Death and deities: A social cognitive perspective

Second, individuals may not be able to report accurately on their own beliefs, because they may not be consciously aware of them or able to access them on demand (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). It is near orthodoxy among social psychologists that some beliefs are held or formed automatically and even unconsciously, and that these beliefs may be independent of consciously held beliefs. This literature is now replete with “dual-process models” of cognition, which distinguish between conscious and unconscious cognition (e.g., Bargh & Chatrand, 1999; Chen & Chaiken, 1999; Dijksterhuis & Nordgren, 2006; Nosek, 1997; Sperber, 1997). Although there is still much empirical and theoretical work to be done on such models, it is clear that traditional self-report measures are inadequate to capture the full spectrum of how attitudes are represented and processed.

Although there is no formal dual process model of religious cognition, there is increasing evidence that participants who explicitly deny religious belief may nevertheless behave like “implicit theists” (Uhlmann, Poehlman, & Bargh, 2008, p. 71). For example, in one study, participants who denied belief in the soul nevertheless declined to sell their souls to the experimenter, even though the contract was explicitly marked as bogus (i.e., “not a legal or binding contract, in any way”; Haidt, Björklund, & Murphy, 2000, p. 22). Similarly, Bering (2002) found that many “extinctivists”, who believe that “the self is wholly extinguished at death”, nevertheless implied that certain kinds of psychological functioning persisted after death. In this study, participants read a story about a person who unexpectedly dies in a vehicular accident; participants then answered a series of questions about the deceased character’s present states. While they had little trouble asserting the cessation of biological needs and psychobiological experiences (e.g., hunger), participants, extinctivists included, often endorsed statements that implied the post-mortem persistence of emotional (e.g., love for family member), desire (e.g., to be alive), and epistemic (e.g., knowledge that they were dead) states. Heywood (2010) interviewed atheists about major events in their lives, and found that they often saw intrinsic meaning or purpose in significant events, as though they occurred in order to teach them something or to convey some important message.

Such research suggests that religious functionalism in general, and the question of how non-religious individuals respond to death anxiety in particular, must take into account that people may hold beliefs of which they are not fully aware, or which are otherwise not consciously accessible on demand. Indeed, in our own work we have found that such beliefs respond differently to increased mortality salience than do beliefs that are consciously accessible (Jong, Halberstadt, & Bluemke, 2012). For example, after thinking about their own death, non-religious participants reported greater religious disbelief, according to a self-report questionnaire designed specifically to measure conscious belief in supernatural religious agents and events. However, when beliefs were measured indirectly (“implicitly”), by measuring the speed with which they affirmed or denied the existence of religious entities, participants from the same population were more religious under increased mortality salience conditions: death-anxious skeptics were no more likely to state that God exists, but they were slower to deny it. The results were conceptually replicated using a version of the “Implicit Association Test” (Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwartz, 1998), which assesses the cognitive strength of association between religious and existential concepts. These studies suggest that mortality salience leads both to conscious bolstering of one’s worldview (even if that worldview is anti-religious) and simultaneous bolstering of an unconscious belief in God.


The pervasiveness and persistence of religious belief is doubtless the product of complex and converging factors, many of which have yet to be identified. As social psychological research has shown, fear of death is likely an important part of the story of the gods, but its role may need to be understood in light of emerging insights into dual processing. At a conscious level, fear of death may lead to worldview defense, such that religious and non-religious individuals bolster their belief and disbelief respectively. However, at an unconscious level, fear of death may increase religious belief (or at least decrease religious skepticism), regardless of individuals’ conscious religious commitments. If so, religion may be a very powerful buffer of existential anxiety, allowing non-religious individuals to simultaneously pursue symbolic and literal immortality in the face of death.


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Allport, G. W., & Ross, J. M. (1967). Personal religious orientation and prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 5, 432-443.

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