I visited a cathedral during Semana Santa in Ecuador. I knelt in a buddhist temple in Thailand. Then recently, while staring at the screen trying to find a subject for a blog post, I found a question I had never considered. Are there any cultures which don’t believe in immortality? Whether it is the immortality of gods, the human soul, or re-incarnation?
As a novelist with limited time, I can’t do the kind of research that would answer that question, but I did find some research that asserts people instinctively believe in one form of immortality.
In an experiment, researchers showed children pictures of a baby, a young woman, and that same woman while pregnant. They asked each child what they thought about their own abilities, thoughts, and emotions in each stage. Since few cultures have set beliefs about what happens before conception, researchers felt the children would reject the idea that they existed before birth. Surprisingly the children came to different conclusions.
When asked if they had bodies before they were born or if they could think or remember, most children said no. But when asked what they felt at each stage, many reported emotions. For instance they said they were happy that they were about to meet their mothers or they were sad because they weren’t with their families.
The children didn’t even notice they were contradicting themselves, suggesting that in the words of the researchers, “there is an unlearned cognitive tendency to view emotions and desires as the eternal core of personhood.”
Taken with studies on postlife existence that most cultures seem to hold, many believe postlife is also without hunger or thirst or body, but again, emotions seem to persist whether a person ends up in heaven, hell or enlightenment.
Is it because we are so attuned to emotions, our own and those of others, that we can’t think of existence without them? Apparently, we also instinctively can’t think of a time our emotions did not exist.