Terror Management and Religious Fundamentalism

The other day, I talked about terror management theory (TMT) and modern art. That probably wasn't the best way to introduce TMT, because it's a bit of a stretch to turn TMT into an aesthetic theory. Instead, I should have started by looking at some studies on TMT and cultural values and beliefs, because that's where TMT got its start. Recall that TMT says, in essence, that in order to avoid the fear that comes with thoughts of our own mortality, we erect and cling to belief and value systems. Thus, when we encounter things that make us thing about death, we cling all the more tightly to those systems. An obvious domain in which to test TMT, then, is religion, and just so happens that a paper on the TMT and religion is in press at
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, and became available on their web site last Friday, providing a nice vehicle to (re)introduce TMT.

Religion as a means to assuage existential anxiety is certainly not an idea that's new to TMT (a note to all you Freud-haters: here's another area where Freud is still alive), and taken alone, it's a pretty simplistic approach to the social and cognitive motivations for religion. That's probably why every bitter, 17-year old atheist has asserted that it's the reason why people are religious. Still, religion does seem to help people cope with the idea of their own mortality (you know, what with that whole afterlife thing), so researchers studying religious cognition have recently begun to incorporate this into their theories of religion (e.g., in Scott Atran's theory, which I discussed way back when). TMT researchers have also found that thinking about death makes us believe more strongly in supernatural agents1. So, an interesting way to test TMT, and look at its role in religion, would be to see what happens when people who cling to religious beliefs pretty tightly all of the time, like say, Christian fundamentalists, react when their religious beliefs are challenged.

TMT predicts that when someone puts a chink in their religious armor, thoughts of death will become more salient.
In the JESP paper, Mark Friedman and Steven Rholes present a study that tests this prediction. In the study, they had participants take a battery of tests designed to measure their religiosity and self-esteem, including the Religious Fundamentalism Scale, the Religious Orientation Scale, the Quest Scale (which "assesses the extent to which individuals are constantly seeking religious truth in their lives," p. 3), and a self-esteem scale. Below is Table 1 (p. 3) from the paper, which contains some sample questions from each scale (the intrinsic and extrinsic religiosity questions are from the Religious Orientation Scale).


Next, half of the participants read the accounts of Jesus' resurrection from all four gospels (NRSV), which are in some ways inconsistent with each other. One half of these participants (1/4 of all participants) were then asked whether there are any inconsistencies in the Bible, after which they read an account of inconsistencies in the Bible. They were then asked to indicate again whether they thought there were any inconsistencies in the Bible, and if so, why these inconsistencies existed. This condition was designed to make Biblical inconsistencies salient, thus challenging fundamentalist beliefs about Biblical inerrancy. The other half of these participants only read the gospel accounts, and were not presented with any inconsistencies. A third group of participants read random Bible passages unrelated to the resurrection, and a fourth group read four different passages about a trip to a library. Finally, all participants were given a word-stem completion task in which parts of words were presented (e.g., bi_ _ _), and participants had to fill in the rest. The test included 26 word stems, eight of which could be completed with death-related words. This task was designed to assess the salience of death-related thoughts.

For the analysis, participants were divided into "low fundamentalists" and "high fundamentalists" based on their scores on the religiosity scales. The prediction, you will recall, is that fundamentalists ("high fundamentalists," in this case) will be more likely to think of death when presented with challenges to their beliefs than non-fundamentalists ("low fundamentalists"). Thus, in this study, high fundamentalists who read the account of inconsistencies in the Bible should complete more of the word stems with death-related words than either low fundamentalists, or high fundamentalists who didn't read about contradictions in the Bible. That's what Friedman and Rholes found. In the three conditions that didn't involve reading about Biblical inconsistencies, participants were about as likely to complete the word stems with death-related words regardless of whether they were low or high fundamentalists, but in the inconsistency condition, high fundamentalist participants were much more likely to complete the stems with death-related words than any other participants in any other condition. Strangely, the participants who were least likely to complete the stems with death-related words were the low fundamentalist participants who had read the passage about Biblical contradictions. Finally, for high fundamentalists, whether they were more likely to complete the stems with death-related words after reading about Biblical contradictions depended on whether they changed their minds about their being contradictions in the Bible. Only participants who initially answered that there were none, but after reading about the contradictions, answered that such contradictions did exist, completed more word stems with death-related words.

In summary, then, when fundamentalists had their beliefs in Biblical inerrancy successfully challenged (i.e., they were presented with Biblical contradictions, and thus changed their minds about the existence of such contradictions), thoughts of death became more salient for them. So it does appear that religious beliefs, for fundamentalists at least, serve to minimize existential anxiety. These are preliminary results, of course, but the potential implications could be quite serious. Back in March, I talked about barriers to teaching evolution (and other scientific ideas that are seen as a threat to religion by fundamentalists). I discussed research showing that when cherished beliefs are challenged or contradicted, people get defensive, because they feel that those beliefs are being devalued. That makes teaching them about evolution more difficult. If TMT is correct about the role of religious beliefs in minimizing existential anxiety, and the results of these study hold up, then the situation is even worse than that. Fundamentalists will be even more resistant to any challenges to their beliefs, because they're not just protecting their beliefs, but are also protecting themselves from the very unpleasant fears of death that those beliefs diminish.

1Norenzayan, A., & Hansen, I. G. (2006). Belief in supernatural agents in the face of death. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 174-187.
2Friedman, M., & Rholes, W.S. (In Press). Successfully challenging fundamentalist beliefs results in increased death awareness. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

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While fear of death may play some role, I think fear of self-ostrification is more prominent. Doubting one's religious beliefs also means seperating oneself from your religious peer group. This is especially true for fundamentalist people who tend to surround themselves with all things religious and often only have friends who are of the same faith. For fundimentalist types this basically means that if they loose their faith they also loose their friends (and sometimes family).

Breaking rank from one's chosen group instills negative emotions in most people. As a result, most people react to this fear/sadness/etc in the opposite manner by promoting the ideas of their group while ignoring reason (eg. evolution).

Chris, if we include with 'fear of death', 'fear of Daddy' and 'fear of Drill Sergeant', you explain in these TMT posts my experience that successful rational arguments are far more likely to provoke physical violence than either unsuccessful or (loosely) not-reasonable arguments.

What have these folks done to distinguish between "when fundamentalists' beliefs in the Bible are successfully challenged, they are more likely to complete word stems with death related words" and the more general "when people are under stress, they are more likely to complete word stems with aversion-related words"?

The second seems just as likely to me, and should be fairly easy to check.

Thanks very much for blogging about our study. I'm very pleased to see that people are reading it, and finding it interesting.

For your readers who are interested in checking out the article, they can download a copy of it on my website under the "publications" section:


As for the issue of low fundamentalists who read the passage about Biblical contradictions having the lowest death-thought accessibility, we believe that these participants (who were all Christians) had the opportunity to _reinforce_ their beliefs while carefully considering the biblical passages. For these low fundamentalist participants, the inconsistencies were likely not problematic and thus did not challenge their beliefs about the Bible. Consequently, contemplating these passages might have served to bolster their religious beliefs (e.g. by contemplating the resurrection and its meaning for them as Christians), and thus increased protection against death-related concerns (reducing total death awareness).

Your point about teaching evolution to fundamentalists is well-taken. From a strict terror management point of view, any time a person's deeply held beliefs are challenged, existential anxiety is provoked. Strong challenging arguments about any such deeply cherished beliefs (for example, political beliefs among very partisan individuals) should have the same consequences in terms of increasing awareness of death.

By Mike Friedman (not verified) on 07 Nov 2006 #permalink

Thanks for commenting, Dr. Friedman. Are there any studies that look directly at how people respond to the challenging of their political beliefs from a terror management perspective?