Eternal Torment Threat Management Theory

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This is a work in progress, currently in the early stages of development.

Introduction

My review of the literature on TMT (Terror Management Theory) has indicated that there is no adequate treatment of the key differences between the fear of death and the fear of eternal torment, which I will henceforth usually abbreviate as “ET”. These key differences are:

  1. Death is unavoidable, whereas ET is ostensibly avoidable if one does or believes the right things
  2. Death is universal to all living things; ET is for “them”, while heaven, we hope, is for “us”
  3. ET could be a far more terrifying concept than annihilation; there should prove to be clinical implications.

Of the three differences, the us/them dichotomy should prove to be the most socially significant.

I propose that these differences justify an additional theory, which we might call Eternal Torment Terror Management Theory (ETTMT).

Summary of the Scope and Purpose of This Document

As I began to review the extant literature on TMT (Terror Management Theory) and on correlations between belief in eternal torment (ET) and social behavior, I at first found the opposite of what I expected to find. I found studies that showed a positive correlation between a belief in ET and pro-social behavior. But this finding would turn out to lead my research to something much larger and more complex than I’d originally expected to find.

It appears that the belief in and/or fear of ET may not promote pro-social behavior, as some have theorized, but only pro-ingroup behavior, while reinforcing hostility towards outgroups. Most obviously relevant to contemporary international relations would be the hostility and conflict between Islamic and Christian communities. However, I will propose that the doctrine of ET contributes to a range of destructive intergroup phenomena that is exponentially broader than that. Or, as I intend to frame it in a planned follow-up work (See: http://ettmt.com/finished), the “need and opportunity for reconciliation” is far grander, and goes much deeper than any of the more soundbite-worthy conflicts favored by facile media trends. See this paragraph further down on this same page for more detail on that.

Further research is needed to better establish correlations between the fear of ET and intergroup hostility and conflict. Many of the central hypotheses put forth in ETTMT would not be difficult to research, even experimentally. Experimental research could determine a causal relationship by utilizing, for example, priming and implicit behavioral measurements.

More importantly, however, the establishment of a relationship between the belief in ET and intergroup hostility would justify a call to specific action, funded by social impact investments from humanitarians of every ilk.

The following summary will provide the theoretical frameworks for a full spectrum of social harm that may result from the widespread belief in ET, and it will suggest a viable and specific response from the humanitarian community.

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Initial Summary of Hypotheses & Suggested Humanitarian Responses

I propose the following:

  1. The widespread doctrine of an all-powerful God who will subject many, if not most, human beings to eternal torment causes tremendous social harm. The following pages will provide theoretical frameworks that could link the belief in eternal torment (ET) to the following range of social and psychological responses: us-vs-them mentality, groupthink, intergroup conflict, cognitive dissonance, punitiveness, judgmental attitude, support for authoritarianism, the belief that “might makes right”, support for torture, support for capital punishment, submissiveness and susceptibility to manipulation, intellectual paralysis (or “closed-mindedness”), terrorism, xenophobia, racism, fear, anxiety, bibliolatry, legalism, apocalypticism, and distrust of the universe/reality/existence.
  2. There is a viable alternative doctrine, the viability of which is demonstrated partially by its widespread acceptance within Judeo-Christian populations both contemporary and historical. That is the doctrine of Universal Reconciliation (UR), otherwise referred to as Christian Universalism. The viability of the doctrine is established by a multitude of factors besides its adoption by religious communities. See, for example, my succinct article at https://owlcation.com/humanities/Why-I-Dont-Believe-in-an-Eternal-Hell, The Argument from Beauty on my blog, or the massive collection of resources and information at https://tentmaker.org/
  3. It is possible to persuade many people to accept the alternative, and doing so would mitigate tremendous social harm.
  4. Perhaps a majority of Christian believers in ET are ready to accept UR, but they are simply not aware of it, or are certainly not aware of its viability from scriptural, historical, linguistic, and philosophical standpoints. Most Christians today may already accept UR to some degree on a subconscious level, but reject it on a conscious level. This inner conflict (cognitive dissonance) itself is the root of additional psychological and social ills.
  5. Targeted outreach through PPC (search engine and social media) and organic digital marketing (SEO and SMM) may be the most effective means of popularizing UR, and of bringing about widespread awareness of both its existence and its viability for Christian individuals and communities.
  6. Funding for such outreach is needed, and after further research, could be justified for social impact.
  7. Many of the central hypotheses put forth in ETTMT would not be difficult to research, even experimentally. Experimental research could include, for example, the use of priming and implicit behavioral measurement. The results of such experimental and non-experimental research would provide sufficient evidence to justify such funding.
  8. A cogent demonstration of the points above should be used to secure a broad base of support from many social impact investors and humanitarians both inside and outside the UR movement, and even outside the Christian faith.

In the pages that follow, I will attempt to persuade the reader of the need for further research into each of the points above. I will also describe research methodologies that can be used for those purposes, and I will further discuss possible ways of marshaling a strong and effective humanitarian response.

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Point I

The widespread doctrine of an all-powerful God who will subject many, if not most, human beings to eternal torment causes tremendous social harm. This is especially manifested via an us-vs-them mentality, groupthink, intergroup conflict, cognitive dissonance, punitiveness, judgmental attitudes, support for authoritarianism, the belief that “might makes right”, support for torture, support for capital punishment, submissiveness and susceptibility to manipulation, intellectual paralysis (closed-mindedness), terrorism, xenophobia, racism, fear, anxiety, bibliolatry, legalism, apocalypticism, and distrust of the universe/reality/existence.”

There are a variety of theoretical frameworks, novel and established, with which to frame the various types of social harm proposed to result from the doctrine of eternal torment (ET).

  1. Key Differentiator Framework

The novel theoretical framework involved has already been stated. It can be summarized by reiterating that death is universal and unavoidable, whereas eternal torment (abbreviated “ET” going forward), as traditionally understood in evangelical Christianity, is for “them”, not for “us”, and it is avoidable. The “us”, in this context of evangelical Christianity, refers to all Christians who believe and practice “the right way”. In the same context, “them” refers to all non-Christians, or even those who call themselves Christians, but do not believe or practice “correctly”.

In theory, these crucial differences may take the usual dynamics of TMT, but add elements of intergroup conflict that are not present in TMT, based on its addition of an ingroup/outgroup dynamic not present in TMT.

Such intergroup conflict could play out in a variety of ways:

    • Extreme political ideologies
    • Extreme religious beliefs and behaviors
    • Groupthink
    • Racism
    • Xenophobia
    • Intergroup violence, including terrorism
    • Judgmental, biased, or prejudiced attitudes and behaviors
    • Self-serving bias
  1. Socialization

Socialization is an already well-established theoretical framework. Essentially, it states that humans can and often do learn beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors by watching others, especially others who are parental or authority figures.

I think that the idea of socialization can be extended to a person’s conception of the divine. In this sense, one’s mental image of “God” becomes an additional parental/authority figure, and one thus tends to learn attitudes and behaviors from what God “does” (aka, what they believe God to be doing). In other words, to some extent, we become what we worship.

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It is not difficult to imagine the types of social harm that could result from such “divine socialization” with a God who eternally torments people:

    • An attitude or belief that “might makes right”; a view, therefore, that justice, in some sense, is arbitrary
    • Punitiveness
    • Support for torture
    • Support for the death penalty
    • The implicit belief that violence is acceptable or even “Godly”
  1. Cognitive Dissonance and Existential Inauthenticity

Cognitive dissonance is another theoretical framework that has been well-studied. For believers in ET, cognitive dissonance is inherent in the conception of divinity. For example, most Christians would agree with the statement, drawn from the Christian scriptures, that “God is Love”. In Islam, likewise, Allah is called “The Merciful”. It should be readily apparent that an extreme cognitive dissonance exists between holding a belief in an all-loving, all-merciful God, and holding a belief in a God who torments humans for a literal eternity.

I will discuss cognitive dissonance as contrasting with the existentialist construct of “authenticity”. I propose that in one sense, authenticity involves a degree of coherence between one’s various beliefs, between one’s beliefs/attitudes and behavior, and between one’s behavior in one context with one’s behavior in a differing context. Framing authenticity as containing the aforementioned elements, cognitive dissonance can be framed as an element of existential inauthenticity.

I will propose that the cognitive dissonance that results from the simultaneous holding of extreme opposites in the conception of the divine (all-loving vs. as cruel as is possible to imagine) is so widespread through Western civilization both contemporary and historical that it constitutes an existential inauthenticity so pervading Western culture that existential inauthenticity could be seen as a key element of the Western zeitgeist.

  1. Existential Anxiety

The existential anxiety that can result from a belief in eternal torment could, for many individuals, be far more overwhelming than the anxiety that results from a belief in annihilation. Research could investigate links between such intense anxiety and the following responses:

    • Intellectual paralysis, colloquially known as “closed-mindedness”.

I think that extant research on the Openness to Experience construct from Costa and McCrae’s ubiquitous Five Factor Model (FFM) of personality could end up providing excellent support for an inverse relationship between intense existential anxiety and Openness to Experience.

    • Submissiveness and/or Susceptibility to Manipulation

A relationship between fear, submissiveness, and susceptibility to manipulation is well established by history and by research. Fear is often used, for example, by governments against their own citizens in State Terrorism, with the intent to manipulate and control.

    • Generalized Fear and Anxiety

Existential anxiety could be thought to contribute to generally fearful/anxious personality types in individuals, or even to clinical anxiety disorders. Clinical anxiety disorders, and even sub-clinical levels of anxiety as a personality factor, contribute negatively to the

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lives of both anxious individuals and the people who relate to them in any capacity. Thus, anxiety, when it is not adaptive, is detrimental on both an individual (clinical or  psychological) basis and a social and sociological basis.

    • A fear of, or even a strong belief in ET will likely be easily demonstrated to correlate or even cause bibliolatry, legalism, apocalypticism, and distrust in the universe/reality/existence. Each of these phenomena are subjects of with profound and broad implications, and a great deal of writing and study has been done on them to date. I will look further into how these phenomena not only alienate believers in ET from their doctrinal “Other”, but alienate their doctrinal Other from them. In other words, things like bibliolatry, legalism, apocalypticism, and even the belief in ET itself are major factors that create negative attitudes toward Christians and Muslims among numerous individuals within certain demographics, including, but not limited to: atheists, agnostics, scientists—Christians/Muslims and these other demographics are not all mutually exclusive—, humanists, humanitarians, “New Age” practitioners of myriad kinds, Neo-Pagans, indigenous pantheistic/animistic traditional religions from all over the world, Buddhists, and Hindus.

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Arndt, Jamie, and Matthew Vess. “Tales from Existential Oceans: Terror Management Theory and How the Awareness of Our Mortality Affects Us All.” Social and Personality Psychology Compass 2, no. 2 (March 2008): 909–28.

https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2008.00079.x

Dalsklev, Madeleine, and Jonas Rønningsdalen Kunst. “The Effect of Disgust-Eliciting Media

Portrayals on Outgroup Dehumanization and Support of Deportation in a Norwegian Sample.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 47 (July 2015): 28–40.

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijintrel.2015.03.028 .

Fergus, Thomas A., and David P. Valentiner. “Terror Management Theory and Scrupulosity: An

Experimental Investigation.” Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders 1, no. 2 (April 2012): 104–11. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jocrd.2012.01.003 .

Friedman, Mike, and W. Steven Rholes. “Successfully Challenging Fundamentalist Beliefs Results in Increased Death Awareness.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 43, no. 5 (September 2007): 794–801. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2006.07.008 .

Greenberg, Jeff, and Spee Kosloff. “Terror Management Theory: Implications for Understanding

Prejudice, Stereotyping, Intergroup Conflict, and Political Attitudes.” Social and Personality Psychology Compass 2, no. 5 (September 2008): 1881–94.

https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2008.00144.x .

Greenberg, Jeff, Linda Simon, Tom Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon, and Dan Chatel. “Terror

Management and Tolerance: Does Mortality Salience Always Intensify Negative Reactions to Others Who Threaten One’s Worldview?,” n.d., 9.

Jonas, Eva, and Peter Fischer. “Terror Management and Religion: Evidence That Intrinsic

Religiousness Mitigates Worldview Defense Following Mortality Salience.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 91, no. 3 (2006): 553–67. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.91.3.553 .

Pargament, Kenneth I. “The Bitter and the Sweet: An Evaluation of the Costs and Benefits of

Religiousness.” Psychological Inquiry 13, no. 3, (2002): 168–81.

Paul, Gregory. “The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional

Psychosociological Conditions.” Evolutionary Psychology 7, no. 3 (July 2009): 147470490900700. https://doi.org/10.1177/147470490900700305 .

Shariff, Azim F., and Lara B. Aknin. “The Emotional Toll of Hell: Cross-National and Experimental Evidence for the Negative Well-Being Effects of Hell Beliefs.” Edited by Pablo Branas-Garza. PLoSONE 9, no. 1 (January 22, 2014): e85251. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0085251 .

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