What Happens When Atheists Confront Mortality
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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.
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.”