Science on Religion

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Religious beliefs mediate between contact with the dead and death anxiety

Dead levitatingTypically when people think of religion as a force that decreases their fear of death, they assume religion eases their death anxiety because it promises an afterlife. Death is okay because death isn’t death. However, the actual reason why religion decreases death anxiety may be much more complicated than that. Research by Neal Krause (University of Michigan) suggests that the real link between religion and reduced anxiety over dying is that having contact with the dead creates a sense of connection among all people, which in turn deepens one’s sense of a religiously meaningful life - which results in less death anxiety.

Researchers have already known that contact with the dead decreases death anxiety. For example, in the Continuing Bonds model of the grieving process, individuals feel comfort when they sense the presence of their recently deceased loved one. In this way, their connection with their loved one continues on after death. In short, those who have had contact with the dead are more likely to cope more effectively during grieving and to see the common bonds that connect people.

Krause hypothesizes that religion plays a key role in all of this. Religion not only provides a sense of meaning in life but also makes suffering and death purposive, and thus seems especially well-equipped for helping people deal with death and death anxiety. Furthermore, Socioemotional Selectivity theory states that older people rethink their priorities. As a result, they tend to prioritize social relationships and getting a sense of meaning out of life through their connectedness with others.

In other words, Krause believes that religion is the critical link between contact with the dead and reduced death anxiety. To test this, he analyzed data gathered by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). The CMS surveyed Americans age 66 or older in a series of four waves (2001, 2004, 2007, and 2008). Unfortunately for Krause, only the fourth wave (the 2008 survey) asked its participants about having contact with the dead, and so he could only use that data in his analysis.

He found that about 73% of the participants said that they feel that a deceased loved one looks over them at least once in a while. At the same time, those who do feel the presence of a deceased loved one also are more likely to report feeling more closely connected with other (living) individuals, and, adding another link in the chain, those who report feeling more closely connected with others are more likely to have a stronger religiously oriented sense of meaning in life. That is, contact with the dead correlates with connectedness...which in turn correlates with feeling religious meaning. Finally, feeling religiously based meaning correlates with reduced death anxiety, and so confirms Krause’s hypothesis.

More technically, religious beliefs (understood as feeling connectedness with others and a religiously based meaning of life) reveal the indirect effect between contact with the dead and decreased death anxiety. According to the CMS data, contact with the dead does not (directly) correlate with decreased death anxiety (contra the Continuing Bonds model). Only when religious beliefs act as the mediator between the two does a statistically significant result emerge. Interestingly enough, religious beliefs do the same for church attendance and reduced death anxiety: directly, no correlation between the two exists, but with religious beliefs working between them, church attendance does (indirectly) correlate with reduced death anxiety.

So religion does help to reduce anxiety about death, but not through the stereotypical magical afterlife where everything is fine and wonderful. Rather, Krause argues, the religious beliefs concerning (1) the interconnectedness of all living humans and (2) the meaning of life work together to allow those who have experienced contact with a dead loved one to face their own death. Going to church also enhances this effect. A belief in a paradise-like afterlife may help to elevate the fear of death, but apparently it’s not necessary.

For more, see “Reported Contact with the Dead, Religious Involvement, and Death Anxiety in Late Life” in the Review of Religious Research.


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