Believers In Life After Death Cling To Life

Posted by on March 25th, 2009

Polls suggest that 95 percent of the population of the United States believe they will survive their own death. I can’t help wondering how many people who claim such belief really, in their heart of hearts, hold it. If they were truly sincere, shouldn’t they all behave like the Abbot of Ampleforth? When Cardinal Basil Hume told him that he was dying, the abbot was delighted for him: ‘Congratulations! That’s brilliant news. I wish I was coming with you.’ The abbot, it seems, really was a sincere believer. But it is precisely because it is so rare and unexpected that his story catches out attention….wouldn’t you expect that religious people would be the least likely to cling unbecomingly to earthly life?

-From “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins

A study published last week in The Journal of the American Medical Association might shed some light on Dawkins’ question. The Study is called ‘Religious Coping and Use of Intensive Life-Prolonging Care Near Death in Patients With Advanced Cancer’. Researchers interviewed hundreds of patients with advanced stages of cancer at Hospitals and Cancer Centers around the US. The results are quite interesting. According to a livescience article about the study:

The patients identified as positive religious copers — those who relied on faith to handle death and other trying times — were almost three times as likely to seek and receive life-prolonging care such as ventilators.

These religious copers were also less likely to have completed advance medical directives, such as living wills or do-not-resuscitate orders that would limit the potential intervention near the end.

It seems there is a positive correlation between faith and postponing one’s own demise in times of desperation. We are going to put forward a couple of possible hypotheses as to why this is:

1. Desperate people, fearing their own demise, are more likely to exhaust as many options as possible to prevent their death (ex: near death intensive medical intervention).

The same people, because of their desperation, are also more likely to seek out and use coping strategies, like faith, for comfort in the face of their own mortality. What is humanity’s most popular coping strategy for the dying? Religion.

People who have accepted their mortality and have resolved to die gracefully are less likely to seek last minute medical intervention and are less likely to need or seek coping strategies. The more one fears death, the more likely one is to use religion for comfort when facing it.

2. Faith has been shown to be an effective coping strategy because it can give people hope, comfort and a positive, optimistic outlook. Hopeful, comforted, optimistic people are more likely to put up a fight to survive than people who have given up hope and are waiting to die.

More research would be needed to verify either of these hypotheses or to falsify them both, but the study does draw a compelling correlation and we like to speculate.

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