Are Atheists Better at Dying Than the Religious?

Ryan T. Cragun is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, and he’s written a new book in which he takes a personal and scientific look at whether religion is actually helpful or harmful to you.

It’s called What You Don’t Know about Religion (but Should):

In the exclusive excerpt below, Cragun asks the question: “Who’s better at dying?”

People die. I’m going to die.

I’m really not that old, but I’m old enough to have experienced the deaths of loved ones. All of my grandparents are dead (as are my wife’s, though they died before I met her). Two of my uncles have died, one by suicide at around fifty and another from cancer at around sixty. One of my wife’s brothers died in 2005; he was forty-two. The person to whom I was closest who has died was my brother Mark. He was the closest of my siblings to me in age, just two years older than I am. He died in 2010 at thirty-six after a long decline in health due to a variety of problems. Mark and I were typical siblings — we fought a lot, largely because of our competitive natures — but we also did a lot together, and I have many fond memories of time spent with my brother.

Losing those close to us forces us to deal with a serious aspect of the human condition — death. Intriguingly, I’ve been both religious and nonreligious when people close to me have died. I was a devout Mormon when my uncle Dave committed suicide in the early 1990s. Dave had been a very successful businessman for a long time; he had created a fortune, but had lost most of his money. He took the loss very hard and was suffering from clinical depression. I worked with Dave the day he committed suicide. He was more quiet than usual, but I didn’t suspect what he was contemplating. It was a traumatic experience for me, though I’m sure it was much worse for his wife and children. I remember not only feeling the loss associated with his death, but also wondering whether he was going to be punished by god for taking his own life. Dave was my father’s only brother and they had been quite close. I remember listening to my father’s talk at his funeral and watching as my father wrestled with this very issue. My father concluded that Dave was not going to be punished for committing suicide because he was mentally ill. My father did not believe god would hold Dave responsible for his actions. My father’s words helped me cope with the loss of my uncle by leading me to believe that he was in a “better place” (i.e., heaven) and that I would see him again.

When my brother died in 2010, I was the only member of my family who was not religious. In planning the funeral it was decided that all of the siblings and my parents would speak. All of my siblings reminisced about Mark’s life, but they also talked about where they believed he was; they found solace in the idea that Mark was still alive, in a noncorporeal form, and that they would be reunited with him in the future. Their tool for coping with death was their belief in an afterlife. As I don’t believe in an afterlife, I couldn’t draw upon that to cope with Mark’s death.

How, then, did I cope with my brother’s death? There are several ways. First, I accepted then and I accept now that people die. Whether or not I like death doesn’t change that it is a requisite part of life. Second, in Mark’s case, I was relieved that he was no longer suffering. He had been sick and his health had been declining for a very long time. In death, there is no suffering. There is nothing. I would rather have nothingness than suffering. Third, I did my best to celebrate and remember Mark. That is all that remains of him now — the memories of those who knew him. I spent a fair amount of time writing down memories of my brother to keep him with me. Fourth, I have come to realize that the reason why the loss of loved ones to death is so hard on us is because we are social animals and we incorporate our loved ones into our selves. Knowing that I would never have another chance to interact with my brother helped brace me for the realization that the part of me that was Mark was likely going to slowly disappear over time. I would never again need to rehearse conversations with my mental representation of Mark or consider how he might respond to what I said or did. Mark was gone, and a little bit of me died with him.

I don’t know that I had an easier time coping with the death of my brother than did the rest of my family. Maybe I didn’t. But there was one thing I did not have to consider: his eternal fate. Adding questions of eternal fate to death seems to make coping harder, not easier.

A growing body of evidence seems to support the idea that the nonreligious have an easier time coping with death than do the religious, at least with their own mortality. Religious people appear to be more afraid of death than are nonreligious people. Nonreligious people are less likely to use aggressive means to extend their lives and exhibit less anxiety about dying than do religious people. That seems remarkably counterintuitive since the nonreligious are much less likely to believe in an afterlife, which is supposed to help people cope with death. But factor in that religious people are contemplating their eternal fate and it begins to make more sense. Even if they have done everything their religion says they are supposed to do, there is always a bit of uncertainty about where they might end up. As a result, religious people appear to have a greater fear of dying than do nonreligious people. This is reflected in figure 26.1, which shows that religious people think about death more than do nonreligious people.

This raises an interesting question which, unfortunately, I cannot answer with the data at hand. Does being religious lead to an increased fear of death or does substantial fear of death lead people to be religious? We don’t know the answer to that question yet, but I tend to think that it is the latter, and there are a number of social scientists who agree with me, arguing that the fear of death is the primary motivation for people to seek religion. There may, in fact, be innate differences in fear of death, which increases the appeal of religion for those who fear it more. But that is an empirical question for which we do not have an answer.

A related line of research has begun to examine religion’s role in helping people deal with trauma, like the loss of a loved one. This function of religion is often referred to as “coping” and there is some data suggesting that religion can help people cope with trauma. The basic idea is that religion offers explanations, justifications, or rationalizations for why people die and can offer hope of reunions with those who have died. Thus, religion can turn a traumatic, life-altering event into one filled with reassurances and hope of better things to come. Justifications like this can include ideas like it was god’s will that someone died, that there was a higher purpose in the death, or that death is simply part of a cycle of rebirths.

However, religion does not guarantee positive coping outcomes. There are good and bad types of religious coping. Some people blame god. They become angry and wonder why they are being punished. For these people, religion ends up making the bereavement process much more difficult. Religion can also complicate things when the fate of the deceased is uncertain, as was the case with my uncle. Thus, while religion can help people cope with trauma and loss, it can also hinder coping and make things worse.

What’s the take-home message here? Even in an area where religion is widely viewed to be a major help to people, it can be problematic. Religion can help people deal with the death of loved ones, but it can also hinder healthy adjustment to the loss of a loved one. What’s more, some data suggest that nonreligious people are not as afraid of death as are religious people and that they are able to cope with death — at least their own deaths — quite well. Religion is not required for coping with thoughts of death and, in fact, it may be the case that thoughts of death are what drive people to religion. Nonreligious people do appear to be better at dying than religious people.

The paperback and Kindle versions of What You Don’t Know about Religion (but Should) are now available. Check the book out and ask your local library to stock it!

For those who have blogs or podcasts, review copies of the book (as well as the author himself) are available to you! Just contact Pitchstone Publishing to set something up.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.