Associative theories of cognitive representation begin with an ontology of two kinds of entities: concepts and associations. According to most social cognitive theories of attitudes, attitudes are object-evaluation associations of varying strength, where strength is defined in terms of accessibility. This paper proposes a cognitive account of belief such that beliefs are object-attribute associations of varying strength: thus, insofar as evaluative concepts are examples of attribute concepts, attitudes are a species of belief. This cognitive account of belief also denies that additional processes of endorsement—explicit or otherwise—are strictly required for an object-attribute association to count as a belief.
In accordance with Terror Management Theory research, secular beliefs can serve an important role for mitigating existential concerns by providing atheists with a method to attain personal meaning and bolster self-esteem. Although much research has suggested that religious beliefs are powerful defense mechanisms, these effects are limited or reveal more nuanced effects when attempting to explain atheists’ (non)belief structures. The possibility of nonbelief that provides meaning in the “here and now” is reinforced by the importance placed on scientific discovery, education, and social activism by many atheists. Thus, these values and ideologies can, and do, allow for empirically testable claims within a Terror Management framework. Although religious individuals can and largely do use religion as a defense strategy against existential concerns, purely secular ideologies are more effective for atheists providing evidence for a hierarchical approach and individual differences within worldview defenses. Evidence for and implications of these arguments are discussed.
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