The old adage “there are no atheists in fox holes” may be true for the more religiously inclined, but much less so for the more rational or scientific-minded amongst us.
A recent study by psychologist at University of Oxford, in the UK, finds that a certain “faith” in the explanatory power of Science increases when subjects were experiencing stress or anxiety. They surmise that this “belief in science” serves the same purpose — amongst non-religious persons — as the belief in god (or a higher power) does for religious folks.
Previous studies had found that religious belief serves as a coping mechanism for persons experiencing stress and anxiety (Inzlicht et al, 2012, Norenzayan & Hansen, 2006), and served to “compensate for lack of control” (Kay et al, 2009). The Oxford researchers decided to follow up on this with new studies to determine if this effect was specific to religious belief, or, if it was in fact a more general mechanism, that is, whether the coping power was an effect of belief itself.
Dr Miguel Farias, the study’s lead researcher in the Department of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University, explains:
“We found that being in a more stressful or anxiety-inducing situation increased participants’ ‘belief in science’. This belief in science we looked at says nothing of the legitimacy of science itself. Rather we were interested in the values individuals hold about science.” [quote source: Oxford University press release]
Regarding these values, Dr. Farias elaborated further:
“While most people accept science as a reliable source of knowledge about the world, some may hold science as a superior method for gathering knowledge, the only way to explain the world, or as having some unique and fundamental value in itself. This is a view of science that some atheists endorse.”
The Experiments – Rowing and Writing
To more accurately gauge a person’s belief in science, the researchers first devised a ‘belief’ scale comprised of ten statements asking participants how much they “agreed or disagreed”. Example statements included:
- ‘Science tells us everything there is to know about what reality consists of.’
- ‘All the tasks human beings face are soluble by science.’
- ‘The scientific method is the only reliable path to knowledge.’
Next, the researchers focused on a cohort of subjects who would be experiencing real-life stress: a group of 100 rowers, 52 of whom were soon to be engaged in a rowing competition (known as a regatta) — presumed to be at a higher stress level — and the remaining 48 were about to do a normal practice session (presumed to be less stressed).
Results of this first experiment: those who were about to compete in the regatta (who reported feeling more stress) returned scores showing a greater belief in science than those doing the normal training session. The differences were considered “statistically significant”. Both groups of rowers reported a lower degree of “religiosity” (i.e., their belief in science was negatively correlated with religiosity, or religious faith).
In the second experiment, 60 subjects were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group was told to think about their own death (“primed with mortality”) and then write down any feelings aroused by this existential contemplation (this strategy to induce ‘existential anxiety’ has been used in other studies). The members of the second group were asked to write about experiences with dental pain. The results: study participants tasked with writing about their own deaths scored higher of the belief in science scale.
Summing It All Up
The researchers had initially predicted that “stress and existential anxiety” would result in greater belief in science. Results corroborated this prediction. The general findings of this research:
- • Athletes about to compete (vs. training) reported greater
- belief in science.
- • Mortality salience increased belief in science but not in
- scientific determinism.
- • Secular individuals benefit from believing in science.
The researchers concluded that the study’s results were consistent with the notion that belief in science increases when secular individuals are placed in stressful (or “threatening”) situations. They further suggest that this belief may aid non-religious people in dealing with adverse conditions.
However, Farias also acknowledged the study’s limitations; it showed only that stress or anxiety increased belief in science. it did not examine whether affirming this belief would subsequently reduce the experience of stress or anxiety.
The researchers (Miguel Farias, Anna-Kaisa Newheiser, Guy Kahane, Zoe de Toledo) report their findings in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology under the title: ‘Scientific faith: Belief in science increases in the face of stress and anxiety‘
The research paper abstract:
Growing evidence indicates that religious belief helps individuals to cope with stress and anxiety. But is this effect specific to supernatural beliefs, or is it a more general function of belief – including belief in science? We developed a measure of belief in science and conducted two experiments in which we manipulated stress and existential anxiety. In Experiment 1, we assessed rowers about to compete (high-stress condition) and rowers at a training session (low-stress condition). As predicted, rowers in the high-stress group reported greater belief in science. In Experiment 2, participants primed with mortality (vs. participants in a control condition) reported greater belief in science. In both experiments, belief in science was negatively correlated with religiosity. Thus, some secular individuals may use science as a form of “faith” that helps them to deal with stressful and anxiety-provoking situations.
top image: (Faith sign) credit: JJ Studio via shutterstock.com