Study: Anxiety about death fuels belief in 'Intelligent Design'

We gnu atheists often suggest that religion is, in many cases, just wishful thinking. Now,  new research out of the University of British Columbia and Union College in Schenectady, NY and published in the journal PLoS ONE (the Public Library of Science) finds that certain people reject evolution and embrace intelligent design because they find that the cold, algorithmic nature of evolution does not satisfy their desire for meaning and purpose.
Despite scientific consensus that intelligent design theory is inherently unscientific, 25 per cent of high school biology teachers in the U.S. devote at least some class time to the topic of intelligent design. And in Canada, for example, Alberta passed a law in 2009 that may allow parents to remove children from courses covering evolution.
"Our results suggest that when confronted with existential concerns, people respond by searching for a sense of meaning and purpose in life," says [UBC Asst. Psychology Prof Jessica Tracy]. "For many, it appears that evolutionary theory doesn't offer enough of a compelling answer to deal with these big questions."
The researchers examined this over five studies and over 1,600 participants. The participants were first asked to either imagine their own death and write about their subsequent thoughts and feelings or, in a control group, imagine dental pain and write about that instead. They subsequently read passages from Discovery Institute co-founder Michael Behe or Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, each explaining theories of the origin of life. Neither paper mentioned religious beliefs, but each argued empirical support for its position. According to the NCSE,
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.
But that's not the only interesting find. In a subsequent study, the researchers flipped the switch a bit and included a typically inspiring passage from the late Carl Sagan along with the Dawkins excerpt which explained how we can find meaning in naturalism, readers had a greater propensity to reject intelligent design.
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."
When I was on the cusp of de-conversion, the most emotionally trying part of the process was coming to terms with the existential implications of rejecting my beliefs. It meant that I no longer had any idea what awaited me with death, that I had no idea whether I was created for some higher purpose. It took years before I began to see that a naturalistic view could actually deepen my sense of purpose.

And maybe that's at least part of the lesson in how we gnu atheists ought to approach discussions with believers. It's not enough just to stir up some cognitive dissonance with philosophical arguments and theological criticism. This study suggests that regardless of the evidence or arguments, people can be swayed by wishful thinking. Maybe we gnus ought to spend a little more time on the existential side of things. While this is clearly anecdotal, every apostate I've met – without exception – describes themselves as happier, emotionally and intellectually liberated, and their senses of meaning, human solidarity and purpose are enriched.

Read the full article here.


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