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Is Religious Belief Motivated by Death Awareness

October 20, 2012

by Kenneth Vail, University of Missouri-Columbia

Used under permission of Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Masjid al-Haram panorama

What is the psychological function of religion? Countless religious and supernatural beliefs have emerged over the course of history. In today’s world, a majority of people are devoted, for example, to the deities of Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism, among many others; but, at the same time, a considerable number of people also reject religions or doubt religious claims to know god (Ipsos/Reuters, 2011; Pew, 2012).

Such convictions, both religious and skeptical, raise important questions about the function of religion. What motivates faith in the supernatural? And, when that motivation is triggered, how might our prior beliefs – whether religious or skeptical – determine which god(s), if any, will become the sacred objects of devotion?

With new research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (PSPB), my colleagues and I at University of Missouri (USA) and Islamic Azad University (Iran) help shed some light on the answers to these questions.

To explore that first question – what motivates religious belief? – we started with an idea with a long history: that religious belief is motivated, at least in part, by the awareness of death. In the last 25+ years, social psychological research inspired by terror management theory (TMT; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986) has illuminated a variety of ways in which people use their cultural identifications to help quell the subtle, and often not conscious, awareness of mortality. From this view, religious beliefs help people manage the awareness of death by directly denying death with supernatural beliefs about literalimmortality. Religions commonly involve some form of spiritual afterlife—each offering its own version of the transcendent realm, from the Islamic gardens of delight, to Hindu salvation, to the Christian heaven—and promise eternity for those adhering to the religions’ specific viewpoints and customs.

Philosophers have emphasized the psychological importance of this death-denying theme for centuries, and recent correlational and experimental research attests to its importance as well (Landau, Greenberg, & Solomon, 2004; Norenzayan & Hansen, 2006). But careful experimental work was still needed to provide a clear answer about its causation, so we designed a set of controlled experiments to study whether supernatural belief can be a motivated response to the awareness of death.

We also explored that second question, how individuals’ prior beliefs, whether religious or skeptical, might influence the patterns of such motivated religiosity and faith in supernatural agents. On this point, three different theoretical perspectives offered three different predictions (see Norenzayan and Hansen, 2006).

One perspective was basically the “no Atheists in foxholes” argument; that awareness of mortality makes people believe in any supernatural agent (e.g., God, Allah, Krishna), regardless of whether one was initially Christian, Muslim, Atheist, or Agnostic.

A second perspective basically argued the same, but allowed for the fact that Atheists simply don’t accept supernatural concepts as valid.

A third perspective was grounded in a coping mechanism proposed by TMT called “worldview defense,” by which people can manage the awareness of death by taking part in cultural worldviews that offer the opportunity for literal (e.g., heaven) or symbolic (i.e., perceiving oneself part of a valuable legacy, be it in sports, nationhood, academics, etc.) immortality.  This worldview defense hypothesis predicts that the awareness of mortality should increase people’s faith in their initial beliefs, and increase rejection of alternative belief systems that might undermine the legitimacy or superiority of those beliefs. So, if a person followed a particular religion, let’s call it “Religion-X,” then reminding that person of death should motivate increased faith in the beliefs and deity(s) of Religion-X and rejection of alternative belief systems (Religion-Y or Religion-Z). Similarly, Atheists, who reject the supernatural, would be expected to remain squarely invested in their secular pursuits and thus not increase faith in religious/supernatural beliefs.

We tested these ideas across a series of studies with distinct samples of Christians, Muslims, and Atheists. In each study, all participants were first reminded either of death or of a control topic. Then, they reported their general religiosity (how religious they believed themselves to be and their faith in a higher power) and responded to a series of questions assessing their faith in God/Jesus (Christian beliefs), Allah (Muslim beliefs), and Buddha (Buddhist beliefs).

The Atheist sample flatly rejected all religious and supernatural beliefs regardless of whether or not they were reminded of mortality, reflecting the idea that Atheists are instead more invested in secular pursuits. This result conflicted with the “no Atheists in foxholes” hypothesis, but was consistent with observations that there are, in fact, Atheists in foxholes (see e.g., Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, 2011; Military Atheists and Secular Humanists, 2011; Military Religious Freedom Foundation, 2011). This finding was also consistent with research examining Atheists’ end-of-life preferences, in which Atheists were adamant that healthcare workers respect their rejection of religion (e.g., no bedside proselytizing) and recognize their secular value as “moral and caring individuals, committed to their families, humanity and nature” (Smith-Stoner, 2007, p. 926).

Figure 1. Death reminders increased Christians’ faith in Christian beliefs and decreased faith in Islamic and Buddhist beliefs; also increased Muslims’ faith in Islamic beliefs and decreased faith in Christian and Buddhist beliefs. Atheists did not express faith in any religious beliefs in the death reminder or control condition

But among the sample of Christians, those reminded of death (vs. control topic) increased general religiosity, strengthened their Christian faith in God/Jesus, and increased rejection of the Muslim and Buddhist faiths. A parallel process occurred in the Muslim sample. Muslims reminded of death (vs. control topic) increased general religiosity, strengthened their Islamic faith in Allah, and increased rejection of the Christian and Buddhist faiths. These findings are consistent with TMT’s worldview defense hypothesis, in which individuals’ pre-existing worldviews guide their patterns of motivated religiosity and supernatural agent beliefs. In contrast, these results conflicted with the two alternative hypotheses that death awareness would lead both Christians and Muslims alike to not only enhance their religiosity and belief in a higher power, but to broadly increase faith in all three Christian, Islamic, and Buddhist beliefs. So at least among the Christian and Muslim samples, as Nietzsche (1895/2003) observed, “One demands that no other kind of perspective shall be accorded any value after one has rendered one’s own sacrosanct with the names ‘God,’ ‘redemption,’ ‘eternity’” (p. 132).

Author Information: Kenneth Vail is a researcher and PhD candidate at University of Missouri-Columbia, working with Dr. Jamie Arndt. Mr. Vail received his BA in psychology at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and his MA in social psychology at University of Missouri-Columbia. His work focuses primarily on understanding the nature of existentially motivated actions and attitudes in political, religious, and health domains. Correspondence: Kenneth E. Vail III, Department of Psychological Sciences, McAlester Hall, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO 65211, email:


Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: a terror management theory. In R. F. Baumeister (Ed.), Public self and private self (pp.189-212). New York: Springer-Verlag.

Ipsos/Reuters (2011). Supreme being(s), the afterlife and evolution. Retrieved on April 25, 2011, from

Landau, M. J., Greenberg, J., & Solomon, S. (2004). The motivational underpinnings of religion: Comment. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 27, 743-744.

Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (2011). Retrieved on May 20, 2011, from

Military Atheists and Secular Humanists (2011). Retrieved on May 20, 2011, from

Military Religious Freedom Foundation (2011). Retrieved on May 20, 2011, from

Nietzsche (1895/2003). Twilight of the idols and The anti-Christ. New York, NY: Penguin Classics.

Norenzayan, A., & Hansen, I. G. (2006). Belief in supernatural agents in the face of death. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 174-187.

Pew (2012). “Nones” on the rise: One in five adults have no religious affiliation. Retrieved on October 11, 2012, from

Smith-Stoner, M. (2007). End-of-life preferences for Atheists. Journal of Palliative Medicine, 10, 923-928.

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