When my friend and fellow nonbeliever Greta Christina wrote her recent book Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, she noticed a common theme among the over four hundred stories she collected: “The subject of death came up a lot. When atheists come out (to Christians, anyway), the first reaction is often about Hell. Sometimes it’s manipulative or hostile, an attempt to scare atheists back into belief. More often, though, it’s genuine concern or fear—they sincerely believe atheists will burn in Hell, and they don’t want that to happen to the people they love.”
A study last year coauthored by Corey Cook titled “What If They’re Right About the Afterlife? Evidence of the Role of Existential Threat on Anti-Atheist Prejudice” may begin to shed some light on the phenomenon Christina noticed. Cook is a social psychologist at the University of Washington and spoke with me about his study. It is true that there is a well-documented general mistrust of atheists that has shown up in the polls over the years (including the perennially last-place hypothetical atheist presidential candidate). However, what Cook—an atheist himself—noticed during his research into threats and prejudice is that there’s not much literature on why atheists are perceived the way they are by religious believers in America.
The abstract for Cook’s study lays out his hypothesis: “Terror management theory posits that the uniquely human awareness of death gives rise to potentially paralyzing terror that is assuaged by embracing cultural worldviews that provide a sense that one is a valuable participant in a meaningful universe. We propose that pervasive and pronounced anti-atheist prejudices stem, in part, from the existential threat posed by conflicting worldview beliefs.” Cook succinctly summarized the results of the study for me: “What we found is that when participants thought about atheism, it activated concern about death to the same extent as actually thinking about death.”
Being an atheist myself who has authored more than forty articles on death and the morbid (for a Vice column called “Post Mortem”), I put it to Cook that maybe getting people to ponder their mortality in a nonthreatening way wasn’t as much of a negative as terror management theory made it sound. Cook agreed with me in part and responded that thinking about death in a conscious way “can increase your appreciation for things” and “can be a great thing,” adding that there was thirty years of research to back this up. However, “there are different responses when we think about death consciously and unconsciously.”
Cook’s study looked more at the unconscious side of things. He did this by using two different experiments, both conducted with students at the College of Staten Island, which he told me was chosen in part due to the diverse makeup of its student population—but also because it has more older students enrolled than the eighteen- to twenty-two-year-olds typically found among undergraduates.
In the first experiment, comprising 236 students (172 female and 64 male, most of them Christian), participants were asked to write down “what you think will happen physically when you die” and then “describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you.” Then they were asked their feelings about either atheists or Quakers, including rating those groups’ trustworthiness.
The second experiment asked 174 students to either describe the emotions they felt toward their own death or “write down, as specifically as you can, what atheism means to you.” Then students completed a set of word fragments, which could be either read as neutral words (e.g., skill) or death-related words (e.g., skull).
What Cook’s experiments did was to move their participants beyond talking about death in the abstract and make it more salient. And according to terror-management theory, Cook says, when that happens “People start to care about people who buffer or support their worldview and you actually start to see increased derogation against people who believe differently about the world. So we have after-effects which we don’t know are there and we can’t tap into so much as individuals. So when suddenly your values matter more to you, that’s an unconscious thing; you’re not realizing that they matter more than they did a couple minutes ago.” Cook pointed out that this has been shown in other studies with other out-group targets.
Interestingly, he also revealed that atheists in his study weren’t immune to this: “We found the effect even if we included atheists in our study. Because as an atheist you have to confront that ‘Wait a minute, what is going to happen?’ So atheism increases thoughts of death even for atheists. We just didn’t have enough in our sample to include them as a separate group and test them. We analyzed them, and it didn’t change our results at all. So it’s not just the Christians. It’s something deeper than that.”
Clearly, the atheistic lack of belief in an afterlife is striking a nerve. Gary Laderman is professor of American religious history and cultures at Emory University and also the author of two books on death in America. When I told him about Cook’s results, he said that he wasn’t surprised by this finding, although he seemed to place it within a broader context of people questioning previous closely held religious beliefs about death: “The power of [religious] institutions and those traditional cultural authorities is really eroding in a lot of ways. People are more willing to accept a variety of different possibilities about death. But one thing that most people don’t want to confront is what we associate with atheism: the idea that there is nothing post-mortem. There is no transition to some other kind of life. So that’s what is interesting about the study. It’s digging beyond the obvious kind of theological debates to these more existential, basic ideas about human life.”
Another example of this erosion, said Laderman, is the decreasing opposition by many Christian groups in America to cremation, which they’ve now mostly accepted—with the notable exception of the Eastern Orthodox church. However, he said that people are now more likely than ever to bypass religion altogether and to look toward popular culture for guidance. “Cremation has radically changed the landscape. But whether that has changed attitudes toward the afterlife, that is a very good question.” He also pointed out that atheists aren’t monolithic and that a secular outlook leads many science-minded individuals to find the idea of a body going into nature in a green burial “if not transcendent, certainly appealing.”
Burial rituals aren’t the only area where Americans are reconsidering established religious notions. Ideas about how and when we die are also being challenged. Michelle Boorstein, religion reporter for the Washington Post, brings up the example of euthanasia: “I think as we have more conversation in our society about assisted suicide and the idea of people having some say over their own death. I think it just puts more public discussion about it out there. I mean, we don’t talk about [death] much anyway.” Boorstein believes it’s possible that maybe all of those things will work in favor of more acceptance of atheism. “As you look at the percentages of people who are more in favor of assisted suicide and that sort of thing, that would sort of challenge this idea that ‘only God can decide when I go.’ I think as you see people thinking more about what they want around end of life, and ask ‘why?,’ that will [positively] affect people’s attitudes towards atheists to the degree that they start to agree with them on these issues.”
What exists today in America is an interesting combination of several factors that all influence how we will view death as a society—likely for generations to come. We have people with no religious affiliation—the Nones—being the fastest-growing segment of the population and comprising a third of adults under thirty. To be clear, most of these Nones don’t identify as atheists, and many maintain supernatural beliefs, but what they don’t have is a religious affiliation that rigidly informs how they practice burial rituals. We have around two-thirds of the American public supporting physician-assisted aid in dying, with several states now enacting and debating legislation to legalize a practice that most religions oppose. We also have a continuous trend of Americans choosing cremation over burial, largely driven by a lack of religiosity.
However, as Cook’s study highlights, there is still a lot of stated and unstated opposition to the notion that death is the end. The afterlife appears to be something that most Americans still desire. In the face of this defensiveness on the part of the religious, how then should atheists of a different persuasion proceed? Cook’s recommendation in the conclusion of his study is for atheists to avoid “militant denunciation of theistic conceptions of reality” and to opt instead for “critical skepticism and civil disagreement” with the religious. I asked Cook how he reconciled his recommendation with the fact that in his study, even the most matter-of-fact mention of atheism seems to trigger this mortality salience in the minds of believers. His response was that “there’s not a lot of knowledge about ‘what an atheist is,’” and that therefore caution is warranted to decrease defensiveness.
Cook’s is just a single study. However, it is an indication that thinking about atheism causes people to imagine their own deaths in a way that is perhaps a bit less abstract than they are accustomed to. Being mindful of this is probably not a bad thing when discussing atheism or humanism.
A version of this article previously appeared on VICE.com on May 11, 2015.
Cook, Corey L., Florette Cohen, and Sheldon Solomon. 2015. “What If They’re Right About the Afterlife? Evidence of the Role of Existential Threat on Anti-Atheist Prejudice.” Social Psychological and Personality Science, April 27; accessed March 21, 2016.