Does Anxiety Lead to Religious Extremism?

A series of studies by researchers at York University shows that it can. The researchers put volunteers in either neutral or anxiety-provoking situations and then asked them to rate the strength of their religious convictions, including whether they would die for their faith or support a war to defend it. When people were put in anxiety-producing situations (like working on a complex math problem), they became more extreme in their religious convictions. The reaction was strongest in people with “bold” personalities (eager and tenacious, with high self-esteem) who were already vulnerable to anxiety 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 can act as a “buffer” against anxiety. And earlier studies by the researchers at York have shown that strong religious beliefs are linked to low activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain that becomes active when a person makes errors or experiences uncertainty. Psychologist Ian McGregor, who worked on those studies and the new one, notes in a write-up of the research that:

Taken together, the results of this research program suggest that bold but vulnerable people gravitate to idealistic and religious extremes for relief from anxiety.

Category: Findings

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  1. […] Our research indicates that atheists become more zealously atheistic in response to anxious uncertainty threats. It is important to distinguish zeal from other phenomena that have been linked to religious belief, however. Our research focuses on personally empowered religious and idealistic zeal. Some other research indicates that some people do become more deferent to, and paranoid and credulous about, a wide range of religious and supernatural factors when threatened, but those outcomes appear to be driven by different motivational factors that are associated with different personality orientations. […]

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