Religious people believe in a just world

Religious people believe in a just world April 12, 2012

Believers in a just world think that things happen for a reason. In particular, they are more likely than other people to think that victims of crime are in some way responsible for what happened to them, that the poor are poor because of their own actions, and that sick people have done something to cause their illnesses.

You might expect that people who believe in an omnipotent, purpose-giving god might might also be ‘just world’ believers, but in fact there is not a lot of hard evidence. A couple of studies have found that highly religious Catholics and Protestants do tend to blame victims, but another study found no evidence of this relationship among Germans.

A new study, by Molly VanDeursen and colleagues at St Louis University, Missouri, has added to the evidence, but with some twists. They interviewed 86 undergraduates, and put the following scenario to them:

Ms. Brown, a woman in her mid 30’s, had to work late one night. On the way to her car, she was approached by a man with a gun who commanded that she give him her purse, keys, and cell phone. He took everything from her and then forced her to show him where her car was parked. He proceeded to get in her car and drive off with all her possessions, keeping the gun pointed on her the entire time and leaving her stranded in the parking garage.

They ended the story in two different ways. Half the students were told that the mugger was caught and punished. The other half were told that he was never caught.

This last option was designed to really pump up their ‘just world’ feelings. Sure enough, those who were told that the mugger was not caught were more likely to blame Ms Brown for what happened.

Broadly speaking, the more religious students also tended to think Ms Brown’s personality and behaviour was at least partly responsible for the mugging, that she would get some benefits from being mugged (presumably, learning a valuable lesson). They were also more likely to say that they would be willing to help her by giving her money, and that the mugger was a bad person.

However, this was really only true for the so-called “extrinsically” religious. These are the people who view religion as a tool to achieve their goals in life (people who go to church to be seen, because it is the social norm in their society, conferring respectability or social advancement).

For the intrinsically religious (those for whom religion is an end in itself, who are internally motivated), were more likely to say that Ms Brown would benefit from being mugged, and were more likely to vilify the mugger and offer Ms Brown money – what’s more, this effect got stronger if they were told the mugger wasn’t caught. But they weren’t more likely that then non-intrinsically religious to attribute the mugging to Ms Brown’s personality and behaviour.

With such small groups, it’s hard to read too much into this study. After all, the so-called ‘extrinsically religious’ may differ from the intrinsics in other ways – social class, or background, for example. And this study didn’t compare the non-religious with the religious, so we can’t say this is actually an effect of religion.

Nevertheless, it does point to the  likelihood that, although religion on average ends to be linked to just world beliefs, there are likely to be a lot of nuances.
VanDeursen, M., Pope, A., & Warner, R. (2012). Just world maintenance patterns among intrinsically and extrinsically religious individuals Personality and Individual Differences, 52 (6), 755-758 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2011.12.028

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

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