Death and deities: A social cognitive perspective

Religion and the terror of death

In social psychology, the hypothesis that religion is driven by the fear of death has been most strongly forwarded by Terror Management Theory (TMT; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986; Vail, Rothschild, Weise, Solomon, Pyszczynski, & Greenberg, 2010). Drawing heavily from the work of the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker (e.g., 1973), TMT begins with the observation that human beings are, perhaps uniquely, aware of their mortality. This recognition of our inevitable death elicits crippling existential anxiety or fear of death, which must be dealt with if we are to function in the world. We are therefore motivated to seek immortality—whether literal or symbolic—and this quest involves embedding ourselves in cultural worldviews or belief systems, which prescribe means for obtaining it. Although TMT researchers do not offer formal definitions of “literal” and “symbolic” immortality, it is generally agreed that cultural worldviews offer literal immortality through afterlife concepts (e.g., immortal souls, heaven, reincarnation, nirvana) and symbolic immortality through lasting culturally-valued identifications and achievements, and the increased self-esteem they engender (e.g., Dechesne, Pyszczynski, Arndt, Ransom, Sheldon, van Knippenberg, & Janssen, 2003; Greenberg, Landau, Solomon, & Pyszczynski, in press). Because supernatural agents have the power to grant immortality, and are themselves examples of the possibility of such, belief in them is an effective way to assuage the finality of death.

One problem with such a view is that the afterlives that many religions promise are arguably more terrifying than death itself. Many religious belief systems posit gloomy graves or horrific hells. According to their own religious texts (cf. Iliad), Homeric Greeks, regardless of merit, all descended into a dreary Hades, while ancient Mesopotamians were infamously cast into a terrifying netherworld populated by monsters (cf. The Netherworld Vision of an Assyrian Crown Prince) or a despairing one in which “dust is their food, clay their bread” and “they see no light, they dwell in darkness...over the door and the bolt, dust has settled” (cf. The Descent of Ishtar to the Netherworld; Dalley, 1998, p. 155). Historically, and also contemporarily, eternal torment in Hell is a subjectively real possibility in various Christian denominations. Calvinists, for example, experience “salvation anxiety”, as each individual’s eternal fate is determined unilaterally by God and unaffected by human effort (Mather, 2005, p. 4; Munzer, 2005). Indeed, this anxiety can be so entrenched that many ex-fundamentalists still report experiencing intense fear of divine punishment even after they have abandoned such beliefs (Hartz & Everett, 1989). These anthropological findings at least call into question the universality and priority of death-anxiety reduction as a motivating force for religious belief.

Another question regarding TMT is how to distinguish between the two routes by which religion theoretically reduces fear of death. It is easy to see how religious worldviews—at least those with comforting afterlife beliefs—can provide literal immortality: they promise that, despite appearances, physical death is not final. But religious worldviews also provide symbolic immortality by allowing people to feel like valuable parts of something larger and more enduring than themselves (Landau, Greenberg, & Solomon, 2004; Vail et al., 2010). Indeed, Becker (1971, 1975) and Greenberg et al. (in press) suggest that religious worldviews offer symbolic immortality more effectively than do secular worldviews, thanks to their self-esteem-enhancing notions of cosmic significance. How can we determine whether supernatural agents are comforting in themselves, or by virtue of their association with individuals’ worldviews, or both?

Testing the relationship between fear of death and religious belief

One seemingly simple approach to the question would be to ask whether people who are relatively receptive to religious beliefs do indeed feel comforted about death, even when they do not hold a religious worldview. However, the theoretical relation between religiosity and death anxiety is not as straightforward as it appears. For those who already have a religious worldview, religious belief may be available as a resource to buffer anxiety, but for those who do notbelieve, anxiety might provide a motivation to do so, such that these individuals are more inclined to believe as their anxiety increases. Thus, the relation between religious beliefs and fear of death may depend on prior religious commitment: as atheists increasingly fear death they are increasingly tempted to believe in God, whereas those who already believe in God successfully use that belief to allay their fear of death.

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