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Living in Fear?

Why are the religious more fearful than the secular?

After The Association of Religion Data Archives recently released its latest “Chapman Survey of American Fears”—which asks Americans how much they fear certain things, such as sharks, hurricanes, ghosts, and cyber terrorism—Dr. Ryan Burge, a professor at Eastern Illinois University, decided to examine the data by looking specifically at the religiosity of responders.

What did he find?

When it comes to a majority of possible things to fear—from demons and zombies to an Iranian nuclear attack or speaking in public—the religious are markedly more scared than the non-religious. Christians in America, for instance, appear to be more fearful than their secular neighbors.

Sometimes the difference was quite slight; for example, Protestants and Catholics fear clowns more than secular Americans by only a few percentage points, if even that. But in other instances, the difference was quite pronounced: only about 8 percent of secular Americans fear Satan, for example, but nearly 30 percent of Protestants and almost 40 percent of Catholics do. Religious Americans are also significantly more likely—when compared to the non-religious—to be scared of sharks, illegal immigration, and hell.

It should be pointed out that, among Christians, Catholics are much more fearful than Protestants. As Professor Burge observes, “Catholics are more afraid in almost every scenario compared to Protestants or the religiously unaffiliated. I cannot find a single instance when Catholics are significantly less afraid of something than a ‘none’ [non-religious person]. And there are many instances where Catholics show a much higher level of fear than Protestants.” Additionally, regular church-goers were, on average, more fearful than infrequent church-goers.

Religion is characterized by some people as something that quells fears, eases anxiety, and comforts the worried. In the view of these individuals, non-religious people are often pitied as anxious, worried individuals who—without the comfort of a congregation and the warm security of faith in God—surely must live in a relative state of fear.

As this study shows: this may not necessarily be so. Here in the United States, being secular is not correlated with heightened fearfulness; rather, being religious is.

What are we to make of this?

First, and most obviously, secular people aren’t going to fear things that they don’t believe exist, such as devils, demons, or vengeful gods. To atheists and agnostics, these things are likely seen as fairytale-like beings that only exist in the imaginings of others. But to believing Christians, such malevolent beings are real, powerful, and threatening.

Second, we know that increased religiosity is correlated with increased tribalism, in-groupism, ethnocentrism, and xenophobia—so it makes sense that religious Americans would be more fearful of things like undocumented immigrants and strangers.

Third, secularity is correlated with individualism, self-reliance, intellectualism, and independent thinking—all of which may lead to less personal fearfulness.

To be sure, religion comforts many. Religious beliefs and religious communities provide countless people with solidarity in times of need, hope in times of desperation, and comfort in times of woe. And many studies show that—when confronting illness or trauma—religious people’s faith most definitely helps them cope and survive.

But these findings suggest that religion also seems to increase people’s fears—and not just regarding demons and hell, but even for things like germs and reptiles.

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