IN A WORLD FRAUGHT with religious conflict, could a little more understanding lead to the peace and love that the planet’s various faiths seek to engender? MU’s Kenneth Vail thinks so, especially when believers pause to contemplate their own mortality.
In a study comparing how Christians, Muslims, agnostics and atheists reacted when prompted to reflect on their own inevitable demise, Vail, a doctoral student in psychological sciences at MU, and his coauthors Jamie Arndt, a professor of psychological sciences at MU, and Abdolhossein Abdollahi, a professor of psychology at Islamic Azad University in Iran, found that all four groups tended to share more in common than they might have otherwise thought.
“Our study suggests that atheists’ and religious believers’ world views have the same practical goal,” says Vail, that is, to manage their fear of death by associating themselves with a power that transcends worldly existence. For followers of Christianity and Islam, obviously, this is the supreme being of holy scripture. For agnostics, it typically involves the idea of a less-narrowly-defined but benevolent higher power. For atheists, a sense that they aided in human advancement, scientific progress or the betterment of a nation might be their final consolation.
“If people were more aware of this psychological similarity, perhaps there might be more understanding and less conflict among groups with different beliefs,” Vail says.
Standing in the way, he argues, are the array of distorted media depictions that tend to caricature, even demonize, those whose beliefs differ from our own. Vail says the constant barrage of negative imagery — particularly when presented in the context of violent conflict — keeps death on the mind while subconsciously encouraging the abjuration of opposing ideologies.
Vail and his colleagues arrived at these findings via a series of three related experiments. Each elicited reflections on death in study participants, then analyzed their responses to a survey.
They first examined Christians and atheists in the United States. The results suggested an increased awareness of death in Christians boosted their belief in God and denial of other traditions. Atheists also stuck to their views but, for obvious reason, without the denial of other religious philosophies (atheists, by definition, start with no belief in any religious traditions).
The second experiment, conducted in Iran, found that Muslims reacted similarly to Christians. A third trial observed agnostics. Here too thoughts of death tended to boost a belief in a higher power. But, true to agnostics’ wide-reaching spiritual antecedents, they did not express any less reverence for Buddha, God, Jesus or Allah. Instead, agnostics told researchers thoughts of death caused them to respect these deities even more.
“Individuals’ minds appeared to rally around certain personal guiding concepts when faced with fear of death,” said Vail. “Agnostics seemed to hedge their spiritual bets. They believed more firmly in a higher power. Yet at the same time, they expressed continued belief that the specific nature of that power was beyond human knowledge.”
The study was published in the October 2012 issue of the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.