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Anxiety and Belief

Posted by RIP Joe Bloe , 12 September 2010 · 818 views

What is it that causes Christians to cling so tenaciously to their beliefs? Why would an adult human being put aside all commonsense and enthusiastically agree that Aaron turned a stick into a snake, a burning bush spoke to Moses, Mary was a virgin, and Jesus walked on water? A long time ago I came up with a possible answer:

Suppose I am offered a job on the other side of the country. Shall I sell my house and make the move, or should I play it safe and stay where I am? I weigh up all the pros and cons and eventually decide one way or the other. If I make the move and things go well, then I can take all the credit, but if things go wrong (if I get the sack a few months after making the move) then as an atheist, I have to accept the responsibility for my poor decision - there is no-one else to blame. It is all my fault.

A Christian with the same decision to make will pray to God for guidance. In reality he is doing the same as the atheist - weighing up all the pros and cons - but he won't make that admission to himself. He will declare, instead, that "God told me to accept the job offer."

If things go well, the Christian cannot take any of the credit (he is required to "give all the glory to God") but there is a huge payoff if things go wrong. If the job falls through and he winds up flat broke and homeless, he doesn't have to accept any of the responsibility. He can say that "it is all part of God's master plan." Even if the reasons are not clear at this moment, nevertheless, God has put him in this situation "for the greater good". That is a spectacular escape route for anyone with a fragile ego and that is why religion is so popular. Sure, the Christian has to believe quite a few idiotic bible stories, but that is a small price to pay when it also means that he never has to admit defeat. No matter how many poor decisions he makes, no matter how many mistakes he makes, it's got nothing to do with him. God makes all the decisions, the believer merely obeys.

I've carried those thoughts with me for a long time, so I was pleased to find this article from "Psychological Science" which seems to suggest that perhaps my intuition was right...

Researchers Find Brain Differences Between Believers And Non-Believers

Believing in God can help block anxiety and minimize stress, according to new University of Toronto research that shows distinct brain differences between believers and non-believers.

In two studies led by Assistant Psychology Professor Michael Inzlicht, participants performed a Stroop task - a well-known test of cognitive control - while hooked up to electrodes that measured their brain activity.

Compared to non-believers, the religious participants showed significantly less activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a portion of the brain that helps modify behavior by signaling when attention and control are needed, usually as a result of some anxiety-producing event like making a mistake. The stronger their religious zeal and the more they believed in God, the less their ACC fired in response to their own errors, and the fewer errors they made.

"You could think of this part of the brain like a cortical alarm bell that rings when an individual has just made a mistake or experiences uncertainty," says lead author Inzlicht, who teaches and conducts research at the University of Toronto Scarborough. "We found that religious people or even people who simply believe in the existence of God show significantly less brain activity in relation to their own errors. They're much less anxious and feel less stressed when they have made an error."

These correlations remained strong even after controlling for personality and cognitive ability, says Inzlicht, who also found that religious participants made fewer errors on the Stroop task than their non-believing counterparts.

Their findings show religious belief has a calming effect on its devotees, which makes them less likely to feel anxious about making errors or facing the unknown. But Inzlicht cautions that anxiety is a "double-edged sword" which is at times necessary and helpful.

"Obviously, anxiety can be negative because if you have too much, you're paralyzed with fear," he says. "However, it also serves a very useful function in that it alerts us when we're making mistakes. If you don't experience anxiety when you make an error, what impetus do you have to change or improve your behaviour so you don't make the same mistakes again and again?"


The study found that Christians made less errors than did the atheists and that surprised me - I thought there would be no real difference between the two groups. On the other hand though, the Christians make a huge number of errors when they believe (and teach others) that snakes can talk, Jonah lived inside a fish, trumpets knocked down the walls of Jericho, Lot's wife turned into a pillar of salt, and Jesus resurrected. I'd rather be an atheist than believe that rubbish.

Just for the record - not all the believers in the study were Christians:

Inzlicht's team tested 50 university students from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds. Christians made up most participants, but his team also tested Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and atheists.


Sep 14 2010 01:04 PM
Yea, they talked about this on an episode of The Atheist Experience. They figure that the Christians made less mistakes because they weren't worried about it. Some people, maybe even most people, work better with less stress, which explains their better score. They weren't afriad to be wrong.
Faith is like a toddler's comfy blanket. It is familiar and it gives protection against monsters, except of course the monster in which they have faith.