The Afterlife Project
Download Protocol (PDF)
Download Questionnaire (PDF)
This research project examines a particular aspect of religion—conceptions of the afterlife—from an evolutionary perspective. It is also intended to serve as a model for the study of other aspects of religion.
Belief in an afterlife is one of the most distinctive features of religion. One common hypothesis about such beliefs is that they exist to allay fear of death and other earthly afflictions. Yet, this hypothesis cannot even remotely explain the diversity of beliefs about the afterlife in religious systems around the world and throughout history.
Only some religions, such as Christianity and Islam, have beliefs in a glorious afterlife (heaven). Even these usually include a belief in a miserable afterlife (hell) as well. The many versions of Christianity and Islam differ in their specific conceptions of heaven and hell. Judaism places much less emphasis on the afterlife than either Christianity or Islam. Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism take conceptions of the afterlife in a completely different direction (reincarnation). The religions of indigenous people, which preceded the major religious traditions and still thrive in numerous populations around the world, take conceptions of the afterlife in still other directions.
Clearly, an adequate theory of the afterlife must document and explain its diversity. To begin this ambitious task, our advisory board of evolutionists and religious scholars developed a protocol for gathering the most relevant information about conceptions of the afterlife in a standardized fashion. The protocol is designed to be completed by scholars who are knowledgeable about particular conceptions of the afterlife, as they arose and spread in particular times and places. The more fine-grained the analysis (e.g., conceptions of the afterlife associated with Quakerism during its inception), the better.
The protocol consists of a number of questions that are answered in a narrative fashion with supporting references, leading to a document the size of a review article. Then an additional set of questions is answered on a numerical questionnaire, as a first attempt at quantification. By answering the same questions for many different conceptions of the afterlife, we can systematically accumulate a database for testing hypotheses derived from evolutionary theory—or any other theoretical framework.
Of course, one scholar’s assessment does not constitute objective truth. The best approximation of objective truth is to have multiple scholars assess the same information and come to a consensus as much as possible. The discussion can take place largely on the basis of descriptive information, but quantification is often helpful to resolve the most important and difficult issues. To facilitate this process, we will make the completed protocols available on this website in a way that facilitates discussion and modification by other scholars. For example, if you are knowledgeable about Quakerism and disagree with the answers provided by the scholar who completed our protocol, you can initiate a discussion and the information can be amended accordingly. In this fashion, we hope to involve as many scholars as possible to determine the most important areas of consensus and disagreement.
We have commissioned a number religious scholars to complete protocols, but we also invite others to become involved. If you are knowledgeable about a particular conception of the afterlife and would like to add to our database by completing the protocol and questionnaire, please contact us.
Protocols will be posted on this website as they are completed.