I’ve been hanging out with fellow atheists for a while now, and one of the more common discussions I’ve had when the topic of religion comes up is, why are people religious? The two most common answers I’ve heard from atheist friends and acquaintances are that religion is a fantasy designed to explain the mysterious and otherwise unexplainable, and that religion is a fantasy designed to make people feel less alone in the universe. As those of you who’ve been reading Mixing Memory for a while may have noticed, these discussions have led me to be somewhat obsessed with understanding the psychological origins of religion. While the final answer to why people are religious is a long, long way off, I can say with some confidence that the first of the two answers above is almost certainly wrong. People’s religious impulses stem from much more mundane sources than the mysteriousness of the world around us. That’s not to say that religion can’t serve to help explain the otherwise inexplicable, or that this isn’t an important purpose of religion, but it doesn’t seem to be one of the fundamental or original purposes of it. Instead, it seems that religion’s social functions are actually more foundational. This leads to the second answer above — the one that says religion is around to make us feel less lonely — seeming plausible. Most of the research on the social aspects of religion to date, however, has been on its function in communities. A paper in this month’s issue of Psychological Science, however, takes a more direct look at the role of loneliness in religion.
The paper, by Epley et al.(1), starts with the hypothesis that people may use religious thinking and other examples of perceived agency (e.g., in pets or gadgets) to reduce their feelings of loneliness. Epley et al. note that, for example, that people outside of committed relationships are more likely to have personal relationships with god, that “insecure and anxious attachments to others” are associated with stronger religious beliefs, and that the death of loved ones can increase the strength of religious beliefs. That religion serves a loneliness-reducing function seems a reasonable hypothesis, then.
In their first study testing this hypothesis, Epley et al. gave participants descriptions of four “technological gadgets,” and then asked them to rate the gadgets on five anthropomorphic dimensions (whether the gadget “had ‘a mind of its own,’ had ‘intentions,’ had ‘free will,’ had ‘consciousness,’ and ‘experienced emotions,’ p. 115) and three non-anthropomorphic dimensions (“attractive, efficient, and strong”). Then participants then completed a loneliness scale with questions like, “How often do you feel isolated from others?”
The prediction of the loneliness hypothesis is, of course, that people who score higher on the loneliness scale will give higher anthropomorphic ratings to the gadgets than lower scorers on the scale, but that the non-anthropomorphic ratings will not be influenced by high or low loneliness. And that’s what they found: the correlation between anthropomorphic ratings and loneliness was quite high (r = .53), while the correlation between loneliness and non-anthropomorphic ratings was non-significant (r = .25).
This suggests that loneliness may prime agency detection, and since our hair-triggered agency-detection mechanism is thought to underlie much of religious cognition (as I’ve discussed before), it further suggests that loneliness may also prime religious thoughts. So, Epley et al. conducted a second study in which they first gave participants a long personality questionnaire, and then gave them predictions about their lives that they were told were based on their personality scores. Some of the participants were told things like, “You’re the type who will end up alone later in life,” which should induce feelings of loneliness or desire for social connections, while other participants received statements like, “You’re the type of person who has rewarding relationships throughout your life” (p. 116), which should make them feel more socially connected. After reading the predictions, participants were asked to rate how much they believed in supernatural agents like ghosts, God, the devil, etc., as well as in supernatural events like miracles and curses.
Consistent with the loneliness hypothesis, participants who’d been given the loneliness-inducing predictions gave higher belief ratings to the various supernatural agents and events (mean of 4.35) than those who’d been given the socially connected predictions (3.71). Thus, the second study provides initial evidence that loneliness and religious belief may be connected.
Finally, in order to rule out a potential alternative explanation of the results of the first two studies, that negative feelings, and not loneliness specifically, may lead to religious thoughts, Epley et al. conducted a third study contrasting fear (an obviously negative feeling) and loneliness. This time, participants watched movie clips, one of which (from the movie Cast Away, poor bastards) was loneliness-inducing, one of which (from Silence of the Lambs) was fear-inducing, and one of which (from Major League, for some reason) was supposed to be non-fear or loneliness inducing. Then the participants indicated how much they believed in supernatural agents and events, as in the previous experiment. As in the second experiment, the loneliness-inducing condition caused the participants to give higher belief ratings for supernatural agents and events (though this may have been because they wanted god to help them turn off the god-awful movie clip). The fear condition did not lead to higher belief ratings relative to the control condition.
Obviously, these studies are not conclusive. For one, most of the participants come into the lab with religious beliefs, and while some of their participants did say they were not believers, Epley et al. don’t break down the data by pre-experimental belief, so it’s impossible to tell whether loneliness makes disbelievers more likely to think religious thoughts. It’s therefore difficult to say whether loneliness is an originating impulse for religion, or if it instead simply uses existing religious thoughts. Still, this is a nice initial set of studies on the loneliness hypothesis, and I think all of those people who’ve told me over the years that religion is born of (existential) loneliness and alienation can feel somewhat vindicated.
1Epley, N., Akalis, S., Waytz, A, & Cacioppo, J.T. (2008). Creating social connection through inferential reproduction: Loneliness and Perceived Agency in Gadgets, Gods, and Greyhounds. Psychological Science, 19(2), 114-120.