Death and Religious Coping: Not What You Might Think

Posted March 17, 2009

I have often been told by faithful students and friends that atheists usually turn to God when death is imminent. They seem to think that atheists are just believers without motivation and all we need is a “change of heart”. I actually find it a little offensive and condescending when someone assumes that they are so right, I am so wrong, and someday I will “see the light”. Some even insist that Darwin had such a change of heart during his last moments, but that assertion remains unsupported by the evidence.

Well, I rarely say “never”, but I seriously doubt that I will suddenly start praying if something tragic occurs. I do not believe that I would be so hypocritical, nor do I believe that an all-knowing, all-loving God would appreciate such a foul-weather friend if he did exist.

Now I can say that the evidence is on my side.

A study just published in JAMA examined faith and treatment choices in cancer patients during their last year of life. The original article is limited in access, but I will include quotes here and you can find a discussion at USA Today.

Positive religious coping was measured through agreement with statements such as “seeking God’s love and care” and was recorded a median of 122 days before death; it was not a sudden turn at the end, but rather a “baseline” measure.

The findings: compared to participants low in positive religious coping, those high in coping sought more intensive life-prolonging care (ventilation and other emergency treatments). In regard to advanced planning, they were less likely to place a DNR (do not resuscitate) order or living will, more likely to request ventilation and other heroic measures. These relationships remained significant even after adjusting for several confounding variables such as demographic factors and other coping strategies.

Since there is little research into this, explanations for the findings are speculative, but the authors discuss some possibilities.

Religious copers may choose aggressive therapies because they believe that God could use the therapy to provide divine healing, or they hope for a miraculous cure while intensive medical care prolongs life.

They suggest several other possibilities, all of which are worthy of examination, including:

Religious copers may decide to undergo therapies with high risks and uncertain benefits because they trust that
God could heal them through the proposed treatment.

Intrinsic to positive religious coping is the idea of collaborating with God to overcome illness and positive transformation through suffering.

Regardless of the explanation, these findings are not suggestive of the deathbed conversion that so many assume non-believers experience. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. The faithful are more likely to turn to science to prolong the inevitable.

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