How Language Encourages Belief in an Afterlife

People believe in a life after death for many reasons. But one ability that makes it very easy for us to do so often goes unnoticed, and that is language itself. Because of the characteristics of the nouns and verbs in English and other languages, we can easily frame the names of the dead as if they were still living and their actions as still taking place.

Ordinary nouns and names show some contrasts—for example, between singular or plural—very clearly through differences in sound or spelling. But they don’t change in any way to distinguish between items that exist and those that don’t. A noun gives us no information about whether a thing exists or not. So we can use nouns and names to refer to objects and people right in front of us (computer) or out of sight (cousin in Chicago) or existing only in our imagination (unicorns) or no longer alive (Abraham Lincoln).

One result is that a sentence such as “Aunt Mary went to college when she was 16” is easy and normal to say regardless of whether Mary is living or not. When we remember the lives of those who have died, we can think and speak of them in literally the same words we used when they were alive. In our imagination and conversation, they easily remain alive-in-the-past-tense.

Sentences explicitly about a person’s death have their own peculiarities. “Aunt Mary is dead” would certainly seem definitive. But the verb is is in the present tense, and the sentence (especially if it is said repeatedly in a ritualistic or grieving fashion) does as much to encourage a sense of her other-worldly continuity as it does to convey her death.

There is also “Aunt Mary died.” Here, Aunt Mary is presented as having done something—she has died—and so, in spite of the meaning of the verb, she may also be presented as going on to do something else. So we can say, with no awkwardness, “Aunt Mary died. She has gone to heaven and continues to watch over us.”

Language is our brilliant tool for speaking and thinking about what may be present or may be absent, may be actual or imaginary. So language serves us handily when it comes to bringing the dead to life.

3 thoughts on “How Language Encourages Belief in an Afterlife

  1. That’s true but remember the important aspect, and in fact the only relevant one, about external characters and objects is how they affect our mind. Buddha has been dead 1700 years but his ideas and the example of his life affect millions of people today far more than the lives and example of people living next door!

    Many people today exert almost no influence on others because their lives or thinking are so unremarkable or conformist or because they have retreated into a world of their own pleasure.

    When I bring to mind my parents, who passed some time ago, the effect on my mind is immediate; I know how they would react or advise in a given situation, and that internalising of external entities is the whole crux of emotional learning. We then retain the confidence that they will exist even if not physically present – tha lack of this ability to maintain confidence in an absent person means we are condemned to insecure attachments and troubled relationships through life.

    A tree falling in a forest makes no sound unless an ear and brain are there to convert meaningless pressure differences into sound. I think a person’s life makes no impression unless there are minds which are reacted upon by it, for better or worse. Paradoxically we know about the emotional lives and the internal impressions of Renoir and Monet – a century after their passing, despite never having met them – by completely lifeless paints and canvas!

    • Iain, good to hear from you. Thanks for the comment. I think, though, that our brains are such social processors that almost everyone, no matter how narrow their lives, has others who they think of and is thought of in turn by others, at least in the course and aftermath of growing up, and, as you say, for worse as well as for better. If it is for worse, then indeed, later relationships are likely to be insecure. I like your point about the importance of having confidence in an absent parent or other in order to have our own stable relationships.


  2. I ink it’s called persistence as a mental trait – I know there are people who stop believing someone loves them when they’re not there. It al starts in childhood. Just saw Ant Man! Highly recommended!


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