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

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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.”