Field of Science

The intimate connection between religion and authoritarianism

It's well known that religious people are more likely to be authoritarian than non-religious people. By 'authoritarian' I mean someone who's predisposed to follow the dictates of a strong leader and traditional, conventional values.

But, in a secular society, this leads to a potential for conflict. How do religious people respond if the government authority contradicts religious authority? A new study suggests that it depends on how firm their moral convictions are.

First off, let me just quote from the paper on the difference between religious and moral conviction:

Theories in moral development suggest that people’s religious beliefs are based more on authorities, rules, etc., whereas people’s moral beliefs are comparatively authority independent (Nucci & Turiel, 1978; Turiel, 2002). Consistent with this idea, religious authorities or institutions determine what is permissible or impermissible and at least some of these determinations evaporate in the absence of authority or institutional support.

Conversely, people’s moral imperatives hold even in the absence of authority or institutional support (Nucci & Turiel, 1978). Moreover, belief in God and a general high level of trust in religion load on the same factor structure as general trust in the state and average trust in the government to handle a host of specific issues (Proctor, 2006).

In short, these results suggest that religiosity reflects a generalized willingness to trust authority, regardless of whether the authority is secular or religious.

To look into this further, they looked into data they got from a survey of a cross-section of around 700 Americans. The topic was physician-assisted suicide, and they wanted to know firstly whether panel supported making it legal, and also whether they trusted the Supreme Court to make the right decision. To tease out the effects of the different factors, they used multiple regression.

So what did they find. Well, basically, the more religious the person was, the more likely they were to agree that "I trust the Supreme Court to make the right decision about whether physician-assisted suicide should be allowed." However, people with strong moral convictions were less likely to trust the judgement of the Supreme Court.

They also tested how fast people answered the question. Both strong religious and moral conviction resulted in faster response times. This seems to suggest that the effect here is visceral and emotional, rather than logical and considered.

So much for their conclusions. Personally, I'm a bit dubious. Religious people might trust the Supreme Court to make the right decision simply because they expect the Supreme Court to agree with them.

So this study leaves a lot unanswered. It's clear that religious people do tend to be authoritarian, but it is not at all clear that that translates into obedience to secular authorities in cases of conflict.

In fact, there's some rather interesting evidence from the world of medicine that this is not at all the case! But that's a topic for the next post.


ResearchBlogging.orgWisneski, D., Lytle, B., & Skitka, L. (2009). Gut Reactions: Moral Conviction, Religiosity, and Trust in Authority Psychological Science, 20 (9), 1059-1063 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02406.x

Creative Commons LicenseThis work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.


  1. actually the punishment for blasphemy is DEATH...

    see you deluded, fuc*....

    I am sending this via email to the entire university - faculty and stuff. Your blaspheming head will serve as example and warning to the whole place...

  2. I think it worth pointing out two things.

    1) In the US the religious are not inherently trustworthy in the Supreme Court. For example, abortion.

    2) Because they used multiple regression they are looking at the independent impact of religiosity and (what they call) moral mandates. Obviously religion and morals will sometimes be the same (see abortion), but this is not always the case. Multiple regression allows them to tease the two apart, but it is important to interpret one with the knowledge that the other is being controlled. So religion, at average levels of moral mandate, is related to greater trust. Moral mandate, at average levels of religion, is related to less trust.

    I know you know how to interpret multiple regression, but your conclusions did not seem to take it into account. I also agree that this line of work would pay to have other topics studied (for example, abortion).

  3. If you're making people like anonymous angry, then you must be doing something right.

  4. It's probably this guy, whom PZ at Pharyngula is starting to take seriously.

    -- Maureen Lycaon

  5. Mark, yesy, that's a good point. Sorry I didn't make that clear about the independence of the moral and religious factors.

    Another point worth clarifying: by 'morality' here they mean specifically how strong the respondent's opinion was about physician assisted suicide. So not morality in general, but whether they had a strong opinion on the topic at hand.

    It's not too surprising that those who have a strong opinion on this topic are less likely to trust the supreme court to get it right.

    But the issue to me is that there is an association between the direction of opinion about whether it is right or wrong, religiosity, and the expected supreme court decision, that might be clouding the results.

  6. Maureen - aha, that the 'entire university' bit! Clearly someone in need of a bit of help. Actually, I think he's posted on here before - rambling about the Randi Prize, Nostradamus etc.

  7. "Religious people" probably ARE more authoritarian, but the really interesting question is not about the followers (who, as the research hints, will follow Lenin as religiously as they used to follow the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox church) but about the authorities themselves: what makes THEM tick? Is religion just the most convenient way they have found of imposing their will on large numbers of followers or do they believe their own BS? If its the first, we can at least expect some rationality (in terms of consequences) from them, but if the second is relatively common then we are really screwed...There is no boss out there AND there is no escape from self-evolving boss-like illusions. What I am trying to say is that rationally exploitative "authorities" would be bad enough, but if they are sincere, God help us all...

  8. I do not know if you can use the 'authoritarian' in the sense that you have used.I agree that your mother tongue is English and mine is not.But what I understand about the word is that it has connotations with regards to enforcing strong dictates and not obeying them.If I were to obey a STRONG leader's dictates, you call him authoritarian and call me submissive.You should not call me authoritarian.Should you?

    I think that religious conviction and moral conviction would be strongly correlated making it difficult or may be meaningless to tease out independent effects.Is it not?

    Your assumption that the ones with strong convictions could have been emotional, need not be correct. They could have given these kind of problems deeper thought prior to the study itself.Their convictions are strong for the reason that they have thought logically enough.

    I get a gut feeling that we are assuming
    1.Moral convictions are independent of religious convictions.
    2.Moral convictions being based on individual psychology.
    3.Religious convictions are related to and are regulated by religious institutions.
    4.Religious convictions are based on social psychology.
    5.Governments are secular.

    So we find that religious chaps trust institutions like supreme court primarily are their learning has been derived from institutions. On the other hand th conclusion that moral chaps have a level of doubt on supreme court decisions.For them it is the judge's beliefs that interpret laws are more important.They might believe that it is the interpret ion which brings about a right decision and not just what the legal texts say.


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