Even though famed physicist Stephen Hawking announced he doesn't believe in an afterlife and that heaven is a "fairy story for people afraid of the dark," that doesn't mean we'll stop believing, psychologists say.
The statement by Hawking to the Guardian newspaper reflects the beliefs of plenty of nonreligious people, but will likely get more attention, coming as it does from Hawking, who is famous for his work in theoretical physics. Hawking has already drawn fire from some religious leaders with his assertion in his book "The Grand Design" (Bantam 2010) that the universe did not need God to get started. [8 Shocking Things We Learned from Hawking's Book]
"I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail," Hawking said Sunday in The Guardian. "There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark."
Fairy story or not, a belief in heaven does seem to come with some benefits. Humans didn't evolve in an environment where an understanding of black holes or the origin of the universe would be helpful, said Daniel Kruger, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan.
"We're not designed at the level of theoretical physics," Kruger told LiveScience. "What really matters to us is what happens at the human scale, relationships to other people, things we experience in a lifetime."
Rewards and reminders
For that reason, the idea of heaven has a stronger mystique than that of the seven imperceptible dimensions of string theory. On a personal level, Kruger said, the idea of an afterlife offers some hope in a world where, historically, "life has been pretty harsh." Thoughts of heaven may also stave off fears of death, he said.
Studies have shown that a belief in life after death seems to play that handholding role, said Nathan Heflick, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of South Florida who has studied belief in the afterlife.
"The more people believe, the less death anxiety they tend to have," Heflick told LiveScience.
Reminding people of death also prompts them to want to believe in the afterlife more, Heflick said, even if they remain skeptical.
On a societal level, religious belief in the afterlife can be a powerful motivator to follow the rules, Kruger said.
"When you have an afterlife that is influenced by the actions that you take now, you basically see a system of rewards and punishments," he said. Those rewards and punishments can keep people in line, or, more charitably, provide a way for humans to codify and pass along moral laws.
A belief in the afterlife may also arise from the perception that we are more than our bodies. In a series of experiments, Heflick and his colleagues subtly reminded people of their bodies — by providing foot massages, for example — while asking them about their thoughts on the afterlife. People undergoing a physical experience reminding them of their bodies were less likely to say they believed in life after death, while those distanced from their bodies showed a slight uptick in belief.
People's perceptions of themselves, then, may influence their belief in what happens after death.
"If you think of your body as a machine, it's kind of hard to believe in life after death," Heflick said. "You're not going to be able to think of yourself as a spirit."
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.