Popular Belief In Supernatural Agents In The Face Of Death

Ara Norenzayan
Ara Norenzayan

What causes belief in supernatural agents such as God, ancestral spirits, Buddha, Kali, devils, angels, ghosts, and jinns? Counterintuitive person-like agents that partly exist outside of the ordinary natural world, and transcend death, deception, and illusion, are deeply affecting beliefs that are the cornerstone of religions and are pervasive all over the world.

Unfortunately, little is known about the psychological factors that give rise to them. Aside from their central role in religions, these beliefs arguably are the most salient feature distinguishing religion from secular culture. This article is therefore concerned with belief in supernatural agency rather than supernatural beliefs in general or immortality beliefs, although these phenomena are related. We examine one psychological motivation — whether the awareness of death encourages such beliefs.

Social theorists have speculated about the functional connection between existential concerns and religion. Ernest Becker, Emile Durkheim, Ludwig Feuerbach, Sigmund Freud, Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, and more recently Walter Burkert have observed the central role that death-related anxieties play in religious behaviour. Ethnographic reports support these observations. In many traditional cultures such as the Native American Cheyenne and the Ilahita Arapesh of Papua New Guinea, the naturally eruptive anxieties are purposely excited then assuaged. These initiation rituals that involve “rites of terror” arouse existential anxieties by culturally manipulating, then assuaging, seemingly uncontrollable situations that provoke them: risk of death from unidentifiable sources or sudden isolation and loss of hope. By relieving the ensuing distress, successful completion of the ritual performance, in turn, authenticates the belief in culturally sanctioned supernatural agents.

In psychology, the hypothesis linking religion with existential anxieties have received mixed support. In a classic study, Gordon Willard Allport and his colleagues found that among returning World War II frontline soldiers, fear of death was remembered along with heightened faith in God’s deliverance. This is the only experimental study known to us that attempted to manipulate mortality salience and then measure post manipulation religiosity yet it failed to show a significant effect, possibly because religiosity was assessed without a significant delay between the measure and the mortality salience manipulation or because the measure of religiosity used is an assessment of it as a quest for spiritual knowledge rather than a commitment to religion.

One religion-related inclination that mortality salience has been found to spur is the belief in an afterlife. Researchers M. Osarchuk and SJ Tatz found that exposure to a death threat led to more belief in the afterlife than exposure to a shock, threat or control did. This effect was found, however, only among prior believers in an afterlife. Corroborating this finding, Lani Florian and Mario Mikulincer found that religious modes of seeking immortality were positively related to the fear of bodily annihilation, although not with other fear of death factors. More recently, Dechesne et al. found that assurances of literal immortality diminished the impact of mortality awareness on self-esteem strivings and defence of values.

According to Terror Management Theory, cultural worldviews, along with the desire to live up to the standards of one’s culture (i.e., self-esteem), serve as a primary psychological buffer against the uniquely human awareness of death. If so, heightening such terror (mortality salience) should increase the need to bolster these worldviews. Consistent with this premise, people temporarily aware of death are more inclined to defend their cultural beliefs. Mortality salience may facilitate the enhancing of one’s own cultural beliefs directly, for example, by rewarding a hero who upholds cultural values. However, most Terror Management Theory studies examine derogation of alternative worldviews or beliefs and those who hold them because the existence of alternative worldviews is a fundamental threat to the validity of one’s own worldview. Typical manifestations of worldview defence under mortality salience include derogating a Jew by Christian participants and recommending harsher punishment for a prostitute.

Despite the large Terror Management Theory literature supporting the link between mortality salience and cultural worldview defence, little is known about the effect of mortality salience on supernatural beliefs. This may be because Terror Management Theory draws its inspiration from Ernest Becker, who writes, “Culture means that which is supernatural.” Therefore, Terror Management Theory researchers arguably are already directly addressing supernatural concerns. However, research has yet to explore arenas that most people would consider uncontroversially supernatural. Although since its inception Terror Management Theory has posited that religion (particularly belief in literal immortality) serves a defensive role against the terror of death, the vast bulk of Terror Management Theory research has focused on symbolic immortality, or aspects of culture that even secular people can get behind: nationalism, racism, and other forms of outgroup derogation.

Recently, the notion of literal immortality has been investigated in empirical Terror Management Theory research, indicating that it assuages terror of death enough to eliminate the effect of mortality salience on self-esteem concerns and defence of cultural values. The latter is a welcome study on the role of religious beliefs, such as immortality, in terror management processes. However, the important findings of Dechesne et al. are limited in two ways. First, belief in supernatural agents, as a core component of religions, was not examined. Although belief in immortality and belief in supernatural agents are intertwined and mutually reinforcing, they are conceptually distinct core beliefs. Few if any religions posit supernatural agents without an explicit or implicit promise of immortality. But immortality itself is rarely an object of religious worship; it is supernatural agents who are the central objects of devotion and even sacrifice. Second, although it is important to assess the mediating role of religious beliefs in terror management processes, the effect of mortality awareness on religious belief remains to be investigated.

In this research, we investigate directly the motivational substrates of the culturally widespread belief in the supernatural agency, a phenomenon that has received little attention in psychology. Moreover, we explore the question of whether affirmations of supernatural agents operate in a qualitatively different way than most of the documented cases of other-derogating worldview defense. We consider the possibility that in spite of robust findings that mortality salience spurs derogation of culturally different others, it may not be as likely to motivate derogation of culturally different supernatural agents; in fact, it may actually lead to more acceptance of them. As the guardians of an eternal, meaningful universe, all supernatural agents, culturally familiar or not, may offer death-aware people a direct way out of the existential quandary, perhaps with the subjective possibility of literal immortality, or perhaps with a greater subjective sense of safety, power, or purpose springing from these transcendental agents.

In brief, theorists have hypothesized a functional connection between the awareness of death and supernatural belief, and ethnographic reports encourage this hypothesis. However, as in most observational studies, ascertaining the direction of causality is difficult. Moreover, it is unclear from previous research whether awareness of death is associated with stronger religiosity only because religion is a form of cultural identification or because religion offers the belief in death-transcending supernatural agents. We tested the causal hypothesis that awareness of death intensifies belief in culturally familiar and unfamiliar supernatural agents.

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