More Than Mortal

The science of the human quest for meaning, significance, and self-transcendence.

Is Science a Religion for Non-Believers?

Science is a coping mechanism in the face of psychological threats.

It has long been argued that people utilize religion as a coping mechanism. Loss, uncertainty, and feelings of meaninglessness have all been linked to religiosity. When people are facing difficult life experiences and emotions, their faith offers comfort, provides a sense of order, and bolsters the belief that everything happens for a reason.

What about non-believers? When life throws them a curveball are they destined to experience an existential crisis because they have no religious faith to turn to? Considering that there is no compelling evidence that non-believers are at greatest risk of mental health problems or more prone to maladaptive coping strategies such as drug use or excessive drinking, these folks must be able to successfully cope with life’s challenges.

So what do they do? There are of course many cultural and social resources that people can turn to in order to manage stress and anxiety: family, friends, exercise, and many other hobbies or personal interests. However, a recent set of studies suggests that the belief in science might work for secular individuals the way religious beliefs work for religious individuals. That is, when secular people are under stress or grappling with existential concerns, they may turn to science for comfort.

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In this research, Dr. Miguel Farias, a professor at Oxford University, and some of his colleagues first created a belief in science scale that contained items such as “The scientific method is the only reliable path to knowledge” and “Science tells us everything there is to know about what reality really consists of.” Participants would then rate their agreement with these items.

In one study, the researchers compared two groups of rowers. One group was labeled as high stress because they were about to compete in a rowing regatta. The other group was labeled as low stress because they were about to practice, but not compete. Indeed, the group about to compete reported greater levels of stress than the group that was just going to practice. Both groups were asked to complete the belief in science scale. The high stress group of rowers scored significantly higher on the belief in science scale than the low stress group of rowers. Both groups were equally quite low in religiosity. These findings suggest that the stress of an upcoming competition motivated an increased belief in science.

In a second study, the researchers conducted an experiment to more carefully test this idea. They randomly assigned people to one of two conditions. In one condition, participants were asked to think about their own mortality (an existential threat). The other group was asked to think about dental pain. Dental pain is unpleasant to think about but is not an existential threat, at least not at the level of thinking about death. All participants then completed the belief in science scale. As predicted, participants who thought about death reported significantly higher levels of belief in science than participants who thought about dental pain.

Previous research has established that thinking about mortality increases religious commitment among religious individuals. This study by Dr. Farias and colleagues indicates that thinking about death leads more secular individuals to cling to science.

Future research is needed to determine if turning to science in the face of stress and existential threat offers the same type of psychological benefits to secular individuals that religion offers to believers. These two studies, however, provide a foundation for thinking about science in a new way. Science helps us understand our world and, ideally, improve our lives. Turns out, science might also help people cope with life challenges and existential anxiety.

 

Clay Routledge is an associate professor of Psychology at North Dakota State University.

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