Unhelpful Religious Beliefs on Death and the Afterlife

Ever since I have been studying the evidence for survival of human personality to physical death, the question of religious beliefs has been nagging at me. This has turned into an outright discomfort since I have moved into the field of counseling for the bereaved and the dying.

It is difficult for me to approach this subject, because the last thing I want to do is to come across as disrespectful for what are likely to be the most cherished, fundamental beliefs for so many people around the world. I insist in saying that, although I am not religious myself, I do profoundly respect religions and religious people.

Nevertheless, I cannot help but noticing that many common religious beliefs about death and the afterlife are a) in sharp contrast with masses of evidence and testimony consistently coming to us from different lines of investigation, and, especially, b) quite unhelpful for a person who is facing death or grieving the loss of a loved one.

I feel passionately about this problem, since a few years ago I had the painful experience of accompanying my dearest friend in a three year dramatic battle with cancer. What was painful was certainly not being at my friend’s side his side during those difficult times. Rather, I consider that a rather enriching experience. I simply cannot stand the idea that he died an anguished man. A committed Catholic, he was convinced that he was to face judgment for sins he believed he had committed.

At that time I already knew that we have no evidence whatsoever for this kind of judgment. All the testimony we have, from a bewildering range of sources, consistently speaks of a life review instead, in which we are not “judged” by others, but rather we are helped making sense of the life we lived, understanding ourselves what was good and what was less good. Especially, we have not the tiniest evidence in support of support of things like hell or eternal damnation. We appear to learn, sometimes painfully, and then to progress.

Similar in many ways is the case of a neighbour – a lovely lady in her early fifties, who looks more like in her early seventies. For years, she’s been grieving the premature death of her husband, and this has taken a big toll on her mind and body. When I said that I knew things that perhaps could help relieve some of her grief, she listened to me politely for a while, but the she said that she could not entertain the idea of survival – and, especially – after death communication because of her religious thinking.

In all honesty, this makes me mad. If religions, as Karl Marx famously said, are people’s opium, then they should make people feel good, or at least less bad. They should certainly not add to the load of suffering connected with death and dying.

Furthermore, there is the problem of confusion, contradictions, lack of clarity. I was raised a bland Catholic by a moderately religious family. That’s the reason why I focus on Christianity/Catholicism here – I do not single that particular religion out or make any value judgment. Fact is that I am pretty convinced that if you were to ask ten Catholic or Christian people for a description of what happens after they die, you would get ten different answers. Where do people go before resurrection? Does resurrection happen for everybody? Do bad people go to hell immediately, or after judgment day? Do you have to be first resurrected and then, if bad, go to hell? What happens if you are bad and repent? Where does lie, in the sequence of events, purgatory? Etcetera.

I suspect that many teachings of religion may look absurd, inconsistent, incoherent, even to the faithful. Many others are partially known or poorly understood (ask churchgoers to give you an explanation of the exact meaning of many of the things said every Sunday by the priest during Holy Mass, and you’re in for a surprise). And still, people cling to these beliefs with fervour. That’s what they’ve been taught – understandable or not, reasonable or not, comforting or not – and that’s what they believe.

With the help of a great article by Miles Edward Allen, let’s focus for a moment on the belief that speaking with the dead is sinful.

The main support for this belief in the Old Testament is from the book known as Leviticus. The key verse says “Do not turn to mediums or wizards, do not seek them out to be defiled by them”. There is another verse in Leviticus and one in Deuteronomy that clearly judge those who make a practice of talking to dead people: “A man or a woman who is a medium or a wizard shall be put to death;” and “There shall not be found among you any one who … is a medium, for they are an abomination to the Lord”.

There can be no doubt that these statements are in the Bible and that they distinctly prohibit consultations with the spirit world. If you accept Leviticus and Deuteronomy as the inerrant word of the Almighty, then you would be wise to avoid any contact with mediums. But, before you make such a decision, you might want to know what else you are signing for.

Have you ever eaten a rare steak? Or a fatty hamburger? Have you ever trimmed your hair or beard? Did you ever get a tattoo; peak at your brother in the nude; fail to stand when an old man enters the room? Have you ever worn a shirt of cotton an polyester blend? Perhaps you have cursed a politician? According to the Old Testament, all these acts and many, many others are sins against the Lord and are condemned just as strongly as consulting a medium.

Finally, and this is even more difficult to accept, some of the teachings do not even allegedly come from God. For instance, the ultimate nature of Christ and other essential aspects of the doctrine were decided upon by vote amongst bishops, most importantly during the Council of Nicaea in 325.

This may now really seem like a tirade against religion, and Christianity in particular. It is not. It is a tirade against the unnecessary suffering deriving from uncritically accepting and believing some – at times poorly understood – religious teachings. Teachings in support of which there is no evidence whatsoever.

Evidence from psychical research points to an entirely different view about life and the afterlife. However, I am certainly not advocating for switching one belief for another. My strong advice is to consider the evidence, study it, reflect upon it. Use your intelligence, your reason, and draw your own conclusions from the data. Chances are, as medical research proves, that you will emerge with a clearer – and extraordinarily more comforting – understanding of death and the afterlife.

 

 

Piero Calvi-Parisetti

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Piero Calvi-Parisetti is a Scottish/Italian medical doctor and university lecturer. A member of the Society for Psychical Research and of the International Association for Near-Death Studies, he is also a trained psychotherapist and grief counselor.

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