(A)Theism, Meaning, and Death Anxiety

How do thoughts of death impact atheists and theists?

Posted Mar 31, 2018

It makes sense that belief in God and life after death would provide a more clear path to having less death anxiety than belief that death is the end of existence. After all, what better way to ward off those pesky death fears than by thinking that ultimately you won't die? It similarly makes sense that theists might have a more clear path to finding life meaningful than atheists. If you think a higher power has your back and you have a divine purpose, then I imagine, yeah, life would be pretty darn meaningful.

Of course these questions have nothing to do with whether or not there actually is a God or life after death. But these are interesting psychological questions - to me at least!

A recent study conducted in New Zealand measured whether atheists and theists level of explicit death anxiety (measured by directly asking people if they fear death) depends on if their beliefs have recently been challenged. After assessing each participants pre-existing religious beliefs, these researchers had participants generate arguments either for or against the existence of God. Death anxiety was then explicitly measured.

Atheists had more death anxiety when asked to generate arguments for the existence of God than when they were asked to generate arguments against the existence of God. Theists were less anxious about death than atheists when generating arguments for the existence of God, but more anxious than atheists were generating arguments against the existence of God. Thus, although the size of the effect was smaller for theists, both groups were explicitly anxious about death when generating arguments against their own belief systems.

In a follow up study, death anxiety was measured implicitly, using people's reaction time associations between words like "anxiety" and "death." In this case, implicit death anxiety was lower when participants had first argued for the existence of God compared to when they had argued against the existence of God. Prior belief had absolutely no effect. Thus, both theists and atheists were less implicitly associating death with anxiety after generating arguments for the existence of God.

As such, it appears that at an explicit level, both atheism and theism can protect people against death anxiety so long as those beliefs are affirmed. However, at an implicit level, arguments for God's existence seem to have more of an impact reducing death anxiety.

This is consistent with past research showing that thoughts of death tend to increase implicit religious belief among atheists and theists, but that only theists will believe more explicitly after pondering death. 

But what about meaning? Does atheism protect meaning when thinking about death to the same extent theism does?

Recent research by Kenneth Vail, a professor in psychology at Cleveland State University, and Melissa Soenke, a  professor in psychology at California State University - Channel Islands, assessed participants meaning in life (e.g., asking them "I find my life has a clear meaning and purpose" and them answering on a scale of 1-7) after reminding them of death or a control topic. After thinking about death, theists had no difference in their meaning in life compared to after thinking about the control topic. For atheists, however, meaning in life was lower after thinking about death.

In sum then, it seems that - at least when looking at an average among atheists and theists - that theism has an edge in terms of providing meaning in life and reducing death anxiety.

This isn't to say that some atheists cannot have less death anxiety than some theists. A key thing to remember is that these are averages across every participant in these studies.

A key point could be to what extent a person is devoted to atheism and/or how long they have been an atheist. To date, as far as I know, studies have only looked at this by asking people at one time point if they are an atheist or a theist.  Religious beliefs, at least for some people, will waiver across time. I imagine if a person has a consistent set of beliefs he or she will differ markedly in how effective these beliefs are in minimizing the negative consequences of thinking about death compared to a person who is unsure of their beliefs.