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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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Specifically, in one experiment, death reminders “motivated agnostics to increase their religiosity, belief in a higher power, and their faith in God/Jesus, Buddha, and Allah.” Basically, they were more open to immortality-promising deities of any stripe.

But in a separate experiment, the notion of death did not increase atheists’ very low levels of religiosity or belief in a higher power.

In Vail’s view, this suggests people who strongly reject religious belief find other ways of dealing with “the psychological problem of death,” such as devoting themselves to some secular cause that will endure beyond their lifetimes.

So while the larger conclusions of the two papers “largely converge,” as Vail notes, they point to different answers regarding whether, say,  Christopher Hitchens started to waver from his firm disbelief in his final days.

“Implicit religious belief is a difficult thing to sample,” Jong concedes, “and we hope that more work is done on this in different samples, including more militant atheists.”

Any volunteers?

Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for the Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Ventura County Star.

 
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