Thoughts of death make only the religious more devout

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Thinking about death makes Christians and Muslims, but not atheists, more likely to believe in God, new research finds, suggesting that the old saying about “no atheists in foxholes” doesn’t hold water.


Agnostics, however, do become more willing to believe in God when reminded of death. The only catch is that they’re equally as likely to believe in Buddha or Allah as the Christian deity, even though all the agnostics in the study were  American and thus more likely to be exposed to Christian beliefs.

The findings confirm that while religion can help people deal with death, we all manage our own existential fears of dying through our pre-existing worldview, the researchers report in an upcoming issue of the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

“These studies offer an improved understanding of how and why religious individuals tend to believe so strongly in their own religion’s gods yet deny the gods of competing religions,” the researchers wrote.

Plenty of research has shown that religion, which frequently promises an everlasting afterlife, helps people cope with the fact that they will die someday. But this use of religion is not universal. One 2006 study found that thoughts of death increased belief in supernatural figures in general for religious people. That study did not separate atheists from agnostics, nor did it examine how specific religious beliefs might influence the sort of supernatural figures a person might believe in. [ Top 10 Unexplained Phenomena ]

To find out, University of Missouri psychologist Kenneth Vail III and colleagues recruited 26 Christians, 28 atheists, 40 Muslims and 28 agnostics.. The participants were American college students, except for the Muslims, who were Iranians going to school in Iran. Each participant was tasked with writing either a brief essay about how they felt about their own death or a religiously neutral topic, such as loneliness or how to cope when plans go awry.

After a brief verbal task to distract the participants from the true purpose of the study, they filled out questionnaires about their religious beliefs, including their faith in the Christian God or Jesus, Buddha and Allah.

Unsurprisingly, when Christians thought of death, they became firmer in their beliefs than those Christians who hadn’t been reminded of their mortality. They also became less accepting of Allah and Buddha, suggesting a closer adherence to their own worldview. Likewise, Muslims who thought of death became more faithful to Allah and less accepting of Buddha or the Christian God.

Written By: Stephanie Pappas
continue to source article at vitals.msnbc.msn.com

32 COMMENTS

  1. Once burned twice shy.

    Scare them of hellfire as children and sit back, watch them clamor to the idea of not dying for the rest of their lives.

    A real study would have been showing people who weren’t indoctrinated, didn’t get hell fire preached to them at a young age. I would like to see that finally brought up in a scientific setting.

    It may very well be the case that those people who gripped their religion stronger when thinking of death were doing so because they were traumatized as children with hell. I’m sure this is the case, it just helps to confirm it scientifically.

    I think the solution to all of this is bolstering child protection laws to extend to psychological and emotional abuse. You shouldn’t be able to abuse children like that. It’s sick that we call ourselves civilized simply because adults enjoy most freedoms, while children have nearly no rights, at all.

    You can spank a child, try doing that to an adult stranger. Why do we contradict ourselves here? Try going up and even touching a stranger without a lawsuit or police intervention. We get to tell children what to think and do. Why isn’t this simply the case for everyone else? Why when we turn a certain age do we start getting these rights? Of course, I understand HOW this happened, but I don’t understand why it continues, especially if we are to consider ourselves enlightened and civil. Well, then that means you have to extend that to EVERYONE before it’s true.

    You can mentally, emotionally and physically abuse children until they are shells of human beings and we just sit idle while it happens. Let alone the more serious cases of abuse, where children die.

    We’ve never had a civilization, so far. It’s still emergent, developing, evolving. In other words, stop celebrating until we all share the same equality, that goes doubly for children.

  2.  ” The findings confirm that while religion can help people deal with
    death, we all manage our own existential fears of dying through our
    pre-existing worldview “

    Worldview? An realistic take on the world obviates worldviews. The empirical fear of dying need not be managed with the delusional worldview of religion but can be managed well enough in reality.

  3. This gives us a whole new meaning of ‘death, to America’.

    That is the rightful title of this article, imho. :) Can’t believe I didn’t think of it sooner.

    Come on, you know it’s right.

  4. This only serves to confirm a point I made on the thread about the overall decrease in belief……especially among youth. People aren’t disbelieving because of a sudden surge of rationality, but because they live in a society that reminds them less and less of their own mortality. With average life expectancy increasing, the death that would occur within a few decades for a person two or three hundred years ago may be a century away for today’s youth. Plenty of time to eat, drink, and be merry.

  5. I think that religion has developed various rituals that allow people to go on “automatic pilot” just when they can’t really handle normal life. So religion is for the survivors. Then again, so is atheism. But religion has developed through its basic tenet: granting superstition power over your life; which gives them a leg up when someone really does need some kind of ritual.

    As for yourself: I find the more religious you are; the more you believe in some kind of afterlife, the more you seem to want to avoid getting to this wonderful place. And the more you want to but into others who don’t share your odd universe view.

  6. Well, that would be ignoring the bit about atheists and agnostics, though…

    Also, the internet. You cannot just ignore a tool of facts and education like the internet and what it’s demonstrably done to sway minds away from woo.

    I think the internet is the biggest factor. People aren’t taking that much of a note of how long they live. Besides, facts trump woo. We know this and it works time and time again. You can’t simply ignore that and say, “well, people are living longer, less fear of death, less religion”

    It seems sound at the outset, but it ignores some very important factors.

  7. I feel sorry for Christians and Muslims. The devout ones live in terror of violating some petty rule that will make them roast for eternity.  It is impossible not to sin. The process of dying is unpleasant enough without compounding it with such imaginary terrors. Yet they claim the belief is a comfort. Huh??  My land lady who was a very charitable person, was utterly convinced she would go to heaven and live in a literal house made of gold and walk on streets of gold. I don’t think many people have that confidence.

    I asked various Muslims about the bar of who goes to hell/heaven. They seemed to think everyone was doomed, unless rescued by exceptional mercy on the part of Allah.  You could not count on any degree of mercy. However, there is a story of a man attaining paradise simply because he gave some water to a thirsty dog.

    Fear makes people panic. Panic makes it impossible to think clearly. Fear of Jehovah is like an adult version of bogeymen under the bed.

  8. Has my pets demise weakened my rationality?  Yesterday, my canine companion “Chewy” a Bassett Hound of 14 years had to be put down. I live in the country so she was legally and lovingly interred here on the property. Naturally, thoughts about death have come to the forefront. My concern is what is happening to my rational thought during this experience and why? Here are some examples:

    Just as we were finishing our goodbyes our neighbors dog made some whining noises. I imagined the neighbors dog might be feeling our loss. My sister wished Chewy was in “doggie heaven” nipping at our ancestors feet for attention. I pictured this in my mind also.Later three rabbits were standing around the spots like guardians. OK! Am I losing it here?
     Later of course the old standby, I thought I heard her scratch at the door. Operant Conditioning maybe?
     Have I dropped a notch on the RD 7 point scale, or is this just a temporary coping mechanism?  Regards,  William

  9. Well I’m a jehovah’s acomplice….

    “There WHERE no witnesses”

    (Not my joke, stole it from a comedian somewheres.)

    Still waiting for the door knockers to grace my steps so’s i can see the look on their faces (plurural, cause they always comes in twos) when i tells em so!

  10. William T. Dawkins

    Condolences on your loss. I’ve lost three dogs through natural aging, and it really highlights the bitter-sweet nature of animal companionship. It’s true, and it’s a cliche, obviously, that they live on in our memories, and it would be nice if in some way we were reunited, and I think it is entirely natural to indulge in some wishful thinking. I sometimes see my long-lost dogs in vivid dreams, and that’s comforting enough, and knowing that I gave them as good a life as I could.

    But the issue for the religious is that if they really started to think about the implications of an eternal afterlife in the christian mould, then hell is a childishly ridiculous and immoral concept [OT really, but if any of you had the power, would there be anybody in
    the history of humankind who you would subject to eternal puinishment?], whilst any notion of heaven inevitable turns into a hell far worse than pitchforks and brimstone. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, for the already religious, the fear of death spurs a further retreat into magical thinking rather than a reflection on the arbitrariness of life and death and existance. 

  11. Funny comments section. 

    Unfortunately Sandy, that is not going to help the atheists or agnostics once they take their last breath and find out, as the rich man did, that there is no coming back from Hades once they find out the truth, nor can they come back to warn others. It is a very scary thing to leave this earth without the blood of Christ covering you. For without him as your Lord, your sins or open and bare before God, with condemning judgment to follow and that person will be accountable for every sin, including every idle word, thought and motive. No thanks! I’ll continue having faith in the Lord as my savior. Being without Christ is like playing Russian Roulette, except that all of the chambers are loaded.

    And on and on, page after page. It’s like listening to a 5 years old screaming about the monster under his bed, and asking his daddy to make it go away. 

    Utterly pathetic.

  12. Jehovah’s Witnesses have a elaborate way of denying the hellfire and brimstone in the bible.  For them it is heaven or non-existence.  Suicide is wicked, so you can’t jump to heaven prematurely.  That should take the fear out of death (though not of dying).  Maybe that’s why they are so willing to let their kids die for lack of a transfusion.

    Of all Christians they do the most thinking.  They have explanations for everything, not very good ones, but they think about the objections to their beliefs.

    I am not particularly afraid of them, though when I owned a house, they were quite a nuisance coming to the door. I found ways to tease them.

    To the the question “Have you read the bible?”  Respond “No, but I saw the movie”.

    I once pretended to be hearing the voice of Jesus. I had  a special message for my elderly pest. I don’t recall what I said, some bit of Christian-tinged fortune cookie wisdom.  He went dancing down the front steps and came back with a posse.  He figured he had a live one.  I acted merely puzzled. It was cruel.

  13. If you are terrified of something, and someone offers you a rationalisation why you should not be frightened, you will want to believe it, even if there is no evidence for it, simply because it relieves anxiety. 

    Watch a disaster movie. People will constantly reassure each other that all will be ok, or that X lost in the wilderness is just fine, without a lick of evidence to back that up.

    What I find weird is the Christian wishful thinking about death is much more terrifying than the atheist assumption. The last thing I want to deal with just after I die is a genocidal, vain, homophobic, arbitrary, cruel, sadistic, psychopathic deity (as the god Jehovah is described in the OT). How could anyone find that comforting?  Unless of course they were unfamiliar with the OT, and had a quite different picture in mind, modeled on Santa Claus.

  14. What I find weird is the Christian wishful thinking about death is much more terrifying than the atheist assumption. The last thing I want to deal with just after I die is a genocidal, vain, homophobic, arbitrary, cruel, sadistic, psychopathic deity (as the god Jehovah is described in the OT). How could anyone find that comforting?  Unless of course they were unfamiliar with the OT, and had a quite different picture in mind, modeled on Santa Claus.

    It’s a very selfish and coercive way of viewing the world. I’ll be OK, but you won’t. Yeah, he maybe cruel, but I am on his side. So you’d better join us, and bend to the will of our ruler, or he’ll punish you. 

    Well then, f*** you. That’s my answer to the salesmen.

  15. Christians are such easy targets to poke fun of.  One day I got a bible which I carried in my hand.  I affected a long stride and a peculiar bobbing gate.  I held on my face a sour American Gothic expression and then wandered the city, going into night clubs and other places I clearly did not fit in.

    My lover was quite androgynous, and made himself a nun costume. He was quite an actor and made a very convincing raw-boned young sincere nun. He went to McDonalds and got in line. He pinched the bum of the man standing in front of him. The man turned, saw the nun, and was puzzled. He repeated this. 
    When he got to the head of the line he spoke in a Donald Duck voice and fled.

  16. Eternal life?  I don’t think any of them has thought it through. 

    Now here it is in simple terms the age of the age of the universe is about 14 billion years. If it exists twice that long say 28 billion years that is an incomprehensible length of time on human scales BUT it is instantaneous compared to eternity!

    Just think, of how they’re going to cope with those 72 virgins!  As Billy Connolly pointed out, after they”ve shagged them they’ve got to talk to them and they might be Duran Duran fans

  17. @OP:disqus

     -  Atheists,
    who reject religion, showed none of these responses to thoughts of
    death. In other words, the myth that atheists turn to God on the
    battlefield or in other times of peril didn’t hold up, Vail and his
    colleagues wrote. Along with other research, their study suggests that
    “atheists do not rely on religion when confronted with the awareness of
    death,” they said.

    This explains why the religious make ridiculous statements such as “No atheists in foxholes”.  They are simply so dependent on their psychological crutches, that they cannot envisage atheists walking through life (or facing death) without them. 

    They simply project their own fears and dependence onto their image of atheists.  – An image which is often derived from made-up rubbish they have been told by preachers who are even more dependent on the crutches, and even more persistent in propping up their own weak views by constant regular doses of re-assertion!

    Many of us must have seen panicked theists go into “prayer-mode”, when more rational people would be thinking of objective solutions to the problems.

  18. The idea that in our final moments of life we will suddenly reach a true insight into the meaning of life is a myth. If we have lived our entire lives with religious faith it would be sensible to expect that that we would not abandon it while in the terrifying grip of impending death. At this point it would be accepted that we should be allowed to die with our delusions.

  19. “I think the internet is the biggest factor.”

    You’re kidding. This is the same internet jam packet with stories of how the planet Nibiru is going to collide with Earth, 2012 Mayan end of the word, the rapture, secret bases where aliens breed with humans…..etc etc….and it’s quite apparent that a lot of people actually believe all that stuff.

    If anything, the internet has made people more gullible….not less so.

  20. “A lot” of people don’t believe “all” that stuff. Where are you getting your information / who do you surround yourself with? I’m 19 and I’ve met a lot of people my age. The majority of those who have access to the internet at my university do not believe in any of that, and my generation is generally frequenting the internet more often than any other.

  21. The majority of those who have access to the internet at my university
    do not believe in any of that, and my generation is generally
    frequenting the internet more often than any other.

     Are you using “Google Scholar” rather than “Google”?  If you search for scientific information typing in a word like “sychonicity”, see how much woo you get before you find information on tidally-locked planets & moons.  There is a lot of disinformation on the internet!

  22. If I thought that I was the only person who is going to die I’d be worried, very worried indeed; I’d be thoroughly pissed off in fact.

    No, it isn’t popping my clogs that causes me to think about it, it’s the thought of what’s going to lead up to it; or, down to it. 

    But it also helps me appreciate and fully enjoy life while I can.

    Death is fundamentally democratic; we all get a crack at! 

  23. @  MAUCH

      If we have lived our entire lives with religious faith it would be
    sensible to expect that that we would not abandon it while in the
    terrifying grip of impending death
    .

    Unless there are threatening circumstances at the time, or death is premature, many would not find impending death terrifying.  This is evidenced by individuals who rationally decide on euthanasia. 

    This was discussed earlier:-  http://richarddawkins.net/disc…  – Theists often see this as “pro-suicide-propaganda”, and persistently try to interfere with other people’s choices.

    I put some links to the Swiss referendum on Dignitas etc over on the How to Die in Oregon discussion – http://richarddawkins.net/comm

    At this point it would be accepted
    that we should be allowed to die with our delusions.

    That should be a theists right, but others should also be afforded to chose their own mode of death where they feel the need for this. (Such as those with a degenerative terminal illness)

  24. Re Schrodinger’s cat comment:”This only serves to confirm a point I made on the thread about the
    overall decrease in belief……especially among youth. People aren’t
    disbelieving because of a sudden surge of rationality, but because they
    live in a society that reminds them less and less of their own
    mortality. With average life expectancy increasing, the death that would
    occur within a few decades for a person two or three hundred years ago
    may be a century away for today’s youth. Plenty of time to eat, drink,
    and be merry.”
    I rather resent the implication there. I’m 77, so the stats say I’ll probably drop off my twig before all that long. Additionally, I’ve had medical alarms recently which could have indicated dangerous illness (but didn’t). I am as much a convinced atheist as I ever was. As with many of us, I fear, not death but painful dying. Mere cessation of consciouness is nothing to fear, is it? Anyone who’s ever had a general anaesthetic has experienced that – usually without any fuss.

  25. I can sympathize with your situation as I have lost beloved pets as well and afterwards felt their presence. I’ve thought I caught a glimpse of them on occasion in the house only to look again and realize they really weren’t there. I miss them terribly and feel such sorrow for myself that I do not have their company any longer that I think my brain must be compensating and providing me with comfortable delusions of seeing and feeling them. Our brains seem to be wired to comfort and protect us from the pain of such potent losses with delusion that, over time, eventually fades in degrees. Even though I can recognize that these are delusions and simply products of my brain, I am happy to feel them.  I would never willingly not have pets in my life as they are the ultimate in enjoying unjudgemental, unconditional loving companionship humans can experience and they teach us so much about our own humanity and its connections with other species.

  26. One must ask science to explain why fear of death, fear of a basic part of a process of a billion year cycle would even exist in any creature? For if natural evolution is the causation of life over millions of generations of life/death history, surely death would be as natural as a cough, a sneeze, a burp. There’d be nothing to it. However, if death were unnatural, unintended by the designor; fear or inability to grasp mortality emotionally or intellectually would be understandable. Considering science has revealed that death wasn’t programmed into life’s cells, that every cell has the capacity to continually replicate by upregulating Telemorase enzymes, we must think this through before assuming a blind cause for faith.

  27.   Fear of death is natural for healthy individuals capable of more life
    and further reproduction, by avoiding some threat.  I don’t think there
    is much doubt about that.

    What is being discussed here is the fear of impending death when it is
    probable or inevitable, where those who believe in life after-death-are
    facing the unknown, and additional religious fantasy threats or rewards.
    They feel the need to placate gods to mitigate these threats, because
    of earlier indoctrination.

    @marcogerardo61 – Considering science has revealed that death wasn’t programmed into
    life’s cells, that every cell has the capacity to continually replicate
    by upregulating Telemorase enzymes, .. ..

    Mammalian and human cells don’t have an unlimited capacity to replicate,
    because their telomeres shorten as they copy, so for individuals death
    is inevitable.  Science may be able to make changes to adjust life
    spans, but this is not yet proven.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T

    During cell division, enzymes
    that duplicate DNA cannot continue their duplication all the way to the
    end of chromosomes. If cells divided without telomeres, they would lose
    the ends of their chromosomes, and the necessary information they
    contain. The telomeres are disposable buffers blocking the ends of the
    chromosomes, are consumed during cell division, and are replenished by
    an enzyme, telomerase reverse transcriptase.

    Olovnikov suggested that DNA sequences are lost every time a cell/DNA
    replicates until the loss reaches a critical level, at which point cell
    division ends.

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