Religious people are less likely to avoid reminders of human mortality

By Emma Young

Do you know how far you’d have to walk to get from the central railway station in Wuhan, China to the nearest cemeteries? I’ll tell you: an average of just over 25 kilometres. For Berlin, the figure is less than 5. “Chinese tourists are surprised by unexpectedly running into cemeteries when visiting cities in Europe,” write the authors of a new paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. “They are curious when seeing how close to a graveyard people live and spend their leisure time there because these are rarely encountered in China.”

In fact, when the team plotted the mean walking distance between the central railway station and the five nearest cemeteries in 10 European capital cities and 10 major cities in China, the difference was clear: the longest European distance was still less far than the shortest distance in China.

Why might this be? Xiaoyue Fan at Peking University and colleagues wondered if differences in religiosity might explain it. The majority of the Chinese population has no religious affiliation, the team notes, whereas this is not the case in Europe. Perhaps, then, people who believe in an afterlife are less troubled by seeing symbols of mortality — like graveyards — and this is why they are closer to the centres of so many European cities.

To explore this idea, the team drew on Terror Management Theory to develop a task to measure “behavioural avoidance of symbols of mortality” (BASM). A cue word — “death” or “life” — was placed in the centre of a circle. Participants then had to position seven other target words within that circle. These target words consisted of “self”, “family”, a favourable celebrity’s name, an unfavourable celebrity’s name, the name of a stranger and also “stone” (the only inanimate object).

In an initial study, the team found that Chinese participants tended to position “self”, “family” and the favourable celebrity’s name furthest from “death”, with “stone” closest. The distances between the cue word and each target word were used to generate a measure of each individual’s BASM. And in a fresh study, the team gained support for the task’s validity by finding that individuals with a higher BASM — those who put words like “self” and  “family” further away from “death” — tended to also sit further away from a fake skull. 

Next, the team found that Chinese Christians had lower BASM scores than a group of Chinese non-believers. (This effect held when various potential confounding factors, such as self-esteem and feelings of inter-dependence vs independence, were taken into account.)

Finally, the team studied groups of Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists as well as non-believers in other countries, including the US. Across the studies, they consistently found that believers got lower scores than non-believers. (They also found that priming non-believers with Christian or Buddhist afterlife beliefs — with Christian pictures of heaven and angels, for example — before they took the test reduced BASM scores, suggesting that afterlife beliefs do have an influence.) 

“One of the major functions of religious beliefs is to reduce a person’s fear of death,” the researchers write. They suspect that belief in an afterlife — whatever its exact nature — acts as an emotional buffer against reminders of our mortality.

If believers are less affected by seeing a graveyard than non-believers, is this why people are buried so relatively close to European city centres?

It might be part of the reason. But of course parish churches, with their graveyards, were once the centre of local life in the UK and many European countries. As cities like London expanded gradually over centuries, these churches and graves were engulfed. They became part of the fabric of the city. Occupants of European vs Chinese major cities might also be happier to spend some leisure time surrounded by graves simply because churchyards are available as quiet spots to escape the urban commotion, rather than because belief in an afterlife makes them less of a threat.

Still, parts of Europe are becoming less religious.  In 2011, a quarter of the UK population said they had no religion. In 2001, that figure was just 15%. Many of us live in close proximity to graveyards. Do they in fact represent a growing driver of death-related anxiety in the population? Only further research will tell.

Religious Afterlife Beliefs Decrease Behavioral Avoidance of Symbols of Mortality

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest