Field of Science

Risk averse Taiwanese are also more religious

The infamous 'Pascal's Wager' is still often trotted out as a supposedly rational basis for believing in god. While the flaws in that one are well known, it is still commonly believed that risk-averse people are more likely to be religious. Better to go to Church than run the risk of being fried in the hereafter, the supposition goes.

Actually, evidence that risk-averse people are more religious is  weaker than you might suppose. What's more, there's no reason to think that it applies in the world outside of the big three monotheisms. The gods of most Eastern religions are pretty disinterested in other worldly punishment.

In fact, Eric Liu at Baylor University has shown that risk averse Taiwanese are no more likely to be affiliated with a religion.

Intriguingly, he did find that the risk averse were more likely to participate in religious activities - and that went for Buddhism, Taoism, Chinese popular cults and Yiguan Dao (which is a modern, syncretic religion), as well as Christianity.

Liu speculates that this is because there is some risk inherent in not believing in Eastern religions. In Buddhism, failure to follow the 8-fold way means getting stuck in an endless cycle of rebirth. And Confucian and Taoist teachings promise some pretty nasty after-death punishments for those who do not follow a moral code - including those who do not pray or perform the right rituals:

Upon arrival, according to specific sentences, the sinners might be burned in flames, hunted and butchered, or boiled in oil or water. Their backs might be plowed, their tongues torn out with hot iron pincers, or their skin stripped off. They might find themselves in burning hot iron beds, have molten metal poured down their throats, or face other kinds of cruel punishment (Goodrich 1981).

So it's wrong to say that non-belief in these Eastern religions is risk-free. Yet I am not convinced that what we're seeing here is fear of afterlife punishments.

To me it seems more likely that the risk these people are trying to avert is the very real risk present in this world, rather than potential risks in the next.

That would match with some other research showing that Europeans who believe in the afterlife actually have a lower work ethic. It seems that the religious work ethic in Europe is more to do with securing rewards in this life rather than the next.

We know that people in risky environments tend to be more religious, and I suspect that by participating in religious ceremonies these individuals are hoping that the gods will improve their fortune. What's more, we know that they can expect to get support in their hour of need from their co-religionists - and so there is a double benefit from going to religious services!

Liu, E. (2010). Are Risk-Taking Persons Less Religious? Risk Preference, Religious Affiliation, and Religious Participation in Taiwan Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 49 (1), 172-178 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2009.01499.x

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


  1. Tom, can you comment on the possible causal relationship? Does risk-averseness lead to religiosity, or is there a deeper factor leading to each?

    Also, how much do you think these choices are conscious? Do people really choose to believe or not believe? To me it seems more likely that no choice is ever made, but that we are influenced by factors beyond out control.

  2. “And Confucian and Taoist teachings promise some pretty nasty after-death punishments for those who do not follow a moral code - including those who do not pray or perform the right rituals:”
    To be precise, Confucian is by no means a religion, but rather than a philosophy. Also, Confusion had not said anything about nasty punishment after-death, rather, it did not even positively admit the existence of god or spirit at all.
    First, We could not simply equal Confucian as one religion, despite Confucian does have deep religious spirit that influence the masses to believe and behave in a certain way. However, in Confucian theory there is no certain existence of god. Confucius did not claim himself as a god, but rather a teacher. It was his students, and believers who regarded him as a "Saint person"(Chinese: Sheng ren) Saint person is actually the ultimate spiritual state that every one could be able to achieve.

    Second, about death, Confucius did not put too much emphasis on it, or he was believed to purposely leave this area vague. He said "How could you know death, if you do not understand life at the first place?" Which means, you should understand and throughly experience what the life brings you with, then in order to understand death. In that sense, the existence of death-in his opinion- is the way to prove the significance of life.

    Third, about worship and spirit. Admittedly, Confucius claimed to worship the god and spirit, but he did not admit or wonder the existence of god at all, not to mention afterdeath punishment. He said:"Worship the god, as if he is there." Here, "as if " is VERY important, or I would rather say this is the whole point in his theory. He focused on how people should respect and awe the unknown nature, and applied this attitude (respect and awe) to the practical life and to the social manner. In oriental philosophy, from the Indian Krishnamuti to Taiwaniese Hu yinmeng, Asian people are more prone to seek the humanity in the present life, and believe surpassing the present life is the ultimate way to be immoral.

    --Let me jump a little bit here, Pascal's wagers offers a magmatic reason for believing god, for the potential benefits in doing so. Confucius did not believe in god, but rather "persuade" people not to worry about it. Instead he wanted people to just act as if there is a god, in order to learn how to respect and owe, how to surpass themselves, which is--in another sense--the benefits for themselves to believing unknown nature power.

    Confucius believed in "Tao", which not only means the natural rules like changes of four seasons, the rainfall and storms, but also emphasized human's subjective initiatives throughout the life process of this nature. Human need to have a purpose while they are alive.

    Because of the pursuit of life purpose, and the focus on how to respect and awe towards others during social life, Confucius extended his philosophy into an very important aspect, which consolidated into a distinctive Chinese characteristic: Shendu(cautious alone), meaning being ethically correct and righteous even when you are alone. This could also explain why westerners(some of them) hold a relatively low ethics in work, but Asian people do not.

  3. Bjørn, I would say that it is a causal, with risk aversion leading to religiosity. People tend to turn to supersition when they feel that life is not under their control. Having a lucky charm and doing the right rituals helps them to feel like they can up the odds in their favour.

    Religious rituals act the same way. But they have the added benefit that they reinforce the bonds of your group - meaning that you can get real, material support from others.

    But no, it's probably not conscious. Some people are inclined to believe, for a variety of reasons. Then environmental factors feed into that. I don't think that rational theorizing comes into it much - except in terms of defining what kind of god and what kind of religion you choose (if you are of a religious persuasion).

  4. Depending on the religion, the social reality, different types of risks may be avoided. Eg:
    (1) Safe society, dominant religion -- Churching gives status and avoids risk of seen as non-player
    (2) Dangerous society (status quo fails) in dominant religion -- Joining religion may increase risk
    And so on.
    Just seems too multifactoral to talk about "religion" as a whole, or even East vs West.


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