Field of Science

Is the Social Function of Religion Changing?

One of the leading theories of why religion is so popular goes by the ominous name of 'Terror Management Theory'. Put simply, this is the idea that people turn to religion to ease their fear of death.

Gareth Morris and Tina McAdie, of Huddersfield University in the UK, set out to test this idea in a group of mostly young people (a mix of Christians, Muslims, and the non-religious) recruited within the University.

The study was simple, but the results were very interesting.

While Christians did indeed have a lower death anxiety than the non-religious, Muslims did not. In fact, their death anxiety was markedly higher than both the other groups.

When the participants were asked to explain why they felt the way they did about death, the reasons for the anxiety of Muslims became clear:

[For Christians] themes of heaven and eternal life are prevalent, whereas for Muslims the afterlife may be something to fear (“I don't know if I have been a good Muslim and so go to heaven or hell”).

In other words, the Christians in this group had low death anxiety because they mostly don't believe in hell!

This focus on heaven, and disbelief in Hell, is very popular among Western Christians today. But it's a fairly recent development. For most of the history of Christianity, the fear of punishment in Hell was an ever-present and vivid theme.

So it seems to me that the major difference between these two groups is not between Islam and Christianity but between traditional religious ideas and modern ones. So the question then is, why the change? How come Christianity in the West is steadily abandoning traditional concepts of Hell?

The function of Hell is to reinforce social order by threatening punishment to wrongdoers who can't be brought to justice by normal societal mechanisms. As a strategy, it's not terribly successful. Medieval Europe is not renowned as an era of peace, justice and harmony.

But perhaps in the absence of more effective social controls, promoting fear of hell is better than nothing. When better social controls are invented – such as in modern Europe – Hell is no longer needed.

If Hell is no longer needed in modern Europe, then Heaven still is. People still die, and our basic, evolved instincts make us all fear of death. The prospect of heaven can reduce that fear – but only if you abandon the inconvenient concept of hell.

As a result, modern Christianity, reacting to market demand, quietly drops the concept of hell, but retains the concept of heaven.

So the 'Terror Management' explanation for religion might be a Western phenomenon, born from the recent innovation which holds that the afterlife offering only rewards, not punishment. In the past, the prospect of meeting their maker probably did not ease people's anxiety.

What about the people with no religion? That's a pretty amorphous group. It's not clear how many of them believed in life after death. Life after death is one of the most common residual beliefs among the nominally religious (presumably because it helps to reduce death anxiety!). So it might be that

But it would be interesting to see what level of death anxiety there is among committed atheists, rather than the non-religious. In theory, atheists should have low death anxiety since, to paraphrase Epicurus, what do you have to fear from non-existence? However, I wonder whether this cognitive rationalisation is enough to overcome the innate psychological instinct!

[I'm currently on vacation in France - this was posted by robots!]

Morris, G., & McAdie, T. (2009). Are personality, well-being and death anxiety related to religious affiliation? Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 12 (2), 115-120 DOI: 10.1080/13674670802351856

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


  1. The reason for a Christian's low death anxiety is the "assurance of salvation" that he enjoys because of faith in Christ.So the themes of Heaven might predominate talk of Christians,not that they do not believe in a Hell.

    As you have rightly pointed out Muslims do not enjoy that assurance as they always will with the insecurity of the sovereign will of Allah,who could commit them to Hell even if they live a decent life on earth.

    Interestingly Muslims too believe in Heaven.Many of the suicide bombers you hear of are motivated by 'a place in heaven'.

    You have agreed that there is a instinct that makes us have 'death anxiety'. Why is it that 'death anxiety' is wired into us? Is it to make us know our maker :-)

    (Enjoy your holiday. May the robots reply! :-) )

  2. Terror management theory is actually much more diverse than you might think. I have been a fan of it for years as it explains why we do the things we do, regardless of religiosity.

    I edit a journal called The Jury Expert and we have an article on Terror Management Theory and applications to the courtroom this issue. In essence, if your case evokes even fleeting glimpses of their own mortality, does that factor in to juror decision-making about your case? It's a really intriguing read (if I do say so myself!).

    You can see this article at

    And yes. Enjoy your holiday!

  3. As for how those "committed atheists" feel about death/nonexistence, it seems to me that those feelings will be based on the condition of the individual's life. If you actively love life, that may make you more anxious about it ending. If you are passive and see yourself as being moved about by external forces, then probably death will not be seen as so bad or even so different from life. And, another dimension that I am becoming more aware of as I stumble through my sixties is the sense of completion one has in life. If there are a bunch of personal projects that need finishing, that increases the negativity of death simply because it means they will never be finished. But if there either have been no big projects, or if most of them have already been wrapped up, then that should reduce death anxiety. I guess the main point is that while there will undoubtedly be considerable variability among committed atheists regarding how they feel about their inevitable demise, it will be based solely on mundane factors and on their own personal approach to life.

  4. Here is a kind of life after death you can be sure of...

  5. rhandrich, looks like an interesting article. One for the reading list!

    Dheeraj, Death anxiety is to make us try to stay alive. People without death anxiety don't survive long enough to pass on their genes. It's evolution! :)

  6. Interesting, though I suppose less surprising when you think about it.

    As far as atheist death anxiety, it's amazing to me how much it can vary from person to person. Just an anecdote, but: I find the idea that there is no afterlife to be liberating and comforting.. whereas my wife has complained on numerous occasions that she laments her final transition from pantheism to atheism, because life seems less rich without the possibility of an afterlife or an ultimate purpose.

    Greg Shenaut speculates above on some reasons for this diversity, but I don't think he's begun to cover it. Although I agree it probably does have to do with the sum of so many mundane factors of personality... In any case, it's something that fascinates me.

  7. Do any believers in Christianity think they are going to hell? Obviously yes, but the majority of those living the life of the damned have probably already convinced themselves that god does not exist. Otherwise they would repent and attempt change their ways. Or at least come up with rationalizations for continuing to live in "sin". Likewise, does anyone ever think they're wrong? No, because if thought they were wrong then they would change their mind until they thought they were right again.


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