Some of us have long suspected that the vitriol that issues from religious radicals might have a significant psychological component. Apparently there's research to support the notion that the psychological component is the fear of one's own death.
The latest issue of The New Republic (Aug. 27) has an intriguing piece, Death Grip, by John B. Judis. He reports on extensive research by experimental psychologists, suggesting pretty clearly that:
... the mere thought of one's mortality can trigger a range of emotions--from disdain for other races, religions, and nations, to a preference for charismatic over pragmatic leaders, to a heightened attraction to traditional mores.Judis writes:
To test the hypothesis that recognition of mortality evokes "worldview defense"--their term for the range of emotions, from intolerance to religiosity to a preference for law and order, that they believe thoughts of death can trigger--they assembled 22 Tucson municipal court judges. They told the judges they wanted to test the relationship between personality traits and bail decisions, but, for one group, they inserted in the middle of the personality questionnaire two exercises meant to evoke awareness of their mortality.
One [exercise] asked the judges to "briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you"; the other required them to "jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you physically as you die and once you are physically dead."
They then asked the judges to set bail in the hypothetical case of a prostitute whom the prosecutor claimed was a flight risk. The judges who did the mortality exercises set an average bail of $455. The control group that did not do the exercises set it at an average of $50. The psychologists knew they were onto something.
Over the next decade, the three performed similar experiments to illustrate how awareness of death could provoke worldview defense. They showed that what they now called "mortality salience" affected people's view of other races, religions, and nations.
When they had students at a Christian college evaluate essays by what they were told were a Christian and a Jewish author, the group that did the mortality exercises expressed a far more negative view of the essay by the Jewish author than the control group did. (German psychologists would find a similar reaction among German subjects toward Turks.)
They also conducted numerous experiments to show that mortality exercises evoked patriotic responses. The subjects who did the exercises took a far more negative view of an essay critical of the United States than the control group did and also expressed greater veneration for cultural icons like the flag.
The three even devised an experiment to show that, after doing the mortality exercises, conservatives took a much harsher view of liberals, and vice versa.
In conducting these experiments, they took care not to tell the subjects what they were doing. They also devised experiments to answer obvious objections to their theory. For instance, they substituted other exercises designed to increase anxiety--by reminding subjects of an upcoming examination or a painful dental visit--to determine if these thoughts had the same effect as the mortality exercises, but they didn't. It wasn't anxiety per se that triggered worldview defense; it was anxiety specifically about one's own death.
(Emphasis and extra paragraphing added.)
As Kendall Harmon would say, read the whole thing.
I would add: Anxiety about death is natural, but it also suggests a lack of trust that everything will be OK — in other words, a lack of faith, the faith of Abraham and of Jesus, as lauded by Paul in his letter to the Romans.
Contrast mortality anxiety with the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor's definition of faith as openness to truth, no matter what truth turns out to be — that would seem to be just the opposite of worldview defensiveness.