Everyone and their dog is talking about this study by Canadian researchers right now. I see headlines like “Death Anxiety Prompts People to Believe in Intelligent Design, Reject Evolution, Study Suggests” propping up everywhere.
My answer at this point is: Meh.
What those psychologists did in their studies, was to “activate existential threats”. I.e., they told people that they are mortal and will die at some point. They report that they found that independent from participant’s religious or educational background, people’s acceptance of Intelligent Design Theory increased, while approval of the Theory of Evolution decreased.
Well, I’m sorry, but that’s total bullcrap, for a variety of reasons. Let’s talk about those 2 theories briefly.
The so-called Theory of Intelligent Design states, in its most sophisticated form, POOF. We think it’s really complicated and unlikely for the human eye to have come into existence, therefore POOF. We don’t know how life came to exist on Earth, therefore POOF. No plane in a junkyard, therefore POOF. You get the idea. It’s one long argument from personal incredulity, and those putting this “theory” forth are religious liars with an agenda that goes back to the 19th century and to Paley, and the creationism that lies at the bottom of the whole thing has been reinvented and renamed a million times since.
The Theory of Evolution on the other hand, blatantly obvious to anyone not blinded by religious dogma, or anyone who has ever had a bug resistant to standard antibiotics, somehow has this connotation of being cold-hearted and all about “survival of the fittest”, where only the strong will live, and the weak perish, and with them morality and humanism and social cohesion, lalala.
First of all, this view shows a complete lack of understanding of the ToE, where survival of the fittest applies to populations, not individuals, and is a survival of genes, not individual critters. Secondly, there is overwhelming scientific evidence for the ToE for over 150 years, while the ID crowd has 2 discredited biochemists, who have not published anything even resembling scientific evidence for their bogus theory in a peer-reviewed paper ever.
So, in 3 of those 5 studies, students were given an excerpt from Richard Dawkins and Michael Behe to read, after their mortality salience(MS) had been manipulated (they were told they will die), researchers checked responses to the excerpts. It went something like this (this was from study 1) :
122 undergraduate psychology students (72% women) at Union College (n = 53) or the University of British Columbia (n = 69) were randomly assigned to write about the thoughts and feelings aroused by imagining either their own death (MS condition) or dental pain, a typical control manipulation used in TMT research to ensure that effects attributed to MS are not in fact due to general negative affect or arousal . Participants then completed the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS; ), before reading a passage arguing for ET, “written by Professor Richard Dawkins, a famous evolutionary theorist,” and a passage arguing for IDT, “written by Professor Michael Behe, a famous scientist who argues for the theory of intelligent design.” These 174-word similarly styled passages were excerpted from the authors , ,  (see Text S1). Neither referred to religion or belief; instead, both read as descriptions of, and empirical support for, a scientific theory. Thus, if participants responded to MS by accepting IDT, this could not be attributed to a desire to embrace religion per se.
Each passage was followed by a 6-item scale assessing participants’ views about the author’s expertise and their belief in the theory referred to in the passage (based on ). Specifically, participants rated each author, using a 9-point scale, on intelligence, knowledge, agreement with his views, and truth of his opinion. They then rated their agreement with two statements, on a 5-point scale
Here are the excerpts that were used for the studies.
The conclusion of the authors is :
Individuals respond to existential threat by becoming more accepting of a theory that offers a greater sense of meaning by depicting human life as having ultimate purpose (while appearing consistent with the scientific worldview), and/or less supportive of the theory that is the true mainstay of the scientific worldview but seems to offer little in the way of existential comfort.
This is very Meh. All snakeoil salesmen over the millenia have based their businesses on this fact, religious ones included. But it is also somewhat interesting. Why does the fact of evolution, the knowledge that we are just a snapshot in the continuing development of our species, the knowledge that this life is all we have, that the time to be good, to be with our loved ones, to be the best person we can, is now, and not after we die, still seem to somehow be less satisfying and anxiolytic, than the religious snakeoil of POOF, the afterlife, and the empty promises of those who find science too hard, and instead just offer “godditit”, and any ol’ argument from incredulity, that is neither scientifically nor intellectually, and also not emotionally, satisfying ?
Now, the fact that some people find POOF, and the promise of an afterlife attractive, when faced with the prospect of death, has no bearing on whether the claim of POOF, or the afterlife, is actually true. It’s not, obviously.
This is where atheists and rationalists still have some PR work to do. To introduce a feel-good factor into living the one life you have, to make the claim of a happy afterlife the less attractive one, a claim that wastes people’s time and effort, and precious lifetime, that could be better spent with the ones you love, now, here and in this life, realising that there won’t be any time left after you die.
The other reason I am very sceptic of those studies and their claim of a connection between death anxiety and ID is that, ID is just a sham pseudo-scientific outfit, that claims to have scientific evidence that god poofed everything into existence, since it couldn’t have happened any other way, because it’s just too hard to figure out how. But ID in itself doesn’t actually make any claims about afterlifes, or claims to offer any alleviation of existential angst. So it is a bit of a mystery to me, why ID was chosen here in the first place. If they had tested a Dawkins or Sagan quote against one from Mohammed, or the Bible, fine, then we would have had something to talk about. But ID, that empty, discredited, vacuous nonsense ? Seems very weird. Nevertheless, I do think that this publication gives us a hint as to what areas we as rationalists and scientists need to work on : The perception our messages receive with a general public that is mostly not scientifically trained, or sufficiently educated.