Atheists, Highly Religious Least Fearful of Death: Study

In addition to the highly religious, atheists are also among those who are least afraid of dying, a new study led by researchers from the University of Oxford in Britain found.

For the study on the relationship between death anxiety and religious belief, published in the journal Religion, Brain and Behavior, researchers analyzed 100 relevant articles published between 1961 and 2014, containing information on about 26,000 people worldwide.

"Meta-analyses are statistical procedures used to extract and combine the findings of multiple studies. This produces a better estimate of the consensus in a field than looking at individual studies," explained 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.

About the finding, that the very religious and atheists are the groups who do not fear death as much as those in-between, Jong said, "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."

Combining the data they had, the researchers found that higher levels of religiosity were weakly linked with lower levels of death anxiety, according to a summary published on the Oxford website. "The effects were similar whether they looked at religious beliefs such as belief in God, and an afterlife, or religious behaviour like going to church, and praying."

The researchers noted that some studies distinguished between intrinsic religiosity and extrinsic religiosity.

Extrinsic religiosity is when religious behaviour is motivated by pragmatic considerations such as the social or emotional benefits of following a religion, whereas intrinsic religiosity refers to religious behaviour driven by "true belief," they explained. The meta-analysis showed that while people who were intrinsically religious enjoyed lower levels of death anxiety, those who were extrinsically religious revealed higher levels of death anxiety.

The researchers further explained that the findings were mixed across the studies, "with only 30 percent of the effects showing this finding."

"Surprisingly, perhaps, 18% of the studies found that religious people were more afraid of death than non-religious people; and over half the research showed no link at all between the fear of death and religiosity. This mixed picture shows that the relationship between religiosity and death anxiety may not be fixed, but may differ from context to context."