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Does Anxiety Lead People to Religion?

Monday, April 21, 2008

In a recent European study, Loek Halman and Veerle Draulans at Tilburg University in the Netherlands found that richer countries are less religious than poorer nations.

While this supports the recent contention of presidential hopeful Barack Obama (D-Ill.) that straitened circumstances lead people to "cling" to religion, wealth does not automatically lead to atheism. The United States is an example of a wealthy country that is religious.

An intriguing new vein of psychological research, however, does show that religion can act as a buffer against existential anxieties. Mike Friedman and W. Steven Rholes at Texas A&M University have shown that when Christian fundamentalists are shown inconsistencies in the Bible, those who acknowledge them become more anxious, compared with fundamentalists who maintain the inerrancy of the Bible.

When asked to complete a number of word stems such as D E _ _, for example, fundamentalists who acknowledged the contradictions in their faith were more likely to reach for the word DEAD, as opposed to DEER, DEBT or DEED.

The connection between faith and anxiety seems to run in both directions, in that increased religiosity predicts lower anxiety, while higher anxiety causes people to cling ever more tightly to their faith. Thomas Pyszczynski at the University of Colorado once found that when Islamic students in Iran were made to feel anxious, they were more likely to gravitate toward fundamentalist religious claims -- and endorse religiously motivated suicide attacks against the United States.

-- Shankar Vedantam

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