Religion helps people cope with death, right? There’s some evidence to the contrary…
March 17, 2009 — Terminally ill cancer patients who relied on their religious faith to help them cope with their disease were more likely to receive aggressive medical care during their last week of life, a study shows.
Patients who engaged in what the researchers called positive religious coping, which included prayer, meditation, and religious study, ended up having more intensive life-prolonging interventions such as mechanical ventilation or cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
The study is published in the latest edition of The Journal of the American Medical Association.
The patients who reported a high level of positive religious coping at the start of the study were almost three times as likely to receive mechanical ventilation and other life-prolonging medical care in the last week of life as patients who said they relied less on their religious beliefs to help them deal with their illness.
Curiously, the researchers missed an obvious explanation for this in their assessment:
It is not entirely clear why terminally ill patients who report relying more on their religion would choose more life-prolonging medical interventions.
But researchers say these patients may be less likely to believe their doctors when they are told there is no hope.
“There may be a sense that it is really not in the hands of the doctors to decide when to give up,” study researcher Holly G. Prigerson, PhD, of Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute tells WebMD. “Refusing some of these very aggressive medical interventions may be seen as giving up on the possibility that God might intervene.”
Or… duh… maybe religion really doesn’t help people cope with death, and they’re fucking scared of dying. Pardon my colloquialism, but this is a great illustration of how deeply entrenched is our belief in the power of belief.
Yesterday, a friend mentioned the theory that religion started as an adaptive mechanism which allowed early humans to cope with knowledge of their ultimate demise. The more I reflect on this idea, the more I reject it. This study helps to reinforce this conclusion. If religion does indeed help people cope with death, we should expect to see the exact opposite result.
Personally speaking, I’ve watched friends and relatives die, and I can only say that those of my friends who were atheists were stoic and prepared, if not happy, about dying. They had known their whole lives that death is something we all do, and they felt like oblivion was not such a bad option, particularly when compared to pain.
It doesn’t take a rocket science atheist to figure out that dying isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person. I just don’t believe that humanity reached a crisis ten or fifteen thousand years ago in which we needed religion as an adaptive mechanism to deal with mortality. I think it’s just one more way to try to make religion useful in some way — any way at all — when science is dismantling its claims almost by the hour.