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Belief in Intelligent Design Allays Fears of Death

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Fear of death has long been considered a basic reason why people choose irrationally to believe in God rather than face up to the reality of mortality. God will save Christians from death merely because they are Christians, or so many of them believe, following S Paul’s distortions of Jewish Christianity. Even so, most are not so convinced of the certainty of the afterlife to want to test it personally ahead of their alloted time, and anxiety about it remains. Attendance at church and mass seems to increase once people are old and conscious of their impending death.

Researchers, University of British Columbia psychology professor, Jessica Tracy, Union College (Schenectady, NY) psychology professor, Joshua Hart, and UBC psychology PhD student Jason Martens, have now shown that people support theories of intelligent design and reject evolutionary theory because of their anxiety about death. The paper is the first to examine the implicit psychological motives that underpin one of the most heated debates in North America. Although so called intelligent design theory is not science, 25 percent of high school biology teachers in the US unconstitutionally spend class time on intelligent design. Most get away with it without reprimand, but very occasionally they are diciplined. Even in Canada, often thought to be sensible by comparison with the USA, Alberta passed a law in 2009 for parents to remove children from courses covering evolution.

The research showed that death anxiety also inclined people towards Michael Behe, intelligent design’s main proponent, and against British evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, perhaps the best known proponent of evolution. Professor Dawkins, like all but a handful of the myriads of scientists in the world, argues that the origins of species are best explained by Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Intelligent design advocates like Professor Behe, a US author and biochemist, say that some biochemical and cellular structures are too complex to be explained by evolutionary mechanisms and should be attributed to a supernatural creator. It is a “God of the Gaps” argument—the Christian idea that what science has not explained must be an act of God. Repeatedly it has been shown to be false, and such a prominent Christian as the professor of theoretical chemistry, professor C A Coulson warned against it, as disastrous for Christianity because every scientific explanation of a Gap filled by God, erodes God and belief in Him further. Jessica Tracy, leading author of the paper, says:

Our results suggest that when confronted with existential concerns, people respond by searching for a sense of meaning and purpose in life. For many, it appears that evolutionary theory doesn’t offer enough of a compelling answer to deal with these big questions.

The researchers carried out five studies with 1,674 US and Canadian participants of different ages and a broad range of educational, socioeconomic and religious backgrounds. In each study, participants were asked to imagine their own death and write about their subsequent thoughts and feelings, or they were assigned to a control condition—imagining dental pain and writing about that. The participants were then asked to read two similarly styled, 174 word excerpts from the writings of Behe and Dawkins, which make no mention of religion or belief, but describe the scientific and empirical support for their respective positions.

After going through these steps, participants who imagined their own death showed greater support for intelligent design and greater liking for Behe, or a rejection of evolution theory coupled with disliking for Dawkins, compared to participants in the control condition.

However, the research team saw reversed effects during the fourth study which had a new condition. Along with writings by Behe and Dawkins, there was an additional passage by Carl Sagan. A cosmologist and science writer, Sagan argues that naturalism—the scientific approach that underlies evolution, but not intelligent design—can also provide a sense of meaning. In response, these participants showed reduced belief in intelligent design after being reminded of their own mortality. Tracy says:

These findings suggest that individuals can come to see evolution as a meaningful solution to existential concerns, but may need to be explicitly taught that taking a naturalistic approach to understanding life can be highly meaningful.

Similar results emerged in the fifth study, carried out entirely with natural science students at graduate and undergraduate levels. After thinking about death, these participants also showed greater support for the theory of evolution and liking of Dawkins, compared to control participants. Tracy says:

Natural science students have been taught to view evolutionary theory as compatible with the desire to find a greater sense of meaning in life. Presumably, they already attain a sense of existential meaning from evolution.

The researchers say these findings indicate a possible means of encouraging students to accept evolution and reject intelligent design.


Written by mikemagee

31 March, 2011 at 9:11 pm

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