Religion and the Fear of Death

#buddhism #causes_of_religion #psychology #religion

Many people believe that one of the greatest appeals of religion is that it provides reassurance against the spectre of death1,2. The very thought of the permanent cessation of our consciousness can be terrifying, confusing and difficult to accept. Any theory that posits our ultimate survival can have a lot of appeal. This isn't a new revelation; Roman philosopher Lucretius (99-55BCE) famously said "fear was the first thing on Earth to make gods"3 and the 19th century anthropologist Bronishaw Malinowski argued that religion gives us a sense of power over death4. At the turn of the century William James, devoted to the study of comparative religion and psychology, says that "the ancient saying that the first maker of the Gods was fear receives voluminous corroboration from every age of religious history"5. Later the astute Albert Einstein wrote "with primitive man it is above all fear that evokes religious notions - fear of... death"6. Biologist E. O. Wilson studies the neurobiological basis of human behaviour, and states that the "foremost" religious drive is the one that "hunger[s] for a permanent existence"3. Aside from theory, modern sociological and psychological research has supported this position. A review of studies by Soenke et al. (2013) found that "one variable showing particular importance in protecting individuals from anxiety about death is the belief in an afterlife" which was bolstered by "active commitment and practice" of their religion. The stronger the belief, the less the anxiety about death.

Child psychologists say that 'there is no death' in the world of most children. Others in history, such as Freud, have explained that "dealing" with the learned idea of death is one of the greatest challenges of adulthood. Many avoid it by imagining that death is not real. That, in fact, we somehow survive death, despite that the self is the brain, and the brain dies. Many have come to the conclusion that the way religion provides reassurance against the spectre of death is one of the main appeals of religion7.

The ancient saying that the first maker of the Gods was fear receives voluminous corroboration from every age of religious history; but none the less does religious history show the part which joy has evermore tended to play.

"The Varieties of Religious Experience" by William James (1902) [Book Review]5

Book CoverThe formidable influence of the religious drive is based on far more, however, than just the validation of morals. A great subterranean river of the mind, it gathers strength from a broad spread of tributary emotions. Foremost among them is the survival instinct. [...] Our conscious minds hunger for a permanent existence [...] as it gives the individual meaning.

"Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge" by E. O. Wilson (1998)8

Book CoverIt is not rational arguments, but emotions, that cause belief in a future life. The most important of these emotions is fear of death.

"Why I am not a Christian" by Bertrand Russell (1957)2

Some academics also point out that the extent to which fear of death is to be considered the cause of religion has been exaggerated. Pascal Boyer objects that "the human mind does not produce adequate comforting delusions against all situations of stress and fear"9. It is a fine point. Religion can even make the fear of death worse for some people. However, it is clear that beliefs are often based on psychological needs. Not many people in ancient water-soaked lands think that the correct dances could bring rain, because that´s not their concern. But there is something particularly important about death and the horrible looming danger of everlasting non-existence.

It is hard to imagine non-being, and from this hardship, from wishful thinking, and from a sense of justice, we yearn for an afterlife. To make meaning of our lives we want this life to be part of a learning curve that doesn't just end, unfinished. Religion, and the afterlife, serve to make us think of death as less important and less of a barrier. We should not doubt the power of the idea that death is not final. In Buddhism, the representative of the Earth, and of Earthly attachments, is Māra, and in Buddhist texts "it is in connexion with death, but particularly the overcoming of death, that Māra is often mentioned in the Canon"10.

Some people's reactions against death goes so far as to trivialize it. Think of suicide cults where death is embraced as a way forward, and, in his book on fundamentalism, Malise Ruthven warns that death can become so insignificant that murder and suicide are merely stepping-stones in a divine plan that can be enforced on others:

Religious images and texts provide ways in which violence, pain and death are overcome symbolically. Human suffering is made more durable by the idea that death and pain are not pointless, that lives are not wasted needlessly, but are part of a grander scheme in which divinely constituted order reigns supreme above the chaos and disorder of the world. In such a context, the horrors and chaos of wars, as described in the Mahabharata and the Book of Joshua, as debated in the Baghavad Gita, as predicted in the Book of Revelation, and as alluded to in the Koran, are subsumed within an order seen to be meaningful and ultimately benign.

"Fundamentalism" by Malise Ruthven (2007)11

It is not just a personal rejection of death that compels people towards religious ideas of an afterlife - scholar of religion William Sims Bainbridge calls these primary compensators. The secondary type of reaction against death is social. People like having something comforting to tell others to lessen the gravity of death of a loved one, making the social dynamics less morbid and more positive in outlook12. Hence, there are a range of subtle internal psychological factors that give us a need and a want for an afterlife and/or for a purpose of death that transcends life and mitigates the disaster of losing a human being forever.

By Vexen Crabtree 2016 Oct 1713
Parent page: What Causes Religion and Superstitions?

References: (What's this?)

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Bainbridge, William Sims
(2011) Atheism. This essay is chapter 17 of "The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion" by Peter B. Clarke (2011)1.

Boyer, Pascal
(2001) Religion Explained. Hardback. Published by William Heinemann, Random House Group Ltd, London, UK.

Clarke, Peter B.. Peter B. Clarke: Professor Emeritus of the History and Sociology of Religion, King's College, University of London, and currently Professor in the Faculty of Theology, University of Oxford, UK.
(2011) The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. First published 2009.

Einstein, Albert. (1879-1955)
(1954) Ideas and Opinions. Published in 1954 by Crown Publishers, New York, USA and in 1982 by Three Rivers Press. A collection of Einstein's writings and texts.

James, William. (1842-1910)
(1902) The Varieties of Religious Experience. Subtitled "A Study in Human Nature". From the Gifford Lectures delivered at Edinburgh 1901-1902, first Edition printed 1960. Quotes from fifth edition, 1971, Collins and from Amazon digital Kindle version of the 2015 Xist Publishing edition. [Book Review]

Ling, Trevor
(1997) Buddhism and the Mythology of Evil. Oneworld Publications, Oxford, UK. First published 1962 by George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Momen, Moojan
(1999) The Phenomenon Of Religion: A Thematic Approach. Published by Oneworld Publications, Oxford, UK. [Book Review]

Russell, Bertrand. (1872-1970)
(1957) Why I am not a Christian. Quotes from Fourth Impression of 1967 edition, 1971, Unwin Books.

Ruthven, Malise
(2007) Fundamentalism. First edition 2005. New edition now published as part of the “Very Short Introduction” series. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Soenke, M, M. Landau, & J. Greenberg
(2013) article "Sacred armor: Religion's role as a buffer against the anxieties of life and the fear of death" in the American Psychological Association handbook of psychology, religion, and spirituality (volume 1) p105-122. Accessed via EBSCOhost on 2016 Oct 17.

Wilson, E. O.
(1998) Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Hardback. Published by Little, Brown and Company, London, UK. Professor Wilson is one of the foremost sociobiologists.


  1. Boyer (2001) ch.1 "What is the Origin?" p6-7.^
  2. Russell (1957) p74.^
  3. Wilson (1998) chapter "Ethics and Religion" p286.^
  4. Momen (1999) p54. See Malinowski's book Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays.^
  5. James (1902) digital location 1047.^
  6. Einstein (1954) p36. Einstein wrote this expressly for the New York Times Magazine (1930 Nov 09) pp.1-4. The German text was published in the Berliner Tageblatt (1930 Nov 11).^
  7. Boyer (2001) chapter 1 "What is the Origin?" p6-7. Added to this page on 2014 Sep 25.^
  8. Wilson (1998) chapter "Ethics and Religion" p286.^
  9. Boyer (2001) ch.1 "What is the Origin?" p24. Added to this page on 2014 Sep 27.^
  10. Ling (1997) p56-57.^
  11. Ruthven (2007) chapter 6 "Fundamentalism and Nationalism II" p119. Added to this page on 2013 Jul 27.^
  12. Bainbridge (2011) p332.^
  13. 2016 Oct 17: Originally written on 2007 Jan 08 as a shorter piece as part of What Causes Religion and Superstitions?.^

© 2017 Vexen Crabtree. All rights reserved.