Exploring the Existential Function of Religion: The Effect of Religious Fundamentalism and Mortality Salience on Faith-Based Medical Refusals

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terror management theory, religious fundamentalism, faith-based medical refusals, search for meaning in life

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Decisions to rely on religious faith over medical treatment for health conditions represent an important but understudied phenomenon. In an effort to understand some of the psychological underpinnings of such decisions, the present research builds from terror management theory to examine whether reminders of death motivate individuals strongly invested in a religious worldview (i.e., fundamentalists) to rely on religious beliefs when making medical decisions. The results showed that heightened concerns about mortality led those high in religious fundamentalism to express greater endorsement of prayer as a medical substitute (Study 1) and to perceive prayer as a more effective medical treatment (Study 2). Similarly, high fundamentalists were more supportive of religiously motivated medical refusals (Study 3) and reported an increased willingness to rely on faith alone for medical treatment (Study 4) following reminders of death. Finally, affirmations of the legitimacy of divine intervention in health contexts functioned to solidify a sense of existential meaning among fundamentalists who were reminded of personal mortality (Study 5). The existential importance of religious faith and the health-relevant implications of these findings are discussed.

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Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, v. 97, issue 2, p. 334-350