Reminders of death tend to reduce meaning in life among atheists who are told that atheism is common but not among those who are told atheism is rare, according to new research published in Frontiers in Psychology. The findings suggest that normative support for atheism may play a counterintuitive role in managing mortality concerns.
“Broadly, I have been interested in religion for as long as I can remember,” said study author Melissa Soenke, an associate professor of psychology at California State University Channel Islands.
“I took religion classes as an undergrad at American University and felt they complimented my interest in terror management theory that developed during that time. When I started work as a graduate student with Jeff Greenberg at University of Arizona, religion was one of the first topics that I published on.”
“For this study specifically, my colleague Ken Vail at Cleveland State University and I had collected some data that demonstrated that atheists reminded of death respond with a decrease in meaning in life not observed among Christian participants,” Soenke explained. “I was interested in ways that we might counter this decrease in meaning and the idea of normative support for one’s worldview arose.”
The new research was based on Terror Management Theory (TMT), a social psychological framework that explores how humans cope with the awareness of their own mortality. According to TMT, the awareness of mortality generates existential anxiety, which humans have evolved to manage through cultural and psychological defense mechanisms. These defense mechanisms include developing and adhering to cultural worldviews and belief systems that provide meaning, purpose, and a sense of permanence beyond the individual’s physical existence.
“Most TMT research demonstrates that more support for one’s worldview offers protection from concerns about death, so my initial thought was that giving atheists information that there are a lot of atheists in the world would offer this additional protection and increase meaning,” Soenke told PsyPost.
“Alternatively, atheists are an interesting group to conduct research with because they share a lack of belief, rather than a common worldview, so a lot of people who share one’s lack of belief may not offer the protection that a shared, death-denying worldview provides.”
For their study, the researchers recruited 222 self-identified atheists through a research panel recruitment service, with participants ranging from 18 to 80 years old. Most participants were white and non-Hispanic/non-Latino.
Participants were randomly assigned to one of four conditions: reminders of death with information portraying atheism as common, reminders of death with information portraying atheism as rare, dental pain with information portraying atheism as common, and dental pain with information portraying atheism as rare. Participants were then asked to rate their perceived meaning in life.
The results showed that among participants who read that atheists are common, those who were reminded of death had lower levels of meaning in life compared to those in the dental pain condition. However, among those who read that atheists are rare, the reminders of death did not affect the perceived meaning in life.
Additionally, among those in the reminders of death condition, those who read that atheists are common had lower levels of meaning in life than those who read that atheists are rare. Among participants in the dental pain condition, there was no significant difference in the perceived meaning in life between the common and rare conditions.
These findings suggest that reminders of death can have an impact on the perceived meaning in life of atheists, but this effect is moderated by exposure to information about the prevalence of atheism.
“I think the biggest take-away message is that we as TMT researchers can’t treat atheists as a homogenous group or treat atheism as similar to the other types of cultural worldviews and shared belief systems we research (e.g., specific religious beliefs like Christianity or Buddhism, political orientation, national identity, etc),” Soenke told PsyPost. “Providing atheists with information that atheists are common actually decreased their sense of meaning rather than increasing it as initially expected.”
“This again reinforces that atheism represents a lack of belief in supernatural phenomena rather than a comprehensive and shared death-denying worldview. It will be important for future research to investigate what worldviews atheists use to combat concerns about mortality and provide a sense of longevity.”
The study, “Investigating the Role of Normative Support in Atheists’ Perceptions of Meaning Following Reminders of Death“, was authored by Melissa Soenke, Kenneth E. Vail III, and Jeff Greenberg.