One of the more predictable outcomes of a government shutdown—in fact, the hyperbolic chatter alone regarding the uncertainties of such a major disruption is enough to do the trick—is that there will be a noticeable surge in the nation’s religious beliefs. According to Duke University psychologist Aaron Kay and his colleagues, God and government are more than just two sides of the same US-issued coin. In fact, they share a common cognitive denominator. For most people, both God and government function alongside one another to provide us, unthinkingly so, with a supportive sense of external control.
This is meaningful, reason these psychologists, because only in a stable, predictable, organized world can we fragile human beings feel as though we have any personal influence over our surroundings; faith in such a "just world"—especially, the feeling that our rule-based actions will be met predictably rather than arbitrarily and capriciously—serves a core emotional need for our species. The relative degree by which we invest psychologically in an all-powerful God or a viable manmade government is inconsequential, argues Kay; either way, we’re sipping from the same salubrious well of self-efficacy.
If this sounds like roundabout "psychobabble" ripped straight from the pages of Erich Fromm’s classic anti-existentialist screed Escape From Freedom, it’s important to bear in mind that today’s psychologists have convincing data to stand on. In an article published last year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Kay and his co-authors report findings from a set of four studies designed to test the hypothesis that the relationship between God and government in human cognition is, conceptually, a "hydraulic" one: whenever the level of perceived control from one of these external sources falls, faith in the other source will inevitably rise.
In the first study, the religious and political attitudes of Malaysian university students were probed two weeks before and two weeks after that country’s 2008 general election. "We predicted," write the authors, "that before the election, participants would perceive more instability, show less of an inclination to defend the legitimacy of their government, and demonstrate higher beliefs in the existence of a controlling God compared to after it." And this is precisely what they found. Still, because this was a correlational study (it’s possible, for instance, that an unknown factor between these dates intervened) the authors could not draw any causal inferences.
So, in their second study, the investigators had Canadian university students read one of two fictitious articles about the Canadian government—basically, either that it was "unstable" and on the verge of collapse, or that it was in better shape than ever. Those students who’d been randomly assigned to the unstable government condition evidenced a significantly greater belief in a controlling God than did those who had just read about the Canadian government being in remarkably good order.
Empirical sleuths, of course, must always play Devil’s advocate. Perhaps the threat of an unstable government does more than unthread the safety net of perceived control; it may also undermine people’s national identity, therefore driving people to God as an alternative source of meaning rather than as a substitute of control, per se. But the authors were able to rule out this alternative account in a third study, which showed that creating the impression of an unstable government increases only people’s beliefs in a controlling God; it has zero effect on their belief that God is a source of meaning.
In the final study, Kay and his colleagues showed that the trick works the other way around too: participants who’d read a fake Science article arguing that, should an entity like God even exist, it would still be impossible for it to exert any control in the universe, ranked their country’s political system more favorably than did those who’d just read an oppositely-worded story about God’s potential reach in human lives.
Government instability isn’t the only source of religion, the authors acknowledge, but it may be more potent a faith factor than we’ve previously realized.
About The Author: Want more Bering in Mind? Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBering, visit www.jessebering.com, or friend Jesse on Facebook. Jesse is the author of newly released book, The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny and the Meaning of Life (W. W. Norton).