Special to World Science
Most people think religion eases the fear of death. But studies have found thats not necessarily true.
Although very religious people fear death the least, studies suggest, total unbelievers take second place for ability to take their mortality in stride. The worst death anxieties haunt those who lie somewhere in between those extremeswho are a little religious.
A new study has backed up these findings, and provided some tentative explanations for the surprising phenomenon.
For some of those in the unlucky category of moderately religious, the studys authors found, the explanation may be grimly straightforward. Theyre afraid of punishment in the afterlife, such as going to hell.
Many of these people believe in a God, but dont go to church, pray or otherwise follow through much on that belief. This may raise the specter of punishment after death without hope for salvation, wrote the researchers, Paul Wink and Julia Scott of Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., in a paper describing the findings.
Fear of death was particularly characteristic of individuals whose belief in a rewarding afterlife was not matched by their other religious beliefs and practices, they added.
Divine punishment may be a less troublesome prospect to strongly religious people, who tend to be more confident of their merit. Atheists dont worry about it for obvious reasons.
Another reason some slightly religious people fear death more may be that they sometimes question whether an afterlife exists at all, the researchers wrote.
Such doubts might not plague more hard-core believers. And atheists may cope by focusing on ways to achieve at least a symbolic immortality, such as through children or creative works.
Being only moderately religious is common in the United States, the authors wrote. They cited figures showing that while four in five American Christians believe in an afterlife, only slightly over half of those, or 44 percent, go to church regularly.
It seems firmness and consistency of beliefs and practices, rather than religiousness per se, buffers against death anxiety in old age, Wink and Scott wrote.
In their study, they surveyed 155 people in their late 60s or 70s who were born in Berkeley, Calif. Their findings replicated, among elderly people, the results of past studies with younger people showing that the moderately religious fear death the most.
They also found that strongly religious people feared death the least. The least religious were in between, but slightly closer to the moderately religious.
The researchers said their study had some weaknesses, including a relatively small sample size. Other studies should be done with larger samples and including a greater variety of religious denominations, they said.
The study also didnt examine how people with unconventional spiritual beliefs, unconnected to organized religion, handled fear of death. This should be a subject of future studies as well, they wrote.
Another finding from their study was that, at least for some people, fear of the dying process itself seems to lessens with age. People in their mid-70s who had experienced more illness and bereavement, perhaps paradoxically, were found to fear death less than those in their late 60s.
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