Field of Science

A general-purpose "need to belong" drives belief in God

There's an element of Western religion that's clearly linked in some fundamental way to the fundamental human drive to be accepted and to 'belong' to your group. Teasing out what that is is actually harder than you might think.

Jochen Gebauer, at Humboldt University in Berlin, and Gregory Maio, at Cardiff University in Wales, have just published one of the most interesting studies into this that I've seen.

What they did was to get a bunch of Welsh students and subtly manipulate the strength of their belief in God. They did this by asking them to read a cleverly faked research article on the discovery of a "Theory of Everything", which concluded in one of two different ways.

Half the students got a version of the research article which concluded that “there is a consciousness that asserts His will in the universe,” whereas the other half got a version which concluded that the Theory of Everything “cannot help to test the existence of God.”

Before that, they had already asked the students about their views of God. They were all asked to say whether they thought God is accepting or rejecting, and controlling or not controlling - regardless of whether or not they actually believed in God.

After the study, they asked the students about the strengths of their actual belief (or lack of) in God.

What happened was that those students who read the 'no evidence for God' article reported similar levels of belief regardless of their image of God. So these students are a kind of reference point.

Among those students who read the "Evidence for God" version of the article, belief in God increased - but only among those who had a mental image of God as being 'accepting'. Among those who had a more 'rejecting' image of God, belief actually went down after learning that there was evidence that God exists!

Now, this could suggest that belief in god is stimulated by a need to be accepted, and that an image of God as rejecting actively drives some people away from belief. But there could be all sorts of other things going on here. More evidence is needed.

And that extra evidence comes in the second study. Hold on to your hats, because here's where it starts to get complicated!

The second study was basically the same as the first, but this time they asked half the students to first spend a couple of minutes thinking about someone who “lives in your neighbourhood, but you do not know well”. The other half were asked to think about someone who “accepts and loves you and helps you in times of need”. The idea was that the second group would be reminded that they were already loved and accepted, and so their need to belong would be reduced.

For the first group, who thought about a person they didn't know too well, the results were the same as the first study.

In the second group, the results were dramatically different. This time, reading the article had no effect on their level of belief in God.

In simple terms what happened was that, by satisfying their need to belong, the students with an image of God as 'accepting' were not motivated to believe in God in order to feel loved. And students with an image of God as 'rejecting' were not motivated to shun belief in God for fear of being rejected.

They did a couple of other studies, one showing that people who were subtly made to think that God is rejecting subsequently went on to report lower levels of belief, and also were less inclined to go to Church. And their final study showed that believers are quite aware of this motivation - the need to belong - as a part of their rationale for their beliefs.

What makes this study so interesting is that it shows not only that belief in God can make you feel loved and accepted, but that it is a direct substitute for human love and acceptance.

In other words, belief isn't driven by some specific need to 'belong' to and be accepted by a god-figure. It's a general purpose need, which can be filled (if otherwise vacant) by God. [The researchers are careful to point out that there are a lot of other factors involved in motivating religious belief and non-belief, of course.]

Now, this has some interesting implications. There's a lot of research showing that religious activities like Church going are quite different from religious activities like prayer and belief, and that it's Church going that is most strongly associated with all of the beneficial effects sometimes ascribed to religion - health, happiness, and social integration.

But of course, going to Church also satisfies your need to belong. Can it actually decrease belief in God?

I don't know about that - it would be pretty hard to tease out from all the other effects going on. But one thing seems likely. This new research helps to explain why countries with the highest social capital also have the lowest levels of belief.

Strong, integrated communities don't need gods.
Gebauer JE, & Maio GR (2011). The Need to Belong Can Motivate Belief in God. Journal of Personality PMID: 21446945

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


  1. Fanscinating. Thanx.
    I linked to you as I posted today wondering about how even Atheists seek belongingness in artificial, self-deceptive ways: patriotism and sports.

  2. It is an interesting study. I am a little disturbed by their asking atheists about their view of a god. As an atheist, I don't believe in any of their four types of gods, there isn't one type of god that is my image of god. So if I were in that study, I would be a bit offended by their assumption that people had to believe in a god, and I would be strongly inclined to just walk out at that point. I wonder if any of the subjects did, and if that skewed the results at all.

  3. Tom

    You were good up to the last sentence: ‘Strong, integrated communities don't need gods.’

    That has never been demonstrated, at least to the extent of professed virtual agents (real gods being unverifiable). While Europe has not yet collapsed into demographic oblivion, it is not currently stable. Further, there has never been a stable, viable city, state or empire absent organized religion complete with priests, temples and some variety of professed super-empirical entities.

  4. by satisfying their need to belong, the students with an image of God as 'accepting' were not motivated to believe in God in order to feel loved

    I disagree. Game theory comes to save us. The fact is that someone can't be certain that he'll receive help in time of need. Priming with an already loving and caring person lifts the perceived probability to receive the needed help, so less God is necessary. Priming with a person which behaviour is not completely known will prompt for way to assure his help: so more God is necessary.

    The implicit assumption here is that a common belief enhance cooperation.

  5. Frank, thheey were all student volunteers, so they got course credit for doing the study, so I doubt any refused to participate (although they don't say that explicitly). A lot of Uk students are non-religious, meaning that god isn't a part of their lives, rather than confirmed non believers.

  6. JA. Well, that last comment was going out on a limb, but I would argue that the Scandinavian societies give an example of societies in which supernatural beliefs are a minority pursuit. As I mentioned, that previous study has shown an inverse relationship between social capital and belief in European nations.

  7. anon, I'm not sure that what you're saying is different, in substance, from the authors' conclusions. I mean, the need to belong is an emotional drive, but in evolutionary terms it probably springs from the benefits of co-operation provided by associating with groups.

  8. But a limb with how much support?
    You have presented many studies which suggest environmental conditions motivating belief/disbelief: Wealth, social services, education, domestic tranquility, level of technology among them. Also genetic correlations as intelligence and ‘twin studies’, but these are all very short time scale studies, and they reflect what people want. Your statement: ‘Strong, integrated communities don't need gods’ does not address desire, but need. None of these studies address any long term consequences, such as the possibility of demographic collapse – hinted at in popular but also short term studies of late. Belief appears about 70,000 years ago, and believing communities have been out-competing non-believing ever since. Non belief (in the wild) went extinct 30,000 years ago and has not been demonstrated viable since. For another rather negative correlation, Europe and Japan have retreated drastically from their competitive positions of 100 years ago. Is this too a trend that will continue?

  9. JA, I think belief is as old as consciousness. Religion, as we in the West think of it today, is quite modern - in the past few thousand years, and even more recent for most of the world. In vast tracts of the world 'religion as we know it' is still a minority pursuit (Central Africa, China, for example).

    But, having said that there is clearly something that has driven the growth of modern religions, with their emphasis on moralizing, universal gods. However, the conditions under which they became popular do not necessarily apply now.

    These days, we hae alternative ways of structuring and organizing society that could be even more successful and adaptive. I would argue that we're seeing that in several societies right now, including the Scandinavian countries.

    Of course 'belief' - meaning the cognitive illusion that inanimate or non-existent objects have agency - will always be with us. But I do think we can have successful, largely god-free societies.

  10. Tom

    Agreed conditionally, could being the operative word. Now I am meaning to use belief as in gods, intimate or involved spirits(?), not the more generalized agency of unseen forces (Even a dog can shake hands, or imagine agents shaking a bush in a breeze). Two factors suggest to me that we have not yet achieved independence of religion, that our secular institutions have not adapted to cover all the bases. Population level is the easiest to measure, but probably the easiest to fix – once we decide to (I think most of us would like to control the population at somewhat below current levels in the world). My big question is competitive posture. Large secular conversions are on the heals of dramatic retreats from competitive positions. If, for example, European, US or any society becomes heavily dependant on large expensive social programs (a consistent trigger you have noted for secular conversions), their competitive positions will continue to erode.
    Central Africa represents a bad alternative. There are many human communities around the world that have never adopted organized religion (professional priests vs. amateur shaman), either modern or archaic versions, and are universally mired in the stone age. I am not aware of any society that has advanced to cities or out of the stone age without first adopting organized religion.

    Our fundamental disagreement is couched in your comment: ‘the conditions under which [modern religions] became popular . . .’. I suggest that there is no evidence suggesting that organized religion has not been required for cities to form, for civilization to exist. The past never dictates the future, but it does suggest challenges. I further offer that the evidence, to date, is that those challenges have not been met (at least not outside of China – where civilization has been comparatively stable despite several regime changes for some millennia).

  11. I design slot machines, so naturally I compare everything to gambling but this study is similar to other studies done when you preload the subject with information. For example, when a teacher is told that this group of students is smarter or dumber than other groups - it has a dramatic affect on the the learning outcome. The brain is not a computing machine but rather a predicting machine. We do this this all the time with slot machines - preload information about how lucky or deserving a player is. In this case, it seems to me the study is preloading the notion of the importance of God.

    One more thing, if you ever want to see the behavioral beginnings of religion all you have to do is watch players gambling .. you will see all kinds of primitive ritualistic behaviors.


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