Field of Science

Can a pill take away the desire for religion?

Well yes it can - in a manner of speaking.

Today's study is one that was actually published in 2010, and has been languishing in my files. I just rediscovered it!

It's one of a trio from Aaron Kay and colleagues, at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. They've published a few studies before on how the need to feel in control of situations can drive a heightened sense of religiosity (e.g. here, here, here and here).

This study took an unusual approach. First they gave their subjects (37 undergraduates) a 'herbal. pill. They told them that they were going to take part in an experiment to learn the effects of this pill on colour perception. Of course, the pill was just a placebo and the experiment had nothing to do with colour perception.

And then they hold half their subjects that the pill had an unfortunate side effect - it would cause some "mild arousal or anxiety".

Next they put their subjects through some pen and paper exercises (while they waited for the pill to 'metabolize'). Half  the subjects were given a word game that implanted in their mind ideas related to randomness, by featuring words like "chance" and "random". The other half got negativity words - stuff like "poorly" and slimy".

Now, the idea of this is that priming thoughts of randomness should heighten the subjects' religiosity. And so it did.

As you can see in the graphic, if they weren't told that the pill caused anxiety, then priming with thoughts of randomness significantly increased belief in a controlling god.

However, if they were told that the pill would make them feel anxious, then the effect disappeared.

What Kay thinks is happening is that the randomness prime makes his subjects feel anxious, and they restore their sense of well being by affirming a belief in a controlling god, thereby dealing with the stress of randomness.

But the subjects who were told the pill caused anxiety had a rationale explanation for the stress they were feeling (or so they thought). Because they could explain it, they didn't need to turn to belief in a controlling god.

So there you go. A pill can reduce religiousness - so long as it's a pill that you think will cause anxiety (but doesn't really)!
Kay, A., Moscovitch, D., & Laurin, K. (2010). Randomness, Attributions of Arousal, and Belief in God Psychological Science, 21 (2), 216-218 DOI: 10.1177/0956797609357750Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. "A pill can reduce religiousness - so long as it's a pill that you think will cause anxiety (but doesn't really)!"

    According to the priests, secularism causes anxiety, but it doesn't really. Therefore priests can use the fear of secularism to boost religiosity.

  2. Will you answer my ten questions?

  3. What is the explanation for what seems to be a higher percentage of belief in supernatural in the anxiety-negativity group compared to the non-anxiety-negativity group?

  4. Allison, I wouldn't read too much into that. Yes, the mean of the two 'no anxiety pill' groups is a little higher, but that's because it includes the 'no anxiety, primed with randomness' group.

  5. Good study (as usual Tomas). I think that this study could be used to back up the idea one of the main aspects of religion that people enjoy today is the sense of calm, knowing there is an afterlife, god is looking for you, etc, etc. I know that is what many of my friends/family take away from religion. In fact, one of the questions I get often as an atheist is how do I deal with stressful things without praying to god?


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