Field of Science

Fear of death is highest among Muslims


Many people assume that religious people are less anxious about death than the non-religious. After all, the most popular religions (Islam and Christianity) explicitly hold out the promise of eternal rewards for the faithful.

However, it's not quite that simple. After all, traditional versions of these gods are also pretty vengeful, and if you believe in a vengeful god, then you have to face the distinct possibility of some pretty nasty experiences after death. After all, even holy people usually have some guilty secrets.

However, there's very little international data on the relationship between religion and anxiety. A new study by Chris Ellis, along with colleagues at the University of Malaya, have gone some way to filling this hole, and the results are pretty intriguing.

They interviewed nearly 5,000 people (mostly at Universities) in 3 countries: Malaysia, Turkey, and the USA.

The results for Malaysia were striking. There was a clear linear relationship between religiosity and fear of death. There was a similar relationship in Turkey, although less strong (they interviewed far fewer people in Turkey, however).

Even more striking were the results in the USA. Here, there was a curvilinear relationship - death anxiety was highest in those with average religious feelings.

The reason for these differences is probably down to differences in religious beliefs between Muslims and Christians. Muslims had the highest fear of death - the lowest fear of death was seen in the non-religious in America and Christians in Malaysia.

This tallies with an earlier study, which a few years ago reported that Muslims in the UK are more anxious about death than are Christians and people with no religion.

The authors explain their results in terms of a theory called "death apprehension". This says that religion can have varying effects on death anxiety, depending on the actual beliefs held: belief in a demanding and vindictive God and the certainty about the reality of an afterlife can both lead to more anxiety. On the other hand, abiding by religious teachings and believing in divine forgiveness can reduce death anxiety.

Muslims seem to be more likely to believe in a vindictive god, and less likely to believe in a forgiving god. The authors put this down to fundamental differences in Islamic and Christian religions.

That's possible, but I'm also inclined to think that Christianity has reinvented itself over the past 100 years. As social structures have evolved, the idea of god as a punisher has fallen out of fashion - indeed, many modern Christians don't have any meaningful belief in Hell at all.

Whatever the cause of this difference, however, it's likely that this explains the different relationship between religion and death anxiety in these nations.

There's another interesting implication of the findings of this study, and that's the observation that the non-religious have a very low fear of death. Other studies have also shown that the non-religious have a higher suicide rate. Could these two observations be linked?


ResearchBlogging.orgEllis, L., Wahab, E., & Ratnasingan, M. (2012). Religiosity and fear of death: a three‐nation comparison Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 1-21 DOI: 10.1080/13674676.2011.652606

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

11 comments:

  1. Afterlife beliefs are the defining feature of religions (IMHO). So it is no surprise to find that religious people fear death.

    Another fact, brought out in some detail in Gananath Obeyesekere's book on rebirth eschatologies "Imagining Karma", is that once we introduce morality into the picture then at a minimum the afterlife bifurcates: good people (however defined) go to a good afterlife; and bad people go to a bad afterlife. We see this in Egyptian religion and in Zoroastrianism and all their successors - including the Abrahamic religions. We see it in Indian religions with rebirth eschatologies as well.

    So religious people not only fear death more, but have more reason to fear death. Since none of us is perfectly moral, perfectly good, we have reason to fear that our imperfections will condemn us to an unpleasant afterlife - and judgement in the afterlife tends to be inescapable unlike judgement in this life.

    I think you mistake vengeful gods. These are simply manifestations of vengeful societies. Some societies police their rules more strictly and punish more harshly than others, and this is reflected in the gods who deify this social function. It's a function of all social species, but humans are the only one's who regularly exceed the Dunbar numbers and require a hypothetical overseers to keep people in line. I think of this as in line with Foucault's observations about surveillance in society.

    If you're interested I've written up some thoughts on this on my blog: Accountability and Ethics.

    Re "non-religious have a very low fear of death."
    I think more work would probably show that it's the other way around: Those with low fear of death are more likely to be non-religious, precisely because they have no reason to be.

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  2. I agree that afterlife beliefs are important - although for many religions the afterlife was a fairly nondescript place for most. The idea of afterlife rewards is a fairly recent invention - at least in the West (see Johann Hari's article for a brief overview).

    I agree about vengeful gods. But I think they are invented by societies where it is difficult to catch lawbreakers (because of inadequate policing, lack of other social structures). These societies tend to inflict very heavy penalties on criminals when they are caught, and their gods behave similarly. There is less need for vengeful gods in modern societies, I think.

    And yes, I wondered too about the direction of causality. However, if we agree that religion causes death anxiety, then surely it's not a stretch to think that non-religion actively cures it?

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  3. Hi Tomas

    "vengeful gods... are invented by societies where it is difficult to catch lawbreakers..."

    Yes, this is the theme I develop on my blog. I also weave in the Indian variants on karma. This need for oversight probably coincides with the rise of civilisation ca 10k years ago, and the growth of towns and cities. Groups beyond the main Dunbar number of 150 cannot be assured that most people are following the rules--the rules that ensure the survival of the group--most of the time. So they get a friendly spirit to watch out. Trouble is that breaking the rules entails punishment. All groups of social primates maintain their groups through carrots and sticks.

    As social primates the smallest viable unity of humanity is not the individual, it is the small group of 30-40, preferably within the context of a number of such groups that come together occassionally.

    Foucault showed the modern trajectory away from God and church as overseers towards the medical profession and government. Now it's video camera phones, yes? Behaviour is monitored by YouTube.

    With death anxiety I agree with Thomas Metzinger that it emerges from an existential problem (I'm told he draws on Schopenhauer): all life wants to continue. Even the smallest organism strives to survive. But self awareness leaves us with the certain knowledge of our own death: so an irresistible force meets an immovable object, and out of this collision comes religion.

    I think the people who are genuinely relaxed about death right up to their death bed are extremely rare. We're all disturbed by death, if not ours then the death of our loved ones. I think is why even when people are not religious they are usually still "spiritual". Yes? Suicide complicates this, but without turning this comment into a book I can't show how it fits this pattern.

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  4. I don't know what you're talking about Andy. There's no typos that I can see ;)

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  5. Jayarava, yes, I agree and in fact what you've put there is pretty much in line with Ellis's full theory. In addition to the religious factors I list in the post, he says that death anxiety is increased by innate fear of death that we all have, and decreased by difficult life circumstances (if you have a really bad life, you will fear death less).

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  6. I'm curious: what do the y-axis units refer to? What's the scale?

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  7. They just asked them to rate their fear of death from 0-10.

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  8. Interesting study. Do you think that atheists having the lowest fear of death is directly related to our lack of concern about an afterlife at all, vengeful gods aside? When I die, my body will rot and that is it. I do not put too much more thought into it than that. I certainly do not fear it. My lack of fear is directly related to my lack of believing that anything will happen at all, so why fear death?

    You mentioned that it would not be a stretch to conclude that non-religion cures death anxiety in one of your comments. I would have to agree with you there Tomas. However, I think we will struggle in getting the theists to take the "medicine"...

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  9. Always hard to tell, but assuming that uncertainty over whether you will spend eternity being tortured or in paradise must surely add to the innate fear of death that we all have. So take that away, and the fear must reduce. Most atheists I know have a very matter-of-fact attitude to death.

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  10. Major reason muslims are afraid of death is that for them, punishment begins right in the grave. The grave shrinks on those who did not live well, and there's one or more poisonous snakes ready to strike continuously! And they are buried without coffins perhaps to ensure that the snakes have a field day.

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