Facing Death Tends to…

… get our attention, so Chesterton said something along this line. But this study shows that death tightens one’s faith and one’s openness to other religions.

Death can have a profound effect on a person’s religious beliefs. In a new study, death not only strengthened a person’s religious beliefs but also increased the denial of other religions.

One popular belief about the role of religion is to help manage how people deal with death. Religion could help people be aware of death but also be comforted in knowing there is something more after death, easing any potential fears. When confronted with death, those who believed in a religion had their beliefs as well as their faith in a higher power enhanced.

The underlying principle behind this idea about religion is based on the Terror Management Theory (TMT). In TMT, human behavior is based on the fear of death and certain parts of society are based on people dealing with death. Using TMT, there is a belief called the worldview defense hypothesis, that our held beliefs will guide and shape a person’s religiosity and belief in a higher power. The worldview defense could be anything from being an atheist, being religious, being intolerant or embracing cultural diversity.

To test the TMT theory, three studies, led by Kenneth E. Vail III from the University of Missouri-Columbia, were conducted to explore a person’s religious beliefs when confronted with death. The students filled out questionnaires and some of the participants were reminded about death while others were given a control topic. When filling out a questionnaire, students were asked about their faith, belief in a higher power and the belief in another religion’s god.

The first study was conducted with 54 college students who were either Christian or Atheist. The Christian students believed in an afterlife while Atheists rejected it. When reminded about death, Christian students had their religious beliefs enhanced; their belief in a higher power as well as God/Jesus was also enhanced. Atheists had no change in religiosity or belief in a higher power when reminded of death.

The same held true for the second study which featured 40 Iranian Muslims. When reminded of death, Muslim faith was enhanced as was their belief in a higher power as well as Allah. For the third study, featuring 28 Agnostic students, death enhanced their religiosity, belief in a higher power as well as their belief in Jesus/God, Allah and Buddha.

In the Christian and Muslim students, while belief in their own religion and their higher power was enhanced, their denial of another’s god was also enhanced. The Christian students, who were reminded of death, had enhanced denial of Allah and Buddha. The same was true for Muslim students who had enhanced denial of God/Jesus and Buddha.

Future research could explore how death plays a role in polytheistic religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. Researchers can also look at a system like Confucianism to see what role death plays in their beliefs.

The study was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.




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  • EricG

    I’m part of a community of people with late-stage cancer where most of us don’t have much time left, and many have passed. Based on my experience in that group, I think it is true that religious faith increases in many (though not all) people, and that it is often based on this sort of “terror management.” People seem to become more religious, wanting to see God as in control of it all — some want a God they can bargain with, which makes them feel like they have more control. The conception of God some have is like a candy bar machine — if I do X, I will get out Y (whether it is survival or a miracle, or whatever). This conception of God is very troubling to me.

    Some others, like me, have an opposite reaction to facing death. I have a much harder time with faith now. I have always had questions about why God would allow or even cause this much suffering, but been able to rely on “mystery.” But seeing young people and their families suffer with cancer has made the problem much harder to sweep away, and been very hard on my faith. This faith crises has been made worse in my encounters with people that have a candy-bar-machine/terror management conception of god, which really bothers me.

    I also think these types of surveys — which use people who aren’t actually facing death — aren’t necessarily reliable. It would be better to talk to people who are actually facing it, whose experiences are very different than the college student who is merely “reminded” of death.

  • Larry S

    Thank you for your post, Eric. I deeply respect what you’ve written.

  • David K

    Eric, thank you for your honest response. I personally do not think that there are “ready” responses, even for people of faith. It is too easy to remain academic about death and dying in general. May hope is that you may experience physical and spiritual comfort.