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What Happens When Atheists Confront Mortality

Two sets of researchers ask whether nonbelievers turn toward God after contemplating death.
 
 
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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 Atheism, 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.”

But when it came to nonreligious people, Jong found a disconnect between conscious beliefs and unconscious ones. Like the believers, the nonreligious responded to death reminders by strengthening their commitment to their world view—in their case, the firm belief there’s no such thing as supernatural entities.

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.

In other words, when death was on their minds, “believers more readily judged religious concepts as real,” he writes, “while non-believers found it more difficult to judge religious concepts as imaginary.”

While respectful of Jong, Vail takes issue with his methodology; he isn’t convinced a less-rapid response time necessarily denotes increased doubt. Furthermore, he notes that all nonbelievers are not created equal.

His research, conducted with Jamie Arndt of  the University of Missouri and Abdolhossein Abdollahi of the University of Limerick, Ireland and Islamic Azau University in Iran, distinguished between atheists and agnostics, and found they reacted to death reminders quite differently.

 
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