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Understanding what we believe about life after death: Daniel Ogilvie at TED2013

Posted by: Ben Lillie
Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Photo: James Duncan Davidson

When Daniel Ogilvie was a child, he often imagined what would it be like to be dead. (“I think that’s why I was so popular.”) He’d imagine himself in a coffin, cold and lonely. So he asked his Sunday school teacher what heaven was like. What he heard: Heaven is like a picnic that goes on forever with friends and loved ones. That didn’t appeal: How long, wondered Ogilvie, before they got on each other’s nerves? “I think four or five hours into eternity, and I would have had it.”

Ogilvie grew up and became a professor of psychology at Rutgers University. But he was reminded of those childish thoughts when his 4-year-old daughter came to him crying one night and said, “I don’t want to be a thing that dies.” He didn’t know how to respond; his wife simply said, “Don’t worry, dear, you have a long life ahead of you.”

Now, Ogilvie thought, for many families, that would be the time to talk about heaven. “It’s one of many platforms for later discussions about God, the soul and the afterlife.” And he is worried about how we do this. Afterlife beliefs are not taught to kids as “This is what we believe,” but rather as “These are facts.” These ideas are then internalized, and protected by feelings. Views that accord with it are accepted, views that don’t are attacked.

He designed a course to explore that: “Causes and Consequences of Soul Beliefs.” And in that class, they uncovered some interesting ideas. For example, why is it so easy for children to understand the idea that there’s a soul and there’s an afterlife? It is, he thinks, because “They already suspect that something is going to survive their death.” For example, as a child in his imaginary coffin, he thought he was cold and lonely: He was imagining himself dead, but his psychology continued.

TED2013_0069204_D42_5055One of the remarkable things about humans, says Ogilvie, is that we are able to be in one place and imagine ourselves somewhere else. “We’re always thinking and preparing for the next step.” That’s what happened to his daughter. She “was lying in bed thinking about mental time travel. She went too far and came back with very bad news.” We can imagine all kinds of things, but the thought of death is unacceptable.

And Ogilvie wants to make clear, “Religions have been good for us for most of history.” They helped with group bonding. With more organization though, there is “the emergence of priesthood, the emergence of rulers, chiefs who said you not only need to behave yourself in this particular way but that this is how the gods want you to do it.” They exert social control. “I’ve noticed people with different beliefs don’t like each other,” he drily notes. “Lots of wars are fought over it. That’s a big concern for me.”

So, he asks us to do what he asks his students to do. “Talk about what you were told to believe. Have that conversation with other people.” That gives us a broader perspective. He finishes by returning to what his wife was able to do with his daughter, “My wife directed a conversation to the joys, the sorrows, the beauty, the awesome opportunities of this life. Engage in this conversation. Do it for me, for yourself, for the wellbeing of our planet.”

Comments (5)

  • Fatima Abdullah commented on Mar 25 2014

    This is nice…. Islam always mentions that the afterlife is filled with peace. It’s different from happiness, because peace is the ultimate lack of conflict, or a lack of being affected by it, and conflict is necessary in the universe and is not always negative. So I can imagine an eternity with peace, but not necessarily happiness or an “endless picnic”. And people really need to have more open religious dialogue like Ogilvie says, I am convinced we can all benefit.

  • Frank Stein commented on Oct 1 2013

    It’s fascinating to me that most all religious people of Christian faith, that I’ve interviewed, really don’t know what is in the Bible, they never heard of the Books of the Apocrypha, the book of Enoch, or read the Dead Sea Scrolls. For some, including me, heaven is never mentioned as a place you go to when you die. I find false logic is used to make that assumption because of Jesus saying to the thief while on the cross, you will join me in paradise. Jesus later was resurrected and eventually ascended into heaven. I sure the thief was still buried.

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  • Lazar Mastilo commented on Mar 3 2013

    Nice.. ;)