How to Know You’ve Survived Death

A Cognitive Account of the Popularity of Contemporary Post-mortem Survival Narratives

In: Method & Theory in the Study of Religion
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  • 1 Department of Religious Studies, California State University, Northridge
  • 2 Department of Religious Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA
  • 3 Centre for Science Communication, University of Otago, New Zealand

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Abstract

Reports of people who have survived death have captured the attention of mainstream audiences. Why do these ideas enjoy persistent and widespread success in contemporary Western culture? Adopting a cognitive approach to the study of afterlife accounts and drawing upon our own research, we argue that mainstream survival narratives are popular because they provide convincing evidence that one has journeyed to another realm. Such accounts are convincing, in part, because they meet default cognitive assumptions about what human survival would look like if it were possible. We support this claim by highlighting recurring common themes in recounted episodes of near-death experiences and past life accounts and outlining how key findings in the cognitive science of religion, in conjunction with culturally situated accounts, can help scholars concerned with ideas about anomalous experiences to better understand their appeal.

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