Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Defensive versus Existential Religion: Is Religious Defensiveness Predictive of Worldview Defense?

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Defensive versus Existential Religion: Is Religious Defensiveness Predictive of Worldview Defense?

Article excerpt

Beck (2004) has recently argued that, although existential defensiveness may motivate some religious persons, existential engagement is compatible with religious belief. More specifically, Beck (2004) has argued that "defensive believers" tend to adopt theological configurations mainly aimed at producing existential solace and consolation. Consequently, one of Beck's (2004) contentions is that "defensive believers" would display in-group bias in order to preserve the integrity of their worldview. By contrast, "existential believers," due to their existential engagement, are predicted to display less in-group bias. This article presents two empirical studies aimed at testing these characterizations. First, in Study 1 a measure of existential defensiveness, the Defensive Theology Scale, was constructed and then compared with measures of Quest religious motivation and religious pluralism. Study 2, a laboratory study, borrowed a common experimental procedure from Terror Management Theory research. Specifically, defensive and existential participants were moved through a mortality salience manipulation with subsequent ratings of in-group and out-group targets. Overall, the results of Studies 1 and 2 supported Beck's (2004) characterizations. That is, religiously defensive participants scored lower on Quest motives and displayed the tendency to see in-group targets more favorably than out-group targets. Conversely, existential participants scored higher on Quest motives and tended to see in-group and out-group targets as equally attractive or capable.


Ever since Freud, social scientists have speculated as to the motives behind religious belief. Freud's cynical critique suggested that religious faith was fundamentally a form of wishful thinking. To be sure, the fact that the Christian faith posits a blessed and eternal life to be enjoyed by the faithful has always struck critics of religion to be the epitome of wishful thinking. But how can the religious believer offer proof to the contrary, evidence that one's faith is not simply a naive wish? In the empirical realm of psychological research, the protestations of the faithful will never be considered unbiased, objective data. Given the seeming intractable nature of this critique (Who is totally objective about their motives for faith?) it seems Freud's diagnosis of religious motives--wishful thinking--will linger on until objective evidence to the contrary is presented.

Defensive versus existential religion

A recent theory by Beck (2004) suggests a route to assess the role of defensiveness in religious faith. Building upon recent work in the area of Terror Management Theory (TMT; for a comprehensive empirical and theoretical review see Greenburg, Solomon, & Pyszczynski, 1997), Beck (2004) has proposed that religious motives may be dichotomized according to the degree to which a believer uses her faith to repress existential anxiety. Building upon the work of Ernest Becker (1973) and other existential theorists, TMT suggests that people construct and deploy cultural worldviews to deal with their finiteness and eventual death. Cultural worldviews, religion included, provide us with death-denying modes of existence, paths to achieving significance, meaning, and purpose. Think of the person who spends his life trying to "get ahead" in the world of business. Only vaguely is he aware of the nagging question: Why? Rarely in life are these existential questions asked. Rarer still are they answered. People mostly accept these cultural routes to "significance" unconsciously and reflexively. And religious faith is often no different. Faith can be socialized into a person as easily as secular standards or values.

Given that cultural and religious worldviews provide meaning and purpose, worldviews are defended in the face of existential threat. TMT theorists call this "worldview defense. …

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