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What’s the evidence that anxiety and insecurity turns people to religion?, by Tomas Rees

September 16, 2012
Susana and the Elders, by Peter Paul Reubens, 1607-1608

Evidence is complicated regarding a link between religion and anxiety management.

That’s a question that cropped up recently on the Non-religious and Secular Research Network discussion forum. After I finished composing my response, I thought to myself “That’s a ready-made blog post!”. So here, with a few additions and added explanations, it is…

The first place to look is studies in the laboratory that try to subliminally increase the subject’s anxiety and insecurity, and then ask them about their beliefs.

Death, lack of control, and loneliness

So, for example, Ara Norenzayan has shown that subtly reminding people of death makes them say they are more religious. That’s probably related to something called ‘World View Defence’ – when you remind people about death, they tend to grab onto their traditional, cultural values. Similarly, Iranian students who are made to feel more anxious are more likely to support suicide bombers.

The effect can be quite specific. Aaron Kay has shown that making people feel like they are not in control strengthens their belief in a controlling god – in other words, they compensate for lack of control in their own lives by believing in a god that has it all in hand. What’s more, Kurt Gray has shown that people invoke god as a moral agent to explain negative (but acausal) events.

Our thoughts about the world are subject to all kinds of unconscious biases, and it’s widely believed that these contribute to religious beliefs. And some of these biases are strengthened when people are made to feel anxious. For example, Nicholas Epley has shown that making people feel lonely increases their belief in the supernatural – and also makes them more likely to think that household gadgets have personalities!

In another study, Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky have shown that manipulating people so that they feel out of control makes them more inclined to see patterns that aren’t really there. This is a key part of superstition – once you start to believe that a rain dance actually does make rain, it’s a short step to invoking a deity to explain the link.

Error response and behavioral inhibition

Delving deeper into the brain, it gets a bit more complicated. On the one hand, Michael Inzlicht has found that religious people have lower ‘error response negativity’. This is the spike in activity in a part of the middle brain that occurs when you make a mistake – it’s the brain warning system. People who have a lower ERN are less anxious about mistakes (anti-anxiety drugs also lower the ERN).

On the other hand, another study has shown that something called the ‘Behavioural Inhibition System’ – a deep seated biological response that’s linked to anxiety – is increased in religious people. This suggests that religious people may be inherently more anxious.

In the real world

All the studies so far have been looking at psychological response. But what about in the real world? Are religious people anxious, or are they less anxious?

Well,  Janie Wilson has shown that encouraging people to pray was effective in reducing anxiety. However, this was no more effective than getting them to read a self-help text.

Back in the 1930s, a pioneering anthropologist named Malinowski learned that those Trobriand islanders, located in the Pacifc Ocean, who fished in deeper waters (and so were more exposed to storms) had more elaborate pre-fishing rituals. This is supersition, rather than religion, but it goes to show how the need to establish order and fend off uncertainty drives irrational behaviour.

Kevin Flannelly has shown that different beliefs in the afterlife can be linked to either a decrease or an increase in psychosis, depending on the nature of the belief. Of course, working out cause and effect is problematic here, but he interprets this as evidence of what he calls an “Evolutionary Threat Avoidance System” – an alert system which is damped down by the appropriate religious beliefs.

And religion – or at least service attendance – seems to be associated with lower anxiety in the “real world.” Chris Lewis has shown that people in Northern Ireland who go to church more often are less anxious (regardless of sex or sect). Terence Hill has shown that, in the USA, prayer and belief in the afterlife is associated with less anxiety. There are, however, quite a few wrinkles in this simple interpretation, and whatever else it’s clear that the effect is pretty small.

One thing that’s often forgotten is that  religion means different things to different people. Dan McAdams has found that, while liberals see a life without religion as barren and colourless, conservatives see it as chaotic and out of control.

Religion also affects how people approach financial worries. Andrew Clark found that European Protestants and Catholics are less fearful of unemployment than the non religious. Kenneth Scheve and David Stasavage have shown that religious people are less in favour of government welfare, perhaps because religion acts as a psychological buffer against an uncertain future.

Matt Bradshaw and Chris Ellison have shown that religion can reduce the stress caused by financial hardship. This last one is a very recent paper that I haven’t blogged about yet. Stay tuned!


Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

The author

Tomas Rees

Tomas Rees:  I want to know why some people believe in gods, and what the psychological and social consequences of those beliefs are. I read the research, and when I find something juicy I write it up and post it at Epiphenom. If you’ve found something interesting, or just want to say ‘Hi!’, then drop me an email.

Who am I? Well, I’m a medical writer by profession, living and working on the south coast of England. I have a PhD in biotechnology, and an interest in what makes people tick.

My contribution to the sociology of religion, on the causes of international differences in religiosity, was published recently in the Journal of Religion and Society (see related blog post).

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