Death Anxiety and Religious Belief

An Existential Psychology of Religion

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Jonathan Jong, Jamin Halberstadt
Scientific Studies of Religion: Inquiry and Explanation
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , August
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Jonathan Jong and Jamin Halberstadt’s Death Anxiety and Religious Belief: An Existential Psychology of Religion is a welcome contribution to the critical study of religion. The authors provide an extensive literature review as well as their own research and results. Although many in religious studies may find the psychological methods and formulae a bit opaque—“r = -.05 (95% CI [-.10, .00], p = .07”—the authors do an admirable job of translating such mathematical results into accessible language. That said, the book suffers a few minor problems. For instance, there are missing bibliographical entries (Buss 2015); typographical errors including “superheroes are not generally the objects widespread of belief” (48), “it does not causes changes” (113), and “Feifel and Nagy did not to test” (131); and conceptually confusing errors such as “They are also minimally intuitive in that they do not violate too many automatic expectations” (21) where, I presume, they meant to write, “minimally counterintuitive,” or so the larger field of cognitive science of religion would expect. Such concerns notwithstanding, this is a book I highly recommend, especially for those interested in the psychology of religion.

As the title indicates, the main goal of the book is to assess thanatocentric theories of religion. To this end, the authors draw attention to the two central questions motivating such theorizing. First, to what extent does death anxiety motivate people to adopt religious beliefs? Second, do such beliefs actually mitigate such anxiety? Significantly, the authors also identify, and duly question, the central presumption of much thanatocentric theorizing, that is, that humans in fact do experience death anxiety. As the authors rightly acknowledge, such a presumption underwrites the rather robust, thanatocentric research program, Terror Management Theory [TMT].

TMT proposes that humans suffer chronic death anxiety, an anxiety that eventuates in behavioral paralysis if left unchecked. An effective strategy for diminishing such anxiety apparently rests with religious beliefs and practices. Jong and Halberstadt raise concerns regarding not only the chronicity of death anxiety, but also the therapeutic effects of religious beliefs, per se.

Tracing its roots to the existential psychoanalyst Otto Rank, TMT often seems to imply something akin to Sigmund Freud’s infamous drive theory. Whereas Freud suggested that humans constantly repress desires for sex and aggression, TMT suggests that humans must constantly repress death anxiety. Jong and Halberstadt do not believe this to be the case. To be sure, the TMT experimental paradigm routinely involves a mortality salience induction, raising in this way a suspicion regarding the presumption of chronic death anxiety. It may be the case that death anxiety arises when we are reminded of our inevitable expiration; but that is a far cry from establishing that we are always anxious. Indeed, even among the terminally ill, Jong and Halberstadt fail to find any empirical support for chronic death anxiety. What is more, they report findings indicating that death anxiety emerges with puberty, hits a peak in young adulthood, and then drops off with age. Clearly problematizing in this way the presumption common to most thanatocentric theories of religion, the authors all the same missed the opportunity to proffer an account for such fluctuation in death anxiety. I can imagine at least one such account.

Thanatocentric theorists often suggest that the fear of death is the natural complement to the desire to survive. Natural selection ostensibly favored the organism with such desire; and as the authors note, thanatophilic ancestry is a rather peculiar notion, biologically speaking. While a drive to survive perhaps makes some intuitive sense, many in evolutionary studies argue that a drive to survive in perpetuity does not. Rather, a drive to survive to reproductive capacity and success is a bit more parsimonious. Insofar as that is the case, we have one possible explanation for the timing of the onset and decline of death anxiety: in our most productive reproductive years, we experience death anxiety, that natural complement to the will to survive, that is, to reproduce. Once our reproductive years have come and gone, death anxiety is apparently no longer so pressing.

My primary reservation regarding Death Anxiety and Religious Belief is its reliance upon a unidimensional notion of death anxiety. While the authors rightly note that religion is multidimensional, and as such does not enjoy, or suffer, monocausality, I wish the authors had been similarly circumspect with regard to death anxiety. TMT’s presentation of death anxiety, which these authors seemingly endorse, reflects only one dimension of death anxiety. Even more troubling, it is a dimension of death anxiety that does not receive the highest “hits” on some death anxiety studies.  The authors, as well as most TMT researchers, tend to characterize death anxiety as the fear of one’s annihilation, what is called intrapersonal death anxiety. While this is undoubtedly a fear for some, some studies indicate that the primary fear often appears to be one concerned with eternal ostracism, what is called interpersonal death anxiety. There may be a cognitive reason for this: it appears almost impossible for us to imagine our annihilation, that is, to imagine not being able to imagine, a point the authors recognize. Insofar as that is the case, many people apparently fear existing forever in social isolation. Recall, C. S. Lewis’s suggestion that hell is separation from God, that is, existence without fellowship. Accordingly, I believe an appreciation for the multidimensional nature of death anxiety is most warranted for thanatocentric theories of religion.

While a concern regarding multidimensional death anxiety remains, this book commendably assesses the empirical research and data pertaining to intrapersonal death anxiety and religious beliefs. For good or ill, the authors’ conclusions render problematic thanatocentric theories of religion. Consistent with TMT, the authors suggest that it is not so much religious beliefs as such that mitigate death anxiety, rather, it is confidence in one’s worldview, religious or otherwise, and that worldview’s ability not only to confer existential meaning but also to afford opportunities for individuals to achieve high self-esteem. With all of that said, this volume will, I believe, repay well its readers for their time and attention.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Thomas B. Ellis is professor of religion at Appalachian State University.

Date of Review: 
February 28, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jonathan Jong is Deputy Director of the Belief, Brain and Behaviour research group at the Centre for Research in Psychology, Behaviour and Achievement, Coventry University; and Research Coordinator at the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford, UK.

Jamin Halberstadt is a Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Otago, New Zealand.

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