In a recent HuffPo article, science writer Matthew Hutson reports on three studies suggesting that fear of death will inspire atheists to believe in the supernatural. At least that’s the gist of the argument Hutson makes. (To his credit, he cites an online listing of over 200 atheists in foxholes, showing that atheism can survive combat.)
Hutson cites studies in the Journal of Experimental Psychology which indicate that atheists will more strongly defend their atheism when presented directly with concepts of death and dying. However, when presented with more implicit or hidden associations with death and dying, the responses changed and atheists became more accepting of supernatural concepts. A third study seemed to confirm the result that reminders of death will increase belief. It required respondents to categorize a list of 20 concepts as real or supernatural (ie, god, sun, etc). This third study showed a decreased response time (ie, increased belief) for atheists after being primed with death/dying ideas.
While the studies themselves aren’t necessarily related to the military, the author titled the article “Are There Really No Atheists in Foxholes?” and referenced an article promoting magical thinking for post-traumatic stress disorder. So I felt a military perspective was needed.
So what we have here are seemingly reputable scientific studies and conclusions that anxiety about death increases belief in the supernatural. A few atheists seemed to reject the studies as fraudulent or at least prejudiced in principle. The canard about atheists in foxholes is something often tossed out not as a comment on reality but as an insult. It’s not surprising there would at least be an initial visceral reaction against such attempts to move that insult into reality. In at least these few studies, the results don’t seem to be in our favor, but that should not affect how we examine the results. We might present contrary anecdotes to start (such as the list of atheists in foxholes), research with contrary outcomes, alternate interpretations, or we might <gasp> accept an inconvenient fact and explore appropriate responses to the data.
When asked for a quote for the article, I chose to take the study at face value and suggested a way to appropriately respond to the study, if true: “People would be better served by seeking comfort in reality. Fantasy-based coping can only delay the inevitable reckoning with the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.’” What this means is that if it is the case that reminders of death increase acceptance of supernatural ideas, that does not change the scientific and philosophical evidence against supernatural things like the afterlife, god, angels, heaven, or reincarnation. It would be irresponsible to take a study like this to mean that we should simply lie to those with anxiety even if it will make them feel better.
The medical community has a term for this — the placebo effect. It basically says that a treatment or pill with no active medical purpose may work purely because the patient thinks it will work. To be clear, the placebo effect is not some mind-over-matter magic and won’t cure cancer, bacterial infections, or other physical ailments. However, perceived anxiety and pain (and the resulting physical consequences) can show significant reductions. The medical community considers it unethical to present a placebo without patient approval, but the standards are easy to meet. The physician may present a placebo treatment as safe but plead ignorance about its effectiveness. The Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants concludes its ethical quandary on placebos saying, “A placebo — used honestly, openly, and with respect for patient autonomy — may be one of our therapeutic tools.” The American Medical Association provides an opinion on placebo, warning, “the use of a placebo without the patient’s knowledge may undermine trust, compromise the patient-physician relationship, and result in medical harm to the patient.” The directives appear to include the requirement to warn the patient that a placebo may be used and to secure the patient’s consent. After the initial warning, the patient need not be told exactly which treatment is a placebo or exactly when it is being given.
These new studies suggest that those facing death may be more open to supernatural ideas, at least subconsciously. The implication is that this openness should be used in psychological treatment. The military already rightfully provides for the free exercise of religion and that includes chaplain-led religious services coordinated in the context of both unit morale programs and psychological treatment. However, these studies do not affirm or deny the utility of the stronger belief in the supernatural, just that people have an unconscious tendency toward the supernatural in times of trouble. Michael Shermer has written extensively on this effect in books like Why People Believe Weird Things and The Believing Brain. This is, however, entirely different than suggesting that those beliefs should be encouraged. The author cited a New York Times article that covered the apparent benefits of “magical thinking”.
If the proponents of these studies are willing to concede that this openness is not to real supernatural ideas, but actually to “magical” thinking and fantasy ideas with no connection to reality, then we may be able to have an intelligent discussion about the placebo effect and how it may be increased by promoting belief in the supernatural among service members or other patients. We will also have to have a hard discussion about the downsides of promoting supernatural thoughts. In the military, would “magical thinking” decrease reliance on combat training, increase risk-taking, or increase belief-based divisions in units? These are all realistic and troubling potential outcomes for a military that promotes a supernatural world view. Reality may require a longer road to recovery, but shortcuts may have unintended consequences.
In discussions promoting “belief” over “atheism,” the specific belief is often left extremely vague. The hard question of which types of beliefs will enjoy promotion is left for the chaplains or other administrators to decide. The most troubling outcome of promoting supernatural modes of coping with the world would be opening the door to proselytism. Evangelists the world over are already convinced that people are more receptive to religious ideas when they are in dire straits. Those who lack food, water, plumbing, or a safe government are unsurprisingly open to any help offered, even when one’s soul is the payment for accepting help. Who can blame them? Should those anxious about death also be targeted for conversion?
These studies indicate that atheists are more open to supernatural beliefs when faced with death. If these studies stand scrutiny, the outcome says only that people are more open to supernatural concepts in the moment. It certainly does not study efficacy of imposing beliefs or advocating for changes in belief. The studies do not compare Protestant Christianity with belief in Chakras or healing crystals. Most importantly, the studies say nothing about permanent, conscious changes in belief. An atheist scared momentarily by death is no more Christian than a Christian angry at God for suffering and bad design in the world. The momentary unconscious feelings in these studies are a long way from justification for clinical treatments or personal life changes.