May 23rd 2020

How non-religious worldviews provide solace in times of crisis

 

The saying “There are no atheists in foxholes” suggests that in stressful times people inevitably turn to God (or indeed gods). In fact, non-believers have their own set of secular worldviews which can provide them with solace in difficult times, just as religious beliefs do for the spiritually-minded.

The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals.

The number of non-believers is growing, with at least 450-500 million declared atheists worldwide – about 7% of the global adult population. But since non-believers can include not just atheists but also agnostics and so-called “nones” – the religiously unaffiliated, who might tick “no religion” in surveys – this number is likely to be much bigger. Here, we use non-believers to refer to individuals who do not believe in God, and who do not consider themselves religious.

Rationalising the fear of death

The idea that beliefs or worldviews support us in difficult times is the foundation of Terror Management Theory. This holds we fear death because we are consciously aware of the future and therefore our own inevitable demise. This fear can be so great that it can paralyse us when we try to live our everyday lives.

But we can manage this fear – through belief in God and the afterlife, for example, but equally through the knowledge that death is natural. Knowing that one day we will die, worldviews reinforce our beliefs and the identities that we build around them, and can provide comfort – by providing us with so-called symbolic immortality, for example, or feelings of connectedness to something bigger than ourselves. Here, it is the meaningfulness of the belief rather than its (religious) content that is important: among non-believers, increased stress and reminders of one’s mortality are associated with an increased belief in science.

 

Secular beliefs worldwide

With a team of international collaborators, I designed an online survey to ask non-believers about the worldviews, beliefs or understandings of the world that are particularly meaningful to them. We gathered 1,000 responses from people from the UK, US, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Turkey, Brazil, Canada and Australia.

We found that across these ten countries, the six most common beliefs and worldviews were those based on science, humanism (or belief in humanity and human ability), critical thinking and scepticism (including rationalism), being kind and caring for one another, and beliefs in equality and natural laws (including evolution).

This overlap was striking. Despite huge geographical and cultural differences, we found these categories came up over and over again. Frequently mentioned worldviews included statements like: “I believe in the scientific method and the ethical values of humanism. I reject all beliefs that are not evidence based”, and “We have one life. We have this one opportunity to enjoy our brief moment in the sun, while doing the most good we can to help our fellow creatures and protect the natural environment for future generations.”

But we also found variation. While responses from countries such as the Netherlands and Finland focused particularly on caring for the Earth, responses from countries such as the US and Australia focused on the general improvement of human well-being.

Supportive worldviews

We also asked non-believers to think of challenging times in their lives: when someone close to them passed away; when they or someone close to them had a serious injury (an accident) or discovered they had a serious physical illness; when they felt particularly alone or disconnected from others; and when they felt particularly down or depressed.

Asked to recall whether any of their worldviews were helpful at the time, we found that what helped most often were worldviews based on science, detachment and acceptance. These included beliefs in the naturalness of death, the randomness of life, humanism, free will and taking responsibility. For example, people suggested knowing “that family members live on in their descendants, through personality traits and memories” helps when dealing with a bereavement, while enduring an illness “was just randomness. Stuff like that happens.”

Beliefs about the nature of life and death helped many, including the view that “suffering and isolation are universal experiences”, and that these states will pass: “Things change, and this situation isn’t always going to be like this.” Many indicated that a humanistic worldview was highly important to them, valuing “my relationships with those close to me, and understanding that life can be all too short so we must value the one life that we know we have.”

How atheists cope

But how do these worldviews help in times of crisis? Most frequently, the respondents said they helped cope with the situation, reduced anxiety, created an increased feeling of control and sense of order, and explained or gave meaning to the situation.

Many participants indicated that understanding a difficult situation proved paramount to accepting it and coping with it. One said that “understanding the process of loss and moving on via understanding psychology helps”. Others stated that “my belief in science explained what was happening and I also trusted in modern medicine that we could overcome it”, or that it helped to consider that “depression [is] a condition that responds to time and care”.

What this research suggests is that worldviews and beliefs, whether religious or secular, can provide comfort and meaning in even the very toughest situations.

 

Valerie van Mulukom, Cognitive Scientist, Coventry University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Sep 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Over his incredible career, David Attenborough has seen more of earth’s natural wonders than almost anyone. To hear him talk, with such clarity, about how bad things are getting is deeply moving. Scientists have recently demonstrated what would be needed to bend the curve on biodiversity loss. As Attenborough says in the final scene, “What happens next, is up to every one of us”. "
Sep 15th 2020
EXTRACTS: "The Anglo-Australian multinational company Rio Tinto – the largest iron ore mining company in the world – demolished two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters in May.......The Dampier Archipelago of Western Australia is home to thousands of Aboriginal pictographs, and perhaps the oldest surviving rock art in the world. Indeed, Australia’s Indigenous art represents the longest uninterrupted tradition of art in the world – going back over 50,000 years......Aboriginal people represent the oldest continuous culture in the world...."
Sep 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution was a defining event that changed how we think about the relationship between religion and modernity. Ayatollah Khomeini’s mass mobilisation of Islam showed that modernisation by no means implies a linear process of religious decline.....Reliable large-scale data on Iranians’ post-revolutionary religious beliefs, however, has always been lacking...........In June 2020, our research institute, the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN...conducted an online survey......The results verify Iranian society’s unprecedented secularisation."
Sep 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Just as you can upgrade your old computer’s operating system, culture can evolve even if intelligence doesn’t. Humans in ancient times lacked smartphones and spaceflight, but we know from studying philosophers such as Buddha and Aristotle that they were just as clever. Our brains didn’t change, our culture did."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Our lab in Cambridge, England, is working with a promising new family of materials known as halide perovskites. They are semiconductors, conducting charges when stimulated with light. Perovskite inks are deposited onto glass or plastic to make extremely thin films – around one hundredth of the width of a human hair – made up of metal, halide and organic ions. When sandwiched between electrode contacts, these films make solar cell or LED devices."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Bryant, a black man, was sentenced to life in prison for trying to steal hedge clippers from a Louisiana carport storage room in 1997. He has already served twenty-three years for this petty crime, and on 31 July the Louisiana Supreme Court denied a request to review his life sentence. The denial followed a lower appeals court’s 2019 decision that concluded “his life sentence is final.” The only judge on the Louisiana Supreme Court to dissent (or even issue an opinion) was Chief Justice Bernette Johnson. She wrote a stinging rebuke, observing that Bryant’s “life sentence for a failed attempt to steal a set of hedge clippers is grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose.” "
Aug 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2016, the Brennan Center for Justice reported that as high as 40 percent of prisoners should not be in prison—”behind bars with no compelling public safety reason.” There are literally thousands of young prisoners, Black and white, who are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for non-violent offences. It is unfathomable that we as a society are spending billions of dollars every year to sustain such pointless cruelty, to inflict needless pain on individuals, fathers and mothers, who pose no threat at all to the public."
Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Remember, your wellbeing is extremely important when supporting someone with depression. Take time for self-care so you can model positive behaviours and be replenished enough to provide this crucial support."
Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."
Jun 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called."
Jun 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "People differ substantially in how much they’re affected by experiences in their lives. Some people seem to be more affected by daily stress, or the loss of someone close to them. On the other hand, some people seem to get through the same experiences relatively unscathed. Similarly, some people benefit strongly from counselling, or having a support system of close family and friends. Others seem better able to manage on their own. But understanding why some people are more sensitive than others isn’t just a question of how they were raised, and the experiences they’ve been through. In fact, previous research has found that some people in general seem more sensitive to what they experience – and some are generally less sensitive."
Jun 7th 2020
EXTRACT: " The root causes of anthropogenic climate change – which has led to the endangering of countless species across the globe – cannot be adequately grasped in isolation from the technological application of modern science. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was certainly justified in calling upon American legislators to “unite behind the science,” neither can we overlook the culpability of science in bringing about the environmental crisis. "
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."