Jacob Sawyer, Penn State Mont Alto – A Comparison of Atheists and Believers during Bereavement

Is a belief in God necessary for coping with the death of a loved one?

Jacob Sawyer, assistant professor of psychology at Penn State Mont Alto, explores this question.

Dr. Jacob Sawyer received his Ph.D. in counseling psychology from Columbia University. He worked as a staff psychologist prior to his current position.

A Comparison of Atheists and Believers during Bereavement

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How do atheists respond to the death of a loved one? This is a topic that has not received much attention in psychological research, despite the recent growth of atheists and other nonbelievers in the U.S.  

Many assume that belief in God or gods is helpful, or even necessary, for coping during bereavement. While many do find comfort during bereavement based on their belief, negative outcomes have been found for those who believe they are being punished by God, their prayers have not been heard, or who experience anger towards God.

Since nonbelievers would not experience these reactions that lead to negative outcomes during bereavement for believers, I wanted to compare reactions between atheists and believers who have experienced the death of a close friend or family member in the past two years.  Specifically, I compared levels of posttraumatic growth (defined as perceived positive changes as a result of challenging or traumatic events), complicated grief (which is a prolonged grief response that differs from typical mourning), and symptoms of depression and anxiety. I also examined the role of meaning.

Results of this study suggested that there were significant differences between atheists and believers in this sample for all variables of interest. Belief in God or gods was positively related to higher levels of posttraumatic growth during bereavement, but belief was also related to higher levels of complicated grief and symptoms of depression and anxiety. The search for meaning during bereavement was also found to be related to higher levels of posttraumatic growth in believers, but not atheists.

More research is necessary to examine specific factors that help to explain these differences, however, it would be a myth to believe that atheists are somehow at a disadvantage to deal with death and loss compared to believers.

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