Atheists and the very religious fear death the least

I was interested in this article about the fear of death.

A team of researchers analyzed 100 relevant articles published between 1961 and 2014, containing information about 26,000 people worldwide and their feelings about death. They found that higher levels of religious belief were only weakly linked with lower death anxiety. The paper, which was published in the journal Religion, Brain and Behavior, also showed that strong religious believers and non-believers appeared to fear death less than those in between.

“It may be that other researchers would have found this inverse-U pattern too if they had looked for it,” said Dr. Jonathan Jong, a research associate at the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology and research fellow at Coventry University, who led the team of researchers. “This definitely complicates the old view, that religious people are less afraid of death than nonreligious people. It may well be that atheism also provides comfort from death, or that people who are just not afraid of death aren’t compelled to seek religion.”

More than half of the 100 studies showed no link at all between anxiety over death and religiosity, while 18 percent found that religious people were actually more afraid of death than the non-religious.

Despite Jong’s assertion that his results confound old views, it should not really be that surprising. For many people, fear of death arises from the sense that they may encounter an awful afterlife. Because all of us have done things that are wrong, those who are religious may fear divine or cosmic retribution. The exceptions are those who are very religious and confident that they come out on the credit side of god’s ledger and those who are atheists who realize that the entire idea of an afterlife is bunk. Death may not be something that atheists look forward to but it is not something to fear.


  1. says

    “Religious belief” -- all religions, or just the predominant ones in the areas surveyed? Different religions have very different approaches to death; I am very skeptical that thist study has done anything more than measure bias in their data.

  2. mnb0 says

    I suspect it went the other way for me -- already as a 9, 10 year old boy I realized that being dead was nothing to be afraid of -- well before I even began to consider the god question.

  3. Bruce H says

    I fear death in the sense that I would much rather go on living. As an atheist, I realize that the afterlife is, as you say, bunk. So, I guess you could say that I fear dying. Death? Not so much.

  4. hyphenman says

    Good morning Mano,

    I had a conversation this weekend concerning deathbed confessions. While one might make the argument that some moral or ethical standard could encourage a person facing imminent death to reveal some secret, my understanding is that our laws grant special status to confessions or revelations made moments before impending death because a person fears that dying with unconfessed sins endangers their immortal soul.

    If that is the case, then might an attorney argue that testimony from a dying atheist is not admissible because of a lack of fear of hell?

    Clearly such laws belong in the Dark Ages and should be removed from the books.


    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

  5. John Morales says

    Obligagory Epicurus:

    Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.

    Of course, there’s a difference between death and dying — one is a (non) state and the other is a process.

  6. Holms says

    It may well be that atheism also provides comfort from death, or that people who are just not afraid of death aren’t compelled to seek religion.

    I would not be surprised if there was no statement such as those above that could possibly br broadly applicable, people will have different motivations not only for seeking religion / being an atheist, but also for fearing / not fearing death.

    As for my perspective, I remember the time I first discovered the concept of death. The family dog died when I was about four, and so I discovered that life can come to a permanent end. I was terrified, and on the strength of my fear of death, I asked my mum if there’s a way to come back and have another life afterward, and hey maybe we can have a whole series of lives in a row.

    The significance occurred to me years later: a scared kid had independently invented the concept of cyclic reincarnation out of fear of death. I’m sure most religious people will never say they are religious out of a fear of death, but the motivation is definitely there for some, even if it is buried deep.

  7. odgraphix says

    I grew up in a funeral home so I have no fear of death. What I would not want, however, is a preacher of some sort associating my non-theist existence with the fantasy of an afterlife dominated by some triune god. People must stop associating death rituals with religion simply because it is the default option; religions don’t need to own that ceremony.

  8. says

    It’s always seemed to me that deathbed confessions are more of an admission that the religion knows there’s really no afterlife. It’s basically, “whew, I’ll be beyond your reach soon, so I can tell the truth.” If believers really believed all that stuff they’d be in a panic of terror facing death because most of them would know what’s (allegedly) coming.

  9. says

    The significance occurred to me years later: a scared kid had independently invented the concept of cyclic reincarnation out of fear of death.

    It’s scared kids all the way down.

  10. hyphenman says

    @Marcus, No. 8,

    That may be. What I was trying to examine, however, is why our legal system grants special weight to such confessions.

    Someone who doesn’t believe in a literal hell might be motivated to issue one final, and unaddressable, “fuck you” as an act of revenge for some real or imagined wrong.


    Jeff Hess

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