Does Belief in God Drive One’s Politics or Politics Drive One’s Belief in God?

Does Belief in God Drive One’s Politics or Politics Drive One’s Belief in God? November 10, 2020

Disclaimer: I, like many of you, am an agnostic-atheist and so the answer is neither. Or is it? Because this question can be applied to me, too. Let me elucidate…

In general terms, for religious people, what is the direction of causality?

A few things to note first here; firstly, politics is a subset of morality (individual morality writ large). Secondly, we could see “belief in God” as Moral System (MS) A. So we could have, in a more abstract sense, Does MSA drive one’s politics or vice versa? In this way, you could apply this equally to the atheist who still has a moral value system – let’s call it MSB – so we could ask whether MSB drives one’s politics or whether politics drives one’s MSB.

And then we realise there could be an issue since, if politics is morality, then we are somewhat saying: Does one’s moral value system drive one’s moral value system (politics) or…

Oh dear.

So we could have a problem as to whether this question is even coherent in both cases. However, if we step it back to the God question, we can see that belief in God isn’t just a moral proclamation, there is a lot more both dressing and core belief to the system. Religion distills down to morality in some sense. The opposite is definitely the case for atheism or nonreligiosity where you have to do a lot more philosophy and psychology to get from atheism to a moral value system.

It’s also worth looking into what a political paradigm might be: left-right, authoritarian-libertarian and so on. I won’t bog this article down with discussion on this, though it is obviously pertinent.

Taking all of this preamble into account, let’s see how we get on.

We know that the nonreligious in the US overwhelmingly associate with the left and the Democrats with the strongly religious overwhelmingly associating with the right and the Republicans. And yes, there are many of each on either side as this isn’t a hard and fast rule.


To give some stimulus, we can bring into play the finding that authoritarian parents favour a judgemental, angry Old Testament Yahweh-God and liberal parents favour a lovey-dovey New Testament Jesus-God. What is the direction of causality? As one paper states:

The results suggested that parenting styles relate to how one comes to interpret the Bible and worship style and that gender also relates to worship style. The authoritarian and authoritative parenting styles related more and the permissive parenting style the least to a literal approach to biblical interpretation and to a structured worship style.

Sadly, the paper admits to not looking into the direction of causality. Another paper finds:

Following four parenting styles (authoritative, authoritarian, permissive, and uninvolved) included in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, this project uses secondary data analysis to look at which parenting style leads to the most religiosity in young adulthood. We find that adolescent children who perceive their parents as authoritative show a greater degree of religiosity as a young adult.

Parenting (moral/political) style influences religiosity of the child.

Zuckerman, Galen and Pasquale in their excellent book The Nonreligious [UK] (p. 193-4):

Individuals’ views on childbearing may be a reliable indicator of political ideology and, as such, also reflect the authoritarian continuum.… Those who value traits in children such as obedience, respect, and good manners over independence, self-reliance, and curiosity also tend to show authoritarian political views. In essence, strong authoritarians view humans as essentially flawed and in need of strong social control (lest they “get out of hand”), whereas low authoritarians see individuals as essentially benevolent, requiring minimal control and greater freedom and autonomy. In general surveys, secular (and Jewish) Americans score significantly lower on authoritarian childrearing views than do other major religious groups. This suggests that the non-authoritarian sociopolitical views of the nonreligious, shared with the liberally religious, could be seen as a manifestation of this underlying trait.

I must emphasise that Zuckerman et al (whom I will heavily quote) include a host of footnotes to substantiate their claims that I will not be able to list here, but I do strongly advise people to read their superb book.

Linking to Politics

As George Hawley states of a book on the subject of politics and belief that appears to back up the last quote:

Michele F. Margolis, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, just published a powerful new book that helps to clarify this issue. She demonstrated that the connection between politics and religion cuts across party lines, operating differently on Republicans and Democrats. From Politics to the Pews is an important work for anyone who wants to think deeply about these issues, though its implications are disturbing. According to Margolis, we are increasingly likely to allow our party identification to determine our religious affiliation.

The idea that something as personal and presumably important as our religious practices and identities could be determined by our political preferences may initially seem implausible, but Margolis reminds readers that political identities are solidified at a critical time in most people’s religious lives. Young adulthood, the age at which our party identifications tend to congeal, is also when our religious identities are most vulnerable.

On average, people from all religious traditions see a significant drop-off in religious activity during their young adult years and do not typically return to high levels of religious involvement until they form families of their own. Young adulthood is also when many of us are most passionate about partisan politics and become likely to surround ourselves with copartisans. Our social networks become partisan echo chambers.

Although both Republicans and Democrats from religious households decrease their religious activities in the first years of adulthood, they show different rates of return. As the earlier research suggested, Democrats are less likely to return to their religious fold; the opposite is true for Republicans. In both cases, it appears that party identification is the reason….

It is distressing to think that our preference for Team Red or Team Blue determines our answers to life’s deepest questions. From a religious person’s perspective, it may seem bizarre and foolhardy to abandon your faith (and presumably endanger your soul) because of which box you check in November. On the other hand, it is no less superficial to go to church because doing so signifies your status as a good Republican.

So far, from this, we are definitely seeing an authoritarian parenting style and character correlating with higher religiosity, and it looks like the style is causally active in leading people (back) to faith, at least more often than with liberals.

Looking at this from the nonreligious perspective (where claims of the nonreligious allow us to conclude things about the religious), Zuckerman et al state (all quotes p. 190-6):

It should now be apparent that nonreligious worldviews transcend individual issues. And as mentioned earlier, it is often difficult to determine whether a view on any given issue exists because an individual is secular or nonreligious. Another possibility is that broad tendencies – such as liberalism – develop prior to any religious/nonreligious views, and thus the social view is endorsed by seculars may not actually be causally related to any underlying nonreligious reason. [My emphasis.]

This is where, unsurprisingly, we will get onto talking about political psychology and the work of Jonathan Haidt and others. Zuckerman et al continue:

We now turn to some of the core cognitive, personality, developmental, and moral characteristics discussed in the preceding chapters to see whether they help to explain the social and political views of the nonreligious. In chapter 8, the “individualising” moral factors based on Haidt’s five dimensions, such as empathy and fairness, were said to be more characteristic of secular individuals, whereas “binding morality” factors, such as an emphasis on purity, in-group concerns, and authority, were shown to be relatively more common in religious individuals. As we discussed, Haidt found that liberals’ individualising morality emphasizes an “ethics of autonomy,” which holds that morality allows people to act in accordance with personal freedom – as long as others are not harmed and the consequences are fair for everyone. In the case of a given social or political issue, such as gay rights, secular individuals support gay rights and gay marriage because they see the issue as one of fairness and are not swayed by appeals to moral purity, traditionalism, or is scriptural authority. Thus, the political views of seculars may be related to an underlying worldview that encompasses moral and sociopolitical elements.

I can’t begin to tell you how much this personally speaks to me as a nonreligious liberal. Here, we start getting onto early moral development that should continue to shed light on our core question (whether applied to the Christian as hinted in the article title or the nonreligious individual as subsequently expressed):

It is widely assumed that a given individual’s social, political worldview is held together by “team loyalty” that drives individuals’ stance on a range of issues. However, this still raises the question of what ultimately determines which team we identify as “ours.” There is increasing evidence that our worldviews are broadly influenced by early-developing moral dispositions and basic-level personality traits that precede exposure to specific religious or political information. In one study, participants’ positions on the moral foundations (based on Haidt’s conceptualization), particularly moral purity (i.e., perceived importance of cleanliness, sanctity and avoidance of symbolic violations), predicted judgements about “culture war” issues over and above other factors, including ideology, religious attendance, and interest in politics. Despite the rhetoric on issues such as abortion, euthanasia and stem cell research being dominated by arguments about (potential) harm, in this study, moral disapproval of these issues was better predicted by individuals moral sensitivity to purity than by their stance on harmfulness. Thus, it may not be the absence of religious belief among seculars that motivates their ideology, but rather lower moral sensitivity to issues of sanctity, self-transcendence, and self-control. [My emphasis.]

It’s probably worth including here one of my favourite videos where David Pisaro talks about how disgust sensitivity shapes political and moral judgement – how physiology and psychology causally affect what we think is rational moral and political judgement:

Please watch it – it is fascinating; in it, he discusses the direction of causality going from physiological to conscious “rational”.

Direction of causality

So, again, we are seeing political decision (qua “politics” qua religious belief/adherence) being underwritten by political psychology, which is itself underwritten by childhood moral development and parenting, as well as psychological conditioning and genetics. And, yes, we could have a whole free will debate here.

Zuckerman et al continue:

We return briefly to a similar pattern, mentioned in more detail in chapter 6, that cognitive and personality-related traits underlie and contributes to not only sociopolitical views, but also a secular worldview. In that chapter, we saw that personality dimensions of the “Big Five,” such as Openness to Experience, distinguish secular from religious individuals, as well as separating those who view religion literally from those who see it symbolically. Openness is also relevant to political ideology, tending to be higher among liberals and conservatives. Thus, some of the familiar patterns, such as nonreligious support for liberal political candidates, a rejection of moral traditionalism, and support the disadvantaged are collectively related to underlying personality dispositions, such as greater Openness (as well as lower Conscientiousness). This is relevant to the developnennt of secularity over one’s life span (covered in Chapter 5) or rejection of a religious worldview (i.e., apostassy) because, in many cases, core characteristics such as personality and temperemnt precede religiosity.  There is evidence thst temperament characteristics beginning in early childhood (obviously prior to an articulation of mature sociopolitical worldviews are predictive of later political views. Youths with personality traits such as high Openness become less religious over time, whereas those with high Conscientiousness in adolescence are likely to increase in religiosity in yong adulthood. To put it colloquially, this suggests that people are secular and politically liberal becausse of their temperament and personality, rather than being liberal because they are secular. [My emphasis.]

People, religious or not, won’t like to hear this because it takes away personal, rational agency from one’s political worldview and “decision-making”.

Dogmatism and complexity of thought

Dogmatism is also a trait that correlates more with conservatives, with “political liberals tend to be lower in dogmatism and higher in open-mindedness (or tolerance for ambiguity) than conservatives.”:

One occasionally hears in popular discourse, a stereotype that atheists are similar to religious fundamentalists in that they are rigid and inflexible in their views. However, the nonreligious, even atheists, tended to score very low on measures of dogmatism.

This is a very common accusation I hear levelled at atheists. Zuckerman et al continue by discussing multiple views and complexity of thought:

There are other core psychological characteristics that appear to underlie and contribute to both religious and political views, including those relevant to cognition. For instance, we saw in chapter 6, that the less religious tend to exhibit higher integrative complexity of thought (i.e., ability to integrate multiple perspectives). In the political domain, liberals also show less of a need for certainty, order, structure, and closure than do Conservatives, who tend to be lower in integrative complexity of thought and desire clear structure and certainty. Such general cognitive preferences, it has been hypothesized, influence individuals’ religious views – or lack thereof. Religious dogmatism and Conservative morality may themselves be understood as attempts to provide clear and unambiguous responses in an attempt to manage uncertainty. Similarly, conservatives tend to be more sensitive to negative or threatening stimulate such as viewing the world is more dangerous place, or being more motivated by fear, relative to liberals. According to these theories of political psychology, general sociopolitical worldviews, including secularity, based on very basic, core elements of cognitive functioning.

This is where it is worth referring back to David Pisaro in his TED talk above, such that:

…it has been found that those who believe the world is a dangerous place tend to develop binding reality (e.g., based on in-group, purity, and authority concerns), and this in turn leads to a conservative political orientation. Many people, whether or not they were raised religiously or secularly, may find a certain worldview more compelling as a result of the psychological preferences. Further, as is the case with religiosity, there is also evidence of a substantial inherited component to political orientation, and this genetic variation in political orientation is itself mediated by personality traits. According to such theories, religiosity may be part of a cluster of traits that also include social (but not economic) conservatism and authoritarianism, reflecting an underlying “Traditional Moral Values Triad.” This may at least partially explain why individuals come to different religious and metaphysical conclusions despite contrary environmental influences; individuals’ early cognitive preferences place them on a “trajectory” of later religious and political worldviews. [My emphasis.]


Although the work of Zuckerman et al is looking at how nonreligious people come to their political and moral conclusions, we can draw inferences about religious people by looking at the antithesis of what is being claimed. The importance of the in-group, tradition and purity, as well as a low level of Openness to Experience, is something that helps to define conservatives. So where we see liberals and the nonreligious, as is often seen on the comment threads here, having ‘higher level of tolerance of minorities, disadvantaged groups and even those considered “social deviants”‘, for religious conservatives, we have lower levels of tolerance for such groups. You only had to compare the acceptance speeches of Trump and Pence in 2016 to Biden and Harris in 2020, to get a sense of this. Biden and Harris were appealing to unity in a greatly diverse nation, including mention or inference to different races, ethnicities, religions, the disabled, LGBTQ, and so on:

And to all those who supported us: I am proud of the campaign we built and ran. I am proud of the coalition we put together, the broadest and most diverse in history.

Democrats, Republicans and independents. Progressives, moderates and conservatives. Young and old. Urban, suburban and rural. Gay, straight, transgender. White. Latino. Asian. Native American….

The American story is about the slow, yet steady widening of opportunity. Make no mistake: Too many dreams have been deferred for too long. We must make the promise of the country real for everybody – no matter their race, their ethnicity, their faith, their identity, or their disability.

Can you imagine Trump ever saying something like this, or Ted Cruz, or Michelle Bachmann? Steve Bannon? Stephen Miller?

But before conservatives accuse me of painting liberals as being morally superior and so inclusively woke, the question we started with is essentially where the causal influence comes from. The work of psychologists appears to take specific sociopolitical views and link them to underlying core characteristics. So the question becomes, where do these underlying core characteristics come from? The answer seems to be that this is genetics, biology and parenting (early environment), where childhood and adolescent moral development informs later moral and political stances.

Yes, people can change their minds. But changing one’s mind is an incredibly complex procedure, and when it concerns really big ideas, can take a long time, and a large number of variables.

I would wager that your underlying core characteristics inform what type of religion you later take on, but that these characteristics can themselves be caused in part by strong parental religiosity and parental moral characteristics/parenting.

The title, remember, was: Does Belief in God Drive One’s Politics or Politics Drive One’s Belief in God?

The answer, then, is neither – your underlying core characteristics drive both – though, later on in your life, both drive each other coextensively, as I will explain quickly.

Once one takes on a religion that fits in with one’s moral framework, we often see a spiral effect. I talked about this with regard to whether reading certain newspapers/sources informs your moral/political position or whether your moral/political position informs the sort of newspaper that you read.

See Do We Drive the Media or Does the Media Drive Us?

When you get sucked in, it can be a spiral downwards (or upwards) as one academic paper, “The Mutual Reinforcement of Media Selectivity and Effects: Testing the Reinforcing Spirals Framework in the Context of Global Warming“, states. It looks at the spiral process that sucks people into a whirlpool of accepting the next “wave” of media in the general directional path they are on:

This study tests a model of reinforcing spirals in the context of global warming, using a 2-wave, within-subjects panel survey with a representative sample of Americans. Results show that, within waves, conservative media use is negatively related to global warming belief certainty and support for mitigation policies, while nonconservative media use is positively associated with belief certainty and policy support. In addition, the results show that consuming conservative or nonconservative media at Wave 1 makes people more likely to consume those same media at Wave 2, partly as an indirect result of the media’s effects on global warming belief certainty and policy preferences. Wave 2 media use, in turn, further strengthens audiences’ global warming belief certainty and policy preferences.

If you then transfer this into the context of core traits, religiosity and politics, you can see a similar spiral effect being prevalent in driving one to greater conservatism and religiosity, or on the other hand, to greater liberalism and non-religiosity.

Hence, political polarisation.


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