Religious extremism linked to anxiety

Religion, said Marx, is the “opiate of the masses.” This well-known phrase has come to represent the pacifying impact of religion, especially popular religion, used for the social control (or exploitation) of the majority by the elite. The assurance of heaven or some other supernatural good is meant to take the sting and uncertainty out of everyday life. New research at York University suggests that religion may well have a tranquilizing impact. So, updating the expression slightly, we might ask, is religion the Valium of the masses?

According to the latest research, both yes and no.

In three studies detailed in “Reactive approach motivation (RAM) for religion” researchers Ian McGregor, Kyle Nash, and Mike Prentice found that “bold but vulnerable people gravitate to idealistic and religious extremes for relief from anxiety.”

Subjects in three experiments reacted with increased religious zeal, as measured by self-ratings of religious conviction, in response to anxiety-provoking tasks (such as working on a complex problem in mathematics). In study 1, subjects demonstrated higher levels of commitment to their religious views but not to merely superstitious beliefs and the effect was “most pronounced among the most anxious and uncertainty-averse.” In study 2, “the most approach-motivated participants,” those with high Promotion Focus, Behavioral Activation, Action Orientation, and Self-Esteem Scale scores, also had noticeably higher levels of extreme religious views. “In Studies 2 and 3, anxious uncertainty threats amplified even the most jingoistic and extreme aspects of religious zeal. In Study 3, reactive religious zeal occurred only among participants who reported feeling disempowered in their everyday goals in life.”

So, while McGregor, Nash, and Prentice have found additional evidence linking anxiety and religious belief, religion is not presented as an across-the-board “valium for the masses.” Rather, extremism in religion appears to be a coping mechanism for a select group of particularly bold yet anxious people. Instead of suggesting a generally pacifying quality to religion per se, this research seems to shed light on what may cause some religious people to become particularly extreme in their views, including even a tendency to associate their ideology with violent imposition on others.

Ian McGregor, Kyle Nash, Mike Prentice, 2010, “Reactive approach motivation (RAM) for religion,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(1): 148-61. DOI: 10.1037/a0019702

For another take on the research, see here.