Research conducted at the University of British Columbia and Union College found that people's death anxiety was associated with support of intelligent design and rejection of evolutionary theory.
Death anxiety also influenced those in the study to report an increased liking for Michael Behe, a prominent proponent of intelligent design, and an increased disliking for Richard Dawkins, a well-known evolutionary biologist.
The findings suggest that people are motivated to believe in intelligent design and doubt evolutionary theory because of unconscious psychological motives.
The study was lead by UBC Psychology Assistant Professor Jessica Tracy and and UBC psychology PhD student Jason Martens. It was published in the March 30 issue of the open access journal PLoS ONE.
"Our results suggest that when confronted with existential concerns, people respond by searching for a sense of meaning and purpose in life," Tracy said. "For many, it appears that evolutionary theory doesn't offer enough of a compelling answer to deal with these big questions."
The research consisted of five studies with 1,674 U.S. and Canadian participants of different ages and educational, socioeconomic and religious backgrounds.
For their study, the researchers had one group of participants imagine their own death and then write about their feelings. Another group, which was used as a control condition, imaged pain from dental work and then wrote about that.
Then, participants read two excerpts from the writings of Behe and Dawkins. Neither excerpt made any mention of religion, but both described the scientific and empirical support for their respective positions.
Those who imagined their own death reported greater support for intelligent design and liking for Behe, compared to those who imagined dental pain.
In an interesting twist, during a fourth study participants read an excerpt from cosmologist and science writer Carl Sagan. The excerpt argued that naturalism, the belief that only natural forces exist in the world, could also provide a sense of meaning.
The participants who read this excerpt showed reduced belief in intelligent design after thinking about death compared to those who had not read the excerpt.
"These findings suggest that individuals can come to see evolution as a meaningful solution to existential concerns, but may need to be explicitly taught that taking a naturalistic approach to understanding life can be highly meaningful," Tracy said.
In contrast to the general population, a fifth study found that natural science students at graduate and undergraduate levels showed greater support for the theory of evolution and liking of Dawkins after thinking about death.
"Natural science students have been taught to view evolutionary theory as compatible with the desire to find a greater sense of meaning in life," Tracy explained. "Presumably, they already attain a sense of existential meaning from evolution."