Little Faith May Be a Dangerous Thing
Wellesley Psychologist Finds People Fear Death
Due to Religious Beliefs
August 23, 2005
Know God? No fear. No God? No fear. It’s the area between
these two extremes that has us worried.
College psychology professor Paul Wink has found religious belief
doesn’t necessarily ease fears about death. Those
who take their religious seriously have little fear of the great
beyond since they lead a god-centered life. Atheists also report
they are unafraid to die since they fear no retribution awaiting
them. However, people who believe in an afterlife, but don’t
often attend church—a large proportion of Americans, according
to Wink—are most afraid of dying.
“The moderately religious believe there is life after death,
but think they may not make it into heaven because they may not
be practicing their religion,” said Wink, who worked with
researcher Julia Scott on the findings, published in the Journal
you might think people turn to religion for comfort as they age,
found a surprising outcome there, too. “Our
data, which tracked the same people over many years, showed religiousness
increased significantly from age 50 to age 70,” he said.
However, religion takes a U-turn in midlife, declining in importance
for people in their 40s and 50s when, Wink says, career responsibilities
and the absence of young children at home may draw attention away
from religion. At retirement, people return to the level of religious
devotion they felt when they were younger. There’s no surge
of religious fervor as old age creeps in.
from a 60-year longitudinal study established by researchers
at the University
of California at Berkeley, Wink conducted his
own follow-up interviews with subjects who were youngsters when
first surveyed. Now in their late 60s and 70s, they have been interviewed
six times over the course of their lives on myriad social and psychological
topics. In making generalizations, the study sample has some limitations,
Wink admits: Most of these subjects are white, middle class and
Christian. However, the unusual six decade time span allows researchers
like Wink to gauge how people change (and don’t change) over
In addition to investigating fears about death, Wink asked other
questions in studies he has undertaken with University of New Hampshire
sociology professor Michele Dillon and researchers Britta Larsen
and Kristen Fay:
“Does religion make people happy?” In
a study published in the journal Research on Aging,
Wink found that by itself, the answer was no. But for people
who experienced hard times, religion
did serve as a buffer for life’s slings and arrows, including
poor health. And, the more religious a person is in early adulthood,
the better they will function as older adults, revealing a resilience
that religion may impart.
“Does spirituality encourage more self-absorption compared
to traditional religious moral values?” In a study published
in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Wink
focused on the debate about modern moral values. Many fear American
are declining—including altruism and giving to others—in
the face of the growing number of people who belong to no religious
denomination but who define themselves as spiritual.
a healthy level of self-interest among the spiritual, but nothing “pathologically narcissistic” about it.
In fact, spirituality is associated with a healthy form of self-interest “characterized
by personal autonomy and with concern for the welfare of future
generations,” he said.
Since 1875, Wellesley College has been a leader in providing an
excellent liberal-arts education for women who will make a difference
in the world. Its 500-acre campus near Boston is home to 2,300
undergraduate students from all 50 states and 68 countries. For
more information, go to www.wellesley.edu.