What if there were no gods? One major reason for adopting and maintaining religious belief is a fear of the what would happen if they were abandoned. To help understand why people maintain these beliefs, it’s important to understand what these fears are. And that’s exactly what a new study has done (McAdams and Albaugh, 2008).
What they did was recruit 128 devout Christians from around Chicago and scored them on their political ideology. Each was asked each to construct a ‘life narrative’, and they were then asked to imagine what their lives might have been like had they not embraced the faith they have.
For political conservatives, they feared that a life without faith would have been uncontrolled, with unrestrained sexual and aggressive urges, addictive behaviours, and human selfishness. In their narratives, they described:
incessant conflict and chaos, expressing strong apprehension regarding people’s inability to control their impulses and the attendant breakdown of social relationships and societal institutions
Political liberals feared that without faith their life would be empty and barren, and devoid of emotional intensity. They described a world that was:
barren or lifeless, lacking in color and texture, an empty wasteland that would not sustain them
So religion caters for these two essentially antagonistic needs. This causes difficulties for religious groups, such as the Church of England, that attempt to represent all individuals in a society. But the results are not altogether surprising, given the differences in world views and psychology between conservatives and liberals. As Jonathan Haidt (psychologist at the University of Virginia) describes it:
conservatism is a partially heritable personality trait that predisposes some people to be cognitively inflexible, fond of hierarchy, and inordinately afraid of uncertainty, change, and death.
What this study underlines is that religious believers are not homogenous, and that their reasons for believing are connected to their wider beliefs about the world. To move to a world that in which faith is less prevalent, alternative political and societal mechanisms need to be found that can provide the reassurance that both conservatives an liberals need.
D MCADAMS, M ALBAUGH (2008). What if there were no God? Politically conservative and liberal Christians imagine their lives without faith Journal of Research in Personality DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2008.07.013