Ebola as an existential threat? Experimentally-primed Ebola reminders intensify national-security concerns among extrinsically religious individuals.
In 2014, the highly fatal and infectious Ebola virus disease (commonly called "Ebola") swept across West Africa, causing an epidemic that ultimately resulted in over 28,500 confirmed cases and 11,000 deaths, mostly in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014). On September 30, 2014, the Centers for Disease Control confirmed the first imported case of Ebola virus in the U.S., and subsequently, for several weeks, the American media was dominated by warnings about a potential U.S. Ebola outbreak. With such widespread media coverage and the announcement of three additional confirmed cases, Americans grew increasingly panicked about the possibility of such an outbreak.
The Ebola outbreak was perceived as a viable threat. Americans commonly reacted to Ebola fears by calling for stricter national security measures, such as tightening airport and border security. For instance, according to an October 14, 2014 Washington Post and ABC News poll, 91% of Americans supported stricter airport screening procedures and 67% of Americans supported restricting travel to and from Ebola-affected West African countries (Blake, 2014), despite health officials' warnings that such isolationist measures would likely make the epidemic even harder to fight (Langfield & Popken, 2014). By mid-October 2014, countless Americans felt vulnerable and concerned about their health or, even worse, their own life. Concern about a U.S. Ebola outbreak became rampant, serving as a reminder of mortality, despite every indication that the risk of Ebola spreading in the U.S. was remote.
Ebola, Mortality Salience, and Worldview-Consistent Bolstering
Ebola is a severe and highly fatal infectious disease--the case fatality rate ranged from 25% to 90%, with an average fatality rate of 50%. Unfortunately, there are no vaccines for the disease (World Health Organization, 2015). Thus, given the high likelihood of fatality and the lack of available vaccines, it is unsurprising the threat of Ebola might normatively serve as an existential threat, most notably a threat of mortality.
According to Terror Management Theory (TMT; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986), people buffer against potential existential threats by investing in two related psychological structures: (a) a cultural worldview, which is a personalized explanatory framework consisting of a set of beliefs regarding the nature of reality (e.g., religion); and (b) self-esteem, which is achieved by living up to the standards of one's worldview and conveys the feeling that one is a valuable person of worth capable of making a lasting, significant difference (Soenke, Landau, & Greenberg, 2013). Reminders of one's finitude and eventual death, also known as mortality salience (MS), typically elicit increased investment in one's personalized cultural worldview as a way of reducing anxiety and regaining psychological equanimity (Greenberg et al., 1990; Rosenblatt, Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszczynski, & Lyon, 1989).
Ample research has also shown that large-scale existential threats, such as 9/11, serve as MS reminders that lead to a wide range of reactions (see Pyszczynski, Solomon, & Greenberg, 2003 for a review). For example, in a series of experiments, Landau et al. (2004) found that reminders of 9/11 functioned psychologically in a similar manner to reminders of death (i.e., MS reminders). Following reminders of 9/11, undergraduate participants reported a greater endorsement for George W. Bush. This was in part because of the feelings of comfort and security provided by how people perceived his charismatic, powerful, and protective leadership style as one that offered security and protection from the evils of terrorism. In short, they sought security and safety from the impending threat of death. In the wake of these reminders of death, individuals may turn to various sources of comfort.
Religion as an Existential Buffer
Religion often serves as an existential resource, especially during times of MS threat (for reviews, see Soenke et al., 2013; Vail et al., 2010). According to TMT, religion helps manage death anxiety by offering a sense of psychological security and hope for immortality. However, research has shown that individual differences in religious orientation are associated with differential responses to MS threats (Jonas & Fischer, 2006; Soenke et al., 2013). For example, in a series of experiments, Jonas and Fischer (2006) demonstrated that people high in intrinsic religiousness (i.e., persons who view religion as an end in itself and approach it as an internalized motivation guiding their behaviors) are uniquely able to derive the terror management benefits of religion, such as reduced anxiety, without defensive negative reactions, whereas people high in extrinsic religiousness (i.e., persons who view religion as an instrumental means to other ends, such as comfort, self-justification, or belonging) are not. Consistent with this, extrinsic religiousness, has been found to be more strongly linked to negative attitudes toward out-group members (Allport & Ross, 1967; Hunsberger & Jackson, 2005). That is, individuals who are religious for personal (i.e., emotional security and comfort) or social gain (i.e., strengthening ingroup ties) have been found to demonstrate more negative attitudes toward outgroup members and targets of prejudice. Thus, it appears that extrinsic religiousness is associated with ways of believing that disparage outgroup members, presumably as a way of maintaining existential security and religious comfort as well as consolidating and enhancing ingroup affiliations. Accordingly, given that Ebola may be an existential threat insofar as it reminds individuals of their eventual death, we explore how reminders of Ebola may intensify the relationship between extrinsic religiousness and pro-ingroup/anti-outgroup attitudes--that is, we explored the moderating effects of priming Ebola on the association between extrinsic religiousness and national security-related concerns.
Based on this previous research, extrinsic religiousness is robustly associated with attitudes that denigrate outgroup members, presumably as a way of maintaining or restoring existential security as well as consolidating and enhancing ingroup affiliations (see Hunsberger & Jackson, 2005). Accordingly, Ebola may be an existential threat (because it reminds individuals of their eventual death); thus, we predicted that Ebola reminders would intensify the relationship between extrinsic religiousness and pro-ingroup/anti-outgroup attitudes. Specifically, we first predicted that Ebola reminders, functioning in a psychologically similar manner to a standard MS induction, would lead to more national-security concerns (e.g., greater propensity to endorse statements to secure the border and restrict travel). Second, we predicted that the negative association typically found between extrinsic religiousness and attitudes toward outgroup members would be intensified by Ebola reminders, consistent with the worldview-defense hypothesis.
Data were collected in the weeks following the first reported case of Ebola in the United States to test these predictions. Experiment 1 sought to compare the relative effects of priming either Ebola or an aversive control topic (i.e., dental pain) on the relationship between extrinsic religiousness and national-security concerns. Experiment 2 sought to replicate and extend Experiment 1 by including a standard MS condition, in order to determine whether the Ebola prime operated in a psychologically similar manner to more general death reminders. In sum, we predicted the Ebola condition (in Experiments 1 and 2) and standard MS condition (Experiment 2) would significantly intensify national-security concerns exclusively among extrinsically religious individuals.
Experiment 1 sought to establish the basic effect of primed Ebola reminders on social attitudes, relative to an aversive control topic (i.e., dental pain). After completing questions about their religious beliefs, participants were assigned to write about their emotions related to Ebola or dental pain. Following this, they completed a larger set of study materials from which our measures were drawn. We predicted the Ebola prime would intensify national-security concerns among those high in extrinsic religiousness.
Participants and procedure. This sample (N= 368) consisted of 219 females (59.5%), 138 males (37.5%), and 11 (3.0%) who did not report sex, and participants ranged in age from 18 to 75 years (M = 35.26, SD = 12.07). With regard to race/ethnicity, 273 participants (74.2%) were White; 32 (8.7%), Black; 18 (4.9%), Latino/a; 18 (4.9%), Asian; 5 (1.4%), Native American; 10 (2.7%), Other; and 12 (3.3%), unreported. In terms of religious affiliation, 174 participants (47.3%) were Christian; 58 (15.8%), agnostic; 44 (12.0%), atheist; 41 (11.1%), unaffiliated; 9 (2.4%), Buddhist; 5 (1.4%), Jewish; 4 (1.1%), Hindu; 2 (0.5%), Muslim; and 10 (2.7%), unreported. Two-hundred fifty-five (69.3%) indicated belief in God or a higher power, and 253 (68.8%) indicated belief in the afterlife. Most participants (n = 351, 95.4%) were U.S. citizens and were born in the U.S. (n = 336, 91.3%). Participants were recruited through Amazon's Mechanical Turk and completed the study for USD $0.50. After providing consent, participants completed all materials via an online platform. Upon completion of the materials, participants were provided a short debriefing form.
Extrinsic religiousness. Participants completed a 9-item measure of their religious orientation, adapted from Gorsuch and McPherson (1989). The items are measured on a 5-point scale (1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree). Four of the items measure extrinsic religiousness, three measure quest religiousness, and two measure intrinsic religiousness. We focused on the items assessing extrinsic religiousness (e.g., "I attend services/meetings of my religious organization mainly because I enjoy seeing people I know there."; "Prayer/ meditation is for peace and happiness."), which had a Cronbach's alpha of .76.
Priming induction. Upon the completion of this measure of religious orientation, participants were randomly assigned to think about the Ebola outbreak or about experiencing dental pain. Specifically, we modeled these two primes after previous TMT research (see Pyszczynski, Greenberg, Koole, & Solomon, 2010), in which participants were asked to jot down the emotions aroused in them when they thought about the Ebola outbreak (or about dental pain), and how they would be personally affected (or what would happen to them physically). Subsequently, because primed MS effects emerge most reliably after a delay and distraction (Arndt, Cook, & Routledge, 2004), participants completed the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS; Watson, Clark, & Tellegen, 1988) as a measure of mood, followed by a distraction task estimating the likelihood of various events occurring in the next year (e.g., adopting a pet, winning the lottery).
National-security concerns. Participants then read and indicated their agreement with 13 statements related to various social policies. We focused on four items designed to measure national-security concerns: "Immigration laws should be made more restrictive (i.e., harder to gain entry into America)," "The U.S. should secure its borders," "We need to increase security screenings at airports," "The U.S. should institute travel restrictions to and from West Africa." Participants indicated their agreement to these items on an 11-point scale (-5 = strongly disagree to +5 = strongly agree). These four items had a Cronbach's alpha of .87.
Results and Discussion
First, we ensured any effects were not simply due to mood differences between conditions. Accordingly, using t tests, we found the priming condition did not exert a significant effect on either positive (t = 1.53, p = .127) or negative (t = .33, p = .742) affect.
Next, we examined whether Ebola reminders resulted in greater national-security concerns in general, relative to the control condition. A t-test revealed that participants in the Ebola condition (M = .89, SD = 2.89) and dental pain condition (M = 1.23, SD = 2.61) did not significantly differ, t(366) = 1.20, p = .231. Thus, there was no main effect for priming condition on national-security concerns.
Subsequently, we predicted that the typical pro-ingroup/anti-outgroup attitudes espoused by those high in extrinsic religiousness would be intensified by Ebola reminders. Thus, we examined the interaction between the priming condition and extrinsic religiousness on national-security concerns. To do so, we tested the interaction in regression, by mean-centering the extrinsic religiousness scores and dummy-coding the priming condition (Aiken & West, 1991). The predicted interaction was significant, [beta] = .16, SE = .30, t = 2.13,p = .034. Whereas extrinsic religiousness was positively related to national-security concerns in the dental pain condition ([beta] = .23, p = .002), this relationship was much stronger in the Ebola prime condition ([beta] = .45,p < .001; see Figure 1).
Although the Ebola primes did not uniformly increase national-security concerns, following Ebola reminders the association between extrinsic religiousness and national-security concerns was significantly amplified, supporting worldview-consistent bolstering. This finding suggests participants who are highly extrinsically religious are more concerned with issues surrounding national security (e.g., restricting travel, securing the border) following MS reminders of the disease threat. These results imply that such individuals--who are religious in part because of the comfort religion can bring them--are more likely to endorse protection-based policies following existential threats.
In Experiment 2, we sought to replicate and extend these results by including a MS condition, in order to compare the results of thinking about Ebola to thinking generally about one's own death. The remainder of the procedure was the same, and as with Experiment 1, participants completed a larger set of study materials from which our measures were drawn.
Participants and procedure. This sample (N = 532) consisted of 321 females (60.3%), 199 males (37.4%), and 12 (2.3%) who did not report sex. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 87 years (M = 36.28, SD = 13.10). With regard to race/ethnicity, 393 participants (73.9%) were White; 49 (9.2%), Black; 26 (4.9%), Latino/a; 33 (6.2%), Asian; 2 (0.4%), Native American; 17 (3.2%), Other; and 12 (2.3%), unreported. In terms of religious affiliation, 273 participants (51.3%) were Christian; 61 (11.5%), unaffiliated; 53 (10.0%), atheist; 60 (11.3%), agnostic; 9 (1.7%), Jewish; 19 (3.6%), Buddhist; 7 (1.3%), Hindu; 4 (0.8%), Muslim; and 12 (2.3%), unreported. Three-hundred eighty-nine (73.1%) indicated belief in God or a higher power, and 400 (75.2%) indicated belief in the afterlife. Most participants (" = 508, 95.5%) were U.S. citizens and were born in the U.S. (n = 476, 89.5%). There was no overlap in participants from Experiments 1 and 2.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
Extrinsic religiousness. The same 4-item measure of extrinsic religiousness from Experiment 1 was used. In Experiment 2, it had a Cronbach's alpha of .77.
Priming induction. The same Ebola and dental pain primes from Experiment 1, were used with one crucial addition: We now also included a standard MS priming condition (i.e., jotting down the emotions aroused when thinking about their own death, and writing about what will happen to them physically when they die). After the prime (but before the measurement of the dependent variable), participants again completed the PANAS and same distraction/ delay task.
National-security concerns. We examined the same 4-item measure of national-security concerns as was used in Experiment 1. In Experiment 2, it had a Cronbach's alpha of .83.
Results and Discussion
Examining the effects of mood, as in Experiment 1, revealed that there was no significant main effect for priming condition on either positive affect, F(2, 495) = .07, p = .934, or negative affect, F(2, 506) = 2.44, p = .089.
Next, we tested whether the Ebola prime (or MS induction) elicited greater national-security concerns in general. A one-way ANOVA revealed there was no significant main effect for priming condition, F(2, 527) = .51 ,p =.601, consistent with the findings of Experiment 1.
Subsequently, as in Experiment 1, we examined the interaction between priming condition and extrinsic religiousness on national-security concerns. Replicating the results of Experiment 1, we again found a significant interaction, [beta] = .16, SE = .15, t = 2.39, p = .017 (1). Extrinsic religiousness was significantly positively related to national-security concerns in the dental pain condition ([beta] = .14, p = .035), but this relationship was stronger in the Ebola prime condition ([beta] = .24, p = .001) and the MS condition ([beta] = .40, p < .001). Even so, a visual inspection of the relationship between extrinsic religiousness and national-security concerns revealed the Ebola and MS primes operated in a psychologically similar manner (see Figure 2).
Looking at the data differently, the zero-order correlation between extrinsic religiousness and national-security concerns was not significant in the dental pain condition (r = .13, p = .104), but it was significant in both the Ebola prime condition (r = .31. p < .001) and the MS condition [r = .38, p < .001). Moreover, a comparison of these correlational coefficients (using one-tailed tests, given the results of Experiment 1) revealed the relationship in both the Ebola prime (z = 1.75, p = .040) and MS induction (z = 2.43, p = .007) conditions were significantly different from the dental pain condition. However, the Ebola and MS conditions did not significantly differ from one another (z = 0.72, p = .236). This finding supports our hypothesis that, among extrinsically religious persons, Ebola reminders intensify national-security concerns and function psychologically in a similar manner to MS, supporting worldview-consistent bolstering.
Taken together, the results of Experiment 2 add to the findings of Experiment 1 by demonstrating that national-security concerns are heightened among extrinsically religious individuals when they are prompted to think about Ebola. Results also confirm this pattern mirrors the effects of thinking about one's own death, suggesting that Ebola might be considered, at least by some, as an existential threat similar to thinking about one's own eventual death.
Two experiments tested the effects of priming Ebola on U.S. community members' attitudes toward national-security concerns shortly after the first reports of Ebola cases in America. Neither experiment found evidence that Ebola reminders elicited enhanced concerns regarding national security consistently across participants; rather, these concerns were amplified only among extrinsically religious individuals. Experiment 1 revealed that reminders of Ebola resulted in a significantly greater association between extrinsic religiousness and national-security concerns. Experiment 2 replicated and extended these findings by further elucidating that Ebola primes operated similarly to reminders of death. Whereas extrinsically religious individuals may be motivated to seek security and comfort in times of need (Allport & Ross, 1967), these motivations are heightened when personal threats are made salient.
These results add to previous work that suggests extrinsic religiousness may be motivated, in part, by a desire for comfort and security, especially in times of need (Allport & Ross, 1967), as well as research highlighting the negative attitudes toward outgroup members that typically are espoused by extrinsically religious individuals (Hunsberger & Jackson, 2005). Put differently, extrinsic religiousness is associated with dealing with threat in a way that disparages the outgroup to protect the ingroup. When reminded of Ebola, individuals who seek comfort from their religion more strongly endorse policies designed to heighten security at the cost of members of other groups (i.e., securing the border, restricting flights). Thus, extrinsically religious individual may "circle the wagons" and more strongly defend their own ingroup when the threat of disease or death is made salient.
Implications for the Role of Spirituality on Resilience
This research bears important implications for the study of spirituality on resilience, on both individual and national levels. Generally, research suggests that religion and spirituality tends to be a valuable resource for helping people deal with traumatic life events (Walker, Courtois, & Aten, 2014). People faced with traumatic life events who utilize positive religious coping strategies (e.g., seeking spiritual support) are reportedly more resilient against negative emotional and physical health complications ([start strikethrough]e.g.,[end strikethrough] Nooney & Woodrum, 2002). For example, Ai, Cascio, Santangelo, and Evans-Campbell (2005) found that a greater sense of spiritual meaning was a protective factor against depression and anxiety following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. These are just a couple examples of the role of spirituality in fostering individual resilience.
In addition, religion and spirituality may help foster individual resilience by assisting in restoring a lost sense of control in the aftermath of the precipitating event (Meisenhelder & Marcum, 2004). Individuals draw from religious and spiritual beliefs to help calm existential concerns (Batson & Stocks, 2004). Overall, survivors of traumatic events who are able to resolve their crisis of meaning, especially through religious or spiritual means, report higher levels of positive growth (Park, 2005, 2010). Indeed, religious beliefs are helpful to regain a sense of meaning following adverse or threatening life events, such as large-scale existential threats (e.g., Pyszczynski et al., 2003).
[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]
However, there is notable variety in the types of religious beliefs individuals might espouse, ranging from those that provide security to those that encourage growth (Van Tongeren, Davis, Hook, & Johnson, 2016). Moreover, these variations suggest differences in the degree to which such beliefs can provide existential solace, such as meaning in life (Van Tongeren, Hook, & Davis, 2013). Most models of resilience stress the importance of meaning making in overcoming threats. Thus, individual variation in spiritual or religious beliefs can yield differences in the ways individuals respond to threats and the ways in which they engage their view of the Sacred in overcoming challenges in life. Consistent with previous research, and substantiated by our findings here, these differences suggest that insofar as some individuals draw from their religious beliefs to gain comfort, they might simultaneously engender negative attitudes toward outgroup members. More work on the role of particular religious or spiritual beliefs is needed to better understand the complex processes involved on individual levels.
On a national level, people often turn to faith in times of crises to help them make sense of their experience. For example, Schuster et al. (2001) found that 90% of Americans from across the country sought religion as a source of coping after the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Thus, national prevailing religious or spiritual norms and beliefs might also frame the understanding and experience of traumatic or threatening events, such as the outbreak of a disease or the onset of a disaster. In nations with prevailing religious values or strong common narratives regarding spirituality, such schematic understandings can provide a source of meaning through making sense of the events (McIntosh, 1995; Park, 2010) but might also marginalize those members who do not "fit" the criteria of national group membership. Thus, although religion and spirituality at a broad level can help provide meaning in the wake of such events (Park, 2005), there are also associated costs with such strategies (Pyszczynski et al., 2003). Future work investigating how national differences in spiritual beliefs might be related to resilience following adverse events would be fruitful.
Limitations and Future Directions
Our work had several limitations. First, we failed to replicate the predicted (and established) effect that mortality salience would elicit stronger national-security concerns across participants. Rather, we found that this effect, and a similar one for priming Ebola, occurs only among those individuals who are religious for the comfort it brings them in times of need--extrinsically religious individuals. This qualification might suggest that certain terror management processes might be more pronounced (or muted) depending on the particularities of one's religious worldview (Vail et al., 2010; Van Tongeren, McIntosh, Raad, & Pae, 2013). Extrinsically religious individuals are religious, in part, because of the personal and social benefits of religion, and threats such as Ebola appear to intensify these motives. Second, although it was a strength that we were able to capitalize on the social attitudes in the weeks immediately after the Ebola virus was first diagnosed in the U.S., it is possible that these attitudes changed over time or would be different six months, or even six weeks, from when the data were collected. As these threats are posed and various risks change (and as the media coverage that makes these threats salient varies in content and quantity over time), it is possible that the efficacy of various disease or threat prompts, such as Ebola, might be altered. Future research is needed to identify additional moderators of this effect as well as explore potential mediating mechanisms or even distal motivations that these restrictive, national-security social attitudes might operate to satisfy.
The threat of the Ebola disease elicited various responses among Americans. Whereas some wanted to mobilize resources to the most affected areas, others desired to protect the country's citizens through restrictive measures to reduce travel and secure the border, ostensibly intended to increase the security of the county. Whether people turn inward to protect their group or seek to help others in times of need appears to be affected, at least in part, by one's religious beliefs. Although seeking religious comfort may meet one's psychological needs and may help build resilience, it may also incur social costs. Additional research is needed to further explore how the unfolding of similar potentially threatening events and the response of the public and politicians might be motivated by larger existential concerns.
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(1) Because there was a marginal effect of condition on negative affect, we reran the analysis after first including negative affect as a covariate in Step 1, to statistically control for its variance. Even after doing so, the predicted interaction remained significant, [beta] = .16, SE = .15, t = 2.22, p = .027. Therefore, we did not include negative affect as a covariate in subsequent analyses.
Daryl R. Van Tongeren
Joshua N. Hook
University of North Texas
Don E. Davis
Georgia State University
Jamie Aten and Edward B. Davis
Author Note: This publication was made possible, in part, through The support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation (Grant #44040). The opinion expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Daryl R. Van Tongeren, Department of Psychology, Hope College, 35 East 12th Street, Holland, MI 49423. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
VAN TONGEREN, DARYL R. PhD .Address: Department of Psychology, Hope College, Schaap Science Center, 35 East 12th Street, Holland, MI 49423-3605. Title: Assistant Professor of Psychology. Degrees: MA (Experimental Psychology) University of Colorado, Colorado Springs; PhD (Social Psychology) Virginia Commonwealth University. Specializations: social psychological approaches to meaning, religion, and virtues.
HOOK, JOSHUA, N. PhD. Address: University of North Texas, 1155 Union Circle #311280, Denton, TX 76203. Title: Assistant Professor of Psychology. Degrees: BS (Psychology) University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; MS (Counseling Psychology) Virginia Commonwealth University; PhD (Counseling Psychology) Virginia Commonwealth University. Specializations: positive psychology, humility, forgiveness, religion/spirituality, multicultural counseling.
DAVIS, DON E. PhD. Address: College of Education, Georgia State University, 30 Pryor Street, Room 950, Atlanta, GA 30303. Title: Assistant Professor of Psychology. Degrees: PhD (Counseling Psychology) Virginia Commonwealth University; BA (Psychology) Yale University. Specializations: humility, forgiveness, positive psychology, religion/spirituality.
ATEN, JAMIE D. PhD. Address: Wheaton College, Department of Psychology, 501 College Avenue, Department of Psychology, Wheaton, IL 60187. Title: Founder & Co-Director, Humanitarian Disaster Institute; Rech Endowed Chair. Degrees: PhD (Counseling Psychology) Indiana State University. Specializations: psychology of religion/spirituality and disaster research, spiritually oriented disaster psychology, and disaster ministry.
DAVIS, EDWARD B. PsyD. Address: Wheaton College, Department of Psychology, 501 College Avenue, Department of Psychology, Wheaton, IL 60187. Title: Assistant Professor of Psychology. Degrees: PsyD (Clinical Psychology) Regent University; MA (Clinical Psychology) Regent University; BA (Psychology and History) University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Specializations: Relational spirituality, positive psychology, and clinical practice.
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|Author:||Van Tongeren, Daryl R.; Hook, Joshua N.; Davis, Don E.; Aten, Jamie; Davis, Edward B.|
|Publication:||Journal of Psychology and Theology|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2016|
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