Death and deities: A social cognitive perspective

The universality of religious belief—in supernatural agents: gods, ghosts, souls, spirits, and their ilk—is, no doubt, the product of a whole host of interacting causal factors. However, the notion that such beliefs are driven by fear of death recurs throughout intellectual history. Although recent social psychological research provides some support for this claim, the relationship between mortality-related concerns and religious belief becomes clearer in light of so-called “dual-process models”, which allow for both conscious and unconscious levels of cognition. Religion, it turns out, might well be such a powerful buffer of death-related anxiety because it provides a worldview in which we can consciously participate as well as anxiety-reducing supernatural beliefs that we might unconsciously hold, regardless of our religious commitments.

In 2001, between 60 and 70 million Hindus—the largest gathering of people in human history—flocked to Prayag, India for the Purna Kumbh Mela, a pilgrimage held every 12 years. The journey, regardless of its spiritual benefits, comes with significant physical risk: Many pilgrims who ritually bathe in the Ganges River, notoriously polluted with human and industrial waste, contract infectious diseases such as cholera, hepatitis, typhoid, and dysentery; others are crushed to death in stampedes. And Hinduism is hardly unusual in this regard. Believers from all major religions undertake perilous pilgrimages, engage in risky rituals, and sacrifice financial well-being and bodily pleasures to please their gods.

We have perhaps grown accustomed to the less exotic costs of religious belief, but the fact remains that gods exact a high price in terms of resources (e.g., religious charity), time (e.g., daily prayer), and reproductive opportunities (e.g., premarital chastity), while remaining frustratingly elusive. Unlike everyday objects, “supernatural agents”, be they cosmic gods, tribal deities, or ancestral spirits, are not directly detectable via normal sense perception (or else exist in an unreachable realm). And yet, as expensive and elusive as they are, supernatural agents are believed in by billions of people all over the world and throughout history. Why are humans—at great expense and with little sensory evidence—incorrigibly religious?

Theories of religion

Everyone— layperson and scholar alike—seems to have pet theories about this; the history of ideas is replete with attempted explanations of religious belief. In general, these have tended to suggest that religious belief is useful in some way or fulfills some need or desire. Émile Durkheim (1915/1967) and Karl Marx (1843/1970), for example, focused on the usefulness of religion at the societal level. In the former case, religious groups (and by extension, beliefs, rituals, and structures) evolved to maintain and strengthen social cohesion. In the latter case, religious beliefs developed to distract the impoverished masses from their plight, thus enabling their own oppression. In a similar vein, modern evolutionary psychologists hypothesize about the adaptive functions of religious belief, such as for health (Bulbulia, 2004), group flourishing (Wilson, 2002), and mating (Bering, 2011). However, much psychological theorizing has centered around the supposedly crippling fear of death. According to Freud (1927/1961, p. 22), for example, religions “must exorcise the terrors of nature, they must reconcile men to the cruelty of Fate, particularly as it is shown in death”. Similarly, Feuerbach (1851/1967, p. 276) concluded his Lectures on the Essence of Religion with the claim that “the meaning and purpose of God are immortality” and Bronislow Malinowski (1948, p. 47) exclaimed, “Of all sources of religion, the supreme and final crisis of life – death – is of the greatest importance.”

Religion and the terror of death

In social psychology, the hypothesis that religion is driven by the fear of death has been most strongly forwarded by Terror Management Theory (TMT; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986; Vail, Rothschild, Weise, Solomon, Pyszczynski, & Greenberg, 2010). Drawing heavily from the work of the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker (e.g., 1973), TMT begins with the observation that human beings are, perhaps uniquely, aware of their mortality. This recognition of our inevitable death elicits crippling existential anxiety or fear of death, which must be dealt with if we are to function in the world. We are therefore motivated to seek immortality—whether literal or symbolic—and this quest involves embedding ourselves in cultural worldviews or belief systems, which prescribe means for obtaining it. Although TMT researchers do not offer formal definitions of “literal” and “symbolic” immortality, it is generally agreed that cultural worldviews offer literal immortality through afterlife concepts (e.g., immortal souls, heaven, reincarnation, nirvana) and symbolic immortality through lasting culturally-valued identifications and achievements, and the increased self-esteem they engender (e.g., Dechesne, Pyszczynski, Arndt, Ransom, Sheldon, van Knippenberg, & Janssen, 2003; Greenberg, Landau, Solomon, & Pyszczynski, in press). Because supernatural agents have the power to grant immortality, and are themselves examples of the possibility of such, belief in them is an effective way to assuage the finality of death.

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