Field of Science

Why Theos wants us all to think more about death

Theos is an evangelical advocacy group based in the UK. Their latest survey was on how much time British people spend thinking about death, and their conclusion was that we don't talk about death nearly enough. Now, there are some interesting findings in the survey, as the British Humanist Association points out.

But a more salient question is why Theos wants to get us all to talk about death more? Why encourage people to think about death, when they seem perfectly happy (happier, even) not thinking about it.

Could it be that they hope that it will make people more religious? Because there's pretty good evidence that the more stressed out you make people about death, the more religious they get.

The best demonstration of this comes from a cluster of studies by Ara Norenzayan and Ian Hansen, at the University of British Columbia.

In one study, half the participants were asked to write a paragraph about what they thought happens when you die. That got them thinking about death. The other half wrote about food. Then they did some unrelated stuff, and filled in a long questionnaire. Buried in the middle of the questionnaire were a couple of questions on how religious they were, and how strongly they believed in god.

Sure enough (as shown in the figure above), those people who had been made to think about death reported that they were more religious and had a stronger belief in God.

In another study, participants were shown three different versions of a story about a child, which were designed triggered thoughts about religion, death or a neutral scenario. They were then asked to read a news report about a scientific study of prayer. Those people who were manipulated to think about death found the study to be more credible and the efficacy of prayer to be more believable. Surprisingly, there was no effect in the people who were made to think about religion.

They did some similar studies with people who were adherents of other religions, including Buddhists, and found similar results. One interesting finding, however, was that death primes had no effect on the non-religious and atheists in the study group.

There are other studies that have found similar things, and the results makes sense. We know that religion is where people turn when they are frightened and afraid. But this study gives the hard facts.

When you make people think about death, not only do they become more religious, but they also become more open to religious claims. Fertile territory for an evangelical advocacy group!

Norenzayan, A. (2006). Belief in Supernatural Agents in the Face of Death Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32 (2), 174-187 DOI: 10.1177/0146167205280251

Creative Commons LicenseThis work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.


  1. Hmm. Makes sense.

    On a related note - when I was a theologically confused undergraduate I had a few long conversations with some Christians who were trying to convert me (I got free pizza out of it). At a certain point they used Pascal's wager on me.

    My response was that if what happens after we die is so important, and if they really believed that non-Christians would burn in hell, why didn't they give up their day jobs, forget about earthly things and start converting people full time? the afterlife is infinitely long, so surely it should be infinitely more important than anything on earth? why were they studying chemistry or medicine when they could be saving people's eternal souls? they didn't like that very much.

  2. The above is a good point. Interesting study as well. I'm an atheist who actually thinks about and discusses death quite a bit just due to an inflated morbid curiosity and dark sense of humor.

    I'm sure they didn't like it, but the above question points to something I've long suspected: zealous religious people are often combating their own private struggles with doubt. A study into that would be interesting. How to go about it, I'm not sure.

  3. Heh. I guess it depends on what their God wants from them. Perhaps it *wants* them to prove their worth by becoming career professionals?


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