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Mortality Awareness and Belief in Supernatural Agents. Ara Norenzayan Department of Psychology University of British Columbia. Cross Cultural Observations. Nearly all societies have supernatural beliefs; Most people in the world believe in some kind of Higher Power (60-90%)

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mortality awareness and belief in supernatural agents

Mortality Awareness and Belief in Supernatural Agents

Ara Norenzayan

Department of Psychology

University of British Columbia

cross cultural observations
Cross Cultural Observations
  • Nearly all societies have supernatural beliefs; Most people in the world believe in some kind of Higher Power (60-90%)
  • Supernatural beliefs are the cornerstone of religions
  • The influence of religions is expected to increase in the coming decades
surveys of religion show that americans believe in
Surveys of Religion show that Americans Believe in…

% Believe

  • God 96%
  • Heaven 93%
  • Hell 85%
  • Psychic and spiritual healing 54%
  • ESP or extrasensory perception 50%
  • Haunted houses 50%
  • Possession by the devil 41%
  • Ghosts of dead people returning 38%
  • Clairvoyance 32%

Gallup Poll, 1994, 2001

cross cultural comparisons
Cross Cultural Comparisons

How Important is God in your life?

  • West Africa 97%
  • Latin America 87%
  • North America 83%
  • Western Europe 49%
  • Eastern Europe 49%
  • South East Asia 47%
  • Total Average 63%
  • Middle East ?

Gallup International Millenium Survey (60 countries)

the secularization myth
The Secularization Myth
  • Despite the rise of science and technology, the influence of religions has not diminished
  • Estimated 10,000 religions in the world
  • 2-3 religions born every day
  • The rise of religion in the 21st century--The age of religious conflicts?
  • Two exceptions: Europe and academia
supernatural agent beliefs
Supernatural Agent Beliefs
  • Supernatural agent beliefs are produced by graded and systematic violations of intuitive agent beliefs (Boyer, 1994)
  • Cultural manipulation of agency-detection module
  • ghost = intentional agent + invisible + passes through solid objects
supernatural agents and awareness of death
Supernatural Agents and Awareness of Death
  • Religious beliefs function to manage terror of death
  • Becker, (1973); Durkheim (1915); Freud, 1913; Kierkegaard, (1843)
  • “Religion is like a fire extinguisher. You never know when you are going to need it. So it’s best to have one handy.”

-- Al Franken, Oh, The Things I Know!

terror management theory
Terror Management Theory
  • Terror Management Theory (Greenberg, et al., 1990)
  • Two ways to cope with the awareness of death
    • 1) Cultural worldview: bolster one’s cultural worldview (and derogate other worldviews)
    • 2) Perceive oneself as a good cultural member (self esteem)
questions
Questions
  • Does awareness of death lead to more belief in supernatural agents?
  • Cultural Worldview Bolstering Hypothesis: death increases culturally-familiar SNL belief, decreases culturally alien SNL belief
  • Distinct Supernatural Buffer Hypothesis: death increases SNL belief even when culturally alien
buddha study
“Buddha” Study
  • Religious identification (pretest)
  • Mortality salience vs. control story
  • Newspaper article reporting scientific study about the power of Buddhist prayer on fertility ratesof women wanting to get pregnant
  • Questions about belief in Buddha, and Buddha’s ability to answer prayers
  • 80 Participants at an American University, 59% Christian, 26% no religion, no Buddhists
buddha study11
“Buddha” Study
  • Key dependent measures:
    • Buddha prayed to hears prayers
    • Evidence that Buddha can answer prayers
    • Buddha/a higher power can hear prayers
    • Buddha/a higher power can answer prayers
results of buddha study
Results of “Buddha” Study
  • Awareness of death encouraged more belief in a culturally alien supernatural agent
  • Those who identified with their own religion were MORE likely to believe in the power of Buddhist Prayer when death was salient (r = .68, p < .01)
  • In the control condition, no relationship between religious ID and belief in Buddha (r = .03)
  • Support for the distinct buffer hypothesis
shaman study
“Shaman” Study
  • Essay: mortality salience vs. negative affect vs. control
  • Newspaper article on the use of clairvoyant shamans in the Russian military to assist in intelligence gathering
  • Questions about belief in shamanic spirits, and their ability to offer guidance and information
  • 142 Participants in Vancouver, religious vs. not
shaman study15
“Shaman” Study
  • Key dependent measures:
    • 1a) Paranormal clairvoyance is not possible (RS)
    • 1b) Ancestral shamanic spirits exist
    • 1c) Ancestral shamanic spirits offer guidance and info
    • 2a) Achievements of program offer evidence that ancestral spirits exist
    • 2b) Achievements of program offer evidence that ancestral spirits offer guidance and info
    • 3a) God/a higher power exists
    • 3b) God/a higher power offers reliable guidance and info
slide16

Control

Control NA

MortailitySalient

Belief in Ancestral Spirits

Degree of Supernatural Belief

Alien Spirits

Evidence

God/HP

Participants Indicating a Religion

slide17

Control

Control NA

MortailitySalient

Belief in Ancestral Spirits

Degree of Supernatural Belief

Alien Spirits

Evidence

God/HP

Non-Religious Participants

ongoing studies
Ongoing Studies…
  • Cross cultural generality
    • Yucatec Maya villagers
    • Atheists in the foxhole
  • Cultural transmission and stabilization of supernaturals
conclusions from studies
Conclusions from Studies
  • Not side-effect of worldview bolstering
  • Not merely social identification w/religious group
  • Privileged link between awareness of mortality and supernatural beliefs
  • “In a sea storm, voyagers will pray to any God”
theoretical framework atran norenzayan in press bbs
Theoretical Framework(Atran & Norenzayan, in press, BBS)

In nearly all known societies, there are:

  • 1) Belief in supernatural agents (Gods, ghosts), who manage
  • 2) Existential anxieties (death & social deception), that require
  • 3) Costly commitment (sacrifice of time, resources)
  • Ritually coordinated through affective displays, yielding “religion”
the four cs of religion
The Four Cs of Religion

Religion is not a biological adaptation; it is a cultural byproduct of multiple interacting mental modules and universal needs

  • Counterintuition: Intentional agents (cognitive aspect)
  • Compassion: Existential anxieties (emotional aspect)
  • Costly Commitment (motivational aspect)
  • Communion: ritualized coordination (social aspect)