When Confronting Death Do Atheists Think of God? Or Maybe Ray Kurzweil?

Pacific Standard is reporting the results of two recent psychological studies that looked at how thoughts of mortality affected believers and non-believers. Both studies reported that reminders of death boosted religiosity among believers. That's not too surprising since the big payoff of religious belief for a lot of folks is the comfort that they will be rewarded with an eternity of heavenly bliss beyond the grave. As Pacific Standard explains it: 

Both papers provide evidence that reminders of death increase the religiosity of believers. This supports one of the basic tenets of Terror Management Theory, a school of thought built on the insights of the late anthropologist Ernest Becker.

According to TMT, a basic function of religion is to provide a buffer against death-related anxiety. It does this, primarily, by promising believers an ongoing existence that transcends earthly mortality. So it’s no surprise that both sets of researchers found a link between thoughts of mortality and increased devotion.

More intriguingly, one of the new studies suggested that thinking about death causes non-believers to waver a bit in their non-beliefs. In that first study, Foxhole Atheism, Revisited, Oxford University psychologist Jonathan Jong and his colleagues report the results of experiments in which thoughts of death are provoked in believers and non-believers:

When primed with death, participants explicitly defended their own religious worldview, such that self-described Christians were more condent that supernatural religious entities exist, while non-religious participants were more confident that they do not.

OK. So dread of dying makes your beliefs stronger. Ah, but Jong went on to test participants for implicit beliefs using a word association test. As Pacific Standard reports:

But using an implicit association test, he found that after thinking about death, nonbelievers “wavered from their disbelief.” Specifically, 71 students from the University of Otago in New Zealand were presented with a series of 20 nouns, which they were instructed to categorize as “real” or “imaginary” as quickly as possible.

Jong reports that “while believers strengthened their beliefs, non-believers wavered from their disbelief” after thinking about their own mortality. Specifically, they were slower to label such concepts as “God” and “heaven” as imaginary.

In other words, when death was on their minds, “believers more readily judged religious concepts as real,” he writes, “while non-believers found it more difficult to judge religious concepts as imaginary.”

Frankly, that interpretation seems to be a bit of stretch. The second study, Exploring the Existential Function of Religion, by University of Missouri psychologist Kenneth Vail and his colleagues found:

Building on research suggesting one primary function of religion is the management of death awareness, the present research explored how supernatural beliefs are influenced by the awareness of death, for whom, and how individuals’ extant beliefs determine which god(s), if any, are eligible to fulfill that function. In Study 1, death reminders had no effect among Atheists, but enhanced Christians’ religiosity, belief in a higher power, and belief in God/Jesus and enhanced denial of Allah and Buddha. Similarly, death reminders increased Muslims’ religiosity and belief in a higher power, and led to greater belief in Allah and denial of God/Jesus and Buddha (Study 2). Finally, in Study 3, death reminders motivated Agnostics to increase their religiosity, belief in a higher power, and their faith in God/Jesus, Buddha, and Allah. The studies tested three potential theoretical explanations and were consistent with terror management theory’s worldview defense hypothesis.

With regard to atheists, Pacific Standard reports that Vail's research found:

...in a separate experiment, the notion of death did not increase atheists’ very low levels of religiosity or belief in a higher power.

In Vail’s view, this suggests people who strongly reject religious belief find other ways of dealing with “the psychological problem of death,” such as devoting themselves to some secular cause that will endure beyond their lifetimes.

However, there is another way for a non-believer to cope with thoughts of death -- anticipating the advent of techno-enabled immortality right here on earth, a.k.a., the Singularity. And in only 20 years, explains inventor and author of The Singularity is Near Ray Kurzweil in The Sun:

WE are living through the most exciting period of human history.

Computer technology and our understanding of genes — our body’s software programs — are accelerating at an incredible rate.

I and many other scientists now believe that in around 20 years we will have the means to reprogramme our bodies’ stone-age software so we can halt, then reverse, ageing. Then nano-technology will let us live for ever....

Within 25 years we will be able to do an Olympic sprint for 15 minutes without taking a breath, or go scuba-diving for four hours without oxygen.

Heart-attack victims — who haven’t taken advantage of widely available bionic hearts — will calmly drive to the doctors for a minor operation as their blood bots keep them alive.

Nanotechnology will extend our mental capacities to such an extent we will be able to write books within minutes.

If we want to go into virtual-reality mode, nanobots will shut down brain signals and take us wherever we want to go. Virtual sex will become commonplace. And in our daily lives, hologram-like figures will pop up in our brain to explain what is happening.

Bring it on, I say. However, metaphysician Stephen Cave argues in his new book, Immortality, that living forever might well turn out to be a bum deal. Nevertheless, as I concluded in my review of Cave's book: 

Since I need more time to contemplate the upsides and the downsides of eternal life, I will happily accept any legitimate offer for a dramatically extended and healthy lifespan.

Take a look at Reason TV's mini-doco on the Singularity University founded by Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • $park¥||

    YAY! Religion vs atheism thread. Thanks Ron.

  • SIV||

    Faith defines Atheists.

  • $park¥||

    Round 1. Fight!

  • ¿Ex Nihilo?||

    Remember this as you stand in front of Osiris to have your heart weighed ;-]

  • ||

    Projection: it's not just for Mary.

  • General Butt Naked||

    It's odd that the religious have embraced this meme with such fervent bonerocity.

    If every iota of thought and disbelief is "faith" then that dramatically cheapens your belief in god. If my not believing in Santa Clause is the same as your belief in God then you don't seem to take belief in God to seriously. But we knew that all along.

  • ||

    It's not odd at all. It's just another way to stick their fingers in their ears and go "LA LA LA LA I'm not listening".

    What's funny is it's incredibly stupid yet they have taken it as a mantra. "My defense of my faith is to say something bonecrushingly stupid and then cling to my statement like a drowning person to a life preserver!"

    Genius! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA

  • General Butt Naked||

    If I were religious I'd take that shit seriously, man. Like cutting people's heads off for working on Sunday; just like it says in the Bible. None of this half-ass shit. That's why the Jezuz freaks hate the Mooslum Fundies, because they know that those people actually give a shit about their faith, dammit.

    "Oh, I'm a Catholic so I can't smoke sherm during lent, and don't feed me after midnight!"

  • Timrek||

    Are they Catholic or gremlins?

  • SIV||

    You guys really need to find those quotes to back your assertions that I'm:
    1. Republican
    2. a religious believer

  • General Butt Naked||

    Nah, let's just say I take it as a matter of faith.

  • ||

    "Oh, don't spill water on me, I'll turn all green and scaly!"

    I always knew the Pope was a space lizard.

  • ||

    Not that I think they are right, but religious people don't hold a monopoly on sticking their fingers in their ears and going "LA LA LA LA I'm not listening".

  • Hyperion||

    I think about Kurzweil becoming God when the singularity occurs. Not that I am an aetheist. My thoughts on the whole invisible Sky God thing tends to make liberals go into fits of foaming at the mouth rage, and then they say really stupid, unimaginative, and closed minded things. Come to think of it, they react that way to everything...

    Anyway, I wiill welcome our new Kurzweil God overlord!

  • Tim||

    It's hard enough as it is to get rid of incumbents.

  • Applederry||

    So basically these studies confirmed that humans have developed several techniques to cope with the awareness of our own mortality, from the most common religion to the less common belief in technological immortality. Glad they finally caught up with the rest of us.

    With regard to life extension, as an atheist, a science fiction fan, and someone who just generally enjoys seeing the advance of technology, I very much hope to see such things in my lifetime, but I take the claims of Kurzweil about the Singularity in 20-25 years about as seriously the claims of Paul Ehrlich regarding population. It just ain't gonna happen.

  • $park¥||

    I think I'd have to agree with you on that last point. It would be awesome to have such life-extending technology but there are too many who would be against it for various reasons. I suspect religious groups would be the most hardcore against it, just look at stem cell research.

  • Sudden||

    Or how about 20 year olds confronted with the possibility of having to slave away 160 hours a week in order to fund a sesquicentigerian to take her eight artificial hip on a cruise around the Baltic sea.

  • Wilt Chamberlain||

    Fundies will probably be against it, but I wouldn't underestimate the hostility from the left towards immortality Let's say we do become cyborgs, or whatever. Now rich people won't just have access to healthcare, but will have access to better transhumanist technologies and will be the first to sign up for immortality. You thought the Obamacare debate was bad, just wait until they try to ration life-preserving technologies for the "social good." Look at that movie In Time, I'm guessing the cries of class warfare will only get louder as technology advances.

  • General Butt Naked||

    Would you do it if you could? Upload that is.

    I would, maybe.

  • $park¥||

    I think I would. I think a nice feature would be the option to decide when you've had enough and allow yourself to be taken offline and purged from the system.

  • Tim||

    If you can download yourself, you can also make copies. Forget cloning, it is another you and it wanst half your stuff.
    You thought gay marriage was divisive? Wait untill you can literally go fuck yourself.

  • Applederry||

    Brain uploading? I have concerns about how that would actually work with maintaining continuity of consciousness and all, but assuming it could be done, I would definitely consider it.

    Especially if I can upload into a robot gorilla body.

  • General Butt Naked||

    I'd be T-Rex, but with big fucking Rambo arms and night vision.

  • Coeus||

    I think Jim's already got that avatar claimed.

  • Tim||

    New crime: I got mad at Applederry and after a brief struggle, deleted him.

  • ||

    I was just thinking the same thing, although along the lines of: Grandma had a fortune but decided to download instead of die, screwing me out of my inheritance. It's trully unfortunate that she was deleted during that "freak" lightning storm.

  • Stormy Dragon||

    Won't help since she just left everything to her backup anyways.

  • Stormy Dragon||

    My advice here is not to spend too much time thinking about the mechanics of brain transfer, because it eventually leads to a need to define under exactly what conditions a being with the exact same brain structure and state as you qualifies as "the real you" as opposed to a copy that thinks it's you. Once that happens you start having all kinds of bizarre existential crises.

  • ||

    The Island?

  • Stormy Dragon||

    I mean things like concluding self is ultimately based on continuity. But if that's true, do we die everytime we're unconcious? What if you're going to die tonight when you fall asleep, only to be replaced by a completely new person who comes into existence tomorrow morning when you wake up, and who only thinks they're still the same person because they have the memories of the body's previous occupant?

  • hotsy totsy||

    I think I would too, but it would depend on how much it costs.

  • Tim||

    I'd say we are more likely to get another Battlestar Galactica reboot before the Singularity.

  • Paleo-ConAvenger||

    What happened to the reason.com that I knew and loved? The reason.com that actually didn't stray from the objective and goal of the foundation; to advocate and document libertarian policies. Is it really that difficult? Its just like during the Obamacare Supreme Court hearings. Instead of that being the main headline, the Reason staff were focused on the irrelevant "Reason Rally". Please, I don't subscribe to Reason for Religious/Spiritual dialogue, and I think I speak for most here that want the strictly political Reason.com back.

  • Paleo-ConAvenger||

    Anyway, thats just my two cents. I definitely dont want to get knee deep in another religion debate.

  • General Butt Naked||

    One word: Postrel.

    And DRINK!, so really two words.

  • ||

    Bahahahaha. "Free minds and Free Markets," Reason has always done articles like this. Plus they covered Obamacare into the ground from beginning to end.

  • Ron Bailey||

    A: Re: ObamaCare. Yes we did.
    P-CA: BTW, there are plenty of people who advocate government set limits to life expectancy. For details, see my review of Biopolitics by Jonathan Moreno.

  • T o n y||

    Becoming an atheist made me more comfortable about mortality than I ever was as a religious person. How could you be 100% sure you chose the right religion and were doing the right things so as not to burn in hellfire for eternity? Now that is anxiety.

    Additionally, a moment's thought about a typically promised afterlife should reveal it to be logically impossible to be a desirable thing. What activity or combination of activities could possibly be rewarding if practiced for eternity? A trillion trillion years multiplied by a trillion trillion years multiplied by infinity... what could possibly be appealing about being conscious for that long under any circumstance?

    Becoming worm food is the most serene possible consequence of death imaginable. In short, you won't be conscious, so you won't give a shit.

  • Stormy Dragon||

    Since no one has ever lived a trillion trillion years, we have no way of knowing how much such a person would enjoy the experience. In all my life, I've frequently been bored, but I've never been close to being bored enough that I would have preferred to be dead. Now maybe if life draws out long enough that would change, but until it happens all we have is speculation. The "I'm glad I don't have to live forever" way of thinking reeks of sour grapes. Given that we have no choice but to die, it's just a way of rationalizing the inevitable as the optimal.

  • T o n y||

    You could be right, but I still think a literal eternal life is about the most horrific thing imaginable, no matter how much of a paradise it is. Maybe not horrific so much as unintelligible.

    But extending actual life indefinitely is something I can get behind. Just so long as you can check out when you want to.

  • Ron Bailey||

    T: So God suffers from eternal ennui?

  • T o n y||

    How could He not? A close friend who comes from a fundamentalist religious background explains that there is more complexity to the idea of the afterlife as hardcore Christians believe than I'm positing here. It's something about it being a totally different mode of existence, presumably a form of consciousness in which joy is eternally refreshed, but not something conceivable by mortals. That obviously raises the question of how mortal clergymen and believers can know anything about it so as to justify belief.

  • Azathoth!!||

    You're looking at this from a durational time point of view. Duration is just one way time can be experienced.

  • Tim||

    Does that mean you'll stop posting here?

  • T o n y||

    Just pray there isn't life, and internet access, after death.

  • Coeus||

    I have been close to death (as in "Shit, this is it.") twice since I became an athiest. And I am proud to report that neither time did thoughts of "god" or "the afterlife" cross my mind. If you had to put it into words, my thoughts went something like "Well, it was fun while it lasted.".

  • Tim||

    Bonus: you finally loose all those extra pounds!

  • ||

    Was that a poop joke?

  • Timrek||

    As an atheist with a pretty bad heart condition, I've faced death several times. Never has my disbelief wavered. Just recently, summer 2010, I went in to IU Hospital with acute pain in my torso. Initial x-ray/MRI scans showed a large mass around my liver. They gave me the "You may have inoperable cancer...death...death," speech. Turned out my gallbladder had exploded and was going septic. Still really nasty and exceedingly painful (worse than any of my five open heart surgeries). The hospital chaplain/priest (my wife had put catholic down as her religion and as I was in pain the nurse just assumed that was my religion as well) seemed surprised when I didn't want to pray with him. We did chat a few times but never once did I feel the need to resort to superstition or myths to assuage my fears. My wife and two kids are the best inspiration; though I did resort to calling forth the power of the Jacket and Lobster Girl a few times. (That sounds a tad dirty)

  • ||

    I and many other scientists now believe that in around 20 years we will have the means to reprogramme our bodies’ stone-age software so we can halt, then reverse, ageing. Then nano-technology will let us live for ever....

    Within 25 years we will be able to do an Olympic sprint for 15 minutes without taking a breath, or go scuba-diving for four hours without oxygen.

    Are they factoring Obamacare into those timelines?

  • Wilt Chamberlain||

    I've been in one life-threatening situation, a really bad car crash. Of course that was quick, not a terminal illness, so I might be biased, but I didn't think about religion or atheism. All I thought about was "Holy shit!" I didn't suffer a crises of "lack of faith," afterward either, as I thought about how I could have died.

  • T o n y||

    I enjoy Ray Kurzweil but am tempted to believe his critics who note that his predictions seem to always land the Singularity just within Ray Kurzweil's lifetime.

  • ||

    Religion is a defense mechanism against the realization that the universe doesn't care about you.

  • $park¥||

    ^This is excellent.

  • ||

    ummm

    I think you missed one or two steps in this.

    The universe is out to kill you religion gives you and your family/tribe/village/etc greater odds of survival by giving a group a system to cooperate in...those without religion have lower odds.

    The ones with higher odds predominate and the those with lower odds die.

    Natural selection how does it work?

  • ||

    This assumes, of course, that the religious should think that God DOES care about them. From what I know of different religions, that conclusion does not logically follow.

  • Wonsil||

    People can believe whatever they want but I often wondered, what do atheists yell during orgasm?

  • Timrek||

    OOHHH...OOOHHH...HIGGS BOSON!!

  • ||

    The other person's name, perhaps? I might yell "god" anyway, but to me that's not any different from yelling "fuck!"

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement