Explanation of the formation of religious beliefs – sciencedaily

Feeling anxious can direct our attention and memory to supernatural beings such as gods, according to a study from the University of Otago.

Lead author Dr Thomas Swan of the Department of Psychology says research can help explain how religious beliefs form.

For the study, published in the International Journal of the Psychology of Religion, 972 participants took an online recall test to determine whether the recall bias of supernatural agents was stronger in people with anxiety than in non-anxious people.

Those who felt anxious were more likely to remember beings with supernatural abilities than those without.

“Anxiety is an emotion that has evolved to make us pay more attention to potential threats, so when we feel anxious, a god who can read our thoughts and punish us for them, or flood the Earth, is going to be memorable. “he said. .

Previous research has shown that anxiety can lead to higher levels of religious belief, the explanation being that belief provides comfort. However, this so-called “comfort theory” has its problems: why are there punitive gods and hellish lives when these are far from comforting?

Dr Swan believes the theory also fails to resolve what goes on between feeling anxious and becoming a believer. This research suggests that the first step involves the cognitive effects of anxiety, which causes people to pay attention and remember threats.

“In our previous research, we found that supernatural beings are seen as potentially threatening because they have abilities that challenge our expectations of the world. The present research confirms that the cognitive effects of anxiety also extend to the threat posed by supernatural beings.

“Ironically, our research suggests that the comfort theory is somewhat upside down: Anxious people are attracted, at least initially, to the fearful traits of the gods, which may explain why so many gods have fearful characteristics. Comfort, we think, comes later when some people transform their view of the god into something more palatable than they are happier to believe, ”he says.

Research also suggests that other supernatural concepts – such as ghosts, psychics, and astrology – will be similarly digested due to how alarmingly they defy our expectations of what is possible.

Dr Swan hopes the research will inspire people to better understand how their emotional states affect the information they view and remember, especially religious information.

“We should all be aware of how we have come to believe the things we do, especially those with anxiety disorders who feel anxious most of the time – they should be aware of what attracts them and why . If they find themselves reading fantasy novels, which can be harmless. If they find themselves joining a cult, then it’s time to think. The same goes for people without troubles who are just in trouble. anxious situations, such as sitting in a hospital bed or suffering from financial problems. “

On the other hand, he hopes that religious groups will pay more attention to the mental state of people.

“They should provide care but also give people time to overcome their problems before integrating them into a system of highly religious beliefs and practices. If they are still willing to join religion after the turmoil is over, it could. be a more ethical moment. “

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