Death is a Powerful Motivation

“Every soul shall taste of death. And you shall be paid in full your rewards only on the Day of Resurrection. So whosoever is removed away from the Fire and is made to enter Heaven has indeed attained his goal. And the life of this world is nothing but an illusory enjoyment.” (3:186)

The above verse from the Holy Quran warns us not to get lost in the distractions of this world by reminding us that we will all one day die and be judged.  Two recent studies show that this mental exercise of contemplating one’s mortality can spark a need to know that life has meaning and that the meaning must include being a good person.

Researchers at the University of Essex wanted to determine if asking people think about death made them more altruistic.  Subjects were either told to think about their feelings about death or envision their own death.  They were then told to read pamphlets on donating blood and asked to register for blood donation.  The first group was likely to register to donate blood only if they were told there was a blood shortage.  The second group was likely to register regardless of if they were told there was a blood shortage or surplus.  Thinking about their own death increased their value of all life and their willingness to sacrifice for others.

In the second study, Tracy et al. examined if the current evolution vs. intelligent design (ID) debate was due to most people thinking that the scientific data supports ID or an existential argument in which ID better explains the role of a creator.  Subjects were told to think about their own death and then read two articles, one pro-evolution (Richard Dawkings) and one pro-ID (Michael Behe).  Compared to the control group, the people who thought about their own death were more likely to support ID and reject evolution.  This result suggests that when reminded of their own mortality people reject reason and logic in favor of any theory that gives their life meaning.

A second set of people were told to think about their own death and then read three articles, the two mentioned above and a pro-evolution article on naturalism that argues that meaning can be derived from studying the natural world (Carl Sagan).  This second group was more positive towards evolution and more negative towards ID as compared to a control group.  When people were given an explicit link between science and a purpose to life, they favored the theory that was both logical and existential.

Although not explicitly studied by either group of researchers, the fear of dying is linked to a belief in a creator.  A human being will reject the logical argument in favor of any argument that will allow for a creator and greater purpose for life.  This is one reason the ID movement has gained so much momentum in recent years in countries with strong science education programs.  The Islamic perspective that is somewhere between evolution and ID is ideal.  It will always be accepting and consistent with the observations we make of the natural world, while including an omnipotent, omniscient Allah Who is both creator and controller.

Categories: Religion and Science

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