A study from Religion, Brain & Behavior found those who consistently doubt religious belief display low self-esteem when reminded of death.
The study focused on “quest-oriented” people, who question their own religious beliefs and doubt they will find definitive answers, in the context of terror management theory. Study author Robert B. Arrowood of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga said that the intent of the research was to determine how awareness of one’s own mortality affected the motivations and mental well-being of quest-oriented people. (RELATED: SCIENCE: Your Pious Hypocrisy Is Gonna Make Your Kid An Atheist)
“Although terror management theory (TMT) has long been interested in the role of religiosity in managing existential anxieties, quest-oriented persons have been largely ignored,” Arrowood told PsyPost.
Arrowood explained that while solid systems of religious beliefs or worldviews reinforce faith in those who adhere to them, quest orientation, or consistent doubting and adherence to the idea that there are no definitive answers, reinforces uncertainty.
“Whereas Christian participants increase their belief in supernatural agents (e.g., God, Jesus) and an afterlife when death concerns are salient, quest persons internalize a state of openness and uncertainty in their worldviews. In other words, these individuals become more certain in their uncertainty,” he said.
Researchers randomly assigned 95 undergraduate students to write about dental pain or their own deaths. Slightly more than half of the participants identified as Christian and almost a quarter of the participants identified as non-religious, atheistic or agnostic. Researchers controlled for participants’ religious identification.
Those who scored higher in quest religiosity displayed lower self-esteem than those who identified as solidly religious after writing about their own deaths. Those who wrote about dental pain, however, displayed little difference in self-esteem regardless of religious orientation. Arrowood said his study demonstrates the fact that differences in individuals’ religious beliefs can affect how they respond to extrinsic stimuli, which can affect their mental well-being.
“For example, my colleagues and I have found that high quest persons are less effective in managing existential concerns, leading to poorer mental health outcomes. It seems important to be aware of these potential pitfalls,” he said.
Arrowood said the study has only scratched the surface of understanding what causes people with quest religiosity to experience lower well-being in general and after considering mortality than those with confident religiosity.
“Death is a powerful motivator of everyday life. Although we often do not recognize its influence, much of our behaviors, beliefs, and cognitions stem from an implicit need to deny the inevitability of mortality. In following up this study, we are beginning to understand the role of doubts to achieve a degree of symbolic immortality,” he added.
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