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Researchers at Oxford University have conducted a meta-analysis in which they examined 100 studies concerning fear of death, looking for correlations with religiosity. They found some surprising results about atheists when compared to the very religious.
I’ve always thought of religion as something that is so popular, in part, because it tells us a nice story about what happens after we die. It gives us some hope that after death, we might be able to keep being ourselves, and we can still see all our loved ones. That’s overly simplistic, of course, especially considering the popularity of religions that didn’t even start with much of an idea of any afterlife at all. Even the ancient Jews didn’t have a “heaven” so much as a dark, shadowy pit where everybody probably ends up. It wasn’t exactly a happy story and even then, not every sect believed it. That’s why if you read the Old Testament, no one comforts anybody who is dying to tell them they’ll end up in heaven soon. God genocides the entire planet but no one discusses whether anyone will end up in a “better place,” except Noah because he gets the info he needs to live. And eventually Noah dies and guess what? No one talks about how great it is that he’s in heaven now.
But still, when I realized I was an atheist, the hardest thing to accept was that I am going to die one day and there’s nothing I can do about it and I will completely cease to exist as the person known as “Rebecca.” Forever. A huge part of me wished I could still believe in a god with a heavenly post-death playground, just so I could sleep at night.
That’s why it surprised me that a number of studies in the meta-analysis supported the idea that the people who fear death the least are the extremely religious true believers AND the atheists. The people with the most death anxiety were the ones who were in the middle — people who are religious but mostly because of the social and cultural benefits, for instance.
In fact, not only did 10 of 11 relevant studies support the U-shaped graph of very religious and nonreligious people being the least afraid of death, but 18% of all the studies in the meta-analysis found that nonreligious people are less afraid of death than religious people.
It’s worth remembering that there is a correlation/causation issue, here: maybe it’s not that people don’t believe in god and find comfort in that as it concerns death, but maybe it’s that people who already don’t fear death don’t feel the need to find comfort in religion, so they drop it or just don’t seek it out in the first place.
I also, though, wonder how much of this is grandstanding. There’s no way to get this information without self-reporting, so we have to rely on people to be honest about their feelings. As an atheist, I’ve had religious people mock me for not believing in an afterlife, and goad me with the idea that I’m just going to rot in the ground one day. It’s hard to say, in the face of a mocking majority, “Yeah, it’s actually really scary.” Because if religious people know you’re scared, they might think that’s a weak point where they might convince you to join their particular religion. They can also use it as a way to convince their flock that atheists are sad and miserable.
I’d much rather say, “I don’t fear death because I know it’s inevitable, and in fact the looming specter of death makes me appreciate each day of my life all the more, and I’m grateful for that.” That’s a strong, positive statement but it’s also a bit of hyperbole. My personal truth would be more like this: “I find my eventual non-existence terrifying but inevitable, so I try not to think about it while instead focusing on making the world a better place for me and everyone else, and while I try to remember that this is the only life I have to live I still want to spend a significant portion of it playing video games.
But that’s just me! I’m sure there are plenty of atheists out there who really don’t worry about death at all. I’m interested to know what you think…are you an atheist who really doesn’t fear death? Or a True Believer who is terrified of it? Let me know in the comments!