Robin Hanson on the belief in religion and government

by on July 16, 2008 at 11:16 am in Political Science, Religion | Permalink

A stunning hypothesis from the latest Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:

High
levels of support often observed for governmental and religious systems
can be explained, in part, as a means of coping with the threat posed
by chronically or situationally fluctuating levels of perceived
personal control. Three experiments demonstrated a causal relation
between lowered perceptions of personal control and … increased
beliefs in the existence of a controlling God and defense of the
overarching socio-political system.  A 4th experiment showed … a
challenge to the usefulness of external systems of control led to
increased illusory perceptions of personal control. … A
cross-national data set demonstrated that lower levels of personal
control are associated with higher support for governmental control.

It
seems we hope a stronger and more benevolent God or State will protect
us when feel less able to protect ourselves.  I’d guess similar effects
hold for medicine and media – we believe in doc effectiveness more when
we fear out of control of our health, and we believe in media accuracy
more when we rely more on their info to protect us.  Can we find data
on which beliefs tend to be more biased: confidence in authorities when
we feel out of control, or less confidence in authorities when we feel
more in control?

I would say "read the whole thing" except that is the whole thing.  Here is evidence from California that voters are more likely to prefer conservative candidates (not exactly what the above study is testing) when economic times are good.

spencer July 16, 2008 at 11:50 am

There are no atheists in a foxhole.

Michael F. Martin July 16, 2008 at 12:49 pm

Not to stunning to anybody who’s really suffered, I’d say.

JSK July 16, 2008 at 1:07 pm

Which is why the KGB aligned so nicely with Muslim terrorists in the 1970s.

Wasn’t that the CIA in Afghanistan?

pawnking July 16, 2008 at 1:17 pm

So, does belief in God or the state = perceived lower personal control, or vice versa? Or does higher belief in self = a lower belief in God or the state? Or is this a matter of correlation not equaling causation?

Ted Craig July 16, 2008 at 1:39 pm

I hate multi-posts, but since I may have been unclear:

Sheahen: So if people lived according to rationalism, you envision, for example, no more war?

Dawkins: That might be a little bit optimistic, but there would be a much better chance of no more war. Obviously nothing like 9/11, because that’s clearly motivated by religion. There would be less hatred, because a lot of the hatred in the world is sectarian hatred. For example, in Northern Ireland, India and Pakistan. You wouldn’t have an awful lot of the prejudice and trans-generational vendettas that humanity suffers from. There would be less waste of time. People would concentrate on really worthwhile things, instead of wasting time on religion, astrology, crystal-gazing, fortune-telling, things like that.

I find that a highly dubious claim.

And obviously there’s an atheist movement. Not in an organized, conspiratorial way, but Pinker, Dawkins, et al, have made a strong push in the past few years to capture the intellectual debate, working their atheist beliefs into everything, such as advice for the incoming president.

As for the 1980s Afghan war, that was a clash between the two groups Hanson describes that we took advantage of.

meter July 16, 2008 at 3:00 pm

I’d like to go on public record as stating a strong disbelief in the notion that a turtle at the center of the earth controls destiny with its burps.

Andrew July 16, 2008 at 5:32 pm

They will answer you by saying that Fascism in Germany and Stalinism and Maoism were religions. I kid you not.

Tom Schneider July 16, 2008 at 5:50 pm

There were atheists in fox holes. To say otherwise is a grave disservice to them.

David R. Henderson July 16, 2008 at 7:13 pm

Re atheists in foxholes. I was on an airplane once that I thought was going to crash. I calmly picked up the phone on the seat back on front of me to call my wife and daughter to say good-bye. My belief in atheism didn’t waver.

American Atheist July 16, 2008 at 8:47 pm

There were no atheists in foxholes because, legend has it, atheists didn’t get into foxholes. Too smart, or not smart enough.

themightypuck July 16, 2008 at 9:32 pm

I think humans are somehow inclined to religion–probably an adaptation related to consciousness but who knows. Whatever the underpinnings, just as smart humans learned to control other humans by gaming the valuable pain adaptation, smart humans have learned to control other humans by gaming the religious adaptation (and some of the most successful have folded in some gaming of the pain adaptation).

Elbert McQuiller July 17, 2008 at 11:13 am

Let me make sure I understand. The hypothesis asserts that people seek external sources of help when they need it, but don’t seek help when they don’t need it? This is definitely a reasonable hypothesis and probably easy to prove or disprove with good test design. However, it doesn’t really advance our understanding of human nature in any way.

I would hypothesize the following: People are most likely to recede to the shared traditional beliefs and values of their most trusted social networks when they perceive those values or networks are most threatened. This is what Barack Obama meant when he cited the propensity of people “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people aren’t like them.”

kurt9 July 17, 2008 at 7:17 pm

It amuses me when religious people and atheists argue over which memes killed the most people. Obviously Nazism and Communism killed a magnitude of order more people than all of the religions put together. However, prior to the mid 20th century, it was organized religion that killed more people than anything else.

However, we are really splitting hairs with these kinds of argument. The reason being that from a psychological stand-point religions and political ideologies such as communism and nazism are the same thing. They occupy the same “meme niche” in the human brain. Thus, there is no meaningful difference between an organized religion like christianity and islam and a organized political ideology such as communism and nazism. These are really various forms of collective memes and are, thus, identitical.

JPG December 9, 2008 at 10:56 pm

another “similar effect” would be us believing more in the efectiveness of the market when we do well (i.e, “we have control”)

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