Scaring the bejesus into people: The effects of mortality salience on explicit and implicit religious belief
The belief in supernatural agents is a universal feature of human social cognition. Recent cognitive theories of religion might explain the origins of supernatural concepts, but they do not adequately explain religious belief and the commonly costly devotion to deities. Many functional and motivational factors have been proposed, but the notion that religious beliefs are driven by fear of death recurs across the history of theorizing about religion. Some efforts have been made to examine these theories, but various methodological limitations (e.g., measurement, sampling) render the evidence ambiguous and inconclusive. The present research further explores the correlational and causal relationships between mortality-related concerns and religious belief and tests between two theoretical accounts of this relationship. Terror Management Theory’s worldview defense hypothesis proposes that confidence in one’s beliefs—whether religious, moral, political, or otherwise cultural—mitigates fear of death; concomitantly, thinking about death leads individuals to defend their own worldviews, regardless of their content. According to this account, increased cognitive accessibility of death-related thoughts should increase religious belief among religious individuals, and increase religious disbelief among non-religious individuals. On the other hand, recent theories in the cognitive science of religion suggest that human beings have a distinct cognitive inclination toward belief in supernatural entities, which mitigate fear of death by association with the possibility of literal immortality (e.g., afterlife scenarios, immortal souls, life-giving deities). According to this account, increased accessibility of death-related thoughts should increase religious belief for both religious and non-religious individuals, regardless of their prior worldview commitments. The aim of Study 1 was to develop a self-report measure of religious belief. The Supernatural Belief Scale (SBS)—a 10-item questionnaire about cross-culturally common supernatural concepts—was found to be a reliable and valid measure of religious belief. This new scale was then applied in Study 2, which found that the statistical relationship between trait levels of death-anxiety and religious belief was moderated by categorical religiosity. For non-religious participants, fear of death increases as religious belief increases, whereas for religious participants, it decreases as religious belief increases. Study 3 then applied the SBS in an experimental study, examining the effects of mortality salience—increased death-thought accessibility—on religious belief. Consisting with Terror Management Theory’s worldview defense hypothesis, mortality salience led to increased belief among religious participants and increased disbelief among non-religious participants. To address the possibility that Study 3’s results were confounded by strategic responding biases to which self-report measures are particularly susceptible, Study 4 employed an indirect measure of religious belief: the speed with which participants judge the existential status of religious concepts (e.g., God, Heaven). In this case, when primed with death, religious participants categorized religious items as “real” faster, and non-religious participants categorized religious items as “imaginary” slower, than participants in the control condition. These results suggested that, consistent with the distinct cognitive inclination account (and inconsistent with the worldview defense account), mortality salience leads to increased religious belief (or decreased religious skepticism) for everyone, regardless of prior beliefs; furthermore, they also raise the possibility that mortality salience affects religious belief differently at the explicit and implicit levels. Study 5 therefore examined the effects of mortality salience on implicit religious belief, using a single-target implicit association test, a well-established measure of implicit cognitive associations. This final study showed that mortality salience increased implicit religious belief for everyone, regardless of their self-reported religious affiliations and beliefs. Taken together, these studies suggest a dual-process model of religious belief in which explicit and implicit beliefs are differentially affected by mortality salience. In particular, mortality salience leads to explicit worldview defense and, simultaneously, implicit religious belief. The implications of the present research for theories on the development and evolution of religion are discussed, as are the philosophical implications of such scientific theories of religion.
Advisor: Halberstadt, Jamin; Dawes, Gregory
Degree Name: Doctor of Philosophy
Degree Discipline: Psychology; Philosophy
Publisher: University of Otago
Keywords: religious belief; fear of death; death anxiety; evolutionary psychology; cognitive science of religion; naturalistic explanations of religion; supernatural beliefs; philosophy of religion
Research Type: Thesis