OXFORD — Simply being religious may not quell your fear of death, a new study finds. Turns out it’s the folks who lean the farthest each way on the spectrum that are least afraid of dying.
A meta-analysis of 100 articles written between 1961 and 2014, led by researchers at Oxford University in the UK, was able to gather insights into 26,000 individuals worldwide.
Contrary to popular belief, the researchers found that just because someone was religious didn’t mean that they demonstrated low levels of death anxiety.
This finding manifested itself regardless of how one expressed their piety— i.e. through religious beliefs, such as believing in God and an afterlife, or religious behavior, such as attending a place of worship and praying.
The study also found that those who were more intrinsically religious— as opposed to extrinsically religious— were less likely to show symptoms of death anxiety.
Intrinsically religious individuals, for clarity, would be more likely to be guided by “true belief,” while extrinsic followers may be more attracted to the social and emotional benefits that religion can confer.
While the most devout believers and atheists were found to be the least fearful about death, the meta-analysis did show some inconsistencies.
Because religion varies so greatly between different geographies, and the research was conducted in various regions, including the United States and Asia, it might be hard to make blanket generalizations, the researchers warned.
Still, this isn’t to discount the study’s findings. One theory developed by experts is the notion that the prevalence of death anxiety can be drawn on a graph in a shape resembling a bell curve, with outliers on either far end.
Nearly all studies reviewed that were robust enough to test this idea supported this pattern.
“This definitely complicates the old view, that religious people are less afraid of death than non-religious people,” concludes lead researcher Dr. Jonathan Jong, a research associate at the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology and research fellow at Coventry University, in a university news release. “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.”
The study was published in the journal Religion, Brain & Behavior.