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Atheism Terrifies People Because It Makes Us Think About Death

Studies have found that considering atheism leads many to thoughts of death—even when those people are atheists themselves.

Photo by Flickr user Hans Van Den Berg

When my friend and fellow nonbeliever Greta Christina wrote her recent book Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, she noticed a common theme among the more than 400 stories she collected: The subject of death came up a lot.

"When atheists come out (to Christians, anyway), the first reaction is often about hell," Christina told me. "Sometimes it's manipulative or hostile, an attempt to scare atheists back into belief. More often, though, it's genuine concern or fear—they sincerely believe atheists will burn in hell, and they don't want that to happen to the people they love."

A new study by Corey Cook, titled "What if They're Right About the Afterlife? Evidence of the Role of Existential Threat on Anti-Atheist Prejudice," sheds some light on the phenomenon Christina noticed. Cook, a social psychologist at the University of Washington, told me that while the well-documented mistrust of atheists shows up in the polls over the years, there's not much literature on why atheists are perceived the way they are by religious believers in America.

When participants thought about atheism, it actually activated concern about death to the same extent as actually thinking about death.

Cook's study lays out a hypothesis that he calls "terror-management theory." The idea is that the awareness of death can make people terrified, but those fears are assuaged by the cultural sense that we are each a meaningful part of the universe. Anti-atheism, then, comes "in part from the existential threat posed by conflicting worldview beliefs."

"What we found is that when participants thought about atheism, it actually activated concern about death to the same extent as actually thinking about death," Cook told me.

As an atheist myself, I put it to Cook that maybe getting people to ponder their mortality in a nonthreatening way wasn't as dire as terror-management theory made it sound. Cook agreed with me in part and responded that thinking about death in a conscious way "can increase your appreciation for things" and "can be a great thing," adding that there are 30 years of research to back this up. However, "there are different responses when we think about death consciously and unconsciously."

Cook's study looked more at the unconscious side of things. He did this by using two different experiments conducted with students at the College of Staten Island, which he told me was chosen in part due to the diverse makeup of its student population.

In the first experiment, comprising 236 students (172 female, 64 male, most of them Christian), participants were asked to write down " what you think will happen physically when you die" and then "describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you." Then they were asked their feelings about either atheists or Quakers, including rating their trustworthiness.

The second experiment asked 174 students to either describe the emotions they felt toward their own death or "write down, as specifically as you can, what atheism means to you." Then students completed a set of word fragments, which could be either read as neutral words ("skill") or death-related words ("skull").

Related: VICE meets euthanasia advocate Dr. Philip Nitschke, the world's first physician to administer a legal, lethal injection in Northern Australia.

Cook's experiments were more specific than just talking about death. They made it more salient. And according to terror-management theory, when that happens, "people start to care about people who buffer or support their worldview and you actually start to see increased derogation against people who believe differently about the world. When suddenly your values matter more to you, that's an unconscious thing—you're not realizing that they matter more than they did a couple minutes ago."

Interestingly, the atheists in his study weren't immune to this. "We found the effect even if we included atheists in our study. Because as an atheist, you have to confront that 'Wait a minute, what is going to happen?' Atheism increases thoughts of death even for atheists."

Photo by Flickr user Ben Francis

Clearly, this struck a nerve. I asked Gary Laderman, professor of American Religious History and Cultures at Emory University and the author on two books on death in America, what he made of the study. He wasn't surprised by this finding, although he seemed to place it within a broader context of people questioning closely-held religious beliefs about death. "The power of [religious] institutions and those traditional cultural authorities is really eroding in a lot of ways," he told me. "People are more willing to accept a variety of different possibilities about death. But one thing that most people don't want to confront is what we associate with atheism. The idea that there is nothing post-mortem. There is no transition to some other kind of life. So that's what it's interesting about the study: It's digging beyond the kind of theological obvious kinds of debates to these more existential, basic ideas about human life."

Ideas about how and when we die are also being challenged. When I spoke with Michelle Boorstein, the religion reporter for the Washington Post, she brought up the example of euthanasia. "I think as we have more conversation in our society about assisted suicide and the idea of people having some say over their own death, I think it just puts more public discussion about it out there. I mean, we don't talk about [death] much anyway."

Even though death is generally taboo, Americans are making efforts to reclaim it—largely based on secular ideals.

Boorstein believes it's possible that maybe all of those things will work in favor of a growing acceptance of atheism. "As you look at the percentages of people who are more in favor of assisted suicide and that sort of thing, that would sort of challenge this idea that 'Only God can decide when I go.' I think as you see people thinking more about what they want around end of life and ask why, that will [positively] affect people's attitudes towards atheists to the degree that they start to agree with them on these issues."

People of no religion (the Nones, as they're called) are the fastest growing segment of the American population—second only to Catholics and comprising a third of of adults under 30. To be clear, most of the Nones don't identify as atheists and many maintain supernatural beliefs, but what they don't have is a religious affiliation that rigidly informs how they practice burial rituals. Add to this the two-thirds of the American who support physician assisted suicide, and several states now enacting legislation to legalize the practice. Even though death is generally taboo, Americans are making efforts to reclaim it—largely based on secular ideals.

However, as Cook's study highlights, there is still a lot of defensiveness around the secular notion that death is the end, since most Americans still desire an afterlife. So how should atheists navigate the anxiety that the lack of an afterlife provokes in many people? One way is certainly the path chosen by Christopher Hitchens, who in his books and talks argued that the very notion of heaven was highly overrated. In 2010 and 2011, he wrote very honestly about his "year of living dyingly" in a series of articles for Vanity Fair after he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Influenced by his old friend Jessica Mitford's critique of the American funeral industry, Hitchens also donated his body to science and opted to not have a funeral—a principled stance that, in my view, deserved a bit more attention than it received.

Will more atheists follow Hitchens's example? I sure hope so. Death affects everyone, and we shouldn't shy away from engaging thoughtfully and openly with the topic. Will that expose some theological disagreements along the way? Absolutely. However, as adults—whether we are believers or not—we have to be able to look at the world around us and try to rationally evaluate the behavior of our fellow human beings. The fear that many religious people have that living the one life we have with no expectation of anything beyond that somehow leads to widespread immorality can be shown to be misplaced to those willing to accept it.

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