LISTEN: Researcher explores relationship between death, supernatural belief

Feb 9, 2013

Awareness of death can lead people to strengthen and defend their own religious beliefs, according to a recent psychological study led by MU researcher Kenneth Vail. 

And that doesn't just apply to those who believe in a higher power already.  

The foundation of Vail's researcg comes from the idea that part of the motivation for religious belief is the awareness of death – an idea that has deep philosophical roots, Vail said. Recent experimental research also points to the notion that people use belief to help manage awareness of mortality. 

"But there was a bit of controversy about how individuals' prior beliefs, whether religious or skeptical, might influence patterns of such motivated religiosity and faith in supernatural agents." 

Vail's research explored that angle – how preexisting beliefs were influenced by thoughts of death, specifically among Christians, Muslims, atheists and agnostics. 

Half of the participants in each group were reminded of a control topic; half were reminded of death. After being distracted, they were then asked to rate their own religiosity, along with their faith in divine beings from religious traditions outside their own. 

Among Christians and Muslims, reminders of death not only strengthened people's own beliefs, but also strengthened their rejection of other beliefs. For example, reminders of death increased Muslims' beliefs in Allah, but also increased their rejection of Christianity and Buddhism. 

Atheists in the study rejected supernatural beliefs, even when reminded of their mortality. "This result obviously conflicted with the 'no atheists in foxholes' hypothesis," Vail said, referring to an idea that awareness of mortality makes people believe in any kind of higher power. 

"The agnostic issue was really one of the more interesting findings," Vail said. 

Vail explained the agnostic results in terms of Pascal's Wager, an argument for Christianity made by theologian Blaise Pascal. As the argument goes, in the face of uncertainty about God's existence, it's better to believe – if you believe and he doesn't exist, you've got nothing to lose; if you don't believe and he does exist, you've got everything to lose. 

"When agnostics were reminded of death, they not only increased faith in the Christian deities, as Pascal might have hoped, but they also increased faith in other available religions, such as Islam and Buddhism," Vail said. "So, in a sense, they made the wager, but hedged their bets by increasing faith in a variety of possible religions."

Vail said future research could follow the trend of the increase in "nones," or those with no religious affiliation. 

Listen to the full interview below: 

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