Testing the causal relationship between religious belief and death anxiety

Joshua Conrad Jackson, Jonathan Jong, Matthias Bluemke, Phoebe Poulter, Leila Morgenroth, Jamin Halberstadt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Citations (Scopus)
196 Downloads (Pure)


Religion has long been speculated to function as a strategy to ameliorate our fear of death. Terror Management Theory provides two possible causal pathways through which religious beliefs can fulfill this function. According to the “worldview defense” account of terror management, worldviews reduce death anxiety by offering symbolic immortality: on this view, only people who accept the religious worldview in question should benefit from religious beliefs. Alternatively, religious worldviews also offer literal immortality, and may do so independently of individuals’ worldviews. Both strands of thought appear in the Terror Management Theory literature. In this paper, we attempt to resolve this issue experimentally by manipulating religious belief and measuring explicit (Study 1) and implicit (Study 2) death anxiety. In Study 1, we found that the effect of religious belief on explicit death anxiety depends critically on participants’ own religious worldview, such that believers and non-believers reported greater death anxiety when their worldview is threatened. In Study 2, however, we find that religious belief alleviates implicit death anxiety amongst both believers and non-believers. These findings suggest that religious beliefs can alleviate death anxiety at two different levels, by offering symbolic and literal immortality respectively.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)(in press)
Number of pages12
JournalReligion, Brain & Behavior
Volume(in press)
Publication statusPublished - 16 Mar 2017


  • death anxiety
  • implicit measures
  • Terror management theory
  • unconscious emotion

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology


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