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For Believers, Talking to Atheists Is Like Confronting Death

Psychologists think there's another reason behind the scorn atheists face, and it's fear. Atheists make some people confront the idea there may not be everlasting life after death.

I remember when I “came out” as an atheist to my mother and grandmother; their initial response was denial. I'll never forget what they said to me, “You'll change your mind when you get older.”


What they didn't realize was I had already confronted the notion of death — that this one life was the only one I would get before the lights went out forever. I had struggled with that fact two years prior, dealing with panic-inducing anxiety and depression trying to accept the lie told to me since my birth: that, if I was good, I would live on in heaven.

Tom Jacobs from Pacific Standard writes that atheists are not well-liked among believers. Derek Beres says that in his conversations with believers, they think atheists are arrogant, while Jacobs says that others believe that non-believers don't have any morals. However, a recent study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science provides a reason for this antagonism: "Among believers, the mere contemplation of atheism can arouse intimations of mortality."

There's that seed of doubt that nags, saying, “What if they're right?” It's a terrifying notion, and this “uniquely human awareness of death gives rise to potentially paralyzing terror that is assuaged by embracing cultural worldviews that provide a sense that one is a valuable participant in a meaningful universe.”

The researchers believe that “anti-atheist prejudices stem, in part, from the existential threat posed by conflicting worldview beliefs.”

Corey Cook and his team of researchers conducted two experiments, which consisted of 236 American college students (of which 34 were self-proclaimed atheists, whose answers were not used). The participants were Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Jews. The researchers asked half of the participants to write down "as specifically as you can, what you think will happen physically when you die," and then to "describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you." Meanwhile, the other participants were asked "parallel questions regarding thoughts of extreme pain."

After answering the questions, there was a brief distraction. The researchers then asked the participants to rate on a 0-to-100 scale how they felt about atheists or Quakers. The researchers also asked how trustworthy they found each group and whether they'd allow a person affiliated with either group to marry into their family.

Unsurprisingly, the atheists were perceived as being much less trustworthy and rated more negatively, compared to Quakers. However, the researchers found these negative views were more pronounced among people who had written about their own deaths.

The second experiment consisted of 174 college students. Two-thirds of those participants were asked to describe how they felt about dying, or how they felt about extreme pain. The others were asked to "write down, as specifically as you can, what atheism means to you."

To determine whether they had mortality on the mind, they asked participants to complete a word-fragment game where the word "could be completed as either neutral or death-related words."

The researchers found that those prompted to think about their own mortality were more likely to complete the fragments, turning them into death-related words than participants asked about pain. What's more, the same was true for the participants asked about atheism.

So, it seems some of the scorn atheists face might be a side effect of the fear that raises a discomforting doubt about the promise of everlasting life.

For former Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank believes there are few benefits for any politician who comes out about their atheism. His advice to atheist politicians:

Read more at Pacific Standard.

Photo Credit: Kevin Dooley/Flickr

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