"Are You Afraid to Die?" Religion and Death Attitudes in an Adolescent Sample

By Dezutter, Jessie; Luyckx, Koen et al. | Journal of Psychology and Theology, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

"Are You Afraid to Die?" Religion and Death Attitudes in an Adolescent Sample


Dezutter, Jessie, Luyckx, Koen, Hutsebaut, Dirk, Journal of Psychology and Theology


The purpose of this study was to provide an in-depth examination of the relationship between religion and death attitudes. First, we investigated whether the results found in previous research on adults could be generalized to adolescents. Second, we implemented a person-centered approach in studying this relationship. Questionnaires assessing death attitudes and religious attitudes were completed by 213 adolescents in a secularized country. Results from hierarchical regression analyses were in line with previous findings on adults, confirming our hypothesis that the link between religious attitudes and death attitudes is important during diverse stages of the life span. Furthermore, cluster analysis was used to investigate naturally occurring profiles of death attitudes in order to offer a qualitative refinement as compared to the commonly used variable-centered approach. A meaningful 3-cluster solution (i.e., Natural Process, Acceptance, and Anxiety) was retained and each cluster was characterized by its own unique scores on religious attitudes. Limitations concerning the generalization of the conclusions are discussed.

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Coping with the finitude of life might be viewed as a life long task for all human beings. The idea of mortality and the realization of the finitude of life often elicit negative feelings in individuals, such as anxiety, despair, sadness, and uncertainty. For instance, existential psychology indicated that each individual is anxious about his or her death (Yalom, 1980). Tillich (1952) also noted that death anxiety is a basic, universal, and inescapable feeling. Frankl (1958), however, emphasized a more positive attitude toward the existential theme of death and dying by stating that finiteness itself should give meaning to human existence--not deprive it of meaning.

Religious belief systems seem to play an important role in providing a framework to cope with existential topics. Moreover, religion is often seen as a way of coping with the unpredictable. Because death is pre-eminently an unpredictable phenomenon, it is understandable that the great religions make it a central part of their belief system (Spilka, Hood, Hunsberger, & Gorsuch, 2003). Several theorists indeed link the phenomena of religion and death, and some scholars even state that if there were no death, there would be no religion (Becker, 1973; Weisman, 1972).

Religion and Death Attitudes: Multidimensional Concepts

A substantial body of research has addressed the relation between religiosity and death attitudes. However, this research seems to have a number of limitations (Neimeyer, Wittkowski, & Moser, 2004). First, the dominant focus of many studies has been on the measurement of death anxiety, without considering other (potentially more positive) death attitudes. Second, many studies have adopted a rather robust, unidimensional conceptualisation of religiosity without tapping into people's underlying attitudes towards religiosity. Perhaps as a consequence of these limitations, evidence for a link between religiosity and death anxiety is ambivalent. Consequently, one way to obtain a more precise picture of the religiosity-death attitudes link is to expand on the construct of death attitudes (Neimeyer et al., 2004; Spilka et al., 2003). Recent research already pointed to the importance of distinguishing between different death attitudes and, more specifically, to the usefulness of focusing on both negative (i.e., anxiety and avoidance) and relatively more positive attitudes toward death (i.e., a neutral or even accepting orientation towards death). For example, Christopher, Drummond, Jones, Marek, and Therriault (2006) found that religiosity was positively related to positive death attitudes (e.g., death as a natural end of life) and negatively to negative death attitudes (e.g., death as a failure).

As mentioned before, the operationalisation of religion can also be seen as a limitation in the field. …

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