Hypothesis: More Guns, More Religion

23 Dec


So as regular reader(s?) of this blog should know, religiosity is tightly coupled with existential insecurity: things like income inequality, natural disasters, feeling lonely, worrying about healthcare, etc. increase religiosity. It’s really anything that short circuits your ability to think clearly that is closely knit with heightened religious belief. As I quoted in my blog post over why atheists should listen to Pope Francis:

Every single 1st world nation that is irreligious shares a set of distinctive attributes. These include handgun control, anti-corporal punishment and anti-bullying policies, rehabilitative rather than punitive incarceration, intensive sex education that emphasizes condom use, reduced socio-economic disparity via tax and welfare systems combined with comprehensive health care, increased leisure time that can be dedicated to family needs and stress reduction, and so forth.

Look at that: handgun control is one of the indicators of a less religious society, and the USA has a pretty huge hardon for guns. Is this another reason why the USA is so religious? An article over at Salon gave some further evidence for this idea. It seems as though even seeing a gun will make you more aggressive:

Even when you’re not holding a gun, you can be psychologically affected by seeing one. Since 1967, researchers have been observing the “weapons effect,” a phenomenon in which the mere presence of a weapon can stimulate aggressive behavior. Of course, a person doesn’t respond to a gun the way a cartoon bull reacts to the matador’s cape; we aren’t spontaneously enraged every time we notice a firearm. But empirical research has repeatedly shown that when people are already aggravated, seeing a gun will motivate them to behave more aggressively.


A later study at the University of Utah refined our understanding of the weapons effect. Psychologists watched the behavior of drivers stuck at an intersection behind a truck that wouldn’t budge when the light turned green. Sometimes there was a gun displayed in the truck’s rear window and sometimes there wasn’t. The researchers observed that people honked more often when they saw the gun.

Recent experiments have shown that even when nobody has been tormenting you with electric shocks or inciting your road rage, you’ll react to a gun differently than you’d react to other objects in your environment. You’ll automatically see the gun as a threat, without even realizing it.

“The ‘threat superiority effect’ is the tendency for people to be able to pick out very quickly in their environment things that might pose a threat to their security — anything that might be dangerous,” explains Isabelle Blanchette, a professor of psychology at the University of Quebec. “People have a tendency to be able to see these things before they see other things.”

Psychologists have theorized that the threat superiority effect is a product of evolution — we have adapted the ability to immediately identify threats like snakes and spiders so we can avoid them. Blanchette’s research shows that people have a similarly quick reaction to seeing a weapon: We’ll immediately spot a gun among several other distracting objects.

When you see the threat, your body will respond before you even think about it. “The most instantaneous thing that happens is that your pupils will dilate,” Blanchette says. “You can have other physiological reactions that are associated with fear. There are changes in your body, such as in your heart rate and respiration rate.”

There we have it. More guns = more aggressive behavior. As I wrote above, however, feeling safe — existential security — is negatively correlated with religion. So if guns actually do make people safer, then the presence of guns should also be correlated with a decline in religiosity. Since most other civilized countries that are also non-religious have little to no guns, I can only go by what I know about religious places in the USA.

Does what I know about religion, safety, and guns play out in the USA?

Just looking at these image maps and how they overlap, it seems as though there’s a very, very weak correlation between gun control laws and religiosity. The more religious states have the weaker gun control laws but not the weakest.

For example, in the last image both the most religious and the least religious states have the weakest gun control laws, with a small correlation with the moderately religious states and better gun control laws. This would paradoxically support both the hypothesis that more guns make people feel more safe (thus less religion) and the alternative that more guns makes people feel less safe (thus more religion)!

Of course, another problem is that I’m not sure how reliable these data are.

One obvious factor that joins these data is that income inequality not only is tightly coupled with religiosity, but is also tightly coupled with crime. And with crime comes more possibility for death due to gun violence as is evidenced by the map the the purple shades; the states with both the most guns per person and fall within the top 10 states regarding firearm death are also among the most religious states/states with higher levels of income inequality.

Still, it remains to be seen just how strong or weak the correlation is using some actual objective data and legitimate statistics.

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Posted by on December 23, 2013 in cognitive science, economics/sociology


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