The intimate connection between religion and authoritarianism

The intimate connection between religion and authoritarianism September 15, 2009

It’s well known that religious people are more likely to be authoritarian than non-religious people. By ‘authoritarian‘ I mean someone who’s predisposed to follow the dictates of a strong leader and traditional, conventional values.

But, in a secular society, this leads to a potential for conflict. How do religious people respond if the government authority contradicts religious authority? A new study suggests that it depends on how firm their moral convictions are.

First off, let me just quote from the paper on the difference between religious and moral conviction:

Theories in moral development suggest that people’s religious beliefs are based more on authorities, rules, etc., whereas people’s moral beliefs are comparatively authority independent (Nucci & Turiel, 1978; Turiel, 2002). Consistent with this idea, religious authorities or institutions determine what is permissible or impermissible and at least some of these determinations evaporate in the absence of authority or institutional support.

Conversely, people’s moral imperatives hold even in the absence of authority or institutional support (Nucci & Turiel, 1978). Moreover, belief in God and a general high level of trust in religion load on the same factor structure as general trust in the state and average trust in the government to handle a host of specific issues (Proctor, 2006).

In short, these results suggest that religiosity reflects a generalized willingness to trust authority, regardless of whether the authority is secular or religious.

To look into this further, they looked into data they got from a survey of a cross-section of around 700 Americans. The topic was physician-assisted suicide, and they wanted to know firstly whether panel supported making it legal, and also whether they trusted the Supreme Court to make the right decision. To tease out the effects of the different factors, they used multiple regression.

So what did they find. Well, basically, the more religious the person was, the more likely they were to agree that “I trust the Supreme Court to make the right decision about whether physician-assisted suicide should be allowed.” However, people with strong moral convictions were less likely to trust the judgement of the Supreme Court.

They also tested how fast people answered the question. Both strong religious and moral conviction resulted in faster response times. This seems to suggest that the effect here is visceral and emotional, rather than logical and considered.

So much for their conclusions. Personally, I’m a bit dubious. Religious people might trust the Supreme Court to make the right decision simply because they expect the Supreme Court to agree with them.

So this study leaves a lot unanswered. It’s clear that religious people do tend to be authoritarian, but it is not at all clear that that translates into obedience to secular authorities in cases of conflict.

In fact, there’s some rather interesting evidence from the world of medicine that this is not at all the case! But that’s a topic for the next post.


ResearchBlogging.orgWisneski, D., Lytle, B., & Skitka, L. (2009). Gut Reactions: Moral Conviction, Religiosity, and Trust in Authority Psychological Science, 20 (9), 1059-1063 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02406.x

Creative Commons LicenseThis work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

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