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UBC Theses and Dissertations

How concerns of death affect scientific views : the existential underpinnings of support for intelligent design and discomfort with evolution Martens, Jason Peter


Intelligent design theory (IDT) has received support from the general public, educators, elected officials, and a minority of scientists, who advocate that it be taught alongside evolutionary theory (ET) in high school science classes. Correspondingly, ET has faced considerable opposition from these groups. Given the tremendous amount of scientific evidence supporting ET and the fact that IDT is inherently unscientific (AAAS, 2006) and lacks any empirical support, it is important to understand the underlying psychological motives that likely influence these views. We tested whether the popularity of IDT and antagonism toward ET might be partially accounted for by IDT’s more existentially satisfying explanation of life’s origins. In four studies, we found that reminders of death in a diverse range of participants increased acceptance of IDT and/or rejection of ET. These effects were reversed among participants who learned that naturalism, which underlies ET but not IDT, can be a source of transcendent meaning (Study 4), and among natural-science-student participants, for whom ET is an existentially meaningful worldview (Study 5). These reversals demonstrate that individuals’ tendency to respond to mortality salience by shifting their scientific beliefs is likely due to a search for transcendent meaning in response to existential threat. Finally, the failure to find effects of mortality salience on acceptance of IDT or ET among a sample of Christian club members (Study 6), who likely already hold an existentially satisfying worldview, is discussed. This research highlights the previously unrecognized factor that is causally related to the formation of scientific beliefs, and indicates when and for whom this factor is most likely to operate.

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