You might think that most people believe in Heaven or Hell based on stories they’ve heard. For Christians, the Book of Revelation defines Heaven as a paradise of golden streets and pearly gates, accessible only through a belief in Jesus. In the Islamic tradition, access to Heaven is granted based on whether one’s good works outweigh the bad. In Buddhism, Heaven is slightly different — it is Nirvana that one strives for, the extinguishing of one’s “flame of desire,” the root human suffering. In Hinduism and other Eastern religious, it is likewise a release from suffering and illusion that leads to a sort of heavenly fulfillment.
Yet haven’t most of these beliefs been snuffed out in our secular age? Well, given that a recent study finds that 74% of American adults believe in God and 68% believe in a heaven, apparently an inclination towards the spiritual has serious staying power.
One could perhaps explain this by listing the usual reasons for religious affiliation: religion is comforting, it provides deep meaning and purpose, people like traditions and the feeling of a shared history, and, more recently, scientists have even claimed that DNA can help explain religious belief. (Dean Hamer’s The God Gene argued that a gene called VMAT2 (vesicular monoamine transporter 2) alters monamine levels (neurotransmitters), and natural selection perpetuates this gene since people who are religious tend to survive longer due to the beneficial physical and psychological effects of being more optimistic.)
But what if it’s not a belief in God or Heaven but in immortality that is hardwired into our minds? What if in order to survive, in order not to spontaneously burst out of existential despair, humans — from C.S. Lewis to Richard Dawkins — have evolved to believe that we have just the slightest possibility of living forever?
A study published last week by researchers at Boston University looked at “pre-life” beliefs of children in two distinct cultures in Ecuador. One group had no cultural pre-life beliefs while the other group was raised Roman Catholic. Natalie Emmons, head researcher on the study, showed the children drawings of a baby, a young woman, and the same woman while pregnant, and asked the groups what they thought the child could think, feel, and do at each period of his life (before conception, as a baby, and in the womb).
Surprisingly, both groups of children said that the baby’s emotions and desires existed before even being born. For instance, although the children said the baby in the drawings could not see things before birth (a physical ability), he could, in fact, be sad that he was apart from his family or ecstatic that he would soon be meeting his mother (an emotion).
“They didn’t even realize they were contradicting themselves,” said Emmons. “Even kids who had biological knowledge about reproduction still seemed to think that they had existed in some sort of eternal form. And that form really seemed to be about emotions and desires.”
Essentially, their most basic intuition was that emotions are eternal.
Is that really all that surprising though? How many times have you thought that your mind — even though you know it’s a product of your brain — is somehow separate from your body?
A few years back, Stephen Hawking famously told the Guardian, “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail… There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
Yet, contrary to Hawking’s depressing realism, most of us tend to believe in a soul or at least in some notion of a “true self” that’s separate from our pure physicality.
Thomas Aquinas said that both animals and humans have souls, but only human souls are united with the divine. The Qur’an says Allah “takes the souls at death,” and even Plato thought the soul was home to logic, the most divine of human actions. It’s not a wonder that this idea of a divinely linked soul has held so much cultural weight throughout history: it would be wickedly depressing to think that all of our emotions and thoughts are derived exclusively from our physical being, which will eventually, as Hawking so mechanically put it, break down like a computer.
More importantly though, humans have evolved — or have been intelligently built, if we’re having this conversation — to detect patterns. If the last time a shrub in the middle of an empty forest made noise, a tiger attacked you, you’ll start detecting patterns and you’ll be more likely to suspect a possible attack when you hear noise coming from a usually quiet bush. So too, humans tend to see patterns in their lives at large. We imagine we are on Earth for a reason — that there is a Master Plan. And if the soul dies with the body, then what would be the point of our entire existence? Illogical as it may be, our most rational recourse is that our emotions, our desires, our soul will last forever. Heaven is just the most sensible place it could go.