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A slight change of plan for this week, I had planned to post part two of the piece I started last week, looking at the Brain Bug of cognitive ease, but Jonathan asked me to give this a once over, and it seemed interesting…

That having been said, I would normally avoid the Daily Mail like the plague, but as no other mainstream papers seem to have picked this up yet, here goes.

How afraid are YOU of dying?

A new study conducted by Oxford University has found that those whose religious behavior was driven by ‘true belief’ enjoyed lower levels of death anxiety.

Those who were motivated to believe by pragmatic conditions such as social or emotional benefits reported higher levels of death anxiety.

However, researchers also discovered that 18 percent of people who deem themselves religious were more afraid of ‘the end’ than non-religious people.

Experts said these findings complicate the old view, that religious people are less afraid of death than nonreligious people.

They have suggested that atheists may find comfort and death or people who are just not afraid of death aren’t compelled to seek religion.

It should come as no surprise that the extreme ends of the spectrum on the question of death are those that (probably) have a highly naturalistic understanding of the world, at one end, and those that (probably) have a highly supernatural view, at the other. A bimodal distribution of this kind is what I would have expected. Indeed, that is probably the least interesting aspect of this study.

Let’s make it a little more contentious, shall we? Let’s suggest that this finding mirrors the Dunning-Kruger Effect curve (notice the label at the peak of confidence to the left):

Dunning-Kruger Effect

Image from blog: Progress Focused

Of more interest, to me at least, was the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic belief:

Extrinsic religiosity is when religious behavior is motivated by pragmatic considerations such as the social or emotional benefits of following a religion, whereas intrinsic religiosity refers to religious behavior driven by ‘true belief’.

The meta-analysis showed that while people who were intrinsically religious enjoyed lower levels of death anxiety, those who were extrinsically religious revealed higher levels of death anxiety.

Pragmatic belief, aka “going along to get along” is socially intelligent in the short term, in the same way that smoking when you’re young can help you to establish a lot of networks that are unavailable to non-smokers. If the CEO or head of HR, or whomever, is a smoker, the office junior is more likely to get face time with him/her in the designated smoking area than a non-smoking mid-level manager ever will.

Pragmatic belief is what Dennett calls “belief in belief”:


So, “belief in belief” doesn’t have these death anxiety-quelling benefits to the same degree that “true belief” does. It seems to me that another way of saying this is that ‘those who believe they have a personal relationship with God – and speak with him daily – are not afraid of death’, but those who are unsure about God are afraid of death. Take from that what you will.

This means that some sizable chunk of self-professed believers are actually agnostics, making a nonsense of the word believer, and by extension the words Christian, Catholic, and Protestant. Many self-identifying Christians, clearly, are not believers… but they want to be.

So, Eternal Life, then?

References to eternal punishment for moral transgressions are a key element of religious moral education. This means that death is made salient in numerous cases where death is, otherwise, an irrelevance. “Don’t steal that candy/have premarital sex/use God’s name in vain/[insert perceived transgression du jour here], or you’ll burn in hell for eternity.” These make death salient in cases of normal, mortal transgressions that are unlikely to be fatal. It is, in fact, the threat that is the punishment, and in the short term, it works:

Though religion has been shown to have generally positive effects on normative ‘prosocial’ behavior, recent laboratory research suggests that these effects may be driven primarily by supernatural punishment. Supernatural benevolence, on the other hand, may actually be associated with less prosocial behavior. Here, we investigate these effects at the societal level, showing that the proportion of people who believe in hell negatively predicts national crime rates whereas belief in heaven predicts higher crime rates. These effects remain after accounting for a host of covariates, and ultimately prove stronger predictors of national crime rates than economic variables such as GDP and income inequality. Expanding on laboratory research on religious prosociality, this is the first study to tie religious beliefs to large-scale cross-national trends in pro- and anti-social behavior.

Shariff & Rhemtulla (2012) Divergent Effects of Beliefs in Heaven and Hell on National Crime Rates

Belief in heaven, and the positive reward of abiding with God, are presumably taken for granted by “true believers,” and thus the positive pro-social impact of belief is unlikely to be effective. This is along the lines of the trope that ‘bad guys believe that they’re good guys.’ Few people would want to actually be, or be seen to be, bad, and the righteous true believers are at the front of that queue. Meanwhile, they often demand the death penalty for all sorts of offences (thereby, presumably, intentionally damning people to hell), and all manner of worldly judgments, in anticipation of otherwordly reward for themselves for being the righteous bearers of the divine spark (and there I was thinking that Pride was a sin).

One shouldn’t take too much from all of this, though, for, as the article points out towards the end:

Also, more than half of the researcher showed no link at all between the fear of death and religiosity.

This mixed picture shows that the relationship between religiosity and death anxiety may not be fixed, but may differ from context to context.

More reading of the not-The Daily Mail variety:

Study into who is least afraid of death

Atheists and Highly Religious People Are the Least Scared of Death, Study Reveals – It happens to all of us



If you held your nose and went to the Daily Mail website, you may have seen the sub-article, ‘Are atheists dying out?’ A question/claim that I have seen before, usually with the supporting fact, as is the case here, that religious people tend to have more children. What is invariably missed is the considerable amount of work that also points out that the children of religious people usually end up being more liberal than their parents (even once they are adults). This liberalising/secularising is the effect of gradually increasing worldwide scientific literacy, greater inter-connectivity through social media and, notably, due to young people’s perceptions of the hypocrisy, regarding LGBTQ matters, of many religious leaders and “true believers.”