Death anxiety increases atheists' unconscious belief in God

April 2, 2012

New research suggests that when non-religious people think about their own death they become more consciously skeptical about religion, but unconsciously grow more receptive to religious belief.

The research, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Otago in New Zealand, also found that when religious people think about , their appear to strengthen at both conscious and unconscious levels. The researchers believe the findings help explain why religion is such a durable feature of human society.

In three studies, which involved 265 university students in total, religious and non-religious participants were randomly assigned to "death priming" and control groups. Priming involved asking participants to write about their own death or, in the control condition, about watching TV.

In the first study, researchers found that death-primed religious participants consciously reported greater belief in religious entities than similar participants who had not been death-primed. Non-religious participants who had been primed showed the opposite effect: they reported greater disbelief than their fellow non-religious participants in the control condition.

Study co-author Associate Professor Jamin Halberstadt says these results fit with the theory that fear of death prompts people to defend their own worldview, regardless of whether it is a religious or non-religious one.

"However, when we studied people's unconscious beliefs in the two later experiments, a different picture emerged. While death-priming made religious participants more certain about the reality of religious entities, non-religious participants showed less confidence in their disbelief," Associate Professor Halberstadt says.

The techniques used to study unconscious beliefs include measuring the speed with which participants can affirm or deny the existence of God and other religious entities. After being primed by thoughts of death, religious participants were faster to press a button to affirm God's existence, but non-religious participants were slower to press a button denying God's existence.

"These findings may help solve part of the puzzle of why religion is such a persistent and pervasive feature of society. Fear of death is a near-universal human experience and religious beliefs are suspected to play an important psychological role in warding off this anxiety. As we now show, these beliefs operate at both a conscious and unconscious level, allowing even avowed atheists to unconsciously take advantage of them."

The paper co-authors also included Jonathan Jong, currently at the University of Oxford, who undertook the experiments as part of his PhD thesis, and Matthias Bluemke, currently at the University of Heidelberg. Associate Professor Halberstadt was Jong's supervisor.

The findings from the three experiments will be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Explore further: Are religious people better adjusted psychologically?

Related Stories

Are religious people better adjusted psychologically?

January 19, 2012
Psychological research has found that religious people feel great about themselves, with a tendency toward higher social self-esteem and better psychological adjustment than non-believers. But a new study published in Psychological ...

Recommended for you

Talking to yourself can help you control stressful emotions

July 26, 2017
The simple act of silently talking to yourself in the third person during stressful times may help you control emotions without any additional mental effort than what you would use for first-person self-talk – the way people ...

Heart rate study tests emotional impact of Shakespeare

July 26, 2017
In a world where on-screen violence has become commonplace, Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company is turning to science to discover whether the playwright can still make our hearts race more than 400 years on.

Do all people experience similar near-death-experiences?

July 26, 2017
No one really knows what happens when we die, but many people have stories to tell about what they experienced while being close to death. People who have had a near-death-experience usually report very rich and detailed ...

Risk for bipolar disorder associated with faster aging

July 26, 2017
New King's College London research suggests that people with a family history of bipolar disorder may 'age' more rapidly than those without a history of the disease.

Visual clues we use during walking and when we use them

July 25, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A trio of researchers with the University of Texas and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has discovered which phase of visual information processing during human walking is used most to guide the feet accurately. ...

Toddlers begin learning rules of reading, writing at very early age, study finds

July 25, 2017
Even the proudest of parents may struggle to find some semblance of meaning behind the seemingly random mish-mash of letters that often emerge from a toddler's first scribbled and scrawled attempts at putting words on paper.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Apr 02, 2012
What, no comments???
5 / 5 (3) Apr 27, 2012
The trouble with this particular research is that it does not take into account the fact that the vast majority of atheists, while reasoning that there is no evidence for the existence of God, are intellectually honest and will quite rightly pause when asked to deny the existence of a God, as they know one cannot prove a negative. If the only options are to affirm or deny the existence of a God, the atheist will, ultimately, deny because, as mentioned, there is no evidence that would support affirming the existence.

Theists, on the other hand, are intellectually dishonest by default and, therefore, will scrabble for the 'There is a God' button before cognitive dissonance kicks in.
2.3 / 5 (3) May 04, 2012
Atheism does not really exist as a meaningful and cogent belief, because it literally is without any foundation. The reason is that atheism constitutes a mental state: it is an active suppression of intrinsical knowledge of God. Every human being knows that there must be a God, and this God will hold them accountable. So atheism is the lack of belief due to active suppression of real knowledge of God, and replacing Him with things like addiction, anger, bitterness and self-abuse.
1 / 5 (3) May 05, 2012
The researchers believe the findings help explain why religion is such a durable feature of human society
Well of course. Because of our extended memories and imaginations we can envision our own deaths. Our animal instincts see this as a trap and seek to escape it as any animal would. 'Valley of the shadow of death.' Bible writers were well aware of this mechanism and tailored their religions to exploit it.

Hey okey/henrik I thought of a convincing way to disprove your god. It has been posited before but I am going to do it in a particularly elegant way.

The epiphany is central to your certainty that god exists. You know that recurring thrill you get every time you dwell on your beliefs. You do realize that believers in the other religions receive those EXACT same feelings as you do from their own gods? You understand that they are just as sure that their god exists as you are of yours, expressly BECAUSE they receive the same stimulus from their beliefs as you do from yours?>>
1 / 5 (3) May 05, 2012
You all have various books and culturally-derived rituals to trigger and reinforce the epiphany, but their purpose and message are essentially the same. Hindu gods are equally as effective at producing it as the Xian god(s). Mohammad gives the same message as Jesus. They are all indistinguishable in this respect.

And so we are left to conclude one of two things; either you are all worhipping the same deity, which is hard to reconcile because you have such varied ways of impressing him/them and of soliciting favor; OR, it is the act of evoking the epiphany itself which is the reason that any of you believe with such conviction, and the existence of any of your gods is moot.

The epiphany is a very powerful, wholly physiological phenomenon. The fact that you all have it means that none of the individual gods you think are there, is responsible for producing it.

Well that's not quite as elegant as I'd hoped but it is true as hell.
1 / 5 (3) May 05, 2012
The epiphany is a release from fear, anxiety, pain, and confusion and so is thus very drug-like; and I would think addictive in kind. Per the article it can provide effective relief from the helplessness we feel against aging, illness, and dread of death. No matter the religion, believers can find instant relief from anger, resentment, fear, and confusion in the epiphany. Sound familiar?

This does not mean that it is healthy by any means, and the people who exploit it for their own ends should be ashamed. The Brits fought 2 wars to maintain their opium markets in china. Later on baptist missionaries introduced a more effective way of mitigating that dangerous culture by instigating the Taipei rebellion. At least 20 million died in the name of Jesus and because of the more effective power of the epiphany addiction.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.