Psychobabble: Atheists in Foxholes?

By Keir Liddle

“There are no atheists in foxholes” so the contentious saying goes, suggesting that in extreme circumstances a lack of belief in a deity or higher power is an impossibility, but what does psychology say of the role of different belief systems when we are confronted with our own mortality?

A recently published study explored the impact of atheism or religiosity on how individuals cope with death, the study presents two experimental studies exploring the issue:
In Study 1, participants who were asked to write short essays about death reported greater belief in an afterlife than did participants who wrote essays on a neutral
topic. Study 2 was designed to challenge the findings of study one and to explore other theoretical considerations however it replicated the findings of study one. Study 2 also showed that increased fear of death leads to greater belief in God and provided some evidence for a motivated reasoning account of religion and death.

Both studies showed that people were motivated to believe in an afterlife when asked to think about their own deaths this is similar to other findings that have suggested fear of death increases believe in God or Gods.

In another study by Lundh (1998) religious believers, agnostics and atheists scores on a questionnaire measure of death anxiety and a stroop task using death related words. Religious believers reported less death anxiety than agnostics and atheists on the questionnaire but did not differ on their Stroop test scores. Lundh believes that these results either show that the death anxiety scales used may not be fit for purpose or alternatively that religious people are highly motivated to present themselves as less anxious or afraid about their own deaths.

Why should they be afraid when paradise is waiting for them? The religious may have an increased motivation to appear less anxious about their own mortality in order to reinforce beliefs that there is an afterlife.

James and Wells (2002) (may be pay-walled) explored the relationship between beliefs about death, superstitious beliefs, and health anxiety comparing atheists and Roman Catholics. They found that in both groups negative beliefs about death and superstitious beliefs were related to increases in health anxiety. However they found no relationship between positive superstitions and decreases in health anxiety. Though they did find that the specific Catholic belief that death was a “test” to be approached with courage was protective against health anxieties.

The evidence on the impact of belief systems is something which requires more exploration and research as the current evidence is mixed. There is some that suggests religious belief may be protective against death and health anxiety and others which suggests that it has no impact. There is research that suggests fear of death, sitting those final exams, makes people more likely to believe in God but not enough to make me believe that many atheists engage in death bed conversions.

So are their no atheists in foxholes?

The current evidence seems to suggest the phrase still clutches at the same straws it always has.

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