Study: Non-Religious People's Faith in Science Increases Under Stress

Pre-regatta rowers were more likely to agree with Carl Sagan that "in a demon-haunted world, science is a candle in the dark."
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Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

PROBLEM: There's plenty of anecdotal, and even some neurological evidence that a strong belief system helps religious people deal with adversity. Do members of the world's third most popular faith -- that is, "no faith" -- seek comparable, secular comfort in times of hardship?

METHODOLOGY: Researchers from the department of experimental psychology at Oxford University approached 100 male and female rowers either during crew practice or right before a big regatta. They asked them how stressed they were, how religious they considered themselves to be, and how much they agreed with statements like "The scientific method is the only reliable path to knowledge" and "In a demon-haunted world, science is a candle in the dark" (that second one is attributed to Carl Sagan).

RESULTS: The pre-regatta rowers, who were predictably more stressed than the ones who were just practicing, also expressed a greater belief in science. That is, they were more likely to agree that "science is the most valuable part of human culture" and "science provides us with a better understanding of the universe than does religion." None were particularly religious.

IMPLICATIONS: The authors put their results forward as empirical evidence that it's not so much what we believe in, so long as we have something to turn to. "When it comes to believing," they write, "even if it is a belief in the scientific method as opposed to divine revelation, the underlying mechanism may be similar." The next step, they write, is to see whether a strong belief in the power of science can actually help people deal with their stress the way religious faith has been shown to.


The full study, "Scientific faith: Belief in science increases in the face of stress and existential anxiety," is published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Presented by

Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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