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Belief and death

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Belief and death

Popular ideas about religion and death are being tested in a research project based at the University of Otago’s Department of Psychology.

Professor Jamin Halberstadt has received a Marsden Fund grant to research the role people’s religious beliefs play in managing their anxiety about death. He is working with one of his former Otago PhD students, Dr Jonathan Jong (University of Oxford), and a former research fellow, Dr Matthias Blumke (now at the University of Heidelberg).

“We are interested in putting to the test the intuitive idea that people hold religious beliefs because they have a powerful psychological benefit in moderating their fear of death,” Halberstadt says.

“This idea that death, anxiety and religion are linked has been around for thousands for years and we are now able to systematically use the tools that science gives us to answer the question in a rigorous way,” Jong adds.

The research is additionally looking at the related effects of religious belief on discrimination between national, ethnic and religious groups.

“Fear of death has been shown to make people close in on their own groups and derogate other groups. So, if religious belief relieves death anxiety, then it is a way to intercede in anti-group discrimination,” Halberstadt explains.

The three-year research project will include laboratory tests using Dunedin and international volunteers, and is expected to contribute to a book and generate academic articles and addresses.

Halberstadt says they expect to make significant advances in understanding how belief helps or hurts individuals and societies.

Photo: Cindy Hall