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Conscious, Unconscious Beliefs Diverge as Atheists Mull Death

Conscious and Unconscious Beliefs Diverge as Atheists Ponder DeathAs non-religious people contemplate their own death they become more consciously firm in their non-religious beliefs, but unconsciously more receptive to religious belief, according to new research at the University of Otago.

Furthermore, the findings show that when religious people ponder death, their religious beliefs seem to strengthen at both the conscious and unconscious levels. According to the researchers, these findings help explain why religion is such a constant element in human society.

In three studies, which involved 265 religious and non-religious university students, participants were randomly assigned to either the “death priming” group or a control group. The death priming group was asked to write about their own death while the control group wrote about watching TV.

Researchers discovered that death-primed religious participants consciously reported greater belief in religious entities than control religious participants. The death-primed non-religious group showed a similar effect: they consciously reported greater disbelief than the non-religious control group.

According to associate professor Jamin Halberstadt, study co-author, these results strengthen the theory that fear of death causes a person to defend his own beliefs, regardless of whether it is a religious or non-religious one.

“However, when we studied people’s unconscious beliefs in the two later experiments, a different picture emerged. While death-priming made religious participants more certain about the reality of religious entities, non-religious participants showed less confidence in their disbelief,” said Halberstadt.

To study unconscious beliefs, researchers measured the speed with which participants affirmed or denied the existence of God and other religious entities. After being primed with thoughts of dying, religious volunteers were faster to press a button to confirm the existence of God, while non-religious participants were slower to press a button denying God’s existence.

“These findings may help solve part of the puzzle of why religion is such a persistent and pervasive feature of society.

“Fear of death is a near-universal human experience and religious beliefs are suspected to play an important psychological role in warding off this anxiety. As we now show, these beliefs operate at both a conscious and unconscious level, allowing even avowed atheists to unconsciously take advantage of them.”

The findings will be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

SourceUniversity of Otago


Conscious, Unconscious Beliefs Diverge as Atheists Mull Death

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Conscious, Unconscious Beliefs Diverge as Atheists Mull Death. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 3 Apr 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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