Do Atheists Have Deathbed Conversions?

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Are there atheists in foxholes? That timeless question (the literal answer to which is yes) is a shorthand way of asking whether, when confronted by their own mortality, even nonbelievers’ thoughts turn to God.


Research published earlier this year tentatively concluded that they do. But a new study, conducted by scholars from three countries, reports that death-related thoughts lead us to reaffirm whatever belief system gives our lives meaning—and for atheists, that’s something other than religious faith.

“Our tentative conclusion is that even nonreligious people are tempted toward religious belief, if only implicitly, in the face of death,” writes Oxford University psychologist Jonathan Jong. He is lead author of a paper entitled “Foxhole Athiesm, Revisited,” published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

“The psychological comforts of religion do not appear to be of universal necessity,” counters University of Missouri psychologist Kenneth Vail. He’s the lead author of the paper “Exploring the Existential Function of Religion,” published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Both papers provide evidence that reminders of death increase the religiosity of believers. This supports one of the basic tenets of Terror Management Theory, a school of thought built on the insights of the late anthropologist Ernest Becker.

According to TMT, a basic function of religion is to provide a buffer against death-related anxiety. It does this, primarily, by promising believers an ongoing existence that transcends earthly mortality. So it’s no surprise that both sets of researchers found a link between thoughts of mortality and increased devotion.

In the first of three experiments Vail describes, death reminders enhanced the religiosity of both Christians and Muslims. Christians were more likely to express belief in Jesus and deny the divinity of Allah and Buddha; conversely, Muslims were more likely to express belief in Allah and deny the divinity of Jesus and Buddha. (Buddhists do not, however, claim divinity for Buddha, and Islam’s Allah is usually seen as the same monotheistic God worshiped by Christians and Jews.)

Similarly, Jong found that when reminded with death, “participants explicitly defended their own religious world view, such that self-described Christians were more confident that supernatural religious entities exist.”

Written By: Tom Jacobs
continue to source article at psmag.com

45 COMMENTS

  1. “But using an implicit association test, he found that after thinking about death, nonbelievers “wavered from their disbelief.” Specifically, 71 students from the University of Otago in New Zealand were presented with a series of 20 nouns, which they were instructed to categorize as “real” or “imaginary” as quickly as possible.Jong reports that “while believers strengthened their beliefs, non-believers wavered from their disbelief” after thinking about their own mortality. Specifically, they were slower to label such concepts as “God” and “heaven” as imaginary.”

    Perhaps I missed something……but in what sense is this any different from the inability to imagine one’s own death ? One is invariably there as a spectator. Did the authors of the study consider that as an explanation…..rather than ‘wavering disbelief’ ?

  2. I suspect that the majority of deathbed conversions, if we could know the mind of the “saved” atheist, would turn out to be nothing more significant than a ploy to get annoying relatives to shut up.

  3. I plan to leave a provision in my will stating that anyone who states, implies, intimates, or in any way associates me with a deathbed conversion is to be immediately divested of their share of my assets, with no possibly of reversal.

  4. I’ve never understood why theists rejoice in deathbed conversions of atheists.  All that such a thing demonstrates is that many people will, in traumatic and frightening situations, flail about for any sort of consolation, no matter how implausible.  For a theist to “win” the argument against someone in an emotionally disturbed state is no more respectable than an able-bodied person winning a boxing match against a paraplegic.

  5. My first reaction is who the hell (euphemistically) cares! If when confronted with a stressful near death situation, I wouldn’t begrudge anyone questioning their beliefs, no more than I would begrudge them calling out “Mother”. At that stressful moment in time, all sorts of things would run through your mind.

    However, that is no reason to subjugate ourselves to a fantasy for the prior x number of years of our lives. The fact is there is no rational reason to believe in a supernatural entity and that fact that we may, in a moment of extreme stress, question that, does negate the fact that there is still no rational argument for God. Indeed, at a moment like that you’d have to think all thoughts are irrational.

    I doubt this article will convert any Atheist over or back to religion.

    It has been my experience that while those with “faith” consciously choose to ignore the facts of reality, the reverse is not true. An Atheist cannot consciously choose to have faith, it is either something or have or you do not. To be an Atheist means you’ve accepted the facts and trust that science has more answers, albeit sometimes incomplete, than God did it. That is why I am  suspect when you hear of an Atheist converting to religion. Rare as they are, I have to believe they are consciously self-deluding themselves and that there are other socioeconomic reasons behind their conversion.

    Maybe there are Foxhole conversions of Atheists, but even if there are, so what? It changes nothing.

  6. I liked the story that I read (probably on this website) where an army chaplain said to a soldier “You know. There are no atheists in foxholes.” The reply came back ” That’s not quite Padre.  Its There are no chaplains in foxholes.”

    It’s a good point too. Why should they (the chaplains) care if they die.  In fact they should look forward to it.

     

  7. Britains highest decorated non-combatant soldier was the Army Chaplain Theodore Bailey Hardy with a list of medals and citations for amazing acts of gallantry saving wounded soldiers in WW1. Not sure what his motives were. Chaplains mostly obeyed the instruction to stay well behind the front line.

    He didn’t survive and probably didn’t care about dying.

  8. “A man in peril of drowning catchest whatsoever cometh next to hand… be it never so simple a stick.” – Sir Thomas Moore

    I’m not sure what I would say on my deathbed, maybe “Mum!”

  9. Who knows the confused mind of those dying in pain, full of opiates and hypoxic from struggling to breath?

    I don’t want to die broken by disease in bed and then I will be less likely to have to listen to the spouters of drivel or be slandered by liars claiming I converted at the last minute.

    A friend who worked as a geriatric nurse once heard a frail old lady who had been aroused by the mumbling of a cathlick priest at her bedside let fly at him with a stern and very audible, ‘Fuck off yer bastard’!

    He left pronto looking quite shaken.

  10. My second wife’s father died in her arms of lung cancer, and I was present in the hospital room with her. She was kind of an uncommitted non-believer and her father had been visited in the hospital by a United Church of Canada woman pastor. My ex-wife’s father’s last words were an agonized exclamation, “Jesus Christ !”,( presumably as a result of the pain and discomfort he was experiencing), but my ex converted this outburst, when the U.C. of C. pastor conducted the funeral service, to, “My father’s last words and thoughts were of Our Lord and Saviour”. No bloody way they were !

  11. I had an allergic reaction to the HIV drug abacavir.  I was already in hospital at the time.  They told me it was nip and tuck. I don’t recall thinking about god even once, any more than I thought about fairies or unicorns. I was too busy suffering. God is something that my enemies use an as excuse to behave monstrously. It would be very Stockholm of me to convert at the last minute.

  12. As many have mentioned, when finally faced with certain death, most people are likely to reach a state of mind – of anxiety, exhilaration and anticipation – that the rest of us, still oblivious to our impending oblivion, could not possibly fathom. 

    However, just how, or why, this would then translate into a last-minute acceptance of any of the extant, or extinct, religions of the world, as paltry as most of them are, is totally beyond me (unless, of course, it so happens that the imagination dies a few hours before the rest of your brain shuts down.).

  13. One of the many counter-arguments (or atheist arguments) to Pascal’s Wager is that you’d be wasting your one life worshipping in church each Sunday just on the off-chance that the theists are right. Secondly, you can’t just force yourself to believe. And thirdly, how do you know which God is the right one?
    But if your conversion is on your death-bed and you’ve lived your lived as you wanted as an atheist, then Pascal’s Wager does kinda make sense (despite being a sell-out to those who’ll remember you). From a probability matrix, there’s now no downside (Pareto equilibrium) if you don’t care about your posthumous reputation.
    It’s like when you hire a car and they ask you if you’d like free alien abduction insurance worth $1 million for no extra charge. Yeah, what the heck, throw it in.

     

  14. I would think that would be most prevalent with people who have guilty consciences. I have no fear of dying. I only fear pain or suffering through it at all. If I’m dying, I’d want them to make me as comfortable as possible or put me to sleep. I’m sure I’d be DNR/DNI at that point.

  15. Upon waking from a month long coma, after a major road traffic accident. Once discharged, I was then diagnosed with pancreatitis. I was “Written off”  by the Doctors, and just put on a saline drip via intravenous as a last ditch attempt to flush my system. During this very long (four days and nights) of lying in bed waiting to wake up dead (a surreal time, If I may say so) I had plenty of time to contemplate the inevitable.

    I am a scientist, pragmatic to the core, and yes Atheist. I studied politics, philosophy, and theology before finding my niche Marine Biology. like all true “Free Thinker’s”, I believe a person should be educated and knowledgeable to all, before having an opinion on anything.

    I digress,
    So I’m lying upon my death bed, thinking about all the things I have done, and the people I’ve to say good bye to (both loved and loathed). I am disrupted by a soft spoken man sporting a dog collar, offering salvation, and a one way coach ticket to the only stop it makes. I humor him for a while whilst wondering why only Christianity was on offer, (was the NHS cut backs that bad?) and then respectfully decline.
    This seemed to anger the priest, as his voice increased in volume and pitch. I then informed him of my persuasion, and thanked him for the offer. He returned the favor by telling me I had reserved my place in the bowels of hell, and had nothing to look forward to but eternal damnation.

    I’m a pacifist, I don’t think I mentioned this before, sorry. I am also very patent.

    So I was sat on my death bed,subject to a detailed demonic “Wish You Was Here” being played out in front of me by a priest who’s voice is now only audible to dogs, bats, and lesser whales. This act of verging aggression started to attract a crowd of nurses and fellow patients, I had to interrupt. I thanked him for his concern and asked him to leave, he insisted that I should be aware that hell was waiting for me, so I informed him that it wasn’t, and that it only waits for those who have been naughty and happen to believe in it’s existence.

    Not death, nor an irate priest taking advantage of the dying may sway a person who puts fact and knowledge before belief. Even if an Atheist does seek religious council upon there death bed, you would probably find that it is to appease family and friends of a conflicting/alternate persuasion. We Atheists are persecuted, hated, and seen as a threat, but we drive progression, by choosing to question, whilst treating everything and everyone with the respect they should receive.

  16. What a disrespectful asshole!!!!  Would that I’d been visiting someone nearby and heard him.  No, scratch that.  I’d probably have collected a conviction for assault or worse.

    Hope you’re a bit better now.

  17. seems very unscientific either way.

    “conversion” is an emotive word, it suggests a lifelong change which, if you’re busy dying then a wobble in conviction becomes a conversion if you die mid-wobble.

    the main reaon i think it’s scientific though is because there can be no baseline mental state for someone dying, at least not one we can know about.

    one mental state we can postulate is fear. it’s perfectly natural to experience fear, it’s part of a survival mechanism. fear makes people irrational though so as far as foxhole conversions go, any comfort will do. I’ve heard tales from war vets about men crying for their mothers as they die. does that mean they have a sudden belief that mum will appear and help or are they acting out of pure fear and the instinct it brings on?

    with old age and terminal illness, I’ve heard accounts from carers who say the last moments tend to be of peace and acceptance, if you’re religious that affirms belief, if you’re not that doesn’t affirm disbelief. in one case I remember seeing a carer on a documentry saying religious or not, at the end they all just seem tired and wanting it to be over, often no mention of god or heaven even from the religious.

    Then there are the undecided, those who never think about it and are not especially scientifically litterate. they go through life thinking “maybe, maybe not” then at the end experience the effects of reduced oxygen to the brain. many people have been converted by near-death experiences because they’re unaware of the fact all consciousness is created by their brain and changes in its chemistry will change perception.

    my personal view is the question is moot. it has no bearing on the existance of god or the benefits of belief even though it gets brought up when arguing for both.

    This question could be taken further; “do people questoined under torture feel more guilty?”

  18. The ridiculous diversion religious people make when they posit such a claim is that in no way is it even possible for an atheist to love “Jehovah” or “Allah” in the same way they could not possibly bring themselves look forward to meeting Thor or even Teotl.

    The religious are too delerious about their own deluded mind puppet to even hold a sensible conversation about how belief, down the ages, has always depended upon “character” delusions. In a word their mind has been “constipated” by emotional misfeeds and is in dire need of an equivalent to colon irrigation to get those neurons back in motion.

  19. It’s an ongoing fact that believers continue to iterate Pascal’s wager to lessen the atrophy of religious faith creatures.
    When I’m on my deathbed if someone suggests a last minute conversion my dying words are likely to be “fuck off!”

  20. I have been thinking lately that. If my religious mother watches me die for example. Wouldn’t the right thing be to “pretend” to convert, to give her some peace? Or is “fighting” against religion more important?

  21. Research? Ludicrous; fewer than a hundred students (ie all about the same age and social status) is a representative sample? Jeeez. 
    Fear of death is age related (I recall my terror peaking around my mother’s death when I was 11) and acceptance increased over time. No telling what words might be emitted when my time comes, so am considering having the big red ‘A’ tattooed on my chest, maybe with a choice instruction to any lurking clergy…

  22. I recall reading the most frequent deathbed ‘conversions’ were of Catholic priests- confessing they did not truly believe. Not making this up but unable to rediscover the source.

  23. Sheer desperation. You know people are no longer arguing over facts when they resort to such tactics. It’s a signal to an observer that the theist or religionist is taking it personally.

    Interested as I am in “foxhole atheism” (What about foxhole theism? Don’t religious people lose faith on the battlefield?), I have to say that the most revealing thing about this research is that the “conversions” of atheists to religion always seem to be towards the nearest religion they’ve come across culturally, usually Christianity. It also doesn’t help that secular humanism et al. aren’t usually on the forefront of people’s minds when they talk about things like death and comfort, things that religions supposedly address (exclusively) and things that non-religious people supposedly lack any sophisticated understanding of. It’s because people still wonder if religions contain something worth having that you get sceptics with a “soft spot” for religions.

    It also doesn’t help that the above tests were about people’s instinctive (or at least immediate) responses, because religious thinking tends to increase the less reflective the thinker. Look it up on Wikipedia. There are studies showing that those who examine their ideas less and just go with their gut more are most often religious people. They are also, as I think some of us can testify from personal experience, more prone to bad argumentation as a result.

    And, of course, it’s interesting how people assume “conversion” means “conversion for good reasons”. How do we know, for instance, that a person suddenly claiming belief in something isn’t doing it to save his reputation among religious people who will be talking after his death?

  24. Pascal’s Wager presupposes that an afterlife exists in spite of no evidence to support that assertion (or even any means of falsifying it). I believe that is what we call a “faith-based position”.

  25. it also presupposes that if an afterlife exists the type of afterlife you get depends on if you have faith or not. could just as easily take the view if there is a god, he can’t stand believers or that everyone goes to heaven (or hell) regardless of belief
     
    Pascal, have you met Occam…?

  26. good question. my fear was always of being terminally ill and having my mother bring a priest in to cast some spells.

    2 ways you could look at this. 1, your mother should accept you for who you are and in your last moments on earth you shouldn’t have to be putting her feelings above yours. 2, you can never know if your act would provide any comfort in the long run.

    I had the misfortune of watching my dad slowly decline while wizards were paraded in front of him in hospitals and care homes and finally listen to one of them talk about how much of a christian he was at his funeral. this particular priest didn’t know him as he hadn’t been to mass for many years but confidently told everyone how deep his faith was. 

    I never once heard him talk about his faith. physics, mathematics, genetics, music, computers, chemistry, astronomy, aeroplanes, motorbikes, his time in the war but not faith. not once did i ever get a straight answer form him on anything, usually a long discussion on how to reframe the question followed by a notepad full of calculations and methods of research days after i’d forgotten what i’d even asked him.

    Honesty is the best policy and I suggest you be yourself regardless of the feelings of others. that’s the responsibility of the living to handle

  27. You might consider an additional safeguard: any relative who violates your dignity also forfeits the inheritance of one other named family member (or all).

    That should keep everyone in line, even those who are financially secure.

    Mike

  28. . If my religious mother watches me die for example. Wouldn’t the right
    thing be to “pretend” to convert, to give her some peace? Or is
    “fighting” against religion more important?

    That is a decision you must make
    I can only express my POV.
    I could not convert to give my mother some bogus and unjustified peace of mind…that is just a betrayal of the final truth.
    I would rather…as a last wish…that her peace came because she knew that I loved her as a mother and felt privileged to be brought up by her.
    She had done her job as a human being…and that is probably the only true measure of a person and especially a mother.

    To negate my life and my own beliefs,  to die not at ease with oneself must be the greatest tragedy.
    Some one told me a long time ago that however you live and whoever you share your life with…the test of your humanity…if test it be…is to be able every morning to look in a mirror and not avoid your own eyes, they might not be windows of the soul but they are the surest way to see guilt.
    Be truthful to yourself and deal only  in truth not lies..for that would be cowardly.

    I would rather my grieving mother would question my ‘decision’ and analyse the point and maybe realise that I had lived by and actually demonstrated  my truth at the end!

    I would respect her religion in life…but I would not do so in death for this is not a perfect world made for those of a theist disposition!

    Mind you I must report that my Mother was an Atheist…and it was she that ascribed the mirror test of humanity.
    I shall be forever grateful.

  29. Yep, I think Occam would like a word with him… :-)

    This is before we get to the tricky point about consciously choosing to “believe” something, as though you really had a choice of what to believe. The most you can do is fake belief.

    And all for personal gain rather than commitment to truth. I can’t see why such a deity would be worth worshipping. Sounds more like a pompous and egotistical earthly king than a holy spirit to me.

  30. “Are there atheists in foxholes?”

    Yes, and plenty of dead theists who prayed.

    “Tempted toward religious belief” or simply ‘going through the motions’ – briefly and knowingly pretending there’s a deity only for the purpose of making yourself feel better?

    “…a basic function of religion is to provide a buffer against death-related anxiety.”

    How much of such anxiety is caused by religious belief in the first place? A theist who thinks he might go to Hell has a lot more anxiety than an atheist who thinks he’s just going to cease existing.

    There are many people who are sure that they’re going to Heaven but have a lot of anxiety about death. I’m an atheist; I don’t want to die, but I don’t worry about it because when I’m dead I won’t be in a position to feel bad about the fact. If I were a devout Christian, perhaps I’d be doing all sorts of dangerous things so that I could get to Heaven sooner.

    (Even if I did believe in a god or gods, I’d still be aware that, irrespective of the existence of gods, religions are all balderdash and so there wouldn’t be any point in worrying about adhering to their criteria for entry into a pleasant/unpleasant afterlife.)

  31. BPD is where every mind is coerced into pandering to the emotions of the BPD. Here we have a perfect example of outside agency taking up this position so that you become part and parcel of its chain of office. Mother panders to the delusion and you pander to your mothers mimicry of it. Heightened emotions subscribed to a delusion. What is interesting is that even when we know better we are compromised into considering it valid and dominant! Odd eh?

  32. I came close to death last year, ( ruptured gall bladder, sepsis, pancreatitis) in a coma for five days, intensive care for a week, hospital for over three weeks. I never once even considered questioning my lack of belief. Just didn’t occur to me.

  33. My impression is that atheists and agnostics go to their deaths with less fear than religious people, although I’m not sure about that.  I don’t doubt that religion gives comfort to many people in their final hours, and good for them – but I also wonder how many religious people, as death nears and they are forced to face the fact of their own mortality, begin to wonder whether the heaven concept is real, or wishful thinking.  There are many intelligent people who are religious, and if they have any capacity for introspection and facing the truth, doubts must arise.  How likely does it seem to them that after they die, their souls will be transported to heaven?  It’s easy to accept the teachings of their church or mosque or synagogue when they are healthy, but when death is near, and their essence will either enter heaven or enter a coffin, it’s hard to imagine that a rational person will have total confidence that Jesus or Allah or God will take him to His bosom.  And even if he believes fervently in eternal life, there’s the question of whether he has done enough in life to go to the good place.  So in addition to the fear of death, which we all have to one extent or another, there’s the additional anxiety for religious people as to whether heaven is real, and if it is, will he make the grade, or burn in hell?

  34. @ JTMcDaniel I suspect that the majority of deathbed conversions, if we could know
    the mind of the “saved” atheist, would turn out to be nothing more
    significant than a ploy to get annoying relatives to shut up.

     Or wishful claims (in the absence of living witnesses) by those faith-heads who won’t be told to shut-up! (These atheists don’t really disbelieve in God –  The poor fellow was confused by the illness – We can’t let that compromise his soul! – The Lord will understand)

  35. @OP:disqus
      Both papers provide evidence that reminders of death increase the
    religiosity of believers. This supports one of the basic tenets of
    Terror Management Theory, a school of thought built on the insights of
    the late anthropologist Ernest Becker.

    There is a simple explanation as to why theists turn to religion when they feel threatened by death or other calamities, – and therefore ASSUME atheists will do the same!

    .GPS sheep tracking supports 40-year-old theory
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/scie… – Instead of fleeing randomly when faced with a predator, sheep attempt to
    bury themselves within their flock, new UK research has shown.

    However, studying group reactions to predation is very difficult, as it
    is often challenging to predict when an attack is imminent.

    By using the sheep dog, the researchers controlled the experiment and
    by placing GPS receivers in a small “backpack” on each sheep, it was
    possible to record all the movements of the animals.

    “For the first time, we could show the individual movement trajectories of all the animals involved,” explained Dr King.

    “Before, we could ‘say, yep, they move in and run to the
    centre’. But because of the GPS backpacks tracking movement every
    second, [we were able] to monitor every animal when they were under
    threat”.

  36. I remember seeing a joke somewhere that Christopher Hitchens requested a priest on his death bed, Christopher converted the priest to Atheism.

    Even on his death bed he got that last Hitchslap in, what a legend, he is sorely missed.

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