Faith as a Source of Self-Esteem… sometimes

Faith as a Source of Self-Esteem… sometimes November 10, 2017

This post may shed some light on Bert’s recent post, Why Does Faith Give Meaning To Life?

I was at a conference on Monday and Tuesday, at Cardiff University, entitled Changing Attitides in Public Discourse: Arrogance and Polarisation in Public Debate, and one of the presenting authors was Constantine Sedikides from the University of Southampton. He gave a fascinating presentation on his work relating to the self-esteem and ego-quieting (or ostensibly de-arrogating and depolarising) functions of communal living, Christian faith, and modern mindfulness practices.

The overall finding was that, even in societies and subcultures where a more collectivist view is prevalent (communal living and Catholic Christianity), or at least where a reduction of the importance of the self is considered important (mindfulness practices, and Christianity more generally), one’s perceived abilities to live up to the expectations of the dominant belief are the basis for individual competition, and thus self-worth (see Sedikides on Christian Self-Enhancement, here).


I Believe in Me

The ‘Religiosity as Social Value’ Hypothesis

In a yet-to-be-published paper (here), Sedikides and colleagues discuss the ‘Religiosity as Social Value’ (RASV) hypothesis.

According to RASV, religiosity is the defining social value in religious cultures, and so those who meet that social value (i.e., religious persons) will feel particularly good about themselves. Religiosity, however, is an inconsequential social value in secular cultures, and so religious persons will feel less good about themselves, if at all.

To clarify:

The term “religiosity-as-social-value hypothesis” is not meant to imply that religiosity is equivalent with social value. Religiosity has many functions (Sedikides & Gebauer, 2013), and so the hypothesis simply states that one function of religiosity is to provide social value.

This might seem obvious, but consider recent work that has found that once the number of girls in a given school adopting purity pledges reaches 30% the “novelty” wears off, and it is no longer a source of self-esteem. (Interestingly, teenage pregnancy rates amongst the pledgers is also 30%, as opposed to the 18% that it is amongst those that don’t pledge at the same schools, and 2.2% in the general population – but that’s a post for another time.) It’s plausible that religiosity’s ability to improve one’s self-esteem might be related more to the martyr complex (feeling righteous, and possibly a pariah) than merely fitting in, and that is ultimately what the present set of experiments is about.

The paper relates three studies that look to test the relationship between socio-cultural religiosity (i.e. how religious the country that one live in is) and how much of an indiviual’s self-esteem is tied up in their religious practices.

Experiment 1

In experiment one, 2,195,301 participants from 65 countries completed surveys capturing The Big Five personality measures (especially agreeableness and conscientiousness), Self-Esteem, Personal Religiosity, Country-level religiosity, and Country-level Covariates (collectivism, GDP per capita, and pathogen prevalence). The country-level covariates have been implicated as drivers for, or diagnostic of, religiosity. Religion is likely to be viewed more favourably in more collectivist countries; low GDP is correlated with high religiosity (except in the US), and; religiosity is a protective factor against pathogen prevalence – usually due to restrictive dietary norms associated with a given religion.

Country-level religiosity explained 76.15% of the self-esteem generated by individual religiosity.

Experiment 2

In experiment two, 560,264 participants from 36 countries completed surveys capturing the same measures as experiment one, except that individuals were reporting on a close friend or family member, rather than themselves.

Country-level religiosity explained 84.55% of the perceived self-esteem of a significant other generated by that individual’s perceived religiosity.

Experiment 3

In experiment three, 1,188,536 participants from 18 countries completed surveys capturing the same measures as experiment one. This time however, the respondents were resident in one of 1932 urban areas, in one of 243 federal states, from one of 18 countries. Each country had to contribute at least 8000 participants, and each urban area had to provide at least 100 cases:

…sociocultural religiosity explained a substantial amount of the cross-cultural variation in the religiosity-esteem relation: 23.12% of the urban area-level variation, 64.34% of the federal state-level variation, and 64.22% of the country-level variation.


Possible Alternative Hypotheses and Confounding Factors

Sedikides and colleagues noted seven alternative hypotheses and corrected for them using variables that related to these in one or all of the experiments. These were:

  1. Sociocultural motives: some people are more inclined to ‘go along to get along’, this is measured by agreeableness and conscientiousness from the Big Five.
  2. Country-level covariates:
    • Collectivism may be a predictor for differences in religiosity between countries, and some people maybe more affected by this norm than others (see Sociocultural Motives).
    • Low average GDP may give rise to religiosity as a psychological coping mechanism, and thus a protective factor.
    • Pathogen Prevalence in a given country may increase the relative adaptiveness of restricted diets based on religious norms.
  3. Spatial Dependence: Because analysis of individuals within cultures contravenes the expectation of independence of the individuals, spatial dependence needs to be statistically controlled for.
  4. Masked curvilinearity: Religiosity as Social Value hypothesises a linear relationship, so finding any curvilinear functions would disconfirm the hypothesis.
  5. Self-presentation: Religious individuals who derive their self-esteem from their religion are likely to over-estimate certain positive attributes when in the presence of others. This has been a problem for much of the literature on self-esteem and religion. All three experiments were self-report, or other-report, with that other not present.
  6. Self-report bias: Experiment two specifically had people anonymously rating intimate others, as such, if the findings there are in line with previous findings, and findings from this research, it will bolster the generalisability of the findings.
  7. Interpersonal contact: Religious believers are likely to have more supportive interpersonal contact with fellow believers. This would give rise to the stronger relationship between religiosity and psychological adjustment in more highly religious cultures.

All of these were corrected for in one, and oftentimes all, experiments, none had a sizable impact on the hypothesis that religiosity makes religious people feel better about themselves in more religious environments, and less so in less religious environments.


Experiment one: As previously noted, country-level religiosity explained 76.15% of the self-esteem generated by individual religiosity.

The impact of personal religiosity on self-esteem in highly religious countries was five times that of the effect of religiosity on self-esteem in highly secular countries.


Experiment two: Country-level religiosity explained 84.55% of the perceived self-esteem of a significant other, as it related to that individual’s perceived religiosity. As such, the findings were consistent with experiments one and three, despite relying on reports of a significant other, rather self-report.


Experiment three: The religiosity of a given country explained much of the cross-cultural variation in religiosity-esteem. It accounted for 23.12% of the variation at the urban area-level, 64.34% of the variation at the federal state-level, and 64.22% of the variation at the country-level

The impact of personal religiosity on self-esteem in the most religious city, of the most religious state, in the most religious country was around eight times that of the effect of religiosity on self-esteem in the least religious city, of the least religious state, in the least religious country.



The psychological benefits of religiosity, at least as it relates to self-esteem, rely heavily on the relative religiosity of the country you live in.

Gebauer, J. E., Sedikides, C., Schönbrodt, F. D., Bleidorn, W., Rentfrow, P. J., Potter, J., & Gosling, S. D. (2017). The religiosity as social value hypothesis: A multi-method replication and extension across 65 countries and three levels of spatial aggregation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(3), e18.

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