If you don’t believe in a human soul or in an afterlife, how would you respond if I asked you to sign a contract to sell your soul to me for £2?
Many people these days are sceptical of the notion that consciousness can survive the death of the brain. Modern science points out that damage to certain crucial structures in the brain, such as the thalamus, will cause a loss of consciousness.
Perhaps this is one reason why research in Britain shows a sizeable minority of people in recent years say they disbelieve in any supernatural dimension to life. Census and survey data in 2005 show between 39% and 18% of people (depending on age) lack belief in a soul and between 50% and 39% lack belief in an afterlife.
Surprisingly, when researchers asked the question about selling one’s soul, they found that almost nobody signed. People who say they disbelieve in an afterlife and soul, behaved as if they did believe after all. Could how we think be less clear-cut than we assumed?
IAT applied to afterlife
Psychologists have long maintained that our conscious attitudes and opinions may not be the whole story of how we feel concerning an issue. You may disbelieve something but side by side there may exist within you other sentiments and feelings hidden from conscious awareness.
Research into reaction times during word association tests is unearthing implicit attitudes and stereotypes concerning a whole swathe of issues such as gender, race, sexuality. This work uses a widely used test known as the Implicit Association Test (I.A.T.).
Applications of the I.A.T. include comparing implicit with explicit attitudes about religious ideas. One example of this kind of study is reported in the British Journal of Social Psychology. Stephenie Anglin found that in adults implicit beliefs about the soul and an afterlife were similar to beliefs during their childhoods. However, these were often different from what her subjects said they believed now.
Explaining implicit beliefs about afterlife
Sometimes our habits of thought and belief conform to the main current of social opinion. The social trend appears to be towards scepticism regarding anything supernatural. One suggestion is that with the dramatic decline in Christendom, religion is more likely to be seen as superstition. It can be embarrassing to be out on a limb. Perhaps we are capable of deceiving ourselves about any reservations we might entertain regarding what other people think.
Children’s intuition of afterlife
Children tend to ask simple but penetrating questions about fundamental things. “What is your soul?”, “What will happen when I die?”, “Where is heaven?”
Bruce Hood, professor of developmental psychology at Bristol University, has said ‘Our research shows children have a natural, intuitive way of reasoning that leads them to all kinds of supernatural beliefs about how the world works.’ He has his own biological theory about this.
Implanted higher feelings
A perspective on this is provided by the spiritual philosophy of Emanuel Swedenborg. He claims that heavenly feelings are planted by God into everyone from infancy on. These are said to be different from the well-understood emotions we all have associated with our natural self-orientation. Swedenborg says these feelings remain hidden within each growing individual. They are said to exist in adulthood at some deep level even within the materialistic who scoffs at any spiritual dimension to life. The higher feelings are less detectable because they remain unconscious. It sounds to me that this is not something that we are necessarily aware of even when using introspection.
Experiencing thirst for knowledge about afterlife
Often scientists and people of faith actually agree that no-one can scientifically prove or disprove the existence of God. Similarly the idea about divine inflow is probably un-testable by science.
However, I would argue that having once been infants ourselves, we adults often feel sympathetically drawn to states of innocence. Having once experienced the enquiring mind of childhood, from time to time, we experience a thirst for knowledge about what is true about life and death. Having reflected on deeper issues in our youth we sometimes seek spiritual answers to personal problems.
Such hidden affections for what is good and true are said to be the origin of the sensitiveness we have toward what is decent and noble. I believe that in some mysterious way these spiritual intuitions have remained within us perhaps covered over by our outward concerns. Without these inner feelings why would anyone seek justice and the welfare of others? Or have a hope for eternity? Or be interested in trying to improve their own faults?
Can the unconscious remnants of heavenly feelings explain the difference between implicit and explicit conscious attitudes we have towards an afterlife?
Copyright 2015 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems