Guest Post: Impact of Death on Beliefs about Intelligent Design and Evolution
Today I feature a guest post from Allison Gamble- "Allison Gamble has been a curious student of psychology since high school. She brings her understanding of the mind to work in the weird world of internet marketing with psychologydegree.net."
Humans have long had an innate curiosity about the world, and it is this attribute that separates man from beast. One of man's fundamental questions is the origin of the universe and of life itself. In explaining the “why” and “how” of man's existence, two of the major opposing viewpoints are intelligent design theory and evolutionary theory. Recently, Professor Jessica Tracy of the University of British Columbia in Canada published a study reviewing the implications of people's recognition of their own mortality on their belief in either intelligent design or evolutionary theory. It doesn't take a psychology degree to surmise what the conclusion of her findings illustrated; Dr. Tracy's research looked into the profound importance of an individual's belief structure in coping with his or her mortality. This article explores the significance of Dr. Tracy's recent findings.
Jessica Tracy on the Study of Existential Anxiety
Dr. Tracy published a paper in March 2011 exploring the effects of existential anxiety on a person's belief in either intelligent design or evolutionary theory. Dr. Tracy and her team hypothesized that people’s fear of death caused them to embrace the concept of intelligent design, specifically the belief in a supernatural force. Tracy examined this effect in different segments of the population, including psychology, natural sciences and general university students, as well as a sample of the non-academic population.
The research was carried out in five studies of more than a thousand Americans and Canadians of diverse social, economic, educational, and religious backgrounds. The respondents were asked to imagine dying and then explore their feelings regarding this traumatic event. A control group was used as a comparison and asked to imagine pain from a dental procedure, an event of considerable discomfort without the profound implication of existence.
After going through this thought process, the respondents read similarly styled excerpts by Professor Richard Dawkins advocating evolutionary theory and Professor Michael Behe supporting intelligent design. The respondents then answered questions about their views on the two theories. The impact of thoughts of mortality was then compared among the groups studied.
The first group discussed by Dr. Tracy was the group of psychology students, who were expected to have a core belief in evolution based on their training and curriculum. After pondering death, the students were found to have increased acceptance of intelligent design compared to the control group, without any change in their acceptance of evolution. The implication of this result is that mortality and existential concerns cause people to seek the comfort that intelligent design offered in a benevolent guiding force.
The second group discussed by Dr. Tracy was a group of undergraduate students from a broad range of fields. The students in this group who considered their mortality showed a greater acceptance of intelligent design and reduced acceptance of evolutionary theory compared to the control group. Again, considerations of mortality caused people to cling more to intelligent design, although additionally to reject evolution.
The third group explored was comprised of a varied mix of individuals from the general population. The results from this group were similar to the second group; namely, thoughts of death promoted belief in intelligent design and rejection of evolutionary theory.
The fourth group studied was given a third passage to consider by Carl Sagan, which suggested that existential meaning exists for mankind even in a world view based on scientific theory. Interestingly, this alternate passage caused a negative shift in attitudes towards intelligent design and a positive shift toward evolution. This result indicates that it is man's search for a larger meaning to existence that is key to providing comfort in the face of his own mortality.
The last group studied was a group of natural science students, who were expected to have naturalism as a core belief. The effect of mortality considerations actually led to an increased acceptance of evolutionary theory as a source of existential comfort, and a reduced acceptance of intelligent design.
Significance of the Study
The findings of Dr. Tracy's study indicate that people have an inherent need to find a larger meaning in their existence when faced with their own mortality. Furthermore, among the general populace particularly, it is intelligent design that provides the greatest comfort. In fact, in many individuals, far from providing comfort, evolution provides a comparatively bleak world view, potentially stirring feelings of despair. It is only a small subset of individuals adhering to a naturalistic view of the world who is able to find comfort in evolutionary theory. Furthermore, when examining religious backgrounds of individuals in the Dr. Tracy's studies, those following the Christian faith strongly favored the intelligent design theory.
It is clear from Dr. Tracy's study that intelligent design plays a critical importance in providing comfort and meaning to many individuals. Today's rapidly changing world has a tendency to leave a lot of people adrift, with depression and anxiety becoming rampant in society. As a result, it is important to present intelligent design theory as part of a comprehensive curriculum to spur within individuals a deeper exploration of self and with it, improved spiritual and psychological well-being.
Thank you Allison, very interesting.