Belief in God Increases With Government Instability

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Church and State may not be as separated as some think.

When faith in external government systems fails, faith in God subsequently increases, according to a recent study published in the November issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Five researchers examined how instability in government order, ranging from economic turmoil to impending elections, affects individual psychological functioning. They based their findings on an analysis of historical trends and past research, as well as four experiments they designed.

The study highlights the psychological importance of personal control of one's destiny in providing security. When someone feels personal matters are out of control, an external force — either government or God — can ensure things are under control. The order provided by a higher power or karma is thought to be common to almost all religions.

The paper claims belief in God and government serve overlapping functions as providers of structured, nonrandom, orderly worlds. The researchers also write that government and God may be substitutable.

First, the paper includes historical trends showing conversion rates to religions offering high levels of order increases when economic downturns hit. As countries develop more stable governments over time, religious devotion ebbs.

Next, they analyzed past experiments that showed when participants' personal control was threatened by heightening perceptions of randomness, belief in a controlling God increased. These same experimental conditions increased faith in government.

The researchers designed four experiments to further test their hypothesis.

Study 1 centered on the closely contested 2008 general election in Malaysia. Participants were asked measures of perceived political stability, government defense and belief in a controlling God, two weeks before and again two weeks after the election.

Immediately before the election, when government control was uncertain, people were more likely to agree "the events in the universe unfold according to God's plan" and "God or some other entity is in control of the events in the universe," compared to right after the election. Respondents were also less likely to defend their government.

Study 2 created government instability outright. Canadian participants were shown fictitious news articles in which political pundits predicted that minority political parties would or would not unite and enact a no-confidence vote. Participants who read of the impending election showed stronger beliefs in a controlling God than those who read the current government would remain unchallenged.

In the third study, Canadian participants were given two positive government articles, one on how well the government was controlling the 2008-2009 economic recession and the other on the government's excellent job providing citizens with feelings of identity.

Respondents were quizzed on their feelings about God as a provider of control. When the government was presented as in control of the economy, participants believed less in a controlling God.

A final study presented participants with cutting-edge findings from world-leading physicists on the possibility of divine intervention in the universe. Participants showed higher levels of government support when they read scientists had concluded God is unlikely to intervene in the world's affairs.

Interestingly, these findings may not hold true for the United States. The researchers admit that observations in the United States contradict their findings.

In the U.S., religious commitment does not appear to be waning as secular systems develop and stabilize. The paper hypothesizes that the wide disparity between rich and poor, the latter of which have not experienced personal stability, may be responsible.

photo: iStockPhoto

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