Comfort Theories of Religion
What Are Comfort Theories?
When religious beliefs are formed by people who've recently been in a negative emotional state, such as grief, guilt, anxiety, depression, and so on, comfort theories suggest the reason for forming the beliefs was to alleviate the turmoil. Religious ideas such as an afterlife or a fatherly god are 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 typically make one or more of the following hypotheses:
- People are attracted to religious concepts that they 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: - the motivation to believe things that are comforting to us.
Richard Dawkins Talks About Religious Comfort
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. In the summaries that follow, please note that `(PDF)' means the entire scientific paper is being linked to in Adobe Reader format.
1. Literature from the social sciences suggests that people who identify with a religion claim to enjoy greater life-satisfaction. Indeed, a recent cross-cultural study (PDF) found that religious believers have higher levels of self-esteem and psychological adjustment. However, the effect was greatest in countries that valued religiosity, suggesting the psychological benefits depend on the cultural standing of the religion.
2. A remarkable set of experiments found that when people were made to feel a lack of control (PDF), they 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 helped them overcome their feelings of helplessness and anxiety. The experiment therefore showed how negative emotions can produce a motivation to believe in a level of order that doesn't exist.
3. Another experiment confirmed 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 they asked people to remember past events that they had no control over. After the task, belief in God as a controlling entity increased (see below).
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 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.
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. 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.
8. A cross-cultural study showed that countries spending more on welfare have lower levels of religious participation. The authors conclude 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.
9. In Scott Atran's book `In Gods We Trust', he cites numerous polls that show how the religiosity of Americans increased after the anxiogenic events of 9/11. He also remarks on a British television survey in which "thinking about death" was associated with God 64% of the time.
10. Atran eloquently explains that religions turn death into a "telic event". This means that death is controlled by some force (such as a god), and there is a goal to be reached (an afterlife). While establishing control reduces anxiety; establishing a goal is necessary for `motivated reasoning' in which individuals are able to convince themselves of the verity of a premise in pursuit of that goal.
11. Atran and colleagues performed an experiment 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; he is hit by a car and subsequently dies in the hospital; or he see's 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.
12. 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.
13. A study (PDF) 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 suggest that people whose religion imbues them with a sense of purpose will be better equipped to cope.
14. 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.
15. A questionnaire determined 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.
16. 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 therefore 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.
17. Guilt is another negative emotion that appears to precede conversion. showed that 55% of sudden religious converts had previously suffered with guilt, compared with 8.5% for the control group. Similar findings were A study replicated 40 years later.
18. 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.
19. 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.
20. 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 Atran's book for details).
21. 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.
22. 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.
23. A study interviewed 106 converts (PDF) 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.
Repressing Negative Emotions
Elsewhere it has been hypothesized that people who cope with their anxiety by repressing it will be more likely to adopt religious beliefs that can perform this function. When describing how a repressive coping style develops, psychologist Michael Eysenck concluded: “Young children who experience indifference and apathy from one or more parents develop an avoidant attachment style (which) often develops into the adult defensive coping style characteristic of repressors” (in Nico Frijda's book, above). A tentative link with religion can be made if we consider the results of a separate study. This showed that individuals who experience an insecure or unhappy childhood are likely to undergo sudden religious conversion later in life.
Repressors are typically defined as anxious people who score high on `social desirability' tests. Seeing oneself as socially desirable is a way to protect one's self-esteem from the negative effects of dispositional anxiety. Studies have shown that instrinsic religiosity and extrinsic religiosity (PDF) may be correlated with social desirability. Thus, the evidence in this section demonstrates a relationship between those who repress their anxiety, and the formation of religious beliefs.
What Are Religious Beliefs?
There are many reasons to think religious beliefs perform a `mood-management' function.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 likely.
- 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 prove the belief true. Indeed, an experiment presented religious believers and skeptics with information that disproved their beliefs. This produced unpleasant emotions in both groups, but only the religious believers began a process of motivated reasoning in which less of the undesirable information was recalled.
- Unpleasant emotions can produce pessimistic or threatening beliefs. This can lead to cognitive dissonance with positive self-beliefs, and a subsequent motivation to reduce the dissonance. An experiment showed that religious participants experienced dissonance when presented with information highlighting 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, demonstrating the resistance of religious beliefs to change, and their function for reducing dissonance.
- A sentiment is a belief in the usefulness of certain behaviors when emotional situations arise. Many religious beliefs appear to be sentiments. For example, when sinful imagery or uncontrollable anger enters the mind of a religious believer, there may be a specific ritualized response to this behavior, such as praying or asking forgiveness from a deity/spirit. Thus, these religious coping rituals work to reduce unpleasant emotions. Indeed, ritual behavior instills a sense of order and control, and is understood to emerge from and alleviate feelings of anxiety (that epitomize a lack of control). Religions, of course, are highly ritualized belief systems.
The Cognitive Science of Religion
Comfort theories often assume that anxious individuals will pick religion as their crutch. However, 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.
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 (on the surface) to be happier than their non-believing counterparts. This is likely to signal to anxious individuals that religious beliefs are efficacious for repairing mood.
This `efficacy bias' is not a new postulation. People will try counselors, priests, drugs, alcohol, funny movies, ice cream, or anything that in their experience can repair mood. Indeed, when unpleasant emotions motivate people to find a source of comfort, there will be a biased search of the environment for whatever can do the job. 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 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.
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 comes with the counter-intuitive, transmissible belief in God.
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 a number of connected beliefs. For example, the experiments described earlier found that belief in God increased when people were exposed to `death primes'. This suggests that people are able to intuitively tie together the notions of death and God by assuming that belief in God means belief in an afterlife. Thus, in this case, the comforting belief in an afterlife encouraged a related belief in God in order to retain cognitive consistency.
The implications are profound for the cognitive science of religion. If a system of cognitively consistent religious beliefs contains at least one comforting concept, and one easily transmitted concept, then its popularity and engagement 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 and marginalized in cognitive psychology. Authors such as Pascal Boyer see comfort theories as competing explanations to be dismissed and criticized. These criticisms have been thoroughly addressed elsewhere. As with all scientific exploits, progress depends on objectively judging the value of experimental data; no matter how undesirable the conclusions may be.
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© 2013 Thomas Swan