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Study examines worldwide perceptions of the soul and immortality

Amy L. Ai, a professor in the FSU College of Social Work.
Amy L. Ai, a professor in the FSU College of Social Work.

Despite the world’s increasingly globalized society, there are common threads in people’s beliefs about the soul and an afterlife.

A study examining three dominant worldviews about how people perceive the idea of a soul — God-centered, cosmic-spiritual and secular — has found that God-centered and cosmic-spiritual worldviews shared a positive view of death as a reward-filled afterlife and a moment of ultimate truth or courage.

The study, “The Connection of Soul (COS) Scale: An Assessment Tool for Afterlife Perspectives in Different Worldviews,” was published in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, a publication of the American Psychological Association. The study was conducted by a team of international researchers led by Florida State University College of Social Work Professor Amy L. Ai, who is also affiliated with the FSU Department of Psychology, the FSU Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy and the FSU Institute for Successful Longevity.

“These findings point to a personal belief in life after death as protection for an individual from the threat of personal mortality,” Ai said. “These spiritual beliefs result in positive psychosocial functioning and act as a buffer against death anxiety.”

The two worldviews differ in many of their implications for psychosocial functioning in the present life.

Given the increasing secularization of people living in developed countries, more research is needed to understand the psychosocial implications of secular beliefs, according to Ai.

“This will help social scientists to establish approaches in creating coping strategies for people who hold these beliefs as they face existential crises,” she said.

Previous research focusing on mainstream Western religions has shown that belief in an afterlife has positive implications for death anxiety that comes as people begin to realize their own mortality. The current study expands the literature to a much broader view.

In recent years, social scientists have been investigating several unrelated trends resulting from the emergence of highly dramatic terrorist attacks that result in violent deaths.

“There is an intensified need for studying existential crisis topics, such as death anxiety,” Ai said.

Since 9/11, Terror Management Theory has gained prominence as a core framework in the psychology of death. It posits that people deal with mortality threats through two forms of immortality beliefs: symbolic immortality and literal immortality.

Symbolic immortality, which involves being a part of a lasting culture, constructing a legacy through monuments or producing more children, has been studied extensively.

In order to study the less-researched idea of literal immortality, which is the belief in an afterlife through an immortal soul, Ai and her team established the Connection of Soul (COS) Scale. The COS Scale is designed to assess people’s beliefs about the sacred connectedness of their souls in relation to their perceptions of their own deaths and the afterlife.

“Our research focused on diverse spiritual worldviews, which have special significance in the context of globalization,” Ai said.

The first two studies on this three-worldview instrument structure were conducted at the University of Munich, Germany. They established the three-dimensional structure of the COS, corresponding to Ninian Smart’s theory about three great origins that nourished the seven cultural legacies prominent in the world today — such as Buddist, Christian, Jewish and Muslim.

The third study was conducted at the University of New Hampshire to provide more psychological information on the scale. It confirmed the structure of the COS and expanded findings on the relationships of the three dimensions with various death beliefs and with personality functioning, such as everyday life tasks, spiritual support, New Age beliefs and self-transcendence.

Ai and her colleagues suggest that the COS can be a culturally sensitive instrument for use in research domains such as international terrorism and existential crises; aging, health, and mental health; and spirituality and end-of-life issues, as well as certain religions in relation to suicidal acts.