Not Ready to Meet their Maker?

May 12, 2009 | By | 6 Replies More

arlington-cemeteryReading through my back issues of the Economist, I came across this article from March. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association religious people with terminal cancer seem curiously unwilling and unready to die.

According to the study, by Andrea Phelps and her colleagues at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, religious people seem to use their faith simply to cope with the pain and degradation involved in treatment, and that they are more willing to experiment with more aggressive treatments, even though such treatment rarely makes much difference to the outcome or their life expectancy.

Dr Phelps and her team followed the last months of 345 cancer patients. The participants were not asked directly how religious they were but, rather, about how they used any religious belief they had to cope with difficult situations by, for example, “seeking God’s love and care”. The score from this questionnaire was compared with their requests for such things as the use of mechanical ventilation to keep them alive and resuscitation to bring them back from the dead.

According to the study, three times as many ‘religious’ people requested aggressive life extension measures (mechanical ventilation and resuscitation) versus the least religious.

I would expect that the religious would be happy to eventually ‘meet their maker’ – but I suppose this is yet another aspect of the cognitive dissonance we find among religion and it’s adherents.


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Category: Health, Noteworthy, Religion

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I'm a technophile with an enduring interest in almost anything real or imagined. I suffer fools badly, and love trashy science fiction, plot-free action movies, playing guitar, and baking (especially scones. You haven't lived 'til you've eaten my scones. I've recently undertaken bread, and am now in danger of gaining in a matter of weeks the 60 pounds I've lost in the past 2 years). My wife & I are Scottish, living north of Atlanta, GA, with two children, one dog, and a growing collection of gadgets. I work for a living.

Comments (6)

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  1. Mindy Carney says:

    I find this fascinating. One would think that the less religious you are, the more likely you are to be certain that this life is the one and only chance you've got – and therefore would want to prolong it as long as possible, yes? Not only would you think the religious folk would look forward to meeting their Maker, they'd also be giddy at the thought of reaching Heaven in the very near future. I understand all the reasons anyone would NOT want to die, but when the end is inevitable, wouldn't it be easier to embrace if you were "certain" of your future on the streets paved with gold?

    I'll propose one theory. I think very religious people often believe that if they can just hold out one more day, one more hour – God will grant them the miracle they seek and they will be spontaneously cured. That would "prove" how awe-inspiringly amazing their God is, once and for all. And after all, they've lived their lives professing to believe in Him above all else, so why would He not grant them their miracles?

    A friend watched this happen to a family member once – even after this person had slipped into a final coma, members of the church were gathering around insisting that the miracle was just around the corner, that death would be staved off at any moment. They couldn't let go of that idea, even as she was dying in front of them. I find that not just a little disturbing, but also very sad.

    Seems to have taken much of the dignity out of the death, and you've got to wonder how those folks rationalized it when she did die – if they were so absolutely certain that their God was going to save this person, how did they explain the death? Why didn't God agree with them? If this was all part of God's plan, why were they so positive it wouldn't happen? Did God lie? Did the comatose person do something while unconscious to offend God and thus lose the miracle?

    I mean, I know what they'd say. "It was her time, God needed her at His side, everything happens for a reason, we're not meant to understand God's mysteries." What if they acknowledged that perhaps they just didn't pray hard enough? No, because that would insinuate that they had power over God's actions. Really? Doesn't that seem a bit grandiose, to believe one has power over the actions of an omnipotent being? And if they don't, what good did the praying for the miracle do in the first place? But more than that, they professed such certainty that God wouldn't let this member of his flock die, but He did, only hours later. And the godbots, as someone put it, always explain it away by falling back on the "it is not our place to understand God."

    That must make life so much easier, to not be compelled to understand. I wish I could do that, every time I don't understand something. To just say, "It is not my place to understand why my electric drill keeps angling off to the left," or "It is my not place to understand why my 11-yr.-old seems to be allergic to bathing," and just let it go, never to worry about it again. Whew. If only.

  2. Tony Coyle says:


    Initially, I had thought this was strange, but for one thing – the most consistent part of religious behavior is their deferral to authority and desire for miracles (wishful thinking). In light of that they'll wish for miracles, accept whatever happens, and in fact blame themselves for any perceived failing.

    Hanging on and using everything at their disposal while waiting for a miracle reminds me of this truly bad joke… (I apologize in advance)

    A woman is trapped by a flood – marooned on top of her roof in the middle of nowhere. She prays to god to save her, as she sees the waters rising.A man comes by in a canoe and offers to take her with him. She refuses saying "God will save me".The waters continue to rise.Sometime passes, then another man comes by in a rowboat. He too offers to help her. She again refuses, saying "God will provide"The waters rise further, and she is now perched on top of the chimney stack. A helicopter hovers overhead, and the winch-man comes down to rescue her, but she refuses, saying "My faith is in the lord – he shall provide".As the waters rise further, she eventually drowns.When she gets to heaven, she speaks to Peter at the gates and asks "I've always been a good god-fearing woman! Why didn't god save me?". Peter replies "We sent a canoe, a boat and a helicopter! How much more help did you want?"

    The moral is supposed to be something along the lines of "god helps those who helps themselves" or "god works in mysterious ways" or some such. My take on this (the true story) is that deeply religious people believe more in imaginary miracles than they do in real life.

  3. sosman says:

    Mindy – your comment gels with some analysis at

    Religious people are apparently more optimistic they are going to survive and it seems they don't want to spoil the party by croaking before the miracle occurs.

  4. Erika Price says:

    Most religious people, save the totally deluded, are truly agnostic (just as most atheists are). People who adhere to religion must deep-down admit to themselves that they cannot know for certain that a God and Heaven exists. Despite their lack of certainty, most casual theists probably don't dwell on the topic of mortality without afterlife very often- it's so depressing, and so counter to their faith. So while atheists have to entertain the possibility of a nothingness after death for their whole lives, agnostic theists may only face the nothingness when their death is imminent. When they will soon face the ultimate "answer" of what follows death, their lack of 100% faith is much more obvious, and they truly have to face their long-held doubts. That's my gut reaction to this post; who knows what the actual experience is like.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Erika: I agree with your there. The population of religious believers is full of closet agnostics, and that could explain. Maybe they're not so certain after all.

  5. Alison says:

    I think there could be another reason as well – when you've spent so much time imagining eternal life, facing the end of the only life you know can be even more frightening. No matter how strongly you believe that your soul will never die, having your body die is jarringly at odds with that.

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