Religion and the fear of death

One of the motivators for religious belief is the comfort it provides. For many people it provides an immediate comfort because it allows one to be a part of a bigger group, and people like to belong. For others, it provides a comfort of ‘knowing’. For instance, we all want to know the answer to a lot of basic questions like “How old is the Earth” and “How did humanity begin”. Religion – while it has either always been wrong or been forced to defer to science in order to be correct (and even then it usually mangles things) – makes strong claims that it has the answers. But for so many others, religion provides comfort against the fear of death. Many of us want to believe we keep on existing, that all we’ve done in our lives has some unending meaning, and maybe ultimately, that we are never alone. It is this final sort of comfort that indirectly forms the basis of some new research:

Researchers at the University of British Columbia and Union College (Schenectady, N.Y.) have found that people’s ‘death anxiety’ can influence them to support theories of intelligent design and reject evolutionary theory…

The researchers carried out five studies with 1,674 U.S. and Canadian participants of different ages and a broad range of educational, socioeconomic and religious backgrounds.

In each study, participants were asked to imagine their own death and write about their subsequent thoughts and feelings, or they were assigned to a control condition: imagining dental pain and writing about that.

The participants were then asked to read two similarly styled, 174-word excerpts from the writings of Behe and Dawkins, which make no mention of religion or belief, but describe the scientific and empirical support for their respective positions.

After going through these steps, participants who imagined their own death showed greater support for intelligent design and greater liking for [Michael] Behe, or a rejection of evolution theory coupled with disliking for [Richard] Dawkins, compared to participants in the control condition.

However, the research team saw reversed effects during the fourth study which had a new condition. Along with writings by Behe and Dawkins, there was an additional passage by Carl Sagan. A cosmologist and science writer, Sagan argues that naturalism — the scientific approach that underlies evolution, but not intelligent design — can also provide a sense of meaning. In response, these participants showed reduced belief in intelligent design after being reminded of their own mortality.

While it was creationism intelligent design that was chosen for this experiment, I see this study as representative of religion at large. When shown two different arguments, a sizable portion of the participants clearly chose to reject evolution on the basis that it provided them with no sense of meaning. It isn’t particularly relevant that the alternative was specifically creationism intelligent design since there is no science to be found within any religious idea anyway – nor is there any science supporting any religious claim of significance. Any relatively mainstream religious idea could have been presented in science-y terms – just as creationism intelligent design is – and then used as a tool for comparison.

This isn’t all to say that the primary motivator for religious belief is the fear of death. I suspect it’s actually culture and upbringing – the biggest indicator of what one’s religion will be is what his or her parent’s religion is. But the fear of death – the fear of the unknown – frightens people and makes them uncomfortable. Religion helps to ease that discomfort with its made-up stories and fairy tales, and so it acts as a tightly woven net that catches people before they can fall into reason or even momentary consideration of their beliefs.

While the results of this study are obvious (and while they will be distorted by believers), I think there is another interesting point here, albeit an obvious one. There are a lot of accomodationists (Collins, Giberson, Miller, etc) out there who will argue that religion and science are compatible. While their position is one that is in some ways a small improvement over the current situation, there is comfort in the fact that they aren’t winning over too many adherents. People still recognize that evolution does largely eliminate their particular, cultural god. The fact that we know humans were not inevitable (or any other animal, for that matter) means that most of the gods in which people believe are untenable. That is, the sort of gods people praise are almost always the ones that deemed the inevitably of humanity. That inevitably takes away the random components of life and gives credence to why a god would care about us at all. I think the recognition that evolution takes this all away is ultimately good because it shows that while these people do not understand evolution in its details, they do understand its implications. That is a good thing – even if they falsely associate those implications with a lack of meaning in life.


12 comments on “Religion and the fear of death

  1. Ah, yes. And the morally and intellectually pristine atheist is in no way comforted by the prospect of the lack of judgment or of Hell. Only loser theists take comfort in their beliefs. But not atheists.

  2. Well here’s on Atheist who does,

    I’m nearing the end age- wise, I’ve been close to death and back. I had gone from a good catholic to a nominal one with a belief in heaven and hell and quite uncertain of where I might end up. I’ve been tangled up with a conscience imbued with layers of guilt imposed by a higher authority even though I’ve tried my best, I have often failed, relying upon Faith and God’s mercy.

    It was not until I was approached by a priest for final absolution when I looked at him and all my doubts and uncertainties dissolved. I pondered a bit, looking him in the eyes, and with all the affirmation I could politely muster, refused. It was as if a confession would be an admission my life had been lived outside of my control. Wasted. I wasn’t ready to succumb. That was not the way to go.

    I was truly comforted by the thought that my life had been as good as I could make it …. more so than any splash of holy water and in-cants to an unseen God could have possibly made me.

    It was not a sudden de-conversion…I am fairly well read,educated, informed, and curious about all things but it all came together at that moment.

    Since then ( I survived of course) , I find the greatest comfort in knowing this reality is all we know that is. We should appreciate it, protect it, nurture it, discover more about it, and revel in the fact that we are alive in it.

  3. i do take great comfort in my lack of belief in a hell. it’s comforting not to believe that my jewish or atheist or gay friends will be burning for all eternity for their doubt and sin, and even more comforting to know that all of the evidence, or lack thereof, is in support of my non-belief.

    what i find terribly disconcerting, however, is how comfortable christians are in telling the world that non-believers will burn in hell. they teach these unsubstantiated claims to children every day. children who will grow up with guilt and a persistent fear of eternal punishment. to declare that hell exists, an extraordinary claim with such obviously negative repercussions, without any evidence whatsoever is tragically irresponsible.

  4. “comforted by lack of…”

    This, of course is an absurd statement. I am also comforted by a lack of having a vagina that could be raped??? Also comforted by a lack of Poseidon existing to smite me from under the sea??? Also comforted by a lack of horns???

  5. Ah, yes. And the morally and intellectually pristine atheist is in no way comforted by the prospect of the lack of judgment or of Hell. Only loser theists take comfort in their beliefs. But not atheists.

    It isn’t that comfort that leads one to atheism.

  6. I agree.. Atheism is the truth as we explore what truth and reality mean. But atheism is a much more comfortable place to be than devils with pitchforks waiting to barbecue us on fiery spits for eternity.

    And by the way, a non-sequitur, I once heard either a scientist ( mathematician?) or a philosopher explain eternity not as a longitudinal extension of time, but all time, past and present, rolled into one.

    Since all humans have no prior recollection of heaven and hell, how can that fit with the alleged punishment or rewards awaiting us after death for eternity?? There is absolutely no evidence for this belief,…either coming or going so to speak….

  7. I don’t take one bit of comfort from it. I’d prefer hell to annihilation, I wouldn’t have to think twice about it.

    Especially since the Bible says Hell is a place where you are tortured simply by knowing you’re eternally separated from God.

  8. And that would suck, die, find out there is a God, and now you don’t get to hang out with him or go to any of his parties.

    Kind of like being grounded the last week of high school, but forever.

  9. Hmmm…I guess all atheist are in hell now as we are separated from a God who doesn’t exist…at least a god of the bible. You seem to be saying you would prefer to be separated from a God that does…that’s a deep hatred of something that doesn’t exist!

  10. He’s just saying that he would prefer to continue his existence rather than be annihilated. He would prefer hell to annihilation and I’m going to guess he’d prefer heaven to that.

    Also a guess, he would prefer annihilation to Detroit.

  11. let me rephrase for new england bob – i find the idea of simply not existing after i die to be more comforting than the idea that i, and many of my friends, will exist in hell being tormented for all eternity. also, i’m super glad that i’m not going to be eternally twat raped by poseidon for my lack of belief in vaginas. you big horny devil, you! *kisses*

  12. I assume he would prefer to be separated from an intolerable god than to be joined with him.

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