Does anxiety lead to religiosity and conservative politics?

Does anxiety lead to religiosity and conservative politics? October 2, 2008

In the news is a study looking at innate anxiety and political attitudes. What they did was take 46 adults with strong political beliefs and then measured their reactions to sudden noises and threatening images. Those individuals who had the higher reactions to these (i.e. those who were more easily alarmed or made to feel anxious) also were more likely to favour defence spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War.

One thing they didn’t test was religiosity. Yet it’s interesting that political conservatism and religiosity are common bedfellows, and that one effect of religion is to reduce anxiety. But is there any evidence that people who are intrinsically anxious are more likely to turn to religion? Evidence from personality tests is equivocal, perhaps because once an anxious person adopts religion, their anxiety levels decrease – they are no longer ‘anxious’.

But there is patchy evidence that making people anxious increases their religiosity. A study by Thomas Pyszczynski at the University of Colarado, in collaboration with Abdolhossein Abdollahi at the Islamic Azad University in Kerman, Iran, found that making college students more anxious made them more likely to support religious martydom. And making people more lonely can strengthen their beliefs in the supernatural. What’s more, Halman and Draulans found that, across European countries, high religiosity was correlated with greater enthusiasm for defence spending.

But the only study I can find to look at intrinsic, biological anxiety as a cause of religiosity is one by Jackson and Francis in 2004. They looked at a biological basis of anxiety, the Behavioural Inhibition System, as well as the Behavioural Activation System (which is the basis of impulsivity), in 400 Australian university students. The BIS and the BAS were measured using a personality questionnaire, and they also measured the students’ attitudes to religion.

They found that high anxiety (high BIS) was more common in students who felt religion to be more important. It wasn’t directly related to behaviour, however. Their study showed that behaviour was not directly affected by biological anxiety or impulsivity, but that these biological traits affected attitudes, which in turn drove behaviour.

So it seems plausible that a predisposition to anxiety may underly both religiosity and conservative religious values. It’s a bit tendentious though, based on available evidence. More research required, as they say!

D. R. Oxley, K. B. Smith, J. R. Alford, M. V. Hibbing, J. L. Miller, M. Scalora, P. K. Hatemi, J. R. Hibbing (2008). Political Attitudes Vary with Physiological Traits Science, 321 (5896), 1667-1670 DOI: 10.1126/science.1157627

Loek Halman, Veerle Draulans (2006). How secular is Europe? The British Journal of Sociology, 57 (2), 263-288 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-4446.2006.00109.x

C JACKSON, L FRANCIS (2004). Are interactions in Gray’s Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory proximal or distal in the prediction of religiosity: a test of the joint subsystems hypothesis Personality and Individual Differences, 36 (5), 1197-1209 DOI: 10.1016/S0191-8869(03)00211-3

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