Atheists turn to science during times of stress

Atheists turn to science during times of stress June 11, 2013

The New Scientist reports:

It’s well known that religious faith can help believers cope with stress and anxiety, by providing them with a sense of meaning and control at times of uncertainty. It now seems that a “belief” in science and a rationalistic outlook might do the same for the non-religious.

A team of psychologists led by Miguel Farias at the University of Oxford asked 52 rowers to fill in a “belief in science” questionnaire just before taking part in a competitive regatta. They gave the same test – in which participants had to score statements such as “science is the most valuable part of human culture” – to a similar number of rowers at a training session. The questionnaire also assessed self-reported stress levels and degree of religious belief.

Farias and colleagues discovered that those about to race were both more stressed, and rated their belief in science 14 per cent higher than those who were simply training.

Some caveats: the effect was modest, the team didn’t measure whether the rowers’ stress levels went down, and the subjects – competitive athletes who follow a rational training regime – are probably already scientifically minded. However, the findings reflect a growing body of psychological evidence that people find comfort in times of threat by moving closer to certain aspects of their world view – conservatives become more conservative, for example, liberals more liberal, religious believers more devout.

Farias speculates that a rationalist outlook would provide similar relief. “Any kind of belief system helps you structure your perception of reality,” he says. “It allows you to think of the universe in a particular meaningful way.”

The researchers have begun a similar study using scientists who are religious to see how the two belief systems interact in response to stress.

Journal reference: Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, DOI:10.1016/j.jesp.2013.05.008

I had a tough day at work today. I came home and messed about with the cosmological constant. There’s nothing like generating a unified theory of everything to get my heart rate slowing down. I turned down a pint with my mates in favour of inserting woolly mammoth DNA into an elephant ovum.

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  • Clare45

    This sounds like a rather silly study. I don’t think atheists turn to any “belief” system at times of stress. They simply face up to the reality of the situation and realise that they either have to take some positive action to change the stressful situation, or if it is not remediable, as for example in the case of a death of a loved one, then grieve for as long as they need to. They know that grief or anxiety does not last for ever, and that turning to God does not help much even for believers. In fact, some believers lose their faith when confronted with death and disasters. Many of the Holocaust sufferers have stated that they lost faith in a God who did not help them.

    • John Grove

      When I think about death at times, I occasionally pick up Shelly Kagans “Death”. Sometimes a book is like a friend.