Can Governments Replace Belief in God?

New research explores the role of government programs on religiosity.

Posted Jun 29, 2018

First off, my usual disclaimer on psychology of religion posts: Surely if there is a God (or Gods) he or she or they will continue to exist no matter what a psychologist finds in a study. 

(I mean, I have lots of raw physical strength**, but I'm not that powerful.)

Aaron Kay, a social psychologist who works at Duke University, developed a theory of compensatory control. In short, research supporting this theory shows that when people are primed to think about times they have felt a lack of personal control, they are more likely to think God is in control or that the government is in control. Related work shows that when people are primed to think that the government is not in control, people show an increased tendency to think that God is in control. 

Basically, the premise works like this: "The government is unstable? I don't feel in control of my life? Well, then God has my back, so all is fine."

Current research building on these ideas has looked at how people's well-being is associated with the belief that God and the government are in control.  Additionally, this research tested if religiosity is lower when people believe the government is stable.

The results showed that, between 2008 and 2013, better government services predicted less religious belief in the following year. This was across dozens of countries. Additionally, religion was only associated with more psychological well-being when people believed that government services were poor.

It seems that stable governments can lower religiosity and that the benefits of religion—at least in terms of mental health—dissipate when government services are high.

**The first part of that statement is demonstrably false to anyone who hands me anything remotely heavy to carry.


Kay, A. C., Gaucher, D., Napier, J. L., Callan, M. J., & Laurin, K. (2008). God and the government: testing a compensatory control mechanism for the support of external systems. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(1), 18.

Zuckerman, M., Li, C., & Diener, E. (2018). Religion as an exchange system: The interchangeability of God and government in a provider role. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. DOI: 0146167218764656.