Atheists like to think they are more rational people but, as death approaches, they secretly play the irrational odds, according to new work which suggests that when even non-religious people think about their own death and consciously still seem to be more skeptical about religion, they unconsciously grow more receptive to religious belief.  Or at least less likely to deny it. 

The work from the Department of Psychology at the University of Otago in New Zealand, predictably also found that when religious people think about death, their religious beliefs appear to strengthen at both conscious and unconscious levels. They believe these findings help explain why religion remains a durable feature of human society. 

In three studies, which involved 265 university students in total, religious and non-religious participants were randomly assigned to 'death priming' and control groups. The 'priming' involved asking participants to write about their own death or, in the control condition, about watching TV. 

In the first study, researchers found that death-primed religious participants consciously reported greater belief in religious entities than similar participants who had not been death-primed. Non-religious participants who had been primed showed the opposite effect: they reported greater disbelief than their fellow non-religious participants in the control condition.

How do they measure such a result? The techniques used to study unconscious beliefs were measuring the speed with which participants can affirm or deny the existence of God and other religious entities. After being primed by thoughts of death, religious participants were faster to press a button to affirm God's existence, but non-religious participants were slower to press a button denying God's existence.

Co-author Jamin Halberstadt says these results fit with the theory that fear of death prompts people to defend their own worldview, regardless of whether it is a religious or non-religious one. "However, when we studied people's unconscious beliefs in the two later experiments, a different picture emerged. While death-priming made religious participants more certain about the reality of religious entities, non-religious participants showed less confidence in their disbelief.

"These findings may help solve part of the puzzle of why religion is such a persistent and pervasive feature of society. Fear of death is a near-universal human experience and religious beliefs are suspected to play an important psychological role in warding off this anxiety. As we now show, these beliefs operate at both a conscious and unconscious level, allowing even avowed atheists to unconsciously take advantage of them."

The paper co-authors also included Jonathan Jong, currently at the University of Oxford, who undertook the experiments as part of his PhD thesis, and Matthias Bluemke, currently at the University of Heidelberg. Associate Professor Halberstadt was Jong's supervisor.

The findings will be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.