Printer Friendly

Defensive versus existential religion: is religious defensiveness predictive of worldview defense?

Beck (2004) has recently argued that, although existential defensiveness may motivate some religious persons, existential engagement is compatible with religious belief. More specifically, Beck (2004) has argued that "defensive believers" tend to adopt theological configurations mainly aimed at producing existential solace and consolation. Consequently, one of Beck's (2004) contentions is that "defensive believers" would display in-group bias in order to preserve the integrity of their worldview. By contrast, "existential believers," due to their existential engagement, are predicted to display less in-group bias. This article presents two empirical studies aimed at testing these characterizations. First, in Study 1 a measure of existential defensiveness, the Defensive Theology Scale, was constructed and then compared with measures of Quest religious motivation and religious pluralism. Study 2, a laboratory study, borrowed a common experimental procedure from Terror Management Theory research. Specifically, defensive and existential participants were moved through a mortality salience manipulation with subsequent ratings of in-group and out-group targets. Overall, the results of Studies 1 and 2 supported Beck's (2004) characterizations. That is, religiously defensive participants scored lower on Quest motives and displayed the tendency to see in-group targets more favorably than out-group targets. Conversely, existential participants scored higher on Quest motives and tended to see in-group and out-group targets as equally attractive or capable.


Ever since Freud, social scientists have speculated as to the motives behind religious belief. Freud's cynical critique suggested that religious faith was fundamentally a form of wishful thinking. To be sure, the fact that the Christian faith posits a blessed and eternal life to be enjoyed by the faithful has always struck critics of religion to be the epitome of wishful thinking. But how can the religious believer offer proof to the contrary, evidence that one's faith is not simply a naive wish? In the empirical realm of psychological research, the protestations of the faithful will never be considered unbiased, objective data. Given the seeming intractable nature of this critique (Who is totally objective about their motives for faith?) it seems Freud's diagnosis of religious motives--wishful thinking--will linger on until objective evidence to the contrary is presented.

Defensive versus existential religion

A recent theory by Beck (2004) suggests a route to assess the role of defensiveness in religious faith. Building upon recent work in the area of Terror Management Theory (TMT; for a comprehensive empirical and theoretical review see Greenburg, Solomon, & Pyszczynski, 1997), Beck (2004) has proposed that religious motives may be dichotomized according to the degree to which a believer uses her faith to repress existential anxiety. Building upon the work of Ernest Becker (1973) and other existential theorists, TMT suggests that people construct and deploy cultural worldviews to deal with their finiteness and eventual death. Cultural worldviews, religion included, provide us with death-denying modes of existence, paths to achieving significance, meaning, and purpose. Think of the person who spends his life trying to "get ahead" in the world of business. Only vaguely is he aware of the nagging question: Why? Rarely in life are these existential questions asked. Rarer still are they answered. People mostly accept these cultural routes to "significance" unconsciously and reflexively. And religious faith is often no different. Faith can be socialized into a person as easily as secular standards or values.

Given that cultural and religious worldviews provide meaning and purpose, worldviews are defended in the face of existential threat. TMT theorists call this "worldview defense." Specifically, when we feel existentially vulnerable we must reinforce and defend the worldview that provides existential orientation and solace. Worldview defense is most often observed in the laboratory when subjects are asked to contemplate their own death (the mortality salient condition) and then rate in-group and out-group targets (people who either support or undermine the worldview of the subject). In these studies, subjects who contemplate death are harsher toward out-group targets (e.g., seeing them as less able, less intelligent, or dishonest) relative to in-group targets (e.g., seeing them as talented, intelligent, and honest). Thus, according to TMT, one source of intolerance in our world is existential threat and subsequent worldview defense: When faced with death or mortality we lash out at those who do not share our cherished beliefs and values. Further, when existentially unsettled we are also biased toward viewing those who share our values as more righteous and correct than they may actually be.

TMT theory and research has profound implications for religious faith. Specifically, in one study (Greenberg, Pyszczynski, Solomon, Rosenblatt, Veeder, Kirkland, et al., 1990), Christian subjects who were made to reflect on their eventual death were harsher in rating Jewish targets than subjects who did not reflect on death. That is, mortality salience produced anti-Semitic behavior. Presumably, this is because when faced with death the Christian subjects felt the existential need to "know they were right" which lead to the denigration of someone holding a different worldview. Consequently, in this study at least, it appeared that religious faith was basically motivated by existential fear, the need to repress death anxiety. Perhaps religious faith is, fundamentally, wishful thinking.

However, Beck (2004) has argued that TMT theorists have largely disregarded the potential for a life to be lived and a faith to be nurtured in full existential awareness. Simply put, faith can be held in the face of death rather than as a denial of death. However, Beck (2004) argues that existential defensiveness might be an influential motive for many believers. Consequently, Beck (2004) describes two modes of religious motivation called existential religion and defensive religion.

Defensive religion. Defensive religion is characterized largely by existential defensiveness, a faith deployed to avoid or minimize existential predicaments (e.g., death, meaninglessness). William James (1902/1958) characterized this as a faith commitment devoted toward producing happy, peaceful thoughts: a faith of positivity and upbeat optimism. Given the primary role of existential repression in this mode of faith, Freud's concerns about religion might ring true for these believers. That is, a primary motive in this type of faith is the production of existential solace, comfort, and consolation.

However, we should hasten to add that this does not imply that the defensive believer's faith is misplaced or untrue. It simply describes the function of the faith system (i.e., existential repression), it does not characterize the accuracy of the faith system. That is, people believe in God for a variety of reasons but those reasons do not have any bearing upon the status of God's existence. Psychology does not determine ontology. Further, an upbeat and convicted approach to religion might translate into passionate pro-social activity and ministry. If so, then "defensiveness," regardless of Beck's (2004) label and characterization, might prove to be a dynamic and powerful faith experience. In short, Beck's (2004) theory deals with only a very thin slice--the role of existential solace--of the religious experience. As such, Beck's (2004) theory, if taken in isolation, could lead to an unbalanced view of religious faith. This issue will be revisited later in the General Discussion.

Given the role of existential defensiveness in this defensive style of faith, Beck (2004) draws upon TMT research to suggest that believers characterized by this type of faith will engage in worldview defense. That is, these believers will tend to be strongly convicted that they are "right" and that those who disagree with them are "wrong." They should also display the existential defense mechanism of specialness. That is, they will tend to see themselves as protected, unusually blessed, and as having access to special insights or knowledge. All this is motivated to repress existential moments when we feel that we are, at times, small, frail creatures who find the universe, even with God in it, confusing and perplexing.

Existential religion. In contrast to defensive religion, Beck (2004) characterized existential religion as a reluctance to quickly adopt religion "solutions" to existential predicaments. Existential religion is a mode of faith but it is a faith that is willing to sit with or even embrace the confusions, doubts, and anxieties of belief. That is, existential believers possess faith but fully face the fact that faith is, well, faith. Faith is not knowledge or certainty. Kierkegaard (1843/1986) characterized this type of faith as a "leap" undertaken with "fear and trembling." This "trembling" is simply the consequence of not allowing faith to drift into a form of knowledge. As such, doubt remains a constant companion along the faith journey. Given this faith configuration, where no guarantees are attached to faith, the existential predicament of death remains present and unrepressed.

The benefits and costs of this existential faith stance are clear. Given that death and other existential predicaments are not quickly resolved or repressed, the existential believer will struggle more with doubts and uncertainties. Thus, there is an emotional toll for this type of faith. William James (1902/1958) characterized it as a sick soul, but he also recognized the existential resiliency of this type of belief. The honesty of existential faith is painful, but it is also, according to James, reality-based and, hence, more difficult to knock off its feet. Further, since existential faith is not clung to as a final Truth, it remains open to revision and change (Batson, Schoenrade, & Ventis, 1993). As a consequence, out-group members--those with different worldviews--are approached in a curious rather than suspicious manner.

The present study: An empirical test of the defensive/existential distinction

Currently, Beck's (2004) distinction between the existential and defensive modes of belief is only a theory. No empirical tests of the theory's characterizations have been undertaken. This study was an attempt to test Beck's (2004) theory in both a correlational and a laboratory study. Specifically, a scale, the Defensive Theology Scale, was developed in Study 1 to operationalize the defensive mode of religion. Scores on the Defensive Theology Scale were then correlated with measures of Quest religious motives and measures of religious pluralism (acceptance of the validity of other belief systems). Quest motives have been extensively researched in the psychology of religion literature (Batson, Schoenrade, & Ventis, 1993). Specifically, Quest motives are associated with openness to change, tolerance of doubt, and existential inquisitiveness. Thus, the predictions for Study 1, following Beck (2004), were straightforward: Defensive religion would be negatively correlated with Quest and religious pluralism.

Study 2 was a laboratory study that was, essentially, a standard replication of TMT studies. Specifically, after completing the Defensive Theology Scale, Christian participants were randomly assigned to either a mortality salient (where they were asked to essay about their eventual death) or mortality non-salient (where they were asked to essay about an innocuous subject) condition. Participants were then asked to read and rate two essays written ostensibly by a Christian (in-group target) and a Buddhist (out-group target) student author. Following Beck (2004), the following predictions were made. First, the defensive participants were predicted to display worldview defense in the face of the existential manipulation. That is, when mortality is salient, these subjects are predicted to favor the in-group target relative to the out-group target. In contrast, it was predicted that the existential participants (those with low defensiveness) would see the authors as equally attractive and capable regardless of morality salience. This is believed to be due to the fact, according to Beck (2004), that existential believers are more interested in out-group members regardless of existential threat.


The first goal of Study 1 was the construction of the Defensive Theology Scale (DTS), an instrument intended to operationalize Beck's (2004) characterization of defensive religion. The next goal, after constructing and assessing the psychometrics of the DTS, was to conduct preliminary tests of Beck's (2004) description of defensive religion. Specifically, DTS scores were correlated with Quest motives and measures of religious pluralism (acceptance of the validity of other belief systems).


Participants were 157 undergraduate students enrolled in psychology classes at Abilene Christian University (ACU). ACU is a Christian institution of higher education (approximately 4,800 students) located in Abilene, TX. ACU is affiliated with the Churches of Christ.

Fifty-nine percent of the sample was female and predominately Caucasian (72.6%). Fifty-two percent of the sample was affiliated with the Church of Christ, 26.1% identified themselves as non-denominational, 14% identified themselves as Baptists, 3.8% were Catholic, and 2.5% were Methodist. The mean age of the participants was 18.59 (SD = 1.36).

Construction of the Defensive Theology Scale

According to Beck (2004), religious faith that represses existential predicaments should be characterized by a sense of specialness and the view that the universe is well ordered, benevolent and predictable. Thus, the Defense Theology Scale (DTS) items were drafted to capture those themes. Specifically, DTS items assessed five themes: Special protection (e.g., "I believe God protects me from illness and misfortune," "I believe that fewer bad things will happen to me in this life because God is protecting me from harm"); Special Insight (e.g., "God gives me clear and obvious signs to communicate His will to me," "When making a choice or tough decision, God gives me clear answers and direction"); Divine Solicitousness ("Nothing is too small, like finding my lost keys, to pray to God about," "If you have deep faith and pure motives God will grant even your smallest requests"); Special Destiny ("God has a very specific plan for my life that I must search for and find," "God has a destiny for me to find and fulfill"), and Denial of Randomness ("Every event around us is a sign of God's larger plans and purposes," "God controls every event around us, down to the smallest details"). In short, an individual with a high score on the DTS would feel "special" in the sense of: being protected from harm or illness; being in direct communication with God; believing that God is especially solicitous of the individual's requests or that God has a destiny planned for him or her; and that the small events of life are filled with clear purpose and meaning. According to Beck (2004) this theological configuration appears to be motivated by one over-riding concern: Consolation. That is, such a person should feel insulated from the worries, uncertainties, and randomness that surround us. Conversely, those scoring low on the DTS would display contrary trends. Specifically, these "existential" believers claim no special protection, insight, or destiny. This is not to say that existential believers believe that God cannot or will not help, protect, or direct. Rather, these believers simply recognize that the "rain falls equally on the just and the unjust."

The Defense Theology Scale, with rating scale and instructions, is presented in the Appendix. In this sample, the DTS generated an internal consistency estimate of .86. In addition, an exploratory factor analysis of the 22 DTS items indicated that a single factor best accounted for the variance among the DTS items.

Other assessment instruments

Religion as Quest. The version of Batson's Interactional Scale used in this study was his most recent 12-item measure (Batson & Schoenrade, 1991). The Interactional Scale is a self-report scale where participants rate their item endorsement on a 1 to 9 Likert scale. As mentioned earlier, the Interactional/Quest Scale, assesses three dimensions: Readiness to face existential questions, perception of doubt as positive, and openness to change. Although Batson drafted the Quest items to capture these themes, the scale is summed to yield a single score. Overall, then, a high score on the Interactional scale is believed to reflect greater existential orientation as defined by Batson's three Quest themes of Readiness to face existential questions, perception of doubt as positive, and openness to change. In this sample the Interactional Scale yielded an alpha coefficient of .79.

Religious pluralism. Two subscales from The Multidimensional Quest Orientation Scale (MQOS; Beck & Jessup, 2004) were used to assess religious pluralism (acceptance of the validity of other belief systems). Although Quest is generally assessed as a unidimensional construct, the MQOS was developed for researchers interested in assessing discrete Quest features. Specifically, the MQOS is comprised of nine subscales assessing various Quest dimensions: Tentativeness, change, ecumenism, universality, exploration, moralistic interpretation, religious angst, complexity, and existential motives. Each item is rated on a 1 to 7 Likert scale (1 = Strongly disagree, 4 = Neutral, 7 = Strongly Agree). To assess religious pluralism in this study only the ecumenism (8 items) and universality (4 items) subscales were used. The ecumenism subscale assesses an individual's acceptance of the theological validity (i.e., acceptable to God) of Christian denominations other than one's own (e.g., Baptist, Catholic, Methodist). The Universality subscale assesses the degree to which a person endorses the theological validity of major world religions (e.g., Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism). That is, high scores on the Universality subscale reflect the belief that all major world religions are theologically legitimate paths to God. In this sample, the ecumenism and universality subscales generated internal consistency estimates of .87 and .90 respectively.


As preliminary test of Beck's (2004) characterization of defensive religion, the DTS was correlated with the Quest measure and the ecumenism and universality subscales of the MQOS. The zero-order correlations are presented in Table 1. As can be seen in Table 1, Beck's (2004) characterizations were partly supported. Specifically, the DTS and the Quest measure were negatively correlated. That is, those whose religious life was dominated by a sense of "specialness" were less characterized by Quest motives. This association is consistent with Beck's (2004) model. However, as can also be observed in Table 1, DTS scores were unrelated to the measures of religious pluralism. This trend was contrary to expectations. However, reflecting back upon Terror Management Theory research, this trend might be explained by a lack of mortality salience. That is, in prior research (Greenberg, Pyszczynski, Solomon, Rosenblatt, Veeder, Kirkland & Lyon, 1990) Christian subjects displayed intolerance toward Jewish subjects when they were made to feel existentially vulnerable (i.e., reflect on their death). Thus, worldview defense is mainly observed to be consequence of an existential reactivity in the face of existential threat. Given that the participants in Study 1 were not made to feel existentially vulnerable, it should not be surprising that worldview defense (i.e., in-group bias) was not in evidence. Thus, a more specific test of Beck's (2004) theory was warranted. That is, a mortality salience manipulation was required to test if participants with high DTS scores would display in-group bias in the face of existential threat. Study 2 conducted that test.


The purpose of Study 2 was to move Christian participants with either high or low scores on the Defensive Theology Scale (DTS) through a mortality salience manipulation as done in standard Terror Management studies. Once moved through the manipulation, the participants would be asked to rate an in-group target (a Christian essay and author) and an out-group target (a Buddhist essay and author). According to Beck (2004), defensive participants (high DTS scorers) should display worldview defense (favor the Christian essayist relative to the Buddhist essayist) when mortality is salient. In-group bias, thus, is predicted to be the product of existential defensiveness.

Again, this in-group bias is predicted to be representative of only part of the Christian population. As Beck (2004) predicts, there should be some, the existential believers within the Christian community, who are more curious about out-group members regardless of existential threat. However, this contrast between the defensive and existential believers requires empirical support. Collecting this data was the goal of Study 2.



Participants were 207 undergraduate students enrolled in psychology classes at Abilene Christian University (ACU). Forty-five percent of the sample was female. The sample was predominately Caucasian (79%). Fifty-six percent of the sample was affiliated with the Church of Christ, 19.2% identified themselves as non-denominational, 12.4% identified themselves as Baptists, 3.9% were Catholic, and 2.1% were Methodist. The mean age of the participants was 20.37 (SD = 2.06).


Summary of procedure. Participants arrived at a laboratory and were informed that they would be participating in three different studies from three different research teams at ACU. This cover story was used to reduce participant suspicion about the diversity of the measures that they were to complete. Participants were then told that the first study concerned student religiosity. During this phase of the design the participants completed the Defensive Theology Scale (DTS) and some other religiosity measures. Later, a median split on the DTS was performed to identify "high defensiveness" versus "low defensiveness" (i.e., existential) participants. After completing the "religiosity study," participants were randomly assigned to either the mortality salience or control condition. If assigned to the mortality salience condition, participants were told that they were next to participate in a second study being conducted by the ACU Gerontology Department. They were told that this study was interested in college students' death perceptions. This explanation provided the cover story for why the participants were asked to write a short essay about their feelings regarding death. Those participants assigned to the control condition were asked to write about their feelings regarding the quality of TV programming for, ostensibly, a study being conducted by the ACU Mass Communication department. After writing their essays either about their view of death or TV, the participants were then told that the final study of the assessment period involved assisting the First Year Program at ACU in selecting a good student essay for a new University Seminar--a first semester college orientation class all ACU freshman are enrolled in textbook. Students were told that the new textbook would feature a chapter on religious pluralism and that the editors of the text wanted peer feedback on student essays that are being considered for the chapter. Participants were then asked to read two essays and then rate both the quality of the essay and their impressions of its author. As mentioned previously, one essay was a Pro-Christian essay and the other was a Pro-Buddhism essay. The presentation order of the essays was counter-balanced. After completing the essay ratings participants were debriefed and thanked.

Defensive Theology Scale. The DTS is the same 22-item, self-report scale used in Study 1 to assess Beck's (2004) description of "defensive" religion. In Study 2, the DTS generated an internal consistency estimate of .85. After a median split was performed on the DTS, 103 participants were identified as "high defensiveness" (high DTS scores), while the remaining 104 participants were identified as "low defensiveness" (low DTS scores).

Mortality Salience manipulation. The mortality salience measure was borrowed from the TMT literature (e.g., Greenberg, Simon, Pyszczynski, Solomon, & Chatel, 1992). Specifically, participants in the mortality salience condition were asked to write short essays answering two prompts intended to make mortality salient; Describe below the feelings that the thought of your own death arouses within you, and Describe below what you think will happen to you physically when you die and once you are dead. The mortality non-salient condition wrote short essays concerning their opinions regarding TV programming, to questions such as: Describe below your opinion as to whether television has a positive or negative impact upon society. If you were the CEO of a major TV network, what changes would you make to improve the quality of TV?

Worldview defense measure. The worldview defense measure used in this study borrowed another commonly used procedure in the TMT literature: Rating in-group versus out-group essays. Specifically, the essay rating procedure used by Greenberg, Simon, Pyszczynski, Solomon, and Chatel (1992) was borrowed for this study. That is, after reading the Pro-Christian and Pro-Buddhism essays, participants were asked to rate each author using a 1 to 9 scale (1 = Not at all applicable, 9 = Extremely applicable) for seventeen adjectives such as Honest, Arrogant, Likable, Tolerant, and Insensitive. Prior to summing these seventeen ratings, each adjective rating was scored so that higher scores indicated more favorable views of the authors. After summing items for each essay, the worldview defense measure was calculated by subtracting the Pro-Buddhism score from the Pro-Christian score. Thus, positive ratings on the worldview defense measure indicated that the Pro-Christian author was rated more favorably (e.g., more honest, less arrogant, more likable) relative to the Pro-Buddhism author.

Each essay was approximately 415 words long. The Pro-Christian essay told the story of a student who lived in India as a teenager as her parents engaged in missionary work. This student writes about observing the Buddhist religion among some of her friends in India and expressing the opinion that the Christian faith is to be ontologically preferred (e.g., "Although I am sympathetic to Buddhist belief and practice, I really do believe that Buddhism is mistaken and that belief in Jesus is the only true path to God."). The Pro-Buddhism essay was ostensibly written by a Buddhist student who was attending school, ACU, in the United States. Having observed her Christian friends at ACU, the student author expresses the opinion that Buddhism, in many ways, is superior to Christianity (e.g., "As I listened to Christians in Bible classes at Abilene Christian University, I felt that I had something beneficial to share with others. I believe there are some things that Christianity can learn from Buddhism.").

Analysis. Using the worldview defense measure (Pro-Christian ratings minus Pro-Buddhism ratings) as the dependent variable, the results of the study were analyzed in a 2 (high versus low DTS scores) x 2 (mortality salient versus non-salient) factorial ANOVA.


The cell means for the four groups are presented in Table 2. As can be seen in Table 2, all groups generated positive worldview defense scores. That is, all groups tended to favor the Pro-Christian essay over the Pro-Buddhism essay. This is not surprising given the sample.

The outcome of the 2 x 2 factorial ANOVA indicated that there was no main effect for mortality salience ([F.sub.1,197] = .31, p = .577). There was a main effect for defensiveness ([F.sub.1,197] = 6.29, p = .013). Finally, there was no significant mortality salience x defensiveness interaction ([F.sub.1,197] = .02, p = .877).

The marginal means for the significant defensiveness main effect are presented in Figure 1. As can be seen in Figure 1, defensive participants (those with high DTS scores) displayed greater worldview defense regardless of mortality salience than their existential (low DTS score) counterparts. Further, single sample t-tests revealed that low defensiveness subjects saw the authors of the Pro-Christian and Pro-Buddhism essays as equally attractive ([t.sub.99] = 1.42, p > .15). In sum, the low defensiveness participants were unbiased in evaluating both the out-group and in-group member, finding no differences between them. This is a hopeful observation. By contrast, the high defensiveness participants did rate the Pro-Christian author as more attractive compared to the Pro-Buddhism author ([t.sub.101] = 5.23, p < .001).

Recall that it was expected that defensive participants would display worldview defense when mortality was salient. Conversely, it was predicted that existential subjects would not display worldview defense regardless of mortality salience. The results of Study 2 partially support these expectations. That is, existential participants did see the authors of the Pro-Christian and the Pro-Buddhist essays as equally attractive regardless of mortality salience. Alternatively, the defensive participants did show worldview defense in the mortality salience condition. However, they also displayed worldview defense when mortality was not salient. Thus, it was difficult to directly assess the existential reactivity of the defensive participants since their worldview defense was so high in the mortality non-salient condition.

Overall, however, these results are consistent with Beck's (2004) characterizations of the defensive and existential types. Specifically, the existential participants appeared to display less in-group bias than their defensive counterparts. This result is also intriguing in light of the findings of Study 1. Recall that, counter to predictions, DTS scores in Study 1 were uncorrelated with religious pluralism measures. However, in Study 1, religious attitudes were self-reported and, thus, might have been affected by social desirability effects. By contrast, Study 2 employed a covert, behavioral measure to capture ingroup and out-group bias. Thus, the inconsistencies across the two studies might point to a disjoint between the participants' self-appraisals and their actual behaviors.



In life, it is difficult to uncover the hidden motives behind our beliefs and actions. We are rarely wholly objective reporters of our inner workings. Further still, much that could be reported is often inaccessible to even our best attempts at dispassionate introspection. So what motivates religious belief? Any answer to this question runs the risk of giving offense. No one enjoys having a third party question, dissect, or impugn our motives, particularly if one doesn't agree with the analysis. Thus, any research directed at dissecting religious motivation will be fraught with controversy.

And yet, such a dissection is necessary and may, ultimately, prove fruitful. The Freudian critique--Religious belief is wishful thinking--is a testable hypothesis. Such a test, depending upon the outcome, could be uncomfortable. But, given recent findings in Terror Management Theory research--where Christians, when facing existential threat, tended to denigrate Jewish targets--it seems necessary to undertake the potentially controversial study of the role of defensiveness in religious belief.

So what might religious defensiveness look like? Since the main function of a defensive belief system is to repress existential terror and predicaments, Beck (2004) has suggested that a defensive faith system would be characterized by at least five themes: Special Protection, Special Insight, Divine Solicitousness, Special Destiny, and Denial of Randomness. As discussed earlier, these themes all appear to function to produce existential comfort. That is, to feel that one is specially protected, specially guided, and specially cared for while fulfilling a special cosmic destiny in a well-ordered universe is, viewed as a whole, a comforting worldview.

Given this kind of defensive configuration, what might this type of worldview produce? Beck (2004) suggested that this defensive posture would produce mainly two outcomes: An unwillingness to confront existential predicaments and in-group bias. The results of Study 1 and Study 2 tend to support these conclusions. In Study 1, those with higher scores on the defensive theology measure tended to score lower on Quest motives. In Study 2, defensiveness was associated with in-group bias.

These results tend to support Freud's assertions regarding defensiveness in religious belief, but the symmetry of these associations make it clear that a significant subset of the Christian participants involved in this research did engage existential questions and were unbiased toward out-group members. What is interesting is that these "existential believers" were people who, theologically, rejected the themes of Special protection, Special Insight, Divine Solicitousness, Special Destiny, and Denial of Randomness. Conversely, those who endorsed these themes did show in-group bias. This is an intriguing association. Why, theoretically speaking, should a theological matrix characterized by Special Protection, Special Insight, Divine Solicitousness, Special Destiny, and the Denial of Randomness be associated with in-group bias? The two sets of variables do not, on the surface, appear to have much to do with each other. However, Beck (2004) has argued that, beneath the surface, these variables are related. The link works as follows: A theological system characterized by themes such as Special Protection and Divine Solicitousness appear to provide existential solace. Thus, to reap the benefits of this theological comfort, the belief system must be uncritically accepted and defended. Thus, out-group members, as a source of external critique, are viewed with some suspicion (relative to in-group members). In Study 2 defensive participants rated out-group members as less intelligent, less honest, and more hypocritical relative to the in-group target. Judgments of out-group members such as these may serve to alleviate the defensive believer of the obligation to carefully listen to possible out-group critique. Thus, the belief system, and the existential comfort it provides, remains unchallenged and safely protected.

Limitations and future directions

A great deal of theoretical and empirical work is needed to expand our understanding of how religious belief functions in the mind of a believer. Although Study 1 and 2 appear consistent with Beck's (2004) theory of religious defensiveness, these results need to independently replicated and rival interpretations need to be tested. All in all, this appears to be an exciting area of future research. Building upon the current results, a variety of future research directions suggest themselves. First, the religious homogeneity of the samples employed in this research is of concern. Clearly, future research needs to assess a more religiously diverse sample, and might even explore religious worldviews other than Christianity. Second, the defensive participants in Study 2 did not display worldview defense uniquely in the mortality salience condition. That is, world-view defense appeared operative even in the mortality non-salient condition. This finding, although not wholly unexpected, did not fit neatly with prior expectations nor mirror results observed in the TMT literature. That is, the defensiveness assessed in Study 2 was stronger than anticipated, not requiring existential threat to activate worldview defense. Perhaps future research might assess more subtle forms of existential challenge to more thoroughly explore the process of triggering worldview defense in religious populations. Finally, Christian orthodoxy was not directly assessed in the studies. It might be possible that low scores on the DTS were associated with a lack of religious belief and that this lack of belief generated the trends observed in Studies 1 and 2. However, all of the participants were self-identified as Christian. Consequently, future research should clarify the relationship between orthodoxy and low scores on the DTS within Christian populations. Clearly, the Christian community is very heterogeneous, theologically speaking. Thus, future research will need to take these differences into account.

The benefits of healthy-mindedness

To conclude, we revisit some concerns held over from the Introduction. Some religious believers might find Beck's (2004) characterizations of "defensiveness" overly cynical. Yet, it should be noted that Beck (2004) pulled these characterizations from rich literatures of the religious experience. The work of William James, in particular, was influential. In the Varieties of Religious Experience (1902/1958), James contrasts two modes of belief: The healthy-minded and the sick soul. For James the healthy-minded believer was optimistic, energetic, and full of conviction. By contrast, the sick soul was gloomy and existentially preoccupied. James' characterizations of the healthy-minded and the sick soul, were, essentially, updated and refined by Beck (2004) to allow researchers to operationalize the theory (e.g., The Defensive Theology Scale used in this study). But James' rich descriptions of the healthy-minded and the sick soul are still worth revisiting.

James felt that that sick soul was existentially resilient, more so than the healthy-minded, in that the sick soul is preoccupied with the predicaments posed by human frailty and mortality. Thus, the sudden intrusion of death does not "surprise" the sick soul. James felt that the healthy-minded believer, the sanguine and optimistic, by pushing away gloomy existential thoughts might, due to this tendency, be caught off guard by the sudden intrusion of death.

Existential resiliency might be a benefit of being a sick soul, but there are costs as well. After all, James called it the sick soul; a religious experience characterized by melancholy, doubt, and brooding. However, Beck (2004), following the work of Ernest Becker (1973), felt that there is at least one other benefit of being a sick soul: Interest or curiosity toward outgroup members. The present study appears consistent with Beck's (2004) contention.

But what are the benefits of healthy-mindedness, Beck's (2004) defensive believer? The costs, if James and Beck (2004) are followed, appear to be vulnerability to existential shock and in-group bias. But the benefits of healthy-mindedness are enthusiasm, optimism, conviction, and engagement with the environment. These are significant benefits. They provide the interpersonal energy that fuels much of what is best in the religious world: Passionate engagement with the world in the name of Christ.

In conclude, faith communities will be comprised of both the healthy-minded and the sick soul. Each brings its gifts and weaknesses to the communal setting. Thus, although Beck's (2004) use of the labels defensive and existential might appear to impose value judgments on religious types, other labels, like James' sick soul and the healthy-minded, are also available and appear to reverse the value judgments: Defensive is now healthy and existential is now sick. In the end, the styles and their tendencies are what they are. Their relative "value" to the larger faith community is still open to debate and future research.


Batson, C.D. & Schoenrade, P.A. (1991). Measuring religion as quest: Reliability concerns. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 30, 430-447.

Batson, C.D., Schoenrade, P.A., & Ventis, W.L. (1993). Religion and the individual: A social-psychological perspective. New York: Oxford University Press.

Beck, R. (2004). The function of religious belief: Defensive versus existential religion. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 23, 208-218.

Beck, R. & Jessup, R. (2004). The multidimensional nature of Quest motivation. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 32, 283-294.

Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., Rosenblatt, A., Veeder, M., Kirkland, S., et al.. (1990). Evidence for terror management theory II: The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who threaten or bolster the cultural worldview. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 308-318.

Greenberg, J., Simon, L., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., & Chatel, D. (1992). Terror management and tolerance: Does mortality salience always intensify negative reactions to others who threaten one's worldview? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 212-220.

Greenburg, J., Solomon, S., & Pyszczynki, T. (1997). Terror management theory of self-esteem and cultural worldviews: Empirical assessments and conceptual refinements. In M. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 29, pp. 61-139). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

James, W. (1902/1958). The varieties of religious experience. New York: Penguin Books.

Kierkegaard, S. (1843/1986). Fear and trembling. New York: Penguin Books.


BECK, RICHARD. Address: Abilene Christian University; Mail: ACU Box 28011, Abilene, TX. 79699. Title: Associate Professor of Psychology. Degrees: Ph.D., Southern Methodist University, M.S., B.S., Abilene Christian University. Specializations: Psychology of religion, assessment and treatment of emotional disorders. Email:

APPENDIX Defensive Theology Scale
1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Strongly Neutral/Mixed Agree Strongly

 ___ 1. I believe God protects me from illness and misfortune.
 ___ 2. When making a choice or tough decision, God gives me clear
 answers and directions.
 ___ 3. God answers even my smallest requests in prayer (e.g., like
 helping me get to a meeting when I am late).
 ___ 4. Despite being a child of God, I will have just as many traumatic
 things happen to me during my life as anyone else.
 ___ 5. God controls every event around us, down to the smallest
 ___ 6. God has a very specific plan for my life that I must search for
 and find.
 ___ 7. I believe that fewer bad things will happen to me in this life
 because God is protecting me from harm.
 ___ 8. I don't think God intervenes much in the small details of my
 life, even if I do care about them.
 ___ 9. God gives me clear and obvious signs to communicate His will to
___ 10. If you have deep faith and pure motives God will grant even your
 smallest requests.
___ 11. A lot of evil in the world is just due to random events with no
 Divine goal or purpose.
___ 12. God's Hand is directing all the daily events of my life.
___ 13. God has a destiny for me to find and fulfill.
___ 14. My life will be happier because God will keep evil things from
 happening to me.
___ 15. Most of the events around us are random and don't reveal much
 about God's intentions.
___ 16. God clearly guides me along the path He wants me to take.
___ 17. Nothing is too small, liking finding my lost keys, to pray to
 God about.
___ 18. Every event around us is a sign of God's larger plans and
___ 19. Before I was even born God had a detailed plan for the course of
 my life.
___ 20. God doesn't give me clear directions as to what I should do with
 the big decisions in my life.
___ 21. Although prayer is very important to me, I don't think prayer
 really affects the events of the world that much.
___ 22. God gives me special insights about the events taking place
 around me or involving other people.

(Scoring instructions: Items 4, 8, 11, 15, 20, and 21 are reverse-
scored. Sum of all items creates DTS score)


Abilene Christian University

Correspondence concerning this article may be addressed to Richard Beck, Abilene Christian University, Email:"
TABLE 1 Zero-order correlations between Defensive Theology Scale and
Quest measures

 1. 2. 3.

1. Defensive Theology Scale
2. Batson Interactional Scale -.35**
3. MQOS-Universality .00 .06
4. MQOS-Ecumenism -.02 .12 .24*

Note: *p < .01 ** p < .001; MQOS = Multidimensional Quest Orientation

TABLE 2 Worldview defense cell means for groups

 Religious Type:
Mortality Salience Condition: High Defensiveness Low Defensiveness

Mortality Salient 12.06 4.48
Mortality Non-salient 10.75 2.18

Note: Positive cell mean = Pro-Christian attractiveness ratings > Pro-
Buddhism attractiveness ratings.
COPYRIGHT 2006 Rosemead School of Psychology
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:psychology of theology research; includes statistical tables
Author:Beck, Richard
Publication:Journal of Psychology and Theology
Date:Jun 22, 2006
Previous Article:God as a secure base: attachment to God and theological exploration.
Next Article:Cultural identity and reentry in short-term student missionaries.

Related Articles
In search of a non-dogmatic theology.
A black perspective on interdisciplinary work.
Integration discourse: modern and postmodern.
Religiosity and risk of perpetrating child physical abuse: an empirical investigation.
Psychology returns to love ... of God and neighbor-as-self: introduction to the special issue.
Journal file.
God as a secure base: attachment to God and theological exploration.
Cyberporn use in the context of religiosity.
Theology and the intellectual life.
Theology in the curriculum of a secular Religious Studies department.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters