Field of Science

How to win elections by changing beliefs in God

Aaron Kay a psychologist at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada is interested in how people react when you make them feel like they're not in control of the situation they find themselves in.

He's previously shown that, if you disturb people's sense of control, then they tend to compensate by increasing their belief in a controlling god. In a separate study, he also showed that there's a similar relationship with attitudes to government. What seems to be happening is that, when people lose confidence in their own control, they re-establish their sense of overall control by convincing themselves that some outside agency has control.

Along with some colleagues he's now shown, in several new studies, that belief in a controlling government and a controlling god seem to be interchangeable. For example:
  • In Malaysia prior to a recent national election, people felt that the country was unstable and also their belief in controlling god was high. After the election, belief in governmental stability rose, and belief in a controlling god fell.
  • A group of Canadian students who were given a fictitious newspaper article to read (which declared that the minority parties were about to force an election that would result in no clear outcome) had stronger beliefs in a controlling god than students who read an article with a more reassuring message.
Interestingly, it really does seem to be a belief specifically in a controlling god (or government) that's important here - other kinds of reassurance just don't have the same effect. Kay gave students two different articles (allegedly from a Canadian news website). One article presented the government as being very capable and effective. The other talked instead about the importance of Canadian heritage and identity to Canadians - intended to make the reader think that being Canadian is very reassuring and meaningful.

Then they asked about beliefs in a controlling god, and also beliefs in God as a source of personal significance (e.g. God provides answers to questions of meaning and purpose).

As you can see in the figure, the article portraying the Canadian government as effective significantly reduced the strength of beliefs in a controlling God - but had no effect on beliefs in a 'meaning-giving' God. The article on Canadian identity had no effect on either kind of god-belief.

In their last experiment, they showed that the effect works both ways: weaken beliefs in a controlling god (by asking students to read an article, ostensibly published in science, attacking the idea) and they are more likely to believe that the Government is doing a good job

If their findings are correct, it suggests that politicians who are in power should attack the idea of a god being in control!

Kay and colleagues do point out that the American Bible Belt seems to contradict this idea. After all, people there are both fiercely patriotic and highly religious. They argue that, if it wasn't for the patriotism, these folks would be even more religious.

I have to say that I think they've missed a key fact about the religious right. Although white evangelical Protestants are fiercely patriotic, they have a deep-seated distrust of their government. According to a Pew survey in March this year, fully 15% of them never trust their government, compared with 7% of the unaffiliated.

In fact, it seems to me that this inverse relationship between trust in god and trust in the government could go a long way towards helping explain why politics in Europe and the USA are so different. Ultra-libertarianism might actually drive people to religion.

ResearchBlogging.orgKay, A., Shepherd, S., Blatz, C., Chua, S., & Galinsky, A. (2010). For God (or) country: The hydraulic relation between government instability and belief in religious sources of control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99 (5), 725-739 DOI: 10.1037/a0021140

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. A wonderful blog post, thank you! And it might point to another disturbing fact that we are observing right now: In secular societies, people might expect too much from their governments (as if they were "man-made gods), increasingly overstretching their abilities. Note the dangerously growing levels of debts, growing discontent and emerging populists as the states seem not to be able to "deliver" any longer...

  2. You often hear people say, "I believe is something BIGGER than us." It seems we want cuddled, but not too much -- either the government or a god or a buddha. You showed other studies that show as security both financial and/or physical decrease, religious observance increases.

    So a good way to kill religion is to form a social democracy as in Europe. Delusions seem to comfort people. (smile)

  3. I can relate to your comment, Tom, about white Evangelical (Right-wing) Americans. There have been times when I have considered the concept of an attractive-but-poorly-explained duality (like the "brain / mind" duality) and have applied it to the perspectives of the Right-wing which might be described as a kind of "my country / the government" duality. That is, they are fiercely patriotic of the idea of 'country,' yet distrust the government. It wouldn't surprise me if there were a connection between religiosity and confidence in government such that the religious viewed God was the ultimate controlling agent who provided people with a gift that is 'their country' and the religious have faith in both, but this 'country' is run by 'the government' which is not God and therefore not trustworthy. I have wondered if the Right would prefer that God be our President.

  4. I'm somewhat skeptical about the libertarian-religion link, as the religious right in America often talks like a libertarian but actually wants a war on drugs, an aggressive foreign policy and intrusive social policy bent towards their religious ideology. Their distrust of government could be explained more by seeing government as a threat to their religion's power, teaching secularism and evolution in schools, for example. I bet they wouldn't distrust government as much if they dominated it and got to use it to achieve the goals of their religion.

    I would wager that hardcore religiosity correlates with anti-state beliefs when the state is perceived as hostile to the religion's goals.

  5. Lemniscate - interesting point. I wonder if the religious right would trust government more if it was more ideologically in tune with their beliefs.

    Michael, yes, good point. A greater dependency on government has its downsides. In fact, Kay makes the point that, as sources of external control, god and government have some features in common:

    "Although the reach of government pales in comparison to the potential reach of God, these two external systems represent the broadest sources of order and control that exist in the developed world. They also both hold the advantage of being relatively amorphous and secretive, which has been suggested to be a key component to ensuring a given external system can help people cope with needs to deny randomness (Becker, 1969; Sullivan et al., in press), insofar as a wider range of outcomes can be attributed to mysterious causal agents than agents that are discrete and well understood."

  6. “… this inverse relationship between trust in god and trust in the government could go a long way towards helping explain why politics in Europe and the USA are so different.”

    Actually, a good percentage of Europeans, whether they are hard-core socialists or whatever label one might attach to them, do profess "religious" beliefs in one form or other, in a “creative force” for lack of better wording, which might be backed by a science man knows nothing about yet, while in the meantime they trust more in the temporal for their immediate needs. I think trusting or not trusting in government has nothing to do with whether you are religious or not.


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