Religion and anxiety

A recent study (McGregor et al., 2010) appearing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that when made anxious, people become more extreme in their religious convictions. This study shows, once again, that  religious feelings are strongly influenced by subtle psychological factors.

I was reminded of this observation earlier today while listening to a discussion of Terror Management Theory on a Reasonable Doubts podcast.  This theory reflects the idea that our cultural practices, including religious ones, serve the purpose of bolstering our self-esteem in order to allay the  fear of death and feelings of insignificance.

We live in a very exciting time for psychology, which is benefiting greatly from our improving understanding of the human brain and its evolution. Psychological phenomena (such as religion) that seem fairly simple at first blush are turning out to have deep and complex origins and influences which, when uncovered, allow us to understand ourselves better. It’s a sort of ultimate “getting-to-know-you”, and so much more fascinating than the narratives provided by religion itself.

Ian McGregor, Kyle Nash, Nikki Mann, Curtis E. Phills. Anxious uncertainty and reactive approach motivation (RAM). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2010; 99 (1): 133 DOI: 10.1037/a0019701

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