Do Anxiety and Insecurity Turn People to Religion?

From Tom Rees of Epiphenom:

What’s the evidence that anxiety and insecurity turns people to religion? That’s a question that cropped up recently on the Non-Religion and Secularity Research Network discussion forum.
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.
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 “worldview defense”—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.
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 “behavioral 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.
All the studies so far have been looking at psychological response. But what about in the real world? Are religious people more 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 Bronislaw Malinowski learned that those Trobriand Islanders, located in the Pacific Ocean, who fished in deeper waters (and so were more exposed to storms) had more elaborate pre-fishing rituals. This is superstition rather than religion, but it goes to show how the need to establish order and fend off uncertainty drives irrational behavior.
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 that 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). Terrence Hill has shown that in the United States, prayer and belief in the afterlife are associated with less anxiety. There are, however, quite a few wrinkles in this simple interpretation, and 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 colorless, 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 nonreligious. Kenneth Scheve and David Stasavage have shown that religious people are less in favor 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!

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8 Responses

  1. Arthur Boyer says:

    Extremely informative and useful essay, thanks so much! It is so interesting the power and influence fears have over belief systems.

  2. Mark says:

    An interesting piece! I’m going to have spend a while following up all the linked studies. However, in the meantime, I have to pull you up on this …

    “Dan McAdams has found that while liberals see a life without religion as barren and colorless, conservatives see it as chaotic and out of control.”

    It seems to me that should perhaps say “…religious liberals…” and “…religious conservatives…”, as it’s patent nonsense to apply those two genearlisations to the non-religious.

  3. Tom Rees says:

    @Mark: yes, you’re quite right. That line applies only to those with religious beliefs.

  4. S England says:

    This is also why women, especiially older women, cling to religion as they experience less control over their lives and understand they must defer to others. They compensate for lack of control in their own lives by believing in a God that has it all in hand, and unlike their lived reality is concerned for their welfare.

  5. Sarah H says:

    I basically disagree with every claim in this post; I think I am a counter-example on every point. I have anxiety – I don’t turn to religion. I am tremendously afraid of death – I don’t turn to religion. When negative events happen, that repels me away from the idea of there being a god (I don’t turn to religion.) I am a bit of a control freak – I don’t turn to religion.

    As a liberal, I absolutely do not see the world as “colorless and barren!” I am offended by that claim.

    SO, it seems insecurity and anxiety are not sufficient conditions for religious belief; however they MAY be necessary ones…but I don’t really find that all too convincing either.

  6. […] and didn’t feel empowered to achieve their daily goals. We shouldn’t be too surprised. Past research has shown that anxiety and insecurity can turn people to religion—and that religious conviction […]

  7. Rho says:

    Is there one person in this world who is not anxious and insecure? I think not.
    A lot of personalities develop from being anxious and insecure – they cover up with all kinds of “confident” faces.

  8. Victor Strawn says:

    @Sarah H – There are always exceptions to the rule when dealing in such a diverse and subjective subject. For example, one does not necessarily need to be a smoker to have lung cancer, but smoking is proven to greatly increase the risk of having lung cancer. The same applies loosely than religion. As I said, it is diverse, and extremely subjective. (An example of that, for those of faith – my father is a devout Christian. He hates it when you call Christianity religion. He states that he is a man of faith, and that people of beliefs other than Christianity are religious, not him. I state that the Buddhist who devotes his life has a faith just as sincere as my father’s.) I digress, in such a subjective subject, there are many, many conditions. And as humans are themselves diverse, understanding such an ancient and extremely traditional act of (diverse as it may be) illogical reasoning used to understand a world filled with the unknown, well, it will be difficult to efficiently list cause and effect in a manner that isn’t itself at least partially subjective itself. There is no reason to be offended, as the information does not need to apply to you. It was most likely mentioned because it was a consensus view most often shared by individuals that met the standard criteria in a group study. Besides, it’s a freaking blog, dude! Don’t take yourself or the internet so seriously! You must be stressed! It’s cool!

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