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Accepting mortality: How religious beliefs relieve death anxiety

Church Holding HandsOne of Benjamin Franklin’s most memorable – and most true – lines is “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Besides everybody griping during the run up to April 15th, there’s not much to help people come to terms with paying taxes, but when it comes to death, there are tons of ways to help us cope. Historically, religion has been at the top of this list. Every religion has its underworld gods and figures, and these have bled into popular culture, such as the all the personifications of death and the brand new cable show Proof. Religion and helping people to deal with death go together. Religion works for many, but how does it work? What is it about religion that helps people cope with the anxiety caused by the knowledge that they will one day die?

These were the questions that drove the University of Michigan’s Neal Krause. He came at the problem with two background perspectives. First, he thought that since religion is a social phenomenon, its benefits should come at least partly through the support that religious communities give their members. Second, Krause thought that religious beliefs meant to lessen death anxiety only work if they take advantage of religion’s sociality. Experimentally, Krause’s approach was to create a four-part conceptual model and then see if his experimental data would line up with the it or not. In the model, Krause first proposed that regular church-goers would get more spiritual support from their congregation. Second, people who receive greater spiritual support trust God more, which in turn leads to greater certainty that God forgives people for their sins. Finally, people who are more certain that they’ve been forgiven of their sins will have lower levels of death anxiety.

Regular church attendance is the lynchpin of this model, Krause argues, because the religious beliefs that it contains are entirely non-empirical. That there’s a God to trust and that God forgives people are articles of faith, and people will be more certain in these beliefs when they’re regularly reinforced by their communities. To Krause, the importance of feeling forgiven by God for reducing death anxiety is more than worrying about being sent to Hell upon death. It also relates to Terror Management Theory, whose proponents argue that people deal with their mortality by embracing beliefs that give meaning to life in general and significance to each individual life. Religions provide these beliefs .

Krause worked with over 1,500 people. All were age 50 or older, and all were Christian at some point in their life or non-religious their whole lives. Everyone took a survey that had categories of questions: how often they went to church, how much spiritual support they got from their community, how much they trusted God and felt forgiven by God, and about their levels of death anxiety. Answers were on scales, usually from 1-4 or 1-5, so by adding the scores for the individual questions of each group, Krause had a number that ranked the participants as higher or lower in each category.

When Krause looked at the data, he found a series of correlations that looked like it supported his model. First, he looked at the direct correlations between the category scores of each subject. Second, he looked at indirect effect. Indirect effect is when the relationship between two variables is not direct, but rather is mediated by a third variable. It’s like learning math in high school. Sure, there’s a correlation between showing up for class and learning the material, but there are other things, like paying attention and doing homework, that really explain why class attendance and understanding the material go together. The third step of the analysis looked at the total effect, which is just the sum of the direct and indirect effects.

Krause found that going to church more often correlates with greater levels of spiritual support. How much spiritual support subjects had went with trusting more in God, and there was a strong correlation between how much someone trusted God and how much they believed God forgave them. Finally, the more someone believed in God’s forgiveness, the less they felt anxious about death. In brief, these results followed the very model Krause introduced and sought to test.

Krause’s findings aren’t generalizable to all religions, and they aren’t meant to be. The study looked at how a specific group of religious beliefs (afterlife, divine judgment, divine forgiveness) in a specific religious/cultural context (American Christianity) affect how much anxiety older people feel about death. While generalizable studies of religion certainly have their usefulness, so do studies like these. After all, no one just “has religion” generically. People belong to specific religions. There is certainly more to look into, and perhaps more sophisticated statistical models can be employed. For example, Krause found that age negatively correlates with both levels of spiritual support and death anxiety and that race correlates with spiritual support, trust in God, and forgiveness by God, too. These findings were not controlled for in Krause’s model. Also, Krause himself was displeased with the available measures for death anxiety, and he called for better measures to be developed.

In the end, this study is the first star in what will hopefully become a bright constellation of studies relating specific religious beliefs to their psychological and social effects on the people who hold them. This will hopefully show how seemingly small changes in the beliefs of related groups can contribute to larger differences down the line.

For more, read “Trust in God, Forgiveness by God, and Death Anxiety” in Omega: Journal of Death and Dying.

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