17 June 2011

A Taxonomy of Afterlife Beliefs

I STARTED TO BE INTERESTED in this topic of the different responses to the certainty of death and found it hard to find information organised in the way that I wanted to think about it. I was looking for a taxonomy of afterlife beliefs, or eschatologies, but what one generally finds is the beliefs of various religions without analysis of the characteristics of the belief, and no consideration of the similarities between apparently disparate religions. So here is my own taxonomy of afterlife beliefs, setting them out according to common features rather than religious affiliation. I follow the scheme with some remarks about afterlife beliefs generally.

In this belief one seeks not to die. It is characteristic of Daoism, but also of certain New Age sects. Daoists avoid death through magic. New Agers, influenced by Indian yogis, preach "physical immortality" through yoga and especially diet. At least one Buddhist teacher offers immortality as a fruit of practice, though rather implausibly, even if 'deathless' (amṛta) is a synonym for nirāvṇa it comes from not being born into another life, rather than not dying in this life.

This is a special subset of immortality belief. In this belief it is possible for special individuals to come back from the dead - uniting the same mind and body. Jesus is the exemplar, and is considered by some to be physically immortal.

In destination beliefs the dead have a one-way ticket to a final post-mortem realm. Personal identity can be retained on arrival or relinquished. In the latter case one can merge with a god personified, or with a god in the abstract (e.g. the godhead, the universe, the essence).

When linked with morality it results in eternal heaven and hell. Both heaven and hell reflect the ideals of the cultures which propose them, often they are the ideal version of a man's life (women's ideals are usually ignored). Most mono-theist religions maintain some form of this after-life belief. However it seems to me that believers can reasonably expect to go to Heaven and that Hell is for other people, especially non-believers. The idea that Hell is for "sinners" is nonsensical in the face of the saving power of the Messiah.

The Catholic church introduced an temporary intermediate destination - purgatory - to enable necessary purging of any remaining sin before entering heaven. Sin here is seen as a kind of ritual pollution which adheres to the soul, but can be cleansed - very reminiscent of Hindu, and to some extent Jain, karma doctrines.

The idea here is that after a sojourn one is reborn. This is widespread across the world, but shows a great deal of variation. For some rebirth is a good thing, for others it is not and an escape from rebirth becomes the goal of life. Following Obeyesekere I've identified these forms. [1]
  1. One is reborn immediately after death, amongst one's own people.
  2. One is reborn in another world amongst one's ancestors, and lives there for a long time. Then one dies in the other world and is reborn again in this world, usually amongst one's own people. This is the oldest Vedic belief. And seems to be behind the this world/other world terminology found in the Pāli Canon.
  3. The destination after death is connected with ritual actions - only the adept obtains rebirth amongst their ancestors in another world, or their family in this world. Others have less desirable destinations. Seen in orthodox Hinduism.
  4. Destination after death is connected with morality - minimally this requires a bifurcation into heavenly/hellish states, but these are not permanent and one still cycles around. Buddhism posits 5, 6, or 10 possible destinations each of which may be subdivided into many sub-levels. For early Buddhism the rebirth happens with no time lapse. Tibetan Buddhists add the idea of the bardo - a kind of intermediate state or clearing house which determines one's destination on the basis of the development of one's consciousness at the time of death. The bardo also provides an early opportunity for escape from repeated rebirth.
  5. Avatar. In this kind of belief the same individual, despite the possibility of escape, deliberately returns to the world again and again for the benefit of others - e.g. the Tibetan tulku; the advanced bodhisattva in Buddhism, and some Hindu gods.

There are some forms of afterlife belief which do not entail any actual life. I'm not sure if this is a genuine afterlife belief - it seems to be a consolation for not believing in life after death. But it's worth including for completeness sake.

Some would say that we live on as memories. For instance we may say that someone "lives on in the hearts and minds of their loved ones". Similarly when we leave children behind we have left something ourselves to continue on. We could call this genetic seeding - it's not our life that continues, but our genes. There is also intellectual or artistic seeding where we leave behind evidence of our creative work - books, art, music, and ideas.

Hybrid forms
Although the early Vedic model was simply cyclic, in Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad one can see it becoming more sophisticated. We see, for instance, a version in which the post-mortem destination is linked to ritual funeral rites (śraddha). But we also see an escape to a single destination as well - usually in terms of companionship with brahman/Brahmā (the former being the abstract universal principle, the latter being the personified creator god). Here we see the two main types above - destination and recycling - combined into one complex system.

Buddhism also posits a more or less endless cycle of birth and death if one makes no effort, but with an escape route - amṛta "the deathless" - which removes one from cycle permanently. However one cannot say anything about the destination the tathāgata ("one in that state") after death. Later a further elaboration was added which was the Pure Land - an intermediate idealised destination which is perfect for gaining enlightenment, and reflected the cultural values first of medieval India and then China (compare this with the Catholic purgatory)

Personal vs Cosmic Eschatology
Some belief systems overlay personal eschatology - i.e. the post-mortem fate of the individual - with a more universal eschatology - the fate of the universe. So for some Christians the world will end at some point - the end times or Apocalypse.

Similarly in India it is common to see the world as going through great cycles of evolution and devolution with a world destroying cataclysm leading to rebirth of the cosmos. Though presumably the liberated are no more caught up in these cycles than they are the cycles of personal existence.


Buddhist afterlife beliefs are variations on a hybrid model. Traditionally Buddhists believe that without making an effort they are reborn in a beginningless/endless cycle. The fact that the cycles are eternal may well be an extension of the unwillingness to see death as the end of consciousness. Ethics is what determines one's destination and there are 5,6, or 10 main destinations that are subdivided. These range from heavenly to hellish with the human world being middling, but still ultimately disappointing - although it is generally only from the human realm that one can escape the cycles. Buddhists include heaven within the impermanent cycling around. Liberation from the rounds of rebirth is possible with effort and results in an indeterminate state but not in rebirth in this world. Variations include an intermediate state - easy to attain - called the Pure Land from where liberation is guaranteed. The Tibetans add the bardo state which is a prolonged limbo in which decisions can be made - consciously or unconsciously - by the disembodied being about their destination.

Clearly Buddhists agree on the broad outline of this hybrid model, but details vary from culture to culture often exhibiting the direct influence of local culture.

We need to note that all afterlife beliefs (except perhaps the Seeding variety which I will leave out of this discussion) by definition require a mind-body duality. While the body dies something does not die but persists. This insubstantial aspect of the being may be called mind or soul or spirit or something else, but it is not part of the body, and not permanently bound to the body. All afterlife beliefs are therefore fundamentally dualistic. All recycling afterlife beliefs therefore also create another problem in that they require a mechanism by which the mind (or whatever) can detach from the body and reattach to another body - and as Buddhists we do need to acknowledge that our own forms of rebirth belief share these fundamental problems. Where the afterlife belief entails 'memories' of past lives this entails the further difficult problem of how memories are stored and accessed, and why they are not generally available. Such metaphysical problems seem insoluble to me.

Recent research on children's afterlife beliefs [2] suggest that even young children understand that when a person dies their physical functions cease. However children seem to believe that mental functioning may continue in the dead 'person'. So the deceased may not need to eat, but will still feel hungry. It may be that having developed a theory of mind, i.e. the ability to see other beings as self conscious in the way that we are self conscious, that we find it hard to imagine a dead person not having an inner life, even when they clearly have no outer life. We also have a tendency to see self-consciousness in places where it cannot logically exist. Animism is far from dead, and was given a boost by 19th Century Romantics.

I would say that some sort of afterlife belief is one of the fundamental characteristics of religion and that it is difficult to imagine a religion which did not address this question (I can't think of an example). It is true that nihilists have arisen within societies, and sometimes become quite prominent, but I also cannot think of a generally nihilistic society or culture.

Philosopher Thomas Metzinger has also put forward the idea that because the strongest urge, desire, drive (it is difficult to find terms which are not anthropomorphic) of life is to continue - aka the survival instinct - that faced with the certainty of death we simply cannot cope and chose to believe in continuity whatever the evidence. Hence though science has undermined religion since the European Enlightenment, it has not annihilated it, and indeed fundamentalist religion, with the greatest reliance on faith and superstition, appears to be on the rise. What 'feels right', can over-ride what 'makes sense', or to put it another way it feels wrong that life does not continue, so we prefer unlikely invention. Metzinger makes the interesting point that attacking such beliefs, especially from an empirical realist (aka 'scientific') point of view is not an ethically neutral venture. Attacking deeply held beliefs, even if they be factually erroneous, under these circumstances may in fact create more suffering than the ignorance itself. At the very least we must consider our motives for attacking other people's beliefs.

That said, when we line all these different kinds of belief up together I'm at a loss to decide between them - they all seem equally unlikely to me, especially in light of theory of mind research. We should not fall into the error of thinking of assertions as evidence. All of these forms of belief are supported by assertions and arguments, but by what possible criteria would we assess them, either individually or comparatively? We simply choose to believe without reference to rational criteria. But then this how human beings make decisions, so perhaps it's not great surprise.


Isn't is always the way. An hour after I hit the "publish" button I find an interesting article on death from precisely the kind of perspective that I'm interested in: Afterlife in Cross-Cultural Perspective. From the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying.

  1. This section in particular relies on Gananath Obeyesekere. (2002) Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist and Greek Rebirth. University of California Press. Obeyesekere discusses rebirth theories found in the Americas, Africa, Polynesia, Ancient Greece and India and provides a very useful taxonomy of the development of rebirth eschatologies that has influenced this post.
  2. See for instance:
    • Oxford Centre for Anthropology & Mind.
    • Bering et al. (2005) "The development of ‘afterlife’ beliefs in religiously and secularly schooled children." British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 23, 587–607. pdf

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