Role of religion/faith and views of death and treatment

Andrew Sullivan links to an excerpt from a book (I haven’t read) “What you don’t know about religion but should” by Ryan Craqun on why people who are religious seem to have a harder time facing death:

A growing body of evidence seems to support the idea that the nonreligious have an easier time coping with death than do the religious, at least with their own mortality. Religious people appear to be more afraid of death than are nonreligious people. Nonreligious people are less likely to use aggressive means to extend their lives and exhibit less anxiety about dying than do religious people. That seems remarkably counterintuitive since the nonreligious are much less likely to believe in an afterlife, which is supposed to help people cope with death. But factor in that religious people are contemplating their eternal fate and it begins to make more sense. Even if they have done everything their religion says they are supposed to do, there is always a bit of uncertainty about where they might end up. As a result, religious people appear to have a greater fear of dying than do nonreligious people.

As a Christian who over the years has had quite a lot of experience at being the most liberal (or one of them anyway) person in a given Church, etc. I have long been fascinated by the seeming disconnect between stated beliefs and fear of death–especially as these fears relate to worries about whether one might have care “rationed” or denied to them. My awareness of this paradox was acute during the “death panel” lie/brouhaha during health reform.

I wrote a letter of intent for a proposal competition with Raymond Barfield, and oncologist at Duke to try and study this (Letter of Inquiry.NIHCM.DonTaylor.8.15.12 if anyone wants to run with it). We were going to develop a series of health care scenarios and have members of different groups discuss them (both faith groups and non faith groups; hypothesis was that the more religiously conservative, the more fearful of death and being denied last ditch treatments) and were going to observe the differences in the language and judgments that different groups used. Alas, it was not funded….this is likely one of those things I will never get around to studying. However, understanding the role of faith/religion in talking about limits in medicine and how to address same is a difficult issue in a polarized nation. If you are interested in this topic look up Charles Camosy at Fordham.

About Don Taylor
Professor of Public Policy (with appointments in Business, Nursing, Community and Family Medicine, and the Duke Clinical Research Institute), and Chair of the Academic Council at Duke University . I am one of the founding faculty of the Margolis Center for Health Policy. My research focuses on improving care for persons who are dying, and I am co-PI of a CMMI award in Community Based Palliative Care. I teach both undergrads and grad students at Duke. On twitter @donaldhtaylorjr

One Response to Role of religion/faith and views of death and treatment

  1. Jamkhed 2012 says:

    I actually had this conversation with a palliative care physician at Duke Med at the beginning of the year (she brought it up when I asked her what one of the challenges to working in the South, was relative to where she had previously worked). It came as a bit of a surprise to me and seemed very counterintuitive. She did, however, bring up a point I thought was rather interesting. She said that the more religious people viewed palliative care as a form of “giving up” on someone partly from a belief that if you pray hard enough, etc, God would heal the sick.

    Not sure if you’re interested, but I had a conversation with Rev. Bruce Puckett (Duke Chapel) and I’m pretty sure he is (or may have finished by now) writing a book on Christianity, death/dying, and how Christians should approach the subject in light of modern medical care. He may have some interesting insights.


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