Atheists, Death and Belief in God

The Effects of Death Reminders on Atheists' Supernatural Beliefs

Posted May 25, 2012

The popular saying is that there are no atheists in foxholes. While there are many facets of being in a foxhole, one prominent feature is that people are thinking about death. But do death reminders affect atheists' belief in the supernatural?

Recent research tested this at both an implicit and explicit level. Explicit, conscious beliefs are assessed by asking people if they believe in supernatual concepts (e.g., "do you believe in God) and measuring their responses on a number scale. Implict, subconscious beliefs are assessed a variety of ways, but one way is to assess how quickly people associate pairs of words together on a reaction time test. The basic idea is that implicit beliefs occur less consciously, and more automatically. And, the stronger these automatic associations, the quicker people should pair words together. (see here). 

Study 1: (Heflick & Goldenberg, in press, British Journal of Social Psychology). 

In this study, atheists from a U.S. university were divided randomly into four groups. First, they either read an essay arguing that there was life after death or an essay arguing that there is no life after death. They then were asked to write brief statements about what they thought would happen when they die or what they thought would happen to them when they experience dental pain. After this, participants were all asked how much they agreed with an essay that was negative towards the U.S. Research shows that death reminders heighten pro-American attitudes (for Americans), but only if the participants are feeling anxious. In turn, if atheists were comforted by the essay supporting their beliefs, they should not show heightened patriotism when reminded of death. This should also be the case if they are comforted by evidence of life after death.

The results indicated that atheists became more pro-American when reminded of death, but only when they had first read an essay arguing that there is no life after death. In other words, using this indirect way to measure death anxiety, atheists appeared to be endorsing belief in life after death more when thinking about their own death. After all, how could an essay comfort you if you did not believe it on some level?

But to what extent were atheists endorsing belief in life after death after writing about their own death? What if we asked atheists more directly if they believed?

Study set 2: (Jong et al., in press; Journal of Experimental Social Psychology)

In 3 studies, New Zealand researchers assessed atheists' implicit and explicit beliefs in the supernatural after being reminded of death or another aversive topic.

In Study 1, people were asked directly and explicitly if they believed in life after death after being "primed"  to think about death or another aversive topic.  This study found that theists believed more in the supernatural when reminded of death. No surprise there, but interestingly, atheists believed LESS in the supernatual when being reminded of death.

Study 2, however, tested whether atheists believe less in life after death after being reminded of their own death at an implciit, subconscious level. Interestingly, the atheists in this study believed MORE in the supernatural when their supernatural attitudes were measured at this implicit level.

Taken together, these studies suggest that death reminders have opposite influences on belief in the supernatural for atheists depending on if they are measured at a conscious level or an implicit, subconscious level. Specifically, atheists believe more at an implicit level, but less at an explicit level.

So there are atheists in foxholes. I mean, there are countless people who are atheists who claim to have been atheists in foxholes and research supports that death reminders heighten atheism for atheists.  But, at a less conscious (or pre-conscious) level, this research suggests that there might be less atheism in foxholes than atheists in foxholes report.

(Author note on 2-20-2015: I would like to emphasize that this research does not speak - at all - to the legitimacy of belief in God, life after death, or any other religious belief. Whether or not religious beliefs occur in certain contexts, or provide comfort in certain contexts, has NOTHING to do with the veracity of those beliefs. I regret that some websites are reporting these results in a way that makes it sound like not only do these results support the truthfulness of religion, but do it in such a way that it makes me sound like I agree with them. I don't.)

More Posts