God is dead?

This post was originally published in 2006 on the Alphapsy blog.

Atheists (and religious people sometimes too) often think that people believe in God because it shields them from the fear of their own death, or protects them from the idea that their departed loved ones are, well, just dead. Two recent studies confirm this idea: one by showing that being aware of one's own mortality increases belief in supernatural agents and the other by demonstrating that showing contradiction in their sacred texts increases the accessibility of death related thoughts among fundamentalists.

Above, two ways to fight your fear of death: prayer and humour (pick your side).



Do some of us believe in God and Heaven because of the fear of our own death, or the idea of never being able to talk to our loved ones who have passed away? This quite widespread belief is now grounded in empirical evidence.



At the beginning of the year, Ara Norenzayan and Ian Hansen published a study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin testing the idea that the salience of death related thoughs increases belief in God (or in other supernatural agents). The initial experiment simply shows that people who had to write a paragraph about what will happen to them when they are dead latter gave higher rating to questions like “How strongly do you believe in God”. Other experiments are consistent with this finding and help to refine it. One of them shows that thinking about death increases belief in divine intervention, even when compared to a condition in which subjects had to think about religion more generally. The last two experiments show that this effect is not dependent of the precise religious content: belief in the power of supernatural intervention was increased even if the supernatural agent was from another well known religion (e.g. Buddhism) or from a made up obscure shamanistic religion.

Another interesting finding in this study is the fact that only religious people seem to be sensitive to these effects, and this is true even in the last studies that involve supernatural agents that have nothing to do whatsoever with their own religion. This finding may be related to a similar inter-individual difference observed in a more recent study.

In a new paper (in press in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology), Mike Friedman and Steven Rholes inquire about a different – but related – inter-individual difference: that between fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists religious individuals. Their experiments involve confronting Christians to the idea that there are contradictions in the Bible. To this purpose, they use the different versions of some parts of Jesus’ life given in the Gospels. The accessibility of death related though was measured by a stem completion task: people had to complete stems that were so designed that the complete word could be either death related or not (e.g., given d e _ _ , participants could answer d e a d, but also d e e r or d e e d for example). The main result is the following: for fundamentalist Christians, and only for them, the idea that the Bible may contain inconsistencies increased the accessibility of death related thoughts. In other words, if you shake the deeply held beliefs of a fundamentalist, you might wake up fear of death. A more precise description of this later finding can be found on Mixing Memory.

I would just like to mention two caveats. First the fact that attacking the ‘rationality’ of some of your religious beliefs increases the accessibility of death related thoughts doesn’t show that these religious beliefs are ‘for’ this purpose. It just shows that they are somehow linked, not that this is their 'function'. This brings me to my second point: I fail to understand the adaptive character of the whole Terror Management Theory in which these findings are couched. In two words, TMT “argues that human understanding of mortality creates an existential anxiety that, if not continually kept in check, would undermine ordinary, adaptive behavior.” (quote from the Friedman and Rholes paper). I find it dubious that we should be endowed with a fear of death so strong that we need to have other mechanisms to hold it in check. Some people are certainly very anxious about their death (Pierre Desproges, a French comedian, being a prototypical example with the extra advantage of using humour instead of religion as a ‘defence mechanism’). I know some people who are not (me for a start). Since it’s my case that I know best, I can testify that I don’t feel any ‘existential anxiety’ (well, sometimes we have deadlines, but that doesn’t qualify as ‘existential’, does it?), and I’m not aware of any mechanism that would have buried these anxieties so deep that I wouldn’t be aware of em (certainly not religion for example).


It is somewhat preposterous to try to refute a psychological theory with a few (a few really?) cases of people who are not especially anxious about their death. However, the general point still holds: from an evolutionary perspective, it makes perfect sense that we shouldn’t want to die since it tends to hamper our ability to spread our genes (with congealed sperm though, who knows what the future will be like…). But it is certainly not adaptive to have such a strong anxiety that we should have other mechanisms to stop the first adaptive mechanism from being maladaptive. It seems to me that it would make more sense to have a fear of death that is just strong enough in the first place instead of one that is so maladaptive that it required a corrective update (happily, evolution doesn’t work like Microsoft…).

This post received very interesting comments: here's a selection.

Alberto Masala said: "I've read (don`t remenber exactly whre,sorry for my bad memory) about effects of increased attachment to crucial values and life commitments produced by death thoughts priming, in experimental settings similar to Norenzayan`s. That makes me think that maybe what is doing the psychological work at the individual level is just committment to whatever core values one has, not religion in particular. This could explain that the effect is strong for religious people: in their case, religion is the core value. Did the authors control for this alternative explanation in any way? or do you know any relevant evidence on this point?'

My reply: "You are probably right that several different values can be used instead of specifically religious ones to 'protect us from death related thoughts' so to speak. However (i) some core values might not be very helpful (if you hold rationalist views as core values, that might not help your potential death related anxiety) and (ii) they are not incompatible with each other. Some of them are even certainly correlated (like religion and family values — at least in some cultures). So perhaps that religion works for some people but that family or other crucial values would work even better. But this doesn't explain away the fact that religion works."

Tirta said: "Quoting you, "But it is certainly not adaptive to have such a strong anxiety that we should have other mechanisms to stop the first adaptive mechanism from being maladaptive."

I'd say it's adaptive, but not efficient (or somehow mistakenly designed). Here's another one: fear of death correlates with age. That is, older people think/fear more about death than young ones (which nicely explains why young people make the best soldiers and the worst drivers). But this is a puzzle when viewed from the gene's perspective, because older people are less efficient propagators. Why would you, at 60 and above (when your 'propagating task' is over) fear death more?< "

My reply: "Why would you, at 60 and above (when your 'propagating task' is >over) fear death more?
well, because, let's face it, you are more likely to die. Moreover, more and more people you know are dying and that alone could cause some kind of death related anxiety (I don't know the data: are, e.g. doctors who work with dying patients a lot more likely to feel death anxiety?) If we really have a mechanism that makes us 'fear death', then one might expect that it is more activated when you are more likely to die, and perhaps that one of the clues this mechanism takes into account is witnessing a lot of death. Anyway, I'm not really sure it's One mechanism. There are probably quite a lot of mechanisms that can generate some anxiety, and since death is, obvisously, a major threat you would expect a lot of them to be somewhat related to death. But perhaps the triggering mechanisms are different in each case (for your own death, for the death of your kin and friends, for different kinds of death…). I've never really thought (or read actually) about these issues, so I'm just formulating some wild guesses."

Tirta replied: "I probably didn't make myself clear before, but my concern is the following evolutionary puzzle: why do we fear death more when we are less efficient propagators? shouldn't it be otherwise: young people = efficient propagators = need to survive = fear death? or perhaps the 'right' way to fear death (according to the gene) is by not thinking about it, which is exactly what youngsters do."

My reply: "Well, to the extant that death related anxiety is adaptative on the whole, but can sometimes misfire, you would expect that it misfires (for example by being too strong) when there are less risks for your fitness (e.g. when you get old). This is the old Medawar (or was that Williams or Hamilton?) argument explaining why everything tends to break down more or less at the same time, and there is no reason that I can think of why it would apply less to psychological mechanisms (see dementia, alzheimer, parkinson, etc.)
I also maintain the relevance of my first comment: when we talk about psychological mechanisms, I think it is good to look at what kind of clue they should take into account to be efficient most of the time. Psychological mechanisms are not omniscients, they can not react to changes (in, for example, your expected fitness) if they can not use some kind of clue (in our case, the actual chances of dying based on the number of people who are near you or do what you do or are your age who die) to help them react appropriately."

Dado joined the debate: "I completely agree to the first caveat you notice.

About the second, here is my opinion. As for me, I think we have indeed a very strong fear of death and we have an existential anxiety – they increase as people grow old, as tirta states, and it's of course because they are likely to die soon.

The mechanisms which inhibite this fear are obvious in my eyes: (i) having children (ii) creating something which we hope will survive us (iii) spending our time in repetitive tasks and thoughts (iv) developping convictions about after-death (v) making this personal problem a more global and social problem.

The clues which reveal the presence of this fear are numerous: (i) art: for instance the too many movies and TV shows about killers. (ii) information: the too many news about death, crime and disasters. (iii) medicine: the constant effort about prolonging life (iv) society: the constant fear about some sudden and completely hypothetical disaster which could destroy humanity (before the 80's, it was the atomic bomb, in the 90's AIDS and nowadays the global warming, a supervolcano or an asteroid); and the strong conviction it will really happen (v) politics: the importance given to cigarette and well driving rather than to concrete social debates (vi) and of course religions and rites concerning death. I'm sure it's possible to find many other examples. All this wouldn't exist and wouldn't be so much spread if there wasn't a complete obsession of death."

My reply: "Let me work through your interesting comments one by one.
>I think we have indeed a very strong fear of death and we have >an existential anxiety
I'm not sure. I'd like to see a large set of cross-cultural data. I mean, more about the anxiety part, or the fear of death when there is no close danger (I'm not saying trying to dodge a car that is coming in our way is not universal). I just don't know how widely this is shared.

As for the mechanisms that you think inhibit fear of death, do you think that fear of death is useful or adaptive *because* it promotes these behaviors? For (i) at least it's seems to me that it is pretty clearly not the case. For the others I don't know, but it is certainly not their only function (I'm not implying that you said it was, this is if you consider the hypothesis that fear of death is adaptive because it promotes these behaviors)

Moreover, points (i) (ii) and (v) usually create some other anxiety that may be stronger than the fear of your own death. Some or most parents are more afraid of the death of their children than of their own (I think at least, once again I don't have any hard data).

Coming to what you consider as clues to our fear of death:
Learning about potential dangers (e.g. killers, cigarettes, drink and drive) is relevant, it does not have to be related to some death anxiety. I'm happy to know that I shouldn't do certain things (engage in unprotected sex with people I don't trust/know well, eating too much fatty food, driving too fast, smoking…) because harm or death might follow. I doesn't make me more anxious: it makes me less anxious (not that I was really anxious in the first place actually…) because I feel that I'm secure in the choices I make (perhaps that's only me though)

The fact that a lot of cultural phenomena are related to death does not imply that we have a "complete obsession of death". Information regarding ways to prevent death is as relevant as you get, it would be suprising if it was *not* widespread. To take an analogy: faces are very relevant to us. They help us recognize people, figure out their emotions, etc. This explains why we have a lot of cultural phenomena related to faces: masks, caricatures, etc. This does *not* mean that we are obsessed with faces. At least, I'm pretty sure that you wouldn't say we are obsessed with faces in the same way you think we are obsessed with death. But you draw on similar observations. Convincing me that we are, generally, obsessed with death will take some data on this precise topic (like what do people answer when asked questions related to that topic, diaries studies, etc.). I'm pretty sure it's out there, and perhaps it supports the idea that fear of death is, indeed, omnipresent. I just don't know."

Dado again: Thank you for your answer. I agree with you about the non-adaptative aspect of thoughts of death. I think there are two different things: instinct of self-preservation which obviously serves adaptative goals; thoughts of death which look like a bug in the program. Concept of death and its related anxiety are learnt. Very young children don't have any notion of it. I'm sorry, I can't find any reference in scientific litterature but here is a web page from a children hospital at Stanford.

From the moment we learn the notions of time, beginning and end, which underlie our whole reasoning, we'll necessarily have to face the idea of death.

I think this fear is difficult to observe precisely because people generally can't stand such thoughts. They stop them whenever they come in mind and they don't like to show their fears. Thus it's only noticeable through indirect and curiously repetitive behaviors. There were great examples of such curious behaviors concerning death in "Totem and Tabu" by Freud – yes indeed, I know, he's not very much appreciated by cognitive scientists. ;) It's debatable but I've the feeling that learning about potential dangers wouldn't require, in my opinion, such a constant repetition. Now your example about faces is interesting and I don't know what to think about.

The main difficulty concerning fear of death is certainly distinguishing between what ensues from adaptative instincts and what from the learnt and conceptual part. And by the way there are other reasons than death for existential anxiety. I don't know if you have seen this old documentary about a young german autist called Birger Sellin. Like many autists, he diverted his anxiety by compulsory behaviors. Of course, we cannot generalize from this example cause in this very case, anxiety is certainly due to some neurotransmitters trouble too. Yet I suppose that like him and like the Shadoks, we often pump in the fear of what could happen if we suddenly stop to pump. :)

Anyhow, congratulations on your very good blog. I'm afraid I couldn't read it during the next week cause I'll be hunting mushrooms in the countryside. Good bye!

My reply: Some interesting comments again.
The development of fear of death (and the concept of death) is indeed relevant. However, I don't think it's purely learnt. There is some good evidence that children, from very early on, understand death and make appropriate inferences on this topic (like, what the body becomes, will this person be able to move/perceive after she's dead, artifacts don't die in the same way as living things, etc.)
See this paper for example, but there is quite a lot of others.

>I think this fear is difficult to observe precisely because people generally can't stand such thoughts.

Well, it's possible, but then you run into one of the classical problems related to repressed thoughts: when somebody (usually some kind of psychoanalyst) defends the view that we have a repressed though in some domain, we can not prove him wrong. If it shows, it means that the though is here and the repression not efficient enough, and if it doens't, it means that the though is here but the repression is efficient enough.
This is not a good methodology: you have to find some other ways to prove that the though, repressed or not, is really there.

I agree that work (or pumping in the case of the shadocks) might be used as a way to divert us from our anxieties. From an evolutionnary point of view, doing nothing is usually not the best way to increase our fitness, so we might have some mechanisms that motivate us not do to nothing (these mechanisms are not working on everybody though…).

A word on the example about faces. It's not mine, it's the classical example used to illustrate the epidemiological view of culture. Look at this interesting (and short) paper if you wish to know more about it. I hope your search for mushrooms will be successful. This is as good a way to fight your anxiety as you get! (and you get a good free lunch on top of it!)"


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