Religious questions: Who is more afraid of death? Atheists or believers?

Religious questions: Who is more afraid of death? Atheists or believers?

August 2nd, 2019 by Wyatt Massey in Life Entertainment

Keith Munford writes on a "Before I Die" art wall in Coolidge Park beneath the Chief John Ross Bridge on Tuesday, June 20, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The wall, sponsored by Hospice of Chattanooga, allows visitors to leave messages detailing what they want to do before they die. Staff photo by Doug Strickland

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is part of Religion: Got questions?, a series answering your biggest religious questions. Each week, we will answer one submitted faith question. To send a submission visit https://bit.ly/30cTYzx or email wmassey@timesfreepress.com.

QUESTION: What role does death play in religion?

For centuries, children raised Christian have been taught a specific nighttime prayer asking their God to protect them while they sleep. The third and fourth lines of the children's prayer — reading, "If I should die before I wake / I pray the Lord my Soul to take" — make reference to a more adult topic: death.

The seeming connection between death and religion has been a point of emphasis both in the church and in pop culture. Countless prayers mention death. In religion, a belief in the afterlife or a next life provides a kind of road map for what comes next, such as restoration in heaven or reincarnation.

Religious lore states that 19th century writer Oscar Wilde and American West gunfighter dentist John Henry "Doc" Holliday converted to Christianity during their final breaths. Even the fictional TV character Homer Simpson, fearing his end when he is attacked by a rhinoceros, cries out to all the major religious prophets for help.

Around 70% of Americans believe in heaven, and nearly 60% believe in hell, according to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center.

Humans are unique in that they are aware they are alive and that they will die. Death is the only certainty, said Daryl Van Tongeren, associate professor of psychology at Hope College. This knowledge motivates people to seek immortality either symbolically or literally. Both paths provide a sense of meaning in life, he said.

People seek symbolic immortality by creating a legacy — for example, donating to organizations to get their names on buildings, having children or pursuing success in their careers — Van Tongeren said.

Religion provides an answer to the problem of death with the afterlife or another life. Religion is designed to provide this form of literal immortality, he said. In his research, Van Tongeren found people with more fundamentalist religious views feared death less than people whose worldviews allowed more space for re-evaluating their beliefs.

However, the narrative that non-religious people fear death more than religious people is not necessarily true, said the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Jong, co-author of "Death Anxiety and Religious Belief: An Existential Psychology of Religion" and associate priest at St Mary Magdalen Church in Oxford, England.

"Many studies do find that religious people fear death less than nonreligious people, but actually most studies find that there is no correlation," Jong said in an email.

Jong found the correlation not to be a straight line but instead U-shaped. Strongly religious and strongly non-religious people tend to fear death less than people with a looser relationship to their religion, he said.

"When religious people think about death, they dig their heels in and get more religious," Jong said. "This response isn't limited to religion: thinking about death seems to generally make people want to defend their own or their group's ideas and identities more."

Data on whether people become more religious when faced with death is hard to measure, Jong said. Researchers cannot ethically put someone in a near-death scenario for the sake of science, he said. Any research that suggests a strong connection between an approaching death and religion is like a new study on the health benefits of chocolate or red wine. There are too many variables and a contradictory study could be published next week, he said.

The Rev. Dr. Keith Munford, Erlanger Health System's clinical pastoral education program director, has spent more than three decades accompanying people and families at the end of life as a hospital chaplain. He responds to what people want in the moment. For people who want prayer, he will pray with them. For family members or friends who want to talk, he will listen. For those who want to hear scripture, he will read.

"Death is a very sacred experience," Munford said. "I relate to those people with much reverence, both the person who is dying and their family members. I want to honor this event that's taking place at the end of their life or the life of a loved one."

Sometimes silence is the best way to help. In the moment before death, most people do not need words but rather want to have someone by their side, Munford said.

"We are human beings and we need other human beings to help us through very difficult times," he said. "I think God made us that way to need other humans to help us through difficult times."

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Find him on Twitter at @News4Mass.