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


This or the Singularity.

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 con?dent 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.