Death and deities: A social cognitive perspective

Indeed, although the correlational data on religiosity and death anxiety are mixed and inconclusive (Donovan, 1994), some sense may be made of them by taking into account participants’ prior religious leanings. For example, Harding, Flannelly, Weaver, and Costa (2005), surveyed Christians and found negative correlations between death-related anxiety and belief in God and an afterlife, whereas Dezutter et al. (2009) studied a predominantly non-religious sample and found a positive relationship between fear of death and literal interpretations of Christian faith. Relatedly, Cohen, Pierce, Chambers, Meade, Gorvine, and Koenig (2005) found that death-anxiety was negatively correlated with Protestants’ “intrinsic religiosity” (roughly, the extent to which they embrace religious beliefs as important in themselves; Allport & Ross, 1967), but positively correlated with “extrinsic religiosity” (roughly, the extent to which their beliefs are merely useful means to some other practical end; Allport & Ross, 1967). Similarly, in our own recent survey of university students, the half who identified themselves as religious reported less fear of death to the extent they endorsed the existence of supernatural agents and events (God, angels, heaven, etc.), whereas the half who identified as non-religious showed the reverse trend: for them, greater fear of death was associated with a stronger inclination toward religious belief (Jong, Bluemke, & Halberstadt, 2012; for conceptually similar results see: Aday, 1984–1985; Dolnick, 1987; Downey, 1984; Leming, 1979– 1980; McMordie, 1981; Nelson & Cantrell, 1980; Wen, 2010; Wink & Scott, 2005).

The fact that non-religious people—atheists, agnostics, as well as the more nominally non-religious—appear to seek solace in religious beliefs, seems to argue that these beliefs are comforting in themselves (presumably via their implications for literal immortality), and not because they fit their worldviews. But is increased anxiety about death the cause of enhanced religious belief? Or is decreased religious belief the cause of lower anxiety about death? Atheism is, after all, a worldview, and a positive correlation between anxiety and religious belief may simply reflect that, like their Christian counterparts, atheists relieve their existential anxiety by bolstering their own beliefs, which in their case happen to include a denial of God.

A few experimental studies have attempted to identify the causal direction in the relation between death anxiety and religious belief, and while many of these studies find that religious individuals bolster their belief in the face of death, the critical data for non-religious individuals are far more equivocal. For example, Weisbuch, Seery, and Blascovich (2005), found that increasing “mortality salience” (i.e., death-related thoughts) led non-believers to further diminished religiosity, but Osarchuk and Tatz (1973) found no effect in this group. Norenzayan and Hansen (2006) similarly found no effect on non-religious participants but, interestingly, found that mortality salience increased Christians’ belief in non-Christian supernatural agents like Buddha and Shamanic spirits, suggesting that such belief serves a purpose beyond mere worldview defense.

Part of the explanation of the diversity of these findings may relate to the corresponding diversity of measures of religious belief, which variously assess behaviours, attitudes about religion, or even attitudes about attitudes about religion, which do not necessarily assuage death anxiety to the same extent, or at all. For example, Burling (1993) found no effect of mortality salience on individuals’ attitudes toward religion as a belief system (e.g., “It is necessary to have religious belief”), ignoring the critical distinction between thinking something is good or valuable and thinking that it is true. Indeed, mortality salience might well alter one’s inclination to believe in God, while leaving one’s opinion regarding the necessity of this belief (e.g., for salvation, for moral life) unchanged.

Even more important, the bulk of previous research relies on overt, usually unsubtle self-report measures of religious belief, and there are two reasons, well-established in previous social cognitive research, that the subtlety of a measure might affect experimental outcomes (e.g., Fazio & Olson, 2003; Wittenbrink & Schwarz, 2007). First, individuals might not want to report their own beliefs, either because their beliefs are socially undesirable, or because they are motivated to provide the experimenter with an answer that fulfills his or her expectations. For example, atheists who take pride in their rationalistic skepticism might be reluctant to report any increased inclination toward supernatural belief, especially in the context of a scientific experiment.

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