterlife is what they will experience. It’s nice to think that someone like bin Laden, who I am sure had a deep faith that Allah would reward him for his ‘martyrdom,’ is now realizing Allah disagrees.”
Poet Billy Collins, who was raised in a strict Catholic home, said, “My most optimistic fantasy, which I expressed in a poem called ‘The Afterlife,’ is that everyone goes to the afterlife they imagined. You get what you envisioned, for better or worse. Personally, I think that hell would be stuck inside your own mind for eternity, whereas heaven would be annihilation.”
The former U.S. poet laureate admited, though, “The question was long ago placed in a file labeled ‘WHO KNOWS?’”
Ashleen O’Gaea, a Wiccan priestess, said, “The broadest way I can put it is that our souls are carried by the Goddess’ unconditional love to the Summerland—known by various names, including the Land of Youth—where we have an opportunity to learn from the joys and challenges of the life just lived before the God guides us back to another incarnation.”
And April McLeod, 45, a dog sitter who was raised by fundamentalist Christians, said, “To me, God represented love and as the years went on I started to doubt that He could be so cruel to those who chose not to follow His path to the letter.”
Most of those interviewed for this survey have thought about the afterlife, no matter what it means to them. And most admit they can’t really say for sure, because who can?
But they think about it anyway.
Because if we didn’t think about it, poet Collins points out, “We’d be hamsters.”