What Good Is God for Grief and Loss?

by David B. Feldman & Robert A. Gressis |

Grief and death anxiety are inextricably linked with human existence. In a real sense, loss permeates our lives. According to national statistics pertaining to life expectancy and average age of childbirth, children born in the year 2012 are likely to lose their great-grandparents (on average) around the age of 11, their grandparents during their thirties, and their parents in their sixties. Such losses inevitably remind individuals of their own mortality.

According to research in the realm of existential psychology as well as a venerable tradition in existential philosophy, constructive acknowledgment of death anxiety can be a major motivator of positive functioning whereas avoidance or denial of such anxiety can be a source of dysfunctional behavior and even psychopathology. Surprisingly, however, little empirical research has addressed the impact of religious belief on how people experience and cope with loss and death anxiety.

Scholars writing from the viewpoint known as “meta-atheism” have asserted that, in their estimation, religious belief has little or no impact on how people grieve. These writers assert that religious believers, on some deep level, do not actually believe their own religious assertions, and so these assertions have little impact on their actual behavior. To address this issue head on, we have undertaken a project designed to empirically test the relationships between certain religious beliefs and people’s experiences of grief and levels of death anxiety.

The Bannan Institute’s 2013–14 theme is “What Good is God?” The proposed research project, funded by a Bannan Institute Research Grant, seeks to answer this exact question with regard to grief and loss. Specifically, we seek to examine whether beliefs in God and an afterlife are “useful” with regard to facilitating the grief process and lessening death anxiety. Anecdotally, believers often assert that their beliefs in a loving God and a blissful afterlife comfort them in times of loss. We seek to examine empirical evidence to test whether these beliefs indeed materially alter the experiences of loss and death anxiety.

We have recently collected in-depth surveys from over one hundred people around the United States, representing diverse ages and education levels, and plan to continue to collect data. Following our analyses of these data we plan to present the results at a professional conference in psychology or philosophy (or both) and to submit our findings to a psychology journal (discussing the methods and statistical results) and to a philosophy journal (discussing implications regarding the meta-atheist arguments).

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