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Jan. 24, 2013 Volume 35, No. 16

Study suggests some common ground between the faithful and nonbelievers


Agnostics were the only ones to embrace all faiths when contemplating death

There are no atheists in foxholes, goes the saying, a leftover from World War II when soldiers dodged bullets as they hunkered low in human-made trenches.

The implication is that when death is close, even atheists experience a heartfelt tug toward the divine.

But Kenneth Vail, a doctoral student in psychological sciences in the College of Arts and Science, suggests another view. Atheists remain unbelievers in the Judeo-Christian God, or any other supernatural entity, even in the face of death, Vail said.

Vail’s study — undertaken with Jamie Arndt, MU professor of psychological sciences, and Abdolhossein Abdollahi, of the Islamic Azad University in Iran — explores the existential function of religious belief or nonbelief among Christians, Muslims, atheists and agnostics. The paper was published last October in the journal the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 

Vail contends that, by understanding how thoughts of mortality influence religious belief, we might learn how to ease tensions between people of different faiths. 

Atheists and agnostics are becoming more common. Thirteen million Americans, or 6 percent of the population, self-identify as atheists or agnostics. 

Thirty-three million Americans, or 14 percent of the population, follow no particular religion, according to a report released last fall by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. 

The MU study found that thoughts of death entrenched the convictions of atheists, Christians and Muslims. Christians, for example, found solace in their belief in God and heaven. Atheists rest assured that death is by-and-large painless and no more dramatic than going to sleep without awakening. Because consciousness doesn’t survive the body’s death, there’s no opportunity to regret or feel badly about leaving this world. The “world view” of atheists is rooted in the empiricism of science.

Yet believers and nonbelievers share common ground. “Our study suggests that atheists’ and religious believers’ worldviews have the same practical goal,” Vail said. “Both groups seek a coherent world view to manage the fear of death.  

“If people were more aware of this psychological similarity, perhaps there might be more understanding and less conflict among groups with different beliefs,” Vail continued.

The study suggests that morbid imagery, such as caricatures of enemies in war propaganda, can reinforce nationalistic and religious views by keeping death’s reality ever present and subconsciously encouraging denial of opposing ideologies. 

Religious stories and symbols of death, such as Jesus’s passion and the crucifix, subconsciously remind the faithful of mortality and reinforce Christian tenets to the exclusion of competing beliefs, Vail said.

For the study, Vail and his colleagues conducted a series of three experiments. They encouraged American Christians and atheists selected for the study to respond to a questionnaire about death. The responses indicated that Christians’ awareness of death increased their belief in God and denial of other religious traditions. Atheists, meanwhile, remained nonbelievers and didn’t bother denying afterlife tales found in all the major religions. 

The second experiment, conducted in Islamic Azad University in Iran, found that Muslims reacted similarly to Christians when contemplating mortality. A third trial observed agnostics, or those unsure if a deity or deities exist; this study found that thoughts of death tended to increase respondents’ belief in a higher supernatural power. Unlike Christians, agnostics did not deny the faiths outside of Christianity. Unlike Muslims, they did not deny the faiths outside Islam. 

In other words, agnostics were the only group in the survey to accept all faiths when thoughts were prevalent of the Grim Reaper knocking at the door.

“In our study, individuals’ minds appeared to rally around certain personal guiding concepts when faced with fear of death,” Vail said. 

“Agnostics seemed to hedge their spiritual bets. They believed more firmly in a higher power. Yet, at the same time, they expressed continued belief that the specific nature of that power was beyond human knowledge.”