University explores subconscious undercurrents of religion

Next up: why the Pope’s hat looks like a penis

A recent study at Otago’s Department of Psychology suggests that the fear of death subconsciously makes us more religious.

Among atheists, thoughts of death correlate with an increased receptivity to religious belief at an unconscious level and growing scepticism at a conscious level. For theists, religious belief appears to strengthen at both conscious and unconscious levels.

Proving that even the most cynical scarfies can be compelled towards godliness in the face of impending doom, 265 students took part in three studies in which they were randomly assigned to either “death priming” or control groups. Those in the death priming group participated in cheerful activities such as thinking about their own deaths, while the control group got to watch TV.

The study was co-authored by Associate Professor Jamin Halberstadt, postdoctoral research fellow Matthias Bluemke and PhD student Jonathan Jong, who has since moved on to the University of Oxford. The findings from the three experiments will be published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

To study the unconscious beliefs of participants, the authors used techniques including measuring the speed at which participants could affirm or deny the existence of God and other religious entities. After being primed by thoughts of death, religious participants were faster to press a button to affirm God’s existence, but non-religious participants were slower to press a button denying God’s existence.

Associate Professor Halberstadt says the results fit with the theory that fear of death prompts people to defend their own worldview, regardless of whether it is a religious or non-religious one.

“These findings may help solve part of the puzzle of why religion is such a persistent and pervasive feature of society. Fear of death is a near-universal human experience and religious beliefs are suspected to play an important psychological role in warding off this anxiety. As we now show, these beliefs operate at both a conscious and unconscious level, allowing even avowed atheists to unconsciously take advantage of them.”
This article first appeared in Issue 21, 2012.
Posted 4:26pm Sunday 19th August 2012 by Charlotte Greenfield .