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Comfort Theories of Religion

Dr. Thomas Swan has a PhD in psychology from the University of Otago. He specializes in the cognitive and evolutionary study of religion.

Does religion help people cope with negative emotions?

Does religion help people cope with negative emotions?

What Are Comfort Theories of Religion?

When religious beliefs are formed by people who have recently been in a negative emotional state, such as grief, guilt, anxiety, depression, and so on, comfort theories suggest that the reason for forming the beliefs was to alleviate the turmoil.

Religious ideas such as an afterlife or a fatherly god may be seen as comforting to those who are motivated by their emotional state into accepting them. For example, a person suffering from illness or bereavement may be able to convince themselves that an afterlife exists if they bias their reasoning enough. Comfort theories of religion posit one or more of the following hypotheses:

  • People are attracted to religious concepts that they implicitly or explicitly believe will alleviate their negative emotional state. This doesn't require the concepts to have any real mood-altering effect.
  • Religious beliefs make people feel good, but there is no measurable improvement beyond a subjective, self-reported change.
  • Religious beliefs actually work to alleviate negative emotional states in an objective, measurable way.

The following sections provide substantial experimental evidence to support these hypotheses. First, however, Richard Dawkins introduces us to the key idea in this article (see video below): the motivation to believe in things that are comforting to us.

Evidence for Comfort Theories of Religion

A wealth of evidence has been accumulated over the past century to support some or all of the aforementioned hypotheses. The studies come from the social sciences, cognitive science, behavioral psychology, and neuroscience. Many of these are listed below (PDF means the link goes to an Adobe Reader file).

1. Literature from the social sciences suggests that people who identify with a religion enjoy greater life-satisfaction. Indeed, a cross-cultural study (PDF) found that religious believers had higher levels of self-esteem and psychological adjustment than nonbelievers. However, the effect was greatest in countries that valued religiosity, suggesting that the psychological benefits depend on the cultural standing of the religion.

2. A remarkable set of experiments found that people who were made to feel a lack of control (PDF) were more likely to see patterns in random arrangements of dots or sets of stock market figures. This willingness to see patterns provided the participants with an illusion of control, which might help them to overcome feelings of helplessness and anxiety. The experiment therefore showed how negative emotions might produce a motivation to believe in a level of order that does not exist.

3. Another experiment found that one means of reestablishing control is to believe in the existence of an externally-controlling god. The experiment tested levels of religious belief before and after a task in which participants were asked to remember past events that they had no control over. After the task, belief in God as a controlling entity increased (see below). However, a recent attempt to replicate this effect failed to produce the same results.

A lack of control (dark bars) increased belief in God as a controlling entity.

A lack of control (dark bars) increased belief in God as a controlling entity.

4. Four studies found that after people were asked to consider what will happen to them when they die, their belief in God and divine intervention increased. Thus, anxiety stemming from death awareness (PDF) directly contributed to increased religiosity. The experimenters observed that even culturally alien religions were endorsed when death anxiety was aroused, suggesting that the motivation wasn't "worldview defense" (as proposed by Terror Management Theory).

5. A similar experiment found that writing about death increased religious identification and belief in God when compared with a control group that wrote about a neutral topic. However, in this case, increased religiosity was even seen in previously non-religious participants. Another study suggested this is because death anxiety strengthens unconscious or "implicit" religious beliefs.

6. Another experiment evoked anxiety by presenting participants with an uncertain threat, which caused them to display increased religious idealism. However, the effect was greatest in those with the highest levels of trait anxiety (proneness to anxious thoughts). Furthermore, the experimenters found that religious participants reacted to these threats with "religious zeal," suggesting that faith readily serves an anxiety management function.

7. There is neuroscientific evidence to suggest that religious thought reduces distress. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) produces distress signals in response to error-detection, expectancy violation, and conflict. The study found that ACC activity decreases when religious beliefs are expressed.

8. A cross-cultural study showed that countries spending more on welfare have lower levels of religious participation. The authors concluded that when the threat to existential security is reduced by welfare payments, there is less need for religion. In general, they found that social threats such as warfare, disease, economic disparity, and high infant mortality rates led to increased religious attendance.

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.

— Karl Marx (1843)

9. In Scott Atran's book, In Gods We Trust, he cites polls that show the religiosity of Americans increased after the anxiogenic events of 9/11. He also remarked on a British television survey in which "thinking about death" was associated with God 64% of the time. Atran suggested that religion allows death to be seen as a "telic event" that must be controlled by some purposeful force (a god) and must have a goal to be reached (an afterlife). While a "controlling god" may reduce anxiety, establishing a goal may be necessary for "motivated reasoning" in which individuals are able to convince themselves of the verity of a premise in pursuit of that goal.

10. Atran and colleagues performed an experiment (described in his book) in which participants read one of three different stories. Either a young child experiences a peaceful journey to a hospital to watch a safety drill, or he is hit by a car and subsequently dies in the hospital, or he sees a man weeping for a homeless woman on the way to the hospital who he later observes praying in the hospital chapel. After reading these neutral, death-related, or religious-related stories, the experimenters tested levels of theistic belief. They found that belief in God and supernatural intervention were significantly higher for those who had read the death-related story.

Religious conversion in later life commonly follows a period of unhappiness.

Religious conversion in later life commonly follows a period of unhappiness.

11. An experiment assessed the value of spiritual support in dealing with bereavement. The authors found that high levels of spiritual support helped to increase self-esteem and reduce depression.

12. A study found that elderly and hospitalized people who were close to death experienced less death anxiety and greater acceptance of their fate when they scored high on intrinsic religiosity tests. The findings suggested that people whose religion imbues them with a sense of purpose are better equipped to cope.

13. A study of 40 people who had endured a near-death experience (NDE) found that a significant number of them increased their religious activities or viewed religion as more important after their experience.

14. A questionnaire found that of 119 converts to a religious sect, 71% had suffered from psychological stress, and 45% were marijuana users. After two years in the sect, these numbers had reduced to 37% and 7% respectively. Supporting these findings, a separate study found that low self-esteem and relationship troubles were frequent precursors to conversion.

15. Research has shown that religion is becoming increasingly popular in prisons (PDF), which are now seen as a hotbed for conversion. Prisoners are likely to reflect on their rejection from society and may desire the moral structure and social acceptance that religion offers. Furthermore, incarceration and the threat of violence from other inmates may be significant causes of anxiety.

16. Guilt is another negative emotion that may precede conversion. A study found that 55% of sudden religious converts had previously suffered with guilt, compared with 8.5% from the control group.

17. An experiment showed that trait anxiety (proneness to anxiety) was significantly higher in individuals who had undergone a sudden religious conversion when compared with people who underwent gradual conversions, or the non-religious. They also found that regular churchgoers demonstrated less anxiety (despite any proneness to it), suggesting a mood-management effect.

18. A four-year study found that women who initially identified as anxious or avoidant were significantly more likely to have found "a new relationship with God" before the end of the study.

19. Around 40% of converts to the Divine Light Mission cult reported seeking psychiatric help or counseling before converting, and 48% of converts to the Hare Krishna movement claimed to have previously suffered from anxiety. Post-conversion, many claimed reduced anxiety and improved self-esteem (see Scott Atran's book "In God We Trust" for details).

20. A summary of the literature on the therapeutic effects of prayer and religious commitment found that they are an effective coping mechanism for distress and anxiety. There was a consistent correlation between religiosity and subjective feelings of well-being.

21. A study of meditative states found that experienced practitioners showed reduced worry and anxiety. Many religions employ meditative or silent modes of worship that may replicate these effects.

Many religions are up-front about their ability to provide inner peace and contentment.

Many religions are up-front about their ability to provide inner peace and contentment.

22. A study interviewed 106 converts to 9 different religions. Many spoke of the psychological benefits that their new religion bestowed, such as greater calm, self-confidence, friendship, and a sense of purpose. Many were also unhappy before they joined. Indeed, according to Nico Frijda, religious conversion usually requires an emotional experience or "revelation" for it to be compelling. Converted individuals refer to a past of sin and despair where religion is seen as relief from this sin.

Do Religious People Have a Repressive Coping Style?

In my own research, I have hypothesized that people who cope with anxiety by repressing it are likely to adopt religious beliefs. Repressors are defined as people who score high on "social desirability" scales and low on trait-anxiety scales (presumably because they repress anxiety). Seeing oneself as socially respectable and morally righteous may be a way to protect self-esteem from the negative effects of dispositional anxiety. Studies have shown that religiosity may be correlated with social desirability.

When testing the hypothesis, I found a link between repression and religiosity. Specifically, I found that a repressive coping style --- in which people deal with negative thoughts, emotions, and events by either unconsciously avoiding them or reinterpreting them in a more positive way --- may help people to construct and maintain a view of God (see below) that is, ultimately, more palatable to believe.

The relationship between repression and positive views of God at different levels of anxiety (negative affect).

The relationship between repression and positive views of God at different levels of anxiety (negative affect).

Does Religion Itself Point to Comfort Theory?

There are many reasons to think that religious beliefs perform a "mood-management" function.

  1. Religious beliefs concern non-trivial, goal-related concerns such as death, security, purpose of being, potential for growth, and strategically useful information about our environment. The belief that one is vulnerable or deficient in these areas is a principle cause of anxiety. Thus, religious beliefs appear to directly address many of our basic, innate worries.
  2. Religious beliefs are highly resistant to change. As the strength of a belief is argued to be proportional to the intensity (PDF) of the emotional experience associated with it, religious beliefs are likely to involve an emotional component.
  3. Religious beliefs cannot be verified through observation, resulting in a plethora of culturally unique and contradictory faiths. If religious beliefs are not formed in an empirical way, an emotional influence may be the only other mechanism with which to produce strong beliefs (although arguments and displays from authority figures may also suffice).
  4. If religious beliefs are unverifiable, the concepts they are concerned with will be difficult to conceive, intellectualize, or intuit. For example, how does one conceive of a god that is everywhere at once. This makes religious beliefs prime candidates for formation through motivated reasoning (PDF), in which individuals are biased by their desire for a particular outcome (such as alleviating unpleasant emotions). Without verifiable information, the mind can cut corners sufficiently to convince itself the belief is true.
  5. Unpleasant emotions can produce pessimistic or threatening beliefs. This can lead to cognitive dissonance with positive self-beliefs and a motivation to reduce this dissonance. An experiment showed that religious participants experienced dissonance when presented with information that highlighted the discrepancy between theistic beliefs and worldwide suffering. When given the opportunity to endorse transcendental arguments (e.g., God works in mysterious ways), their emotional state improved, suggesting that religious beliefs are resistant to change because they reduce dissonance.
  6. Ritual behavior instills a sense of order and control and is understood to emerge from and alleviate feelings of anxiety (that often follow a lack of control). Religions, of course, are highly ritualized belief systems, e.g., praying in a particular way at a particular time, attending mass, or something more elaborate (see below).
Religions utilize our tendency to engage in ritualized behavior.

Religions utilize our tendency to engage in ritualized behavior.

The Cognitive Science of Religion

Comfort theories often assume that anxious individuals will pick religion as their crutch (as opposed to something else, such as ice cream!). Thus, to support the theory, one must explain why religious concepts are frequently encountered and why they are evaluated as comforting.

One of the central findings in the cognitive science of religion is that religious beliefs are cross-culturally popular. Pascal Boyer showed that this is because gods and other counter-intuitive concepts are interesting enough to be remembered. A story about a tree that talks is more memorable than a story about a tree that sheds its leaves in Autumn. As a result, religious concepts are conversed about more often, and this transmission bias ensures they will be frequently encountered. In my own research, I have also found that anxiety may boost this effect because powerful gods represent a potential threat.

However, what causes anxious individuals to think a religious concept will be comforting if believed? One possibility is cultural learning. Committed believers regularly exhibit expressions of profound ecstasy and appear to be happier than nonbelievers, which may signal to anxious individuals that religious beliefs are efficacious for repairing mood.

People will try counselors, priests, drugs, alcohol, funny movies, ice cream, or anything that in their experience can repair mood. If religious belief is seen to work for at least one individual, then one may associate it with this function. As we have seen, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that religious beliefs are successful in this regard. However, comfort theories do not need to prove that religion helps people overcome depression. They only need to prove that people adopt religious beliefs because they think it will help them overcome depression.

The joy exhibited by evangelical Christians might signal to others that worship can repair one's mood.

The joy exhibited by evangelical Christians might signal to others that worship can repair one's mood.

Different sources of anxiety may cause people to find different religious beliefs comforting. For example, the rules and teachings found in most religions may appeal more to social outcasts and prisoners who wish to be reintegrated into society. The human prophets and messiahs found in many religions may appeal more to children who desire a model to emulate. Whatever the comforting belief, it often comes with something that is counter-intuitive and transmissible.

Indeed, when attempting to reconcile comfort theories with the cognitive science of religion, it is worth recognizing that religions contain many inter-related beliefs. If one belief is deemed comforting, it may encourage the formation of several connected beliefs. For example, the experiments described earlier suggest that people intuitively associate death and God. It may be that a transmissible, counter-intuitive, and moralizing god gives believers a logical cause for a comforting afterlife.

The implications are profound for the cognitive science of religion. If a system of cognitively-consistent religious beliefs contains at least one easily transmitted concept and one comforting concept then its capacity to be both popular and believable may be dually explained. Currently, the cognitive science of religion cannot explain why people commit to religions any more than they commit to other counter-intuitive concepts, such as Santa Claus or Mickey Mouse.

Thus, both cognitive and comfort theories of religion may be required to explain its success. Unfortunately, this interplay between cognition and emotion is understated in cognitive psychology. Some authors see comfort theories as competing explanations to be dismissed and criticized (PDF) but, as with all scientific exploits, progress depends on objectively judging the value of experimental data, regardless of its implications.

© 2013 Thomas Swan


Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on August 11, 2019:

For those who are curious about this topic, one of my articles was recently published in a peer-reviewed journal. The article essentially asks why people believe in Jesus but not Superman, Santa Claus, or Mickey Mouse. It looks at the differences between religious and secular supernatural beings, and what these differences tell us about why the religious beings are believed and worshiped. The differences tend to support the notion that religion provides palliative benefits (i.e., comfort). A link to the article is below:

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on May 14, 2015:

Thank you Kristen, Akriti, TheGutterMonkey, Paula, Steafan, Catherine, Harishprasad, Nell Rose, Oztinato, and Heidi Thorne for your kind and thoughtful comments. I’m very happy to have gotten HOTD for this!

Andrew Petrou from Brisbane on May 13, 2015:

To draw spiritual comfort from actual Reality ("God") leads to better healthier saner human being,(please spare me any comments about alleged Muslims.)

On the other hand if a person tries to gain spiritual comfort from atheist based Unreality (like alcohol, drugs, porn and a Money based philosophy), we get a very unhappy unhealthy "gangsta" type person. Or perhaps we get a person who wants to make money out of writing a book on atheism eg. broke zoologists like Dawkins.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on May 13, 2015:

What a insightful, interesting and thorough hub! Though I hadn't done any research on the topic (like you did here), I suspected that the comfort factor was significant. Congrats on Hub of the Day! Well deserved.

Nell Rose from England on May 13, 2015:

Hi, yep I totally agree with you! and you put it perfectly, congrats on HOTD!

Harish Mamgain from New Delhi , India on May 13, 2015:

A well-researched and very informative hub. Thomas, this hub has a vast food for thought. I enjoyed reading this hub. You have done a commendable and remarkable job. Congrats on HOTD , this hub rightly deserves so.

Catherine Giordano from Orlando Florida on May 13, 2015:

You have done an excellent job of explaining the comfort theory of religion and presenting the research. voted up++. A friend once asked me, "Don't you want to believe in anything." Of course, I want to believe. It is comforting. I just can't believe because it isn't true.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on May 13, 2015:

Thomas, though I've commented on this hub, a while back, congrats on HOTD!

Suzie from Carson City on May 13, 2015:

Thomas.....Congratulations on your HOTD. I would say however, this may qualify as Hub of the year, MOST fascinating & profound education. So much of what you share here reaches my core.

As writers, if we can awaken human curiosities, we have succeeded halfway. The remainder of a journey relies upon the answers to the multitude of questions which are born of this curiosity

It is clear to me that this marvelous piece not only inspires a deep desire (need) to KNOW, but provides a plethora of sound answers to any questions your readers may take to further study & investigation.

Thank you so much for sharing the fruits of your education and vast storage of sound, factual knowledge, Most definitely UP/UIAB! Shared, pinned & tweeted. Peace, Paula

The Gutter Monkey on May 13, 2015:

Wow, this Hub is eerily similar to my latest Hub. Yours, of course, has clearly become much more of a hit than mine, though. But I'll try to hold back my bitterness resentment lol.

Anywho. This is really great. Thumbs way up and congrats on Hub of the Day. It's always nice (and unfortunately rare) to see real science showcased on Hubpages. Good job!

Akriti Mattu from Shimla, India on May 13, 2015:


I endorse every word.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on April 09, 2015:

You're so prolific and diverse with your hub, Thomas. This was an interesting and compelling read. Nicely done with the research. Voted up for interesting for sure!

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on November 29, 2014:

Thanks for the comment James. You've mistaken me for Colleen Swan. I do comment on her exceptional hubs from time to time, but we're not the same person. I'm happy to have inspired you with your research. That neuroscientific paper was excellently written and comprised important research imo. The commentary from other authors was equally interesting, as it seems many are sadly too caught up in their own theories to appreciate its importance. Neuroscience is an excellent way to pursue the scientific study of religion though, as most psychologists hold it in high regard.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on November 29, 2014:

Thanks for your comment Carolyn. I lost track of it, so apologies for replying late. Pub-life is less of a thing in the UK now too. Cheap supermarket alcohol, clubbing, and a more individualized culture are all hitting the pubs hard and perhaps 50% have closed in the past 20 years. Though, when I was in the US, I did notice the lack of pubs. I found some sports bars and restaurants that double up as pubs though. I also dislike the "everyone for themselves" mentality. I think it's a right-wing way of thinking, which may be why they commonly compensate for it by attending Church more often. I see you've drawn a similar conclusion. Thanks for the interesting comment Carolyn.

James Herrera from Los Angeles, California on November 22, 2014:

Great information Colleen, you seem to have a very good understanding of the processes that take place, when someone needs to relay on an internal belief of an external religious resource to coop. I have always wanted to more research on the actual processes that take place in the brain when people communicate a source of such. I particularly like that you brought up an interesting study: "Neuroscientific evidence (PDF) supports comfort theories by showing how religious thought satisfies a motivation to reduce distress. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) produces distress signals in response to error-detection, expectancy violation, and conflict. A study found that ACC activity decreases when religious beliefs are expressed." which has inspired me to go forward with my research. Thank you kindly James Herrera.

Carolyn Emerick on June 06, 2014:

Interesting that you said "individualist." I keep saying that the more secularized (or as we embrace 'alternative religions' that are practiced solitaire) society becomes, one sad aspect many of us are missing out on is the sense of community that church gives us. Granted there's an upside to that. Heavily religious communities can succumb to group-think, peer pressure, etc. But they do form a tight knit community of support that can be lacking without a parallel alternative. I read on your profile that you're in the UK, but this individualist isolating experience is more profound here in the US. We don't have the neighborhood pub where everyone locally goes, or the same sense of social community that I felt when I lived temporarily in the UK. In the US it's very much everyone for themselves. So having a religious community can provide a safety net that our society doesn't otherwise have. Which may be partially why the US has a more zealot-like obsession with religion than other historically Christian nations do today.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on June 06, 2014:

Thanks Suzettenaples. Glad you liked it!

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on June 06, 2014:

Hi Carolyn. Thank you for reading, commenting and sharing. Ah yes, the trendy spiritualist tag heheh... I wonder how much that trend is linked to our increasingly sedentary, threat-free, and individualist culture. All it would take is a major catastrophe for the Churches to be filled again imo. I'm glad you liked this. I'm hoping to investigate the topic further over the next few years and may write more hubs about it.

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on June 06, 2014:

This is quite interesting and informative and well researched. You make some valid points that make sense here. I enjoyed reading this.

Carolyn Emerick on June 06, 2014:

Hi Thomas, I'm so glad I found your profile! This article was exactly what I needed to help with a personal situation. I fall into the trendy cliché of identifying as "spiritual but not religious," and am more agnostic with a strong spiritual curiosity, open to possibilities but with my feet grounded in science. I have shared your article with some friends and family, thank you for writing this :-)

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on March 17, 2014:

Thanks grand old lady! I've studied the cognitive science of religion at university, so I'm able to cite the journals in which the original data was published. Glad you enjoyed it!

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on March 16, 2014:

There is so much information here, and the research is lengthy and the sources are credible. I loved reading it but will have to go through it again to fully appreciate this piece. I usually go for light reading, but this one is worth going back to and absorbing it portion by portion.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on January 03, 2014:

Thanks Kathleen. Sorry I missed your comment until now. I made this my last hub for a while because I believe the information in it is very important... so I'm glad you liked it! :)

Kathleen Cochran from Atlanta, Georgia on December 19, 2013:

I will have to read more of your hubs. If they are all brimming with information like this one, it'll take me a while to take it all in. Enjoyed this one.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on November 15, 2013:

Thanks Wiccan. Agreed, for religion to survive, it must be attractive for people. As well as the psychological benefits, there are cognitive traits and dispositions that we have as well. These cause us to remember and recall stories about gods more than mundane stories. We also have a "hyper active agency detector" which means that we're likely to associate any unknown disturbance in our environment to an intelligent being of some sort. This is adaptive because people who behaved this way were more likely to survive when being stalked by wild animals. It's really incredible how the psychology of religion has been unearthed in the last 30 years or so. Of course, these findings need to be incorporated into what I've cited in the hub if we're to understand all facets of the phenomenon.

Mackenzie Sage Wright on November 14, 2013:

Well done, a lot of good research is here. It only makes sense that there are psychological and sociological benefits to religion, or it would not make sense that some kind of religious beliefs were valued in just about every culture in history. This kind of research always fascinates me.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on October 30, 2013:

Thanks Colleen, yes this is more of a literature review that anything, but it should prove to be a useful `go-to' page for people to do further research. The discussion involves a lot of original research though.

Colleen Swan from County Durham on October 30, 2013:

Wow; exceptional discussion and nicely linked for further research.