From terror to tolerance: How believers face mortality impacts global health, civility and social trust
By Larbi Megari*
The sun beats down on a deserted stretch of the Boulevard des Martyrs on a late summer Friday afternoon in this working class neighborhood of Algiers.
The bright orange doors that would on other days be open to a bustling lunch crowd at Pizza Mama are shuttered, as are those of other businesses along the major artery near the center of Algeria’s capital city.
Men and women are already in place throughout the four floors of the Al-Bachir Al-Ibrahimi mosque as the muezzin soulfully intones the second call to prayer. A breeze from the Mediterranean Sea refreshes the civil servants, craftsmen and small business owners packed shoulder to shoulder on the third floor.
Jummah prayer is a fundamental part of Muslim life. The Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him) said, “The best day the sun rises over is Friday.” And Islamic teaching says angels stand at every door of the mosque recording the names of those who enter for the communal prayer uniting Muslims around the globe.
Devout Muslims such as Rachid, 45, feel safe and protected inside the mosque during Friday prayer.
“Whenever I am in good relation with God, I feel no fear from death. It happens to me wishing to die while I am praying so I would go to Allah with no sins or very little bad deeds,” he said. “But when I miss my religious obligations, my fear of death returns and even worsens.”
He is not alone.
Across the world, billions of worshippers this weekend will be going to mosques, temples, churches and other places of worship hearing messages declaring that the choices they make in this life can affect their eternal destiny.
How each of them, and secular individuals, face the great existential question of the meaning of life in the face of mortality can make a major difference in areas from mental health to preventing terrorism and promoting more generous, compassionate societies less likely to experience civil strife, new research shows.
Religion may provide comfort, assurance and a desire to help others in individuals who believe they are cared for by a loving divinity. However, those who find God a distant, judgmental figure may struggle with constant fear and anxiety that can lead to distrust and intolerance.
Facing death, and the prospects of either everlasting paradise or eternal damnation, can be a lifelong struggle for many religious individuals.
The response of faith
Fear of death is a near universal concern among human beings. And whether it advances beyond common anxiety to depressive disorders and pathological fears can be influenced by several factors, including education, culture and pre-existing psychological conditions.
Through the ages, however, religion is the primary way many people have come to terms with their mortality.
Nearly all the major world religions provide answers to whether there is life after death.
In general, religions teach that those who lead a virtuous, faithful life showing love and compassion for others may look with hope to the promise of a life of eternal happiness in communion with the divine.
Those who lead selfish lives, ignoring the divine and the needs of humanity, face the prospect of at times horrific punishments in the next life.
For the some 4 billion adherents of the world’s two largest religions – Christianity and Islam – this is the difference between heaven (Jannat) and Hell (Jahannam).
In somewhat similar fashion, religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism teach about reincarnation after death, where the soul takes on a different living form. In general terms, whether it will be a higher or a lower form of life is related to one’s actions in life.
Just how widely are these beliefs held?
In secular nations such as Sweden, just 15 percent report believing in Hell. But it is a vastly different story in countries with high percentages of believers.
The potential promise of an eternal and better life after death can provide a powerful sense of hope and security in the face of mortality, said Benhaj, a psychologist at Algiers University.
But there is also uncertainty since in most religions the ultimate judgment will be made by God, Allah, or other divinities.
“Two feelings fight within the religious person: Fear of death because it is an unknown and inexperienced thing, and the other feeling related to serenity when death means to him a transition to a better life,” he said.
With eternity at stake, not even worshipping five times a day since the age of 14 as required by his Islamic faith can quell the fears of someone like Radwan, a 45-year-old media professional.
“Whenever I am praying my five times regularly, not doing forbidden things in my daily life, I usually would feel more comfortable with the fact that I am going to die,” he says.
Still, he adds, “Sometimes, when I am very sick, or running a risk of death like what we encountered during the period of the nineties when we were going through civil war here in Algeria, I usually get very scared whenever I remember that I did not perform my last prayer, or whenever I got in an illicit relationship with a girl. I rapidly feel that I need to repent before death, and here death will be a very scary thing to me.”
Why death anxiety matters
Why does faith help some people become more loving, kind and secure, while others become more anxious, intolerant and fearful?
Research into death anxiety is providing some answers that go beyond broad measures such as religious affiliation and worship attendance to find the deeper reasons why believers across all faiths follow these different paths.
Consider these findings in three key areas:
Health: Belief in God itself may not be as important in reducing death anxiety as is the image of God believers hold and their relationship with the divine.
Research suggests that lower death anxiety is associated with an image of God as a loving divinity that cares for them as individuals.
What may be especially helpful in dealing with the uncertainty of not knowing their eternal fate is belief in a merciful God.
“Feeling forgiven by God is the key to resolving the dilemma that is created by the need to live up to religious teachings and the failure to do so on every occasion,” suggests one study that found divine forgiveness was associated with lower death anxiety.
It also makes a difference that believers are sincere in their faith, and do not practice for external reasons such as social acceptance and advancement.
The more you are religious and care about religion practices the less you’re scared of death, a study of 394 students conducted at Al-Azhar University in Gaza found. The findings could be explained by the feeling of “preparedness” for the life after death in which people with good deeds, according to Islamic teachings, will have a better life.
Death anxiety is also more than a matter of individual health.
Studies indicate a relationship with a loving God allows the dying to face the end with peace and hope, while those higher in death anxiety will seek more aggressive health care to prevent death at any cost. This adds a substantial burden to health care systems already overspending on extreme measures to prolong life, taking away resources that can be used for preventive care and meeting the needs of vulnerable populations such as children and the poor with limited access to health care.
Tolerance: Terror management theory advances the idea that individuals will find existential security – including the promise of eternal life – in their own religious worldview. For many people, that will result in increased hostility toward people of other faiths who hold different beliefs that can be seen as challenging or undermining one’s own beliefs.
These types of views can be used to promote prejudice and bias against other faiths. In their most extreme, as witnessed in the religious violence that has convulsed regions from the Balkans to the Middle East to sub-Saharan Africa, these views can be manipulated to endorse acts of terror against innocents.
For example, the idea promoted by terror groups such as ISIS that suicide bombings can guarantee an immediate place in paradise can be an attractive message to individuals high in death anxiety.
But faith can also play a special role in lowering death anxiety, and promoting tolerance, studies suggest.
One study found the key to greater tolerance and lower death anxiety revolved around the meaning of religion in their lives.
Those individuals who said they try to lead their whole lives according to their religious and spiritual beliefs were lower in death anxiety and were more likely to see the value in other cultures and customs and express openness regarding immigration.
In separate studies in the United Kingdom and Italy, mortality concerns resulted in greater prejudice against Muslims only among those not affiliated with a religion.
In identifying their religious affiliation, believers may have been more sensitive to their faith’s norms regarding tolerance, researchers noted.
Social good: Fear of hell and divine punishment is not all bad.
Studies show greater religiosity – including belief in Hell – is associated with less cheating, lying and violent crime.
But where the needle moves toward good is when people embrace religious values such as generosity, forgiveness and humility that are all related to lower death anxiety.
“Optimistic beliefs about the afterlife were associated with positive beliefs about the world,” researchers said.
The fear of dying is not an easy topic to address. Many religious individuals are concerned that admitting their divine struggles would be interpreted as a sign of a lack of faith.
And secular culture provides no end of diversions from social media to streaming video services to divert people from contemplating their own mortality.
So how can medical professionals and religious leaders help individuals suffering from death anxiety?
First, they need to work together, researchers state.
For religious leaders, this means being willing to refer individuals with serious health concerns to doctors for treatment.
In the medical profession, psychologists and other caregivers need to recognize how religion matters in the lives of individuals as they treat death anxiety.
For both groups, this may often mean addressing fears that individuals will not be found worthy of eternal life through actions such as pointing out scriptural texts and religious teachings emphasizing God’s love and mercy.
Fouzia, a 42-year-old mother of three who has worn a Hijab from a young age, said listening to preachers from the Middle East focus on death and the punishments awaiting people who sin contributed to her almost obsessive fear of death.
The fear of dying unprepared consumes her. Simple daily events – phone beeps, a bird landing on her window, a light going out – are interpreted as signs from Allah to prepare herself for death.
Ben Ahmed, 45, a volunteer preacher from east Algiers, sees people coming to the mosque every day who can only see themselves as sinners.
“I guess this is a result of some hardliner preachers who would picture Allah as a punishing creator. These preachers would select some texts in which Islam tries to push people from committing grave sins, and then they would not mention how merciful Allah is,” he said.
A significant way to reduce death anxiety and intolerance is to assure people of divine love and justice, Ben Ahmed said.
“Preachers and imams should make worshippers build a positive relationship with Allah. The way to do this is to focus more on rewards Allah said He should give believers,” he said.
At the Al-Ibrahimi mosque, where the minaret reaches up to the sky from one of the highest points in Algiers, the service on this Friday concluded with a reminder of the need to prepare oneself for the next life.
Images of mercy angels and the soul ascending to heaven were mixed with images of death angels confronting believers regarding their life on Earth.
It is a delicate balance for religious communities, warning of the eternal consequences of doing bad, and encouraging their members to overcome what for many is their greatest fear – death.
But the world can be transformed the more love casts out fear, research finds.
For believers, doing good “is the best [reward] and extra,” according to the Qu’ran.
“No darkness will cover their faces, nor humiliation. Those are companions of Paradise; they will abide therein eternally.”
* Larbi Megari Is a television journalist and freelance writer based in Algeria.
ARDA National Profiles: View religious, demographic, socio-economic and public opinion data for all nations with populations of more than 2 million. Public opinion tab includes data on beliefs regarding life after death.
Henrie, James, and Hicks Patrick, Julie. Religiousness, Religious Doubt, and Death Anxiety. This article reports on a study finding religiousness was inversely associated with death anxiety, while religious doubt was positively associated with death anxiety.
Verhagen, Peter, Van Praag, Herman, Lopez-Ibor Jr., Juan Jose, Cox, John, and Moussaoui, Driss. Religion and Psychiatry: Beyond Boundaries.. This book takes a comprehensive look at the relation between religion and spirituality and mental health.
Mosque images copyright Larbi Megari
Image by Joshua Earle [CC0 Public Domain], via Pexels