A few studies about religious belief that I’ve read over the past couple of days.
New research explores a little-understood role of God in people’s lives: helping them cope with the threat of romantic rejection. In this way, God stands in for other relationships in our lives when times are tough.
Most psychological research to date has looked at people’s relationship with God as similar to a parent-child bond, says Kristin Laurin of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “We wanted to push further the idea that people have a relationship with God in the same sense as they have relationships with other humans,” she says. “The idea is certainly not new in terms of cultural discourse, but it’s not something that psychologists have done a lot of empirical work to study.”
Specifically, Laurin and colleagues wanted to see how our relationship with God changes as our other relationships change. So the researchers designed a series of studies, published today in Social Psychological and Personality Science, that experimentally induced people to believe their romantic relationship was under threat and then tested their feelings of closeness to God. They also wanted to examine the opposite idea – how people’s romantic relationships take on different meaning when their relationship with God is threatened – and tested how this dynamic changed based on the individual’s self-esteem.
Laurin’s team found that participants sought to enhance their relationship with God when under threat of romantic rejection – but only if they had high self-esteem. This fits with past work showing that people high in self-esteem seek social connection when their relationships are threatened.
Interestingly, in one of the studies, researchers looked at how people respond to a threat to their relationship with God, and they found similar trends… “We might have thought that people expect God to already know everything about them, and therefore that the concept of a ‘secret self’ that you try to hide from God wouldn’t really make sense,” Laurin says. “But we found that using that threat on people’s relationship with God worked in much the same way as it did with people’s romantic relationships.”
While the research did not specifically aim to analyze differences in this effect between religions, it did hint at some trends. In the study that included Hindus from India and Christians from the United States, the researchers found no differences when comparing the two groups; they both reacted similarly.
At Epiphenom: Turning to God for reassurance in the face of wonder:
‘Agency detection’ – seeing purposeful minds at work behind seemingly random events – is a powerful human instinct that is thought to play an important role in the generation of religious beliefs.
There’s quite a body of research that shows that a persons ‘agency detection’ can be turned up in circumstances where they are made to feel uncertain or confused. Piercarlo Valdesolo (Claremont McKenna College, USA ) and Jesse Graham (University of Southern California) reckoned that giving people a sense of awe might just unsettle them enough to start detecting agents at work in the world around them.
What they found, repeatedly, was that watching an awe-inspiring video increased the tendency to see agents at work. So, for example, they were more likely to believe that the strings of random numbers had been put together by humans…
They also measured their subjects’ tolerance of uncertainty “I feel uncomfortable when I don’t understand the reason why an event occurred in my life”. What they found was that watching the awe-inspiring videos did indeed increase their subjects’ tolerance of uncertainty.
What do these two studies have in common? Fear. Fear of the unknown, or fear of your relationship status. It seems as though we turn to our social relationships (including god) to manage how we cope with uncertainty and/or loss. What was interesting about the Epiphenom study was that awe-inspiring things seem to temper uncertainty tolerance, and uncertainty in and of itself makes people more religious. This study also might explain why people get religious experiences when seeing awe-inspiring things in nature, like a frozen waterfall.
Interestingly, the Greek word phobos means both fear and awe. Its Greek synonym deos (fear, awe; used at Hebrews 12.28 “with reverence and fear/awe”) sounds pretty close to theos (god). Probably meaning the connection between fear/awe and god-belief was well known in antiquity so much so that it affected the language.