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Fear of Death Makes People Into Believers (of Science) 434

Posted by Soulskill
from the Tesla,-hallowed-be-your-name dept.
sciencehabit writes "Nothing, some say, turns an atheist into a believer like the fear of death. 'There are no atheists in foxholes,' the saying goes. But a new study suggests that people in stressful situations don't always turn to a higher power. Sometimes, they turn to science. Both athletes preparing for a big race and students asked to write about their own death showed a 15% stronger belief in science than those under less stressful situations (abstract). 'In stressful situations people are likely to turn to whatever worldviews and beliefs are most meaningful to them,' says study co-author, Anna-Kaisa Newheiser, a psychologist at Yale University. And many people find the scientific worldview more compatible with their own."
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Fear of Death Makes People Into Believers (of Science)

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  • Science works (Score:5, Interesting)

    by MrEricSir (398214) on Friday June 07, 2013 @06:38PM (#43941555) Homepage

    There's nothing to "believe" in when it comes to science (it works either way) but if the fear of death makes people interested, that's great.

    After all, science has brought us not only longer lives, but more fulfilling, healthier lives with less suffering. If you're worried about death it's just sensible to turn to science.

    • by Trepidity (597)

      If you want to phrase it differently not using the word "believe": you need to trust that the scientific community is generally following a reliable method for gaining and improving knowledge.

      I don't think it's equivalent to religious faith, but I also don't think it's quite true that no degree of belief is necessary, because it is simply not possible for you, personally, to verify every bit of information you rely on when making use of scientific conclusions. Therefore you need to be able to trust that the

      • I said once that the best answer to the trap question "Do you believe in evolution?" is "I believe in evolution the same way I believe there is a city called Philadelphia." I've never been to Philadelphia; no, Mr. Ham, I wasn't there. But I've heard about Philadelphia, I've read about Philadelphia, I've seen pictures of Philadelphia, when driving in Baltimore I've seen road signs directing me to Philadelphia, and I've even known people who (claimed to have) lived in Philadelphia--all of which adds up to suf

    • by stms (1132653)

      There's an element of faith to science. It's not quite the same as religion but it's still there. Vsauce did a great video on "how do you know" just this week check it out [youtube.com].

    • by artor3 (1344997)

      Singularity, anyone? Some people absolutely treat science like a religion, complete with its own Rapture, in order to cope with fear of death.

  • GW (Score:4, Funny)

    by riverat1 (1048260) on Friday June 07, 2013 @06:41PM (#43941589)

    Hmm... I guess that means we just haven't been alarmist enough about global warming to bring the deniers over to the science side yet.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 07, 2013 @06:41PM (#43941595)

    I do this when I fly. I hate turbulence. As a professional scientist, when the plane starts bouncing, I think of 777 stress tests--how wings are flexed 30 feet at the end before they break, and how turbulence is jiggling us up and down on the 10ft level, when we're going forward hundreds of feet every second. There's a 747 cross-section/cutout in the British Transportation Museum that shows no metal stress after 30 years of service. Thinking of hard core science and its successes almost always calms me down.

    • I hate turbulence too. But I remind myself of how many flights leave my airport every day and reach their destination safely.

    • I find that weird. People seem to be often fond of adrenaline sports, and many adrenaline sports are more risky than flying in a turbulence. Why not simply lay back and enjoy it?
      • It's the psychological effect of feeling helpless. As a passenger, you have absolutely no control over what happens and can't even see what's in front of you. You're just at the mercy of the plane, mechanics and pilot. For the most part, participants in adrenaline sports are completely in control of what happens.

        I was on a flight last year and during take-off with a gusty crosswind our plane skidded to the side probably 20 feet. All of the passengers were bouncing around, and people were grabbing on to

  • I'd be interested to see(though am at a loss for how one could...ethically...arrange such a test) whether you see the same thing in mortality-salience scenarios where it is explicitly clear that science won't help here, or whether that leads to a sharp jump in enthusiasm for something else.

    Given the sheer scale of applied science's obvious successes(and, where applicable, the equally dramatic and unmistakable nature of its fuckups) it isn't a huge surprise that people would find some degree of belief in it almost inevitable. To do otherwise would be like trying to make it through a dinner party with the Hellenic pantheon without recourse to polytheism.

    However, there are plenty of things that(while fundamentally amenable to scientific investigation) the answers available so far are incomplete and/or very bad news. I'm inclined to wonder if, in the face of this sort of 'failure' by science, people would skew in some other direction. Anecdotally, the steady trickle of terminal cancer cases and other incurables to the wacky and sometimes gruesome world of alt-med suggests yes; but anecdotes are more emotionally compelling than actually informative.

    • by sconeu (64226)

      I'd be interested to see(though am at a loss for how one could...ethically...arrange such a test) whether you see the same thing in mortality-salience scenarios where it is explicitly clear that science won't help here

      You might be able to do so ethically with terminally ill patients.

  • Belief in science? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by c0lo (1497653) on Friday June 07, 2013 @06:45PM (#43941623)

    WTF? The base of science is doubting everything - if you can't falsify a hypothesis, that hypothesis is outside the area of science.

    Is this some insidious way to push towards the position that science and religion are both a matter of belief?

    • by ari_j (90255)
      Maybe the underlying point is that people, on average, rush to believe in something that they don't understand when they are under stress. For people who have rejected religious belief but do not understand science, it is natural that they would rush to "believe" in science. This is a well-understood phenomenon [wikipedia.org].
    • by femtobyte (710429) on Friday June 07, 2013 @06:53PM (#43941685)

      WTF? The base of science is doubting everything

      Not doubting everything; there are a few assumptions held --- though they may seem so "obvious" that you don't even realize making them. For example, the assumption that the universe is somewhat "repeatable" and amenable to mathematical and logical description: if an experiment about one thing in one circumstance can't tell you anything about other things in other circumstances, then science is entirely useless.

      • by c0lo (1497653)

        WTF? The base of science is doubting everything

        For example, the assumption that the universe is somewhat "repeatable" and amenable to mathematical and logical description: if an experiment about one thing in one circumstance can't tell you anything about other things in other circumstances, then science is entirely useless.

        Quite a strong position. Here's some food [wikipedia.org] for thought:

        G[eneral]R[elativity] predicts that gravitational waves travel at the speed of light. Many alternatives to GR say that gravitational waves travel faster than light. If true, this could result in failure of causality.

        • by femtobyte (710429)

          Note that I didn't specifically say "causality," only "repeatability." Causality is a particular method for embedding repeatability and logical order in the universe, that so far seems to hold up awfully well. Scientifically contemplating the potential for non-causal structures doesn't mean discarding the notion that, whatever these post-GR theories are, they still produce testable/repeatable behavior in the universe.

          • by c0lo (1497653)
            Agreed. +1 insightful for detecting/setting into evidence the relevant difference. Thanks.
    • WTF? The base of science is doubting everything - if you can't falsify a hypothesis, that hypothesis is outside the area of science.

      Is this some insidious way to push towards the position that science and religion are both a matter of belief?

      'Science' as a method and body of accrued knowledge isn't a matter of belief(which is why it has a long history of getting shit done while lesser epistemology waves its hands at uncertainty or contentedly chews its own cud); but an individual's relation to that body of knowledge is, necessarily, largely a belief test:

      Even a practicing scientist will have personally tested only a tiny area of the world, and read in any detail only a slightly larger one(at which point they are already trusting their colleague

      • by femtobyte (710429)

        'Science' as a method and body of accrued knowledge isn't a matter of belief(which is why it has a long history of getting shit done while lesser epistemology waves its hands at uncertainty or contentedly chews its own cud);

        The scientific method and accrued body of evidence do rely on some belief that the universe is reasonably repeatable/predictable; that it's worth some effort to, e.g., measure the orbits of planets and come up with mathematical laws describing them, because the planets won't suddenly switch from elliptical to square orbits, then turn into dancing giraffes, just to spite you. This belief continues to be born out by an ever-widening body of evidence, but technically it's still just a belief (with an impressiv

    • by Aguazul2 (2591049)

      Unless you are willing to re-do all the important scientific experiments ever done yourself, then you have to trust that other people did them correctly and reported them correctly, and also if their reasoning is beyond you, that their reasoning was valid. So from a personal perspective, it requires trust and belief in the work of others. Actually, it is this same trust and belief which means that average scientists generally won't discover new things in unexpected places (unless by accident), because scien

      • by c0lo (1497653)

        Unless you are willing to re-do all the important scientific experiments ever done yourself, then you have to trust that other people did them correctly and reported them correctly, and also if their reasoning is beyond you, that their reasoning was valid. So from a personal perspective, it requires trust and belief in the work of others.

        It requires trust, it does not require belief - there are two different things.

        E.g. - you won't believe in your government, but you may trust it if the rules of the game are lowering the probability for it to cheat, without repeating the whole exercise of government yourself

    • by Daetrin (576516)
      People can believe in anything, whether it's true or not. I believe if i drop something it will fall. I believe if i go to the local store i will be able to trade money for goods. I believe that the scientific method when followed with rigor produces reasonably accurate and occasionally very useful results.

      Some people may believe in science on more of a "faith" basis, not understanding the process but accepting it based on results. Some people believe in religion because of faith. Some people believe in r
  • Slowly but surely we slump along towards real progress with the human condition...

    Although as a skeptic I do not take leaps of faith, and would like to see more than one study done. This is not an announcement of a fact, it is an announcement of the findings of a study.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 07, 2013 @06:49PM (#43941653)

    I usually phrase it more diplomatically, but often people assume atheism is some sort of conscious cop-out to avoid all the hard morality that supposedly stems from religion. If the opening for discussion presents itself, I always soft-sell atheism on a negative note. Atheism offers shit for consolation on the issue of death. Friends, loved ones, family, parents, children, all of them are just gonna die and turn to dirt. That is a real shit sandwich atheism gives you right there, and there's a lot more where that came from. In this way I can steer the conversation in the direction of "People aren't atheists because they prefer not having to deal with religion, but just because they think it's the truth."

    Frankly if I thought the idea of a sky-fairy running a magical kingdom keeping us all immortal forever was even remotely plausible, I'd convert yesterday. But, frankly, it ISN'T even remotely plausible, which is why I'm an atheist. Clearly some of the people in this article made the jump. Good for them. They get some consolation in their time of grief. Being right is overrated.

  • foxholes (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Black Parrot (19622) on Friday June 07, 2013 @07:01PM (#43941741)

    There are no atheists in foxholes,' the saying goes.

    And it's a fucking stupid thing to say: The mere fact that they're in a foxhole shows that they're putting their faith in boring old non-supernatural dirt to save them, not in their god(s).

    • Re:foxholes (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Waffle Iron (339739) on Friday June 07, 2013 @08:19PM (#43942381)

      I always thought that was a stupid analogy anyway. There are also no unsoiled underpants in foxholes. But very few people think that means we should all go around shitting our pants on a regular basis.

      Living by what your brain spews out under severe overstress doesn't make much sense. It's like using results from your computer that it calculated while you were zapping the motherboard with a Tesla coil.

  • Who fears death? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward
    You know, I always wondered when I watched one of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies why they had Davy Jones (the wet one, not the Monkey) ask, "Do you fear death?". I mean, why the heck would I fear death? That just isn't something I would worry about. Now, I greatly fear suffering, paralysis, and things like that. Enough that I don't want to engage in dangerous things like base jumping. Not because I fear ceasing to exist. Because I fear I would still exist, but be paralyzed or in great pain for the re
  • by roca (43122) on Friday June 07, 2013 @07:09PM (#43941821) Homepage

    The abstract and the commentary imply the canard that faith in science and faith in religion must be at odds. This isn't the case in theory or practice. There is no philosophical incompatibility in believing that science and God both work, or even that God works through science. And in practice, most religious believers exhibit plenty of faith that science works and are comfortable with it.

    • by Khomar (529552)

      Absolutely. Actually, I believe that science works through God in that it is God who established and maintains the physical laws that we see. After all, where did they come from, and what keeps them running? So my faith in science is rooted in my faith in God and His faithfulness to keep the natural world around me running just like He did yesterday and the day before, etc. Science is therefore the study of God's faithfulness. He is so reliable that we can create formulas based upon it.

      • by Jorgensen (313325)

        He is so reliable that we can create formulas based upon it

        The formulas do not demonstrate the presense of any deities. They show the relationship between cause and effect; not a sign of a divine intelligence, love, hate, desire to be worshipped or any other attributes generally associated with deities. Basing a belief in a deity upon the laws of the universe as we understand them is non-sensical. So you need some other basis for bringing a deity into the picture.

        If you argue that a deity created the uni

    • It depends. Theism in general is not incompatible, but plenty of particulars from this religion or the other are not compatible with scientific knowledge and/or logic. So they are not complete opposites, but they are not orthogonal either. Hence much of the confusion.
    • The reality is that they are at odds in practice, especially in the United States. Otherwise we would not be in a circumstance where the majority of Americans disbelieve in one the of central scientific theories of our day. [huffingtonpost.com]This state of affairs is directly attributable to the dominant religion and the anti-scientific mindset it must engender in order to survive in its current form.

      But your comment has a troubling confusion embedded which might explain why you don't see the conflict. Religious believers n
  • Then they'll go with a higher power. Seen it happen a lot in my job. They go with whatever is working best for them.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 07, 2013 @07:17PM (#43941903)

    So there is this process we use to help make predictions. Its called "science". It helps us form predictions that correlate with reality. Some people "believe" in it, I just use it. When I need to hammer in a nail, I use a tool: a hammer. When I need to make a prediction which I would like to correlate with reality, I use a tool: science.

    Science is a tool: it helps you do specific kinds of things. It is useful.

    This reminds me of my "creationism is useless" argument. Evolution helps you make predictions which correlate with reality. Its part of the science tool, and its very useful. Creationism does not help you make predictions that correlate with reality. Thus, its not useful in the scientific respect. Even if its true, its not science, so it should be taught in the department that covers that kind of thing (history) it you teach it at all. On the other side, evolution, even if incorrect, is useful science, and thus belongs in science classes.

    We didn't stop teaching Newtonian mechanics because relative proved it wrong. They still make useful predictions that correlate with reality. Its still science, and we should still teach it, even-though we know its wrong.

    Why does no one make that point? Maybe because they don't know what science is? (It would really suck to not to have science in my toolbox!)

    • (It would really suck to not to have science in my toolbox!)

      I leant my science to my brother when he needed to fix his supercollider. Jerk still hasn't given it back.

  • by drrilll (2593537) on Friday June 07, 2013 @07:33PM (#43942033)
    Seriously. I believe I have heard every single argument from either side about a thousand times, and that was just this morning. Agree to disagree already. Maybe find another hobby that isn't a complete waste of time. If I did happen to have an interest in someone's belief one way or the other, I would ask about it.
  • by Slashdot Parent (995749) on Saturday June 08, 2013 @12:59AM (#43944017)

    When my wife was fighting cancer, it got to the point that we were told by her doctors that she would die of it. Not an unreasonable conclusion, as she had a very aggressive cancer, and we had tried all of the standard treatments.

    Faced with that situation, we found that we placed more faith both in science and religion, simultaneously. We went all over the country to see the best experts in her particular cancer, and we also accepted prayers from all religions, all denominations. Obviously we focused the lion's share of our energies on her treatment (science), but we did not neglect the spiritual.

    A funny thing happened. We traveled to see a one expert, a delightful old fellow who happened to be of our same religion. He took a particular interest in her case, and wound up unearthing a many-decades-old study that showed success in treating women in a similar position to my wife. Ultimately, it did wind up working for my wife, and she survived.

    So, in summary, we threw our faith at anything we could find, science and religion. Was there some intervention that placed the idea in this doctor's head to search such old studies? Well, how the hell should I know? All I know is that she alive in the next room instead of dead in a cemetery, so I'm happy. I wouldn't change a thing.

  • by Evtim (1022085) on Saturday June 08, 2013 @02:50AM (#43944337)

    When the going gets difficult, it is not a time for nonsense. That is not surprising at all.

    From "Plato and platypus walk into a bar" - One day a man fell into a well. While falling he managed to grasp a root and hanged precariously over the abyss. "Is there anybody out there" - shouts the man desperately. No reply for a while and suddenly a big voice booms from above "It is me, the Lord. Let go of the root and I will save you". The man thinks a little and shouts "Is there anyone else out there?".

    From "Miracle in the Andes" (the famous true story, also shown in the movie "Alive") - in the beginning of the ordeal, the captain of the team (one of the most devoted believers, although all of them were in principle believers, or they were supposed to be) shows real leadership and courage. However, he firmly believes that God will save them and does with such conviction that once they hear on the radio that the search for them is cancelled suddenly the man collapsed completely. 3 people from the team are described as being shaky in their believes. One dies (fascinating conversations with this man can be found in the book) and the other two (one is the author of the book, Nando Parado) save them all. The two least believers did not loose the desire to try something and at the end they found a way to save them all. Read the whole thing - I am not good enough to describe it to you.

    Third example - there is a countryman of mine, who is almost 40 years in the space and aviation industry of USA. He has a collection of 200+ stories on social , economic and military themes he experienced (just a few) or collected (the rest) from other people. Alas, all is in my native tongue which is perhaps understood by ca. 100 /. readers at best. Anyhow, he has a fascinating story about a Vietnam veteran who was serving on a medical helicopter. When he was recruited for this specific job towards the end of the training, the major who was looking for people to do this job told him that he always looked for cynical, realistic people, preferably non-believers. Everyone else cracks on the job. Because it is such a horrific a job and more dangerous than being active soldier people who held any kind of delusions would not survive it. Reading the rest of the story shows that the recruiting major has nailed it in the center...

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