The Afterlife

I was listening to an informative speech a couple days ago by a classmate in college in a public speaking class, that dealt with this specific issue. He was basically describing the different variations of the idea of an afterlife in different religions and belief systems, and the concept of reward and punishment in those religions.

He didn’t mention though how early this concept of an afterlife materialized in literary texts. Is anyone aware of a specific point in time when people started theorizing to the existence of an afterlife, outside of religious disciplines? Was the idea actually started by these religious disciplines or does it owe its existence to earlier, recorded literature?

Neanderthals had burial customs that suggest the idea has been around for a very, very long time.

I’m hardly an expert but I think all early contemplations about an afterlife, or any subject just about, had roots in religious/mystical teachings of one sort or another. There simply wasn’t a concept “outside of” religion until rational thinking took hold with the Greeks. Even then, I think - but I could easily stand corrected, they placed rational thinking in the context of religion as well. During the dark ages all thinking tended to fall back into the theological context. Every iota of life, and death, was sanctioned or explained by religious doctrine.

I’d say the earliest you might start seeing people thinking in non-religious terms about an afterlife might be the Victorian period in England when scientists were heavily engaged in both debunking and promoting the then popular practice of senances and other “psychical” phenomenon.

What are the specific burial customs that suggest belief in an afterlife?

The post-Socratic Greek philosophers were heavy on reason and light on religion. Plato’s Phaedo is about the immortality of the soul and pretty much devoid of religious thinking. It’s not like Greek polytheism was all that coherent a belief system in any case.

Otherwise, I think Brian is right. The secular belief in an afterlife devoid of established religious notions is mostly a 19th century conceit, designed to try to fuse the new post-Darwinist understanding of life with established religious beliefs - that departed souls existed, could be troubled and were interested in things going on down here. It may predate the late Victorian age, but I believe this is where it started gaining some momentum.

Eventually you get some mishmash secular reincarnation (originally an Eastern religious belief) that lets everyone pretend they were Cleopatra in an earlier life.


Food and tools left in the grave. Pretty much any kind of offering. If the body is just a used-up piece of meat, there’s no reason to bury a perfectly good tool with it.

I don’t think you misread the question. Interesting answer too. I found out the other day that there are salt-tolerant frogs native to Fiji that sometimes show up on beaches. I got so totally pumped. I was a little like that when I read your post.

There’s such a fine line between clever and stupid…
I really don’t know which this is.

Why would that be stupid or clever?

Because it draws a comparison between salt-tolerant frogs and an argument about the afterlife. If it were coming from someone like Flowers, I’d know it was sarcastic. You tend to be a bit more direct, so I don’t know if you’re trying to be funny or not.

It’s a great way to derail a thread though.

I wasn’t trying to compare salt-tolerant frogs with the afterlife - I was comparing it with the idea that neanderthals had afterlife-related rituals. They were both surprising and interesting facts for me.

A good send off with some symbols of what a person enjoyed isn’t necessarily indicative of a belief that the possessions would go with them to a spirit world. I know that the Egyptians refined it and practiced it for that reason, but other cultures may have had different outlooks.

I think you are probably right, but I would want to know what the people ate, how they viewed food, and whether the tools were personal possessions or accoutrements.

Just to add to this, the intelligentsia of Athens didn’t believe in anthropomorphic gods any more than you or I do. However, Socrates posits the idea of an afterlife in which he might learn about the forms, and he couches it in terms of conversing with gods (though it isn’t clear whether he believed in gods at all, at least not in the Edith Hamilton gods…his gods were perfection and may have actually been the forms themselves, which cannot converse).

Anyway, the point is that lots of ancient thinkers posit a soul without relying on religion. Pythagoras, to use a PRE-Socratic, believed in transmigration but doesn’t attribute it to gods, as far as we know.