Are you ready to meet your maker? Maybe not, if you’re a believer.

Have you heard about the study recently conducted at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston on the correlation between one’s degree of religiousness and the desire for aggressive, even traumatizing, measures to prolong one’s life when facing the end of a terminal illness. What would you expect to find? The actual results may surprise you. Here’s a reprint of an article from the Economist that summarizes the results:


Mar 19th 2009 | NEW YORK
From The Economist print edition

HOW do a person’s religious beliefs influence his attitude to terminal illness? The answer is surprising. You might expect the religious to accept death as God’s will and, while not hurrying towards it, not to seek to prolong their lives using heroic and often traumatic medical procedures. Atheists, by contrast, have nothing to look forward to after death, so they might be expected to cling to life.

In fact, it is the other way round—at least according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Andrea Phelps and her colleagues at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Religious people seem to use their faith to cope with the pain and degradation that “aggressive” medical treatment entails, even though such treatment rarely makes much odds.

Dr Phelps and her team followed the last months of 345 cancer patients. The participants were not asked directly how religious they were but, rather, about how they used any religious belief they had to cope with difficult situations by, for example, “seeking God’s love and care”. The score from this questionnaire was compared with their requests for such things as the use of mechanical ventilation to keep them alive and resuscitation to bring them back from the dead.

The correlation was strong. More than 11% of those with the highest scores underwent mechanical ventilation; less than 4% of those with the lowest did so. For resuscitation the figures were 7% and 2%.

Explaining the unpleasantness and futility of the procedures does not seem to make much difference, either. Holly Prigerson, one of Dr Phelps’s co-authors, was involved in another study at Dana-Farber which was published earlier this month in the Archives of Internal Medicine. This showed that when doctors had frank conversations about the end of life with terminally ill cancer patients, the patients typically chose not to request very intensive medical interventions.

According to Dr Prigerson, though, such end-of-life chats had little impact on “religious copers”, most of whom still wanted doctors to make every effort to keep them alive. Saint Augustine of Hippo, one of Christianity’s most revered figures, famously asked God to help him achieve “chastity and continence, but not yet”. When it comes to meeting their maker, many religious people seem to have a similar attitude.

So, what do you make of this? How would you explain this apparent anomaly?



Filed under Athesim, humanism, religion, science, skepticism, social commentary

3 responses to “Are you ready to meet your maker? Maybe not, if you’re a believer.

  1. Paula

    In my conversations with religious people I have often got the impression that fear of death is a major driver for them. If, as I suspect, it is fear of death which keeps many of them tied to religion in the first place, perhaps it is not so very surprising if it remains their most powerful response when the time comes.

    I think religious people have a further fear to deal with, too: not just death, but hell. If you honestly believe that hell is one of the possibilities awaiting you after your death, no wonder you’d be afraid! And hell is a hugely powerful image, and can dominate people’s imaginations throughout their lives. My own (moderately religious) mother was absolutely terrified of dying because she’d been taught about hell, and no amount of talk of forgiveness and salvation could suffice to make her feel safe from it.

    Christianity DEPENDS on fear of death, fear of hell, for its survival. If there’s no hell, there’s nothing we need to be saved from, and Jesus is redundant. So however much it may pretend to offer comfort in the face of death, it is only because of its own vile teachings that comfort is necessary in the first place.

    Whereas for us atheists, death is simply the end. It might be sad, it might be incomprehensible, but there’s no reason for it to be terrifying.

  2. Jim Ellis

    I note that the Church of England has now apologized to Darwin for officially opposing his theory for the last 150 years. (It was in 1991 that the Vatican issued a similar apology to Galileo).
    In commenting on this, Bishop John Spong suggests that while he is encouraged to see the Church begin to enter the 20th century, it will be even more encouraging when it enters the 21st century.
    Accepting the implications of the evolutionary process also means that humankind does not need to be rescued from a fall/sin or from a fiery hell. “Jesus must then empower us to be fully human; he cannot rescue us from sin,” says Spong.
    This growing movement towards what some have called ‘Progressive Christianity’ offers hope that the church, if it can leave its crippling, antiquated theology behind, will no longer be able to (or need to) keep its adherents enslaved by an irrational fear of death and punishment, as Paula suggests has all too often been the case. Then the possibility increases that the life of Jesus could become a relevant resource for helping people become more fully human, as the thoughtful, controversial and well-published bishop suggests.

  3. Paul

    Interesting article but based on poor social science. There is a huge difference between those who practice their religion and those who actually have the relationship that Jesus came to offer. While a fear of death is natural in all of us, for those who have a true relationship with Jesus there is a real peace about what lies ahead. Life is not lived out of fear but with the fullness of promise, for the moments we live now and the eternity to come. To do a vague survey of possible religious beliefs does nothing to show how true Christians may face death, only those holding on to a religious belief perhaps necessitated by the imminence of death. And to quote Augustine in this context is poor history, as the quote by him is attributed to his time before he entered into any personal encounter with Jesus or the Christian faith. That journey of true faith began after that particular quote which was made during his life of pleasure seeking with out any real moral restraint. A study on how people of real faith in a promise made by a true historical Jesus would be far more interesting and convincing. General observations based on poor statistical studies are only good for flash headlines.

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