ScienceDaily (Apr. 2, 2012) — New University of Otago research suggests that when non-religious people think about their own death they become more consciously skeptical about religion, but unconsciously grow more receptive to religious belief.

The Department of Psychology research also found that when religious people think about death, their religious beliefs appear to strengthen at both conscious and unconscious levels. The researchers believe the findings help explain why religion is such a durable feature of human society.

In three studies, which involved 265 university students in total, religious and nonreligious participants were randomly assigned to "death priming" and control groups. Priming involved asking participants to write about their own death or, in the control condition, about watching TV.

In the first study, researchers found that death-primed religious participants consciously reported greater belief in religious entities than similar participants who had not been death-primed. Non-religious participants who had been primed showed the opposite effect: they reported greater disbelief than their fellow non-religious participants in the control condition.

Study co-author Associate Professor Jamin Halberstadt says these 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.

"However, when we studied people's unconscious beliefs in the two later experiments, a different picture emerged. While death-priming made religious participants more certain about the reality of religious entities, non-religious participants showed less confidence in their disbelief," Associate Professor Halberstadt says.

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My article Death and the Skeptic, which is live in the current issue of the Humanist (this issue is devoted to the new skepticism / atheism and the Reason Rally), talks a bit about this:

After I wrote the article, I saw the documentary Flight From Death: The Quest for Immortality where they discuss the 'death denial principle.  This adds much to the discussion on the role death plays on the human psyche.  It cites numerous studies about how people, when reminded about their own mortality, become HOSTILE to anyone who thinks differently, particularly regarding religious views, and another study on how judges call for harsher punishments and more severe penalties when reminded of their own mortality.  People get more judgemental and severe.  The article explains the death denial principle in detail, and how it affects human behavior, but this is a fairly recent set of studies so I'm sure in the future we'll have more studies on this.


The study is based on results from 265 "university students," thus the results are distorted.  The most that can be said from the results are that people between the age of 18 and 25, educated, and in a social class able to afford a universtiy education feel thusly.  This has no bearing on adults...hell, as anyone who has ever been to university will tell you, Freshman do not have fully developed brains!  To imply the results are typical of adults...people who have finished the first loop in their education, in their first marriage, with children and just stinkin' thinkin'.  Not to mention people like 62 this August...who are actually on the Countdown to the Letdown.  A better statistical group, with broader applications and the possibility of meaningful results, would be hospice patients.  On a personal note, I became an atheist late in life after spending 40 years as a Christian and another 12 or so as a 'spiritual person'...whatever that means.  I found the acceptance of my mortality...the mortality of all be the key factor in losing my need to cling to the Santa Claus with one bag of toys for the good and another bag of coal already stoked up and burning for the bad.  My personal blog (on Blogger at

is titled simply, and I believe accurately, Atheism is Admitting the Truth.  Once you accept the will die, you will not live on in an Afterlife, and you won't come back to life just like everyone...everything...else who has lived, is alive now or will live...then you will have reached a Zero Belief level and are ready to start building your personal ethics, philosophy and life from there up.  We are not born tabula rasa.  Our chalkboard is quite full before we realize we have one.  The first step is completly and cleanly as we can...everything we can get to. 

Zero Belief is an ongoing struggle of ridding yourself of identifying assumptions, influences and prejudices.  It's a painful and depressing process, for sure, but the Good News is you don't have to be perfect.  You just have to erase enough space for an Authentic You to reside and learn to ignore all the squiggly lines of mental mitochondrial DNA left in the corners and edges like the cobwebs they are.

Sounds Buddhist, but is a relatively simple process that can be done without any reference to the supernatural.

Except cremation isn't good for the atmosphere.  I am hoping that "green" cemeteries become more common.

Susan, Oh! I didn't know that! Well, would a cotton sheet wrapped body in a deep hole work? Joan

That should work.  :)

Scott Bidstrup......Speaking only on my part, the only reason I don't like the thought of dying is that I will no longer be able to learn and do interesting and fun things. This does not strengthen my belief in a goD. I have a post on my Nexus Blog, which to me, is a logical hypothisis and has eased my mind on death. It is titled "Life After Death an Atheists New Point Of View". My hypothisis is condensed to the point of making Readers Digest seem like a novel. I'm a 2 fingered typist.

ThAt is why it is important to think, say and do everything you want to now. There are two ways to be immortal, unless you can think of others. One is to raise decent, compassionate, delightful, critical thinking children; the other is to write a book or publish articles. Maybe no one will read them, but at least your words are down on paper. 

Remember Ozymandias? The Percy Bysse Shelley poem that describes this great and powerful ruler of old who is forgotten and all traces of him have disappeared, except for the inscription on his statue foundation. Even the statue is gone. 

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".


Love that one. Must be good. It stuck with me for 35 years!

I think its more natural than anything. It doesn't necessarily mean an atheist to be a fraud. Most of us are brought up through some form of religious indoctrination or another. So from a young age the fantasy of heaven, hell, and the un-realistic reasoning behind the existence of god seems to rear its head in times of fear or uncertainty. Few people are completely comfortable in the idea of their own passing, so in many cases I believe that for a brief moment the thought of something after can seem appealing. Despite it being unrealistic and believed until that moment to be nothing more than a fairy tale of sorts. Just my opinion may or may not be the case.

Just go to sleep and don't wake up. 

Yep, I think the reality of dying is a piece of cake. The road towards death is another story. I sometimes envy folks who do not have the same need for valid and reliable information as me! It would rock to truly believe in Valhalla!




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